Monday, December 31, 2007
I enjoyed a splendid lunch at Blackbird. A wonderful way to end a year of eating. The food at Blackbird really flies. At its best Chef Kahan's cuisine is as creative and accomplished as any chef in town, perhaps less elaborated but with a startling and compelling mixture of tastes and textures.
I began with baby octopus confit with braised chestnuts, empire apples, pea tendrils and sassafras caramel. This construction was as fascinating and wildly textured as any appetizer I have had for awhile. Chewy, crackly, smooth and crunchy. Sweet and just a bit sour. A truly magnificent dish.
As an entree I selected slow roasted duck with fried byrd mill grits, citrus brussel sprouts and puffed wild rice. I was blown away by the finely threaded brussel sprouts - the emotional heart of the dish. The duck, grits and rice, well-cooked, played a supporting role.
Dessert was a beautifully composed mission fig beignet with cara cara oranges, butterscotch and bacon ice cream. I have been rather critical of desserts as late, but not this. Like the appetizer, this was one of the most sensational and brilliant desserts of the year. The bacon ice cream seemed simultaneously surprising and totally natural. What a lovely way to end the year.
Why then is Blackbird not often listed in the company with other four star restaurants, where, by virtue of the food it belongs? When Blackbird opened a decade ago it was sleek and chic. But time has taken a toll on the restaurant. The restaurant no longer seems as stylish as it had once been. The plates don't need to be refreshed, but the tables might be. The room is so 1999! The food is so tomorrow!
619 Randolph Street (West Loop)
Monday, December 24, 2007
Schools must exist in which aspiring chefs are taught to name their culinary domains: Alinea, Per Se, Moto, WD-50, and Washington’s CityZen – a preserve for citizens of a certain level of refinement and resources. CityZen is located in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington’s new Southwest side. And before we get to the cuisine, the restaurant, although quite pretty is pretty in the way of upscale, contemporary, luxury hotel dining rooms. Serviceable in a post-Millennium sort of way. Speaking of serviceable, service was more than serviceable, it was congenial and helpful.
There has been debate about the level of cuisine at the new venture of Chef Eric Ziebold, formerly at the French Laundry. The food is indebted to Keller with its attention to combinations of flavors and textures, occasionally borrowing from – or contributing to – an experimental cuisine. But how far can Ziebold push his clients? Can Washington ever have truly outstanding cuisine: is that the cost of living in a town in which the prime hunger is for power, not flash, flesh, or fowl? After a recent dinner, choosing the tasting menu, I am among those who rate CityZen highly – except for the bread, more about that later. While my meal was not always astonishing, it was in most regards of the highest order with several remarkable dishes. In comparison to Citronelle, Komi, Kinkead’s, or even Minibar, it is CityZen to which I would first return. Ziebold gives prime of place to simple, simply prepared proteins and surrounds them by zesty combinations.
We began with a pair of amuses, prior to the tasting menu parade. The stronger of the two was a nifty fungal symphony: A toasted mushroom egg puff covered with mushroom powder. This fritter was an earthy, but otherworldly, tribute to late fall. The flavors were deep and the multiple textures clever. It did what an amuse should do, awaken one’s senses to future surprises by the depth of taste.
The second small plate (is the second amuse still an amuse: when does it become an unadvertised appetizer?) was what I recall as a garlicky mousse-filled gougere situated on a lentil salad. The pastry was as flaky as one could desire, although perhaps slightly salty for my taste.
Our first course was as dazzling as a Miró canvas: carpaccio of Atlantic Fluke with Gans Ranch Fuyu Persimmon (even fruit has a provenance), Puffed Japanese Sweet Rice, Micro Peppercress and Pomegranate Vinaigrette. The fluke when cooked properly is a mild and subtle fish, more thrilling for its texture than its taste. Dotting it were the other ingredients, transforming each bite. This is a striking dish, witty and cunning. The taste of the fish ebbed into the background, permitting the vinaigrette a gustatory ovation.
Grilled Atlantic day boat scallops with Belgian endive marmalade, citrus velouté, and lobster infused oil was another surprising dish in that, as with the fluke, the scallops, a mild seafood, furnished texture to savory supplements. Although scallops might not seem to be an ideal partner for a sour citrus, the addition of marmalade and lobster oil created a dish that was dreamy, if not dramatic on the plate. It was lush and tangy without being jarring or busy.
The third plate – Polly-Face Farms Poussin – was similar to the previous two in that it was based on a mild center and savory edges. Authentically produced in western Virginia with Michael Pollan’s blessing (despite the misspelling of Polyface Farms – not only green-card eateries that don’t spell-check), the poussin was paired with dried currant and Italian pistachio mousse with parsnip puree, sugar pie pumpkin and Swiss chard roulle. Simple and pure as the chicken was, the accompaniments made this dish special. The pumpkin and chard roulle was Chef Ziebold’s most memorable presentation of the evening. Again the chef maintains an austere urbane zen-like calm at the center of the plate while circling the center with pungent intensity.
The meat course was braised A1 Direct kuroge beef shortribs with marinated beets, cipollini onions and caramelized salsify (I don’t know what A1 Direct might be, but the firm seems uncomfortable like a company that attempts to cadge customers by being listed first in the Yellow Pages). The beef was itself more dramatically flavorful than the chicken, scallop, or fluke. However, the plate became innovative because of the surroundings, passionate beets and sumptuous salsify. Without the accompaniments this would have been a good dish, with them it was robust and flavorful.
Shortribs were followed by a nicely presented cheese course with some dozen cheeses of varying provenance (A1 Direct?). Since we talking cheese, bread comes to mind. The breads (raisin, bacon, sourdough) from Uptown Bakery were uniformly, uh, awful. CityZen Pain. A four star restaurant should not be serving bread that flirts with stale. I was informed that in 2008 CityZen will be baking their own bread, so clearly they understand their problem. Why an aspiring four-star restaurant would choose to serve bread this pathetic is a mystery. Are there no Ritz Crackers to be had? In fairness, the mini-Parker House rolls, prepared in-house and served with the shortrib, were terrific. They should have been on the table from start to end.
Of the concluding courses, I preferred the palate cleanser, pineapple sorbet with coconut foam and rum gelee. As refreshing as the taste, it was the compelling textures that make this piña colada appealing.
Dessert was cheesecake chiboust (a custard-textured cheesecake) with soft graham cracker and passion fruit sauce, a pleasant change from leaden cheesecakes, and like the earlier course, combined a mild middle with a tart accompanying sauce. However, this passion fruit sauce was not so dramatic as to raise the profile of the dish above the pleasant.
CityZen is a distinguished restaurant with a clever chef and clever name. Chef Ziebold has a style that combines a purity of protein with zippy purees, mousses, volutes, oils, vinaigrettes, foams, and marinates. Through his signature style, he forces us to recognize the perfection of central ingredients, even while informing us that there is wild culinary world outside the gates. This is a important message, even if it might permit us to recall the “just” chicken, seafood, or beef and slight the pungent skills of the chef that made it so.
Mandarin Oriental Hotel
1330 Maryland Avenue, SW
Thursday, December 20, 2007
A Four Letter Word Komi Washington, DC
A fine line separates a culinary signature from a tic. Earlier this month I was in
This night my companion and I selected the dinner: a selection of nine mezzathakia, a pasta, an entree, and dessert. We were well-treated. My only complaint was granular. This chef’s four letter word: salt. Sometimes dishes are oversalted out of incompetence: that is not the case at Komi. Chef Monis uses salt to add zest, a taste dimension that often characterizes his dishes. Once or twice during the meal would have been memorable, but the number of dishes that included salt as an ingredient or distinctive flavoring was startling. From the roasted dates with fleur de sel to the oversalted (although perfectly moist) spit roasted katiskaki (goat) to a rather unpleasant Meyer Lemon granita with red sea salt to salty pecan gelato (this I did not order, but there it was on the menu), one could not escape the condiment. Perhaps we should not have been surprised when the farewell gift was a salted caramel lollipop. A chef whose inventions are as distinguished as Chef Monis can find other ways to enliven his plates.
Of the mezzethakia I particularly admired the exquisite, lush cauliflower panna cotta with American caviar, langoustines, and sea urchins. The braised octopus with poached quail egg, capers, pig knuckles (?), and lentil salad was memorable as well. Also successful was a poached lobster salad with bottarga. Both of our pastas were sublime. I particularly admired the tagliatelle with rabbit, snails and eggplant. Here is a chef who knows how to cook al dente. My companion’s rock shrimp risotto with Meyer lemon and sumac-braised pistachio was filled with delicious surprises. Even in my year of dining in
As our main course, we selected the spit-roasted katsikaki – as moist a goat as can be imagined with a delightful crunchy skin. Had the salt been halved this would have been an astonishing dish. The side dishes, pickled plum, Greek oregano, eggplant puree, truffled beet tsatziki, and Habanero hot sauce added complexity to the goat and homemade pita. At first bite the salt added to the pungency of the dish, but soon I wished for pure goat. The sides could have provided the pungency.
Dessert – toasted almond cake with bananas and rum zabaglione was pleasurable – and not at all salty – flavorful but slightly dry for my taste.
I hope to return to Komi on my next visit to
Monday, September 03, 2007
When a restaurant decides to divide amoeba-style, diners must divine whether the new boîte is a clone, a sib, a spouse, or a bizarro adoptee. What is the relationship between the two? In some cases, Vong or L’Atelier du Robuchon come to mind, restaurants attempt to replicate themselves. In others, such as The French Laundry or Per Se, the genetic code is similar although not identical. In still others - Everest and Ambria, say - the restaurants are distinctive, although similar rules apply through common direction. And then there is Moto/Otom.
How could owner Joseph De Vito, the guiding light behind team Moto, expand? The Moto niche market, while sufficiently enthusiastic, will not appeal to all those nighthawks who fly at twilight through the West Loop. The decision is close to brilliant. De Vito and his chef Daryl Nash (formerly sous chef at Moto) embraced the Moto style, down-marketed it slightly and serves food that tweaks comfort. It is an ingenious strategy, building the Moto brand, while not cannibalizing it (and there is talk about a future dessert bar (a la New York’s Room 4 Dessert: oomt?).
Recently seven faithful members of the LTH board (led by Happy Stomach) paid a visit to Otom to sample much of their menu. The evening was a notable success, even if Chef Nash still must figure out precisely how distinctive and disorienting he wishes his plates to be. Several of the dishes were excellent and proficient (particularly the main course meats), some were good but lacked the stuff of memory, and a few were disappointments. In general, those dishes that worked best were those that incorporated dollops of savory creativity. Otom is still in its three-month shake-down cruise and if the best dishes currently available are coupled with new creations, Otom will be very fine indeed. The spatial layout of the room was somewhat unusual. Our table (perhaps located where it was because of our visit) was at the front of the long room with the middle given over to the bar area and then at the back were placed most of the tables. Possibly were we not present the large front of Otom would be used for the bar crowd. From the list of cocktails, it seemed that the cocktails had much of the creativity of Moto.
Before describing the dishes, the bread at Otom is notable. (Moto does not serve bread, but at Otom we are in the world of happy carbs). The best of the three breads was the slightly sweet pumpernickel, which, when slathered with honey butter was divine.
The service for our group was a combination of French and Russian service. Six courses (two appetizer courses, two main courses, and two desserts) were served with several plates in each course.
The first set of appetizers were a trio of salads: 1) House-smoked turkey cobb salad with bibb lettuce, crispy Pancetta, blue cheese, hard-cooked egg, avocado and grain mustard vinaigrette (no photo), 2) wilted spinach salad with golden beets, smoked oyster mushrooms, red pepper and roasted garlic vinaigrette, and 3) marinated bean salad with red onion, oregano, rice noodles, and caramelized shallot vinaigrette. These salads are ordered in their distinctiveness and in their culinary interest. The cobb salad was a creditable rendition, but with little special appeal. I liked the inclusion of beets and mushrooms in the wilted spinach salad. Perhaps the beets and oyster mushrooms or peppers could have been more dominant, but it was an impressive creation. Most memorable was the bean salad which traded on the crispy rice noodles and oregano. Of the six appetizers, this bean salad was the one that I long to taste again, as much because of the creative texture as a dramatic taste profile.
The salads were followed by a trio of more substantial appetizers, 1) beer-battered vegetables with caramelized onions and sherry vinegar aioli (no photo), 2) a set of miniature burgers with bacon and cheddar, mushroom and Swiss cheese, and with a fried quail egg, served with an order of shoestring potatoes, and 3) Chinook salmon ceviche with lime, chili, cucumber and wonton chips. I admired both the vinegar aioli and the creditably crispy shoestring potatoes, but neither the heavily battered vegetables nor the thin, runty, and somewhat overdone sliders were particularly memorable. Although the wonton chips were not wanton in my recall, I admired the firm cubes of salmon in their distinctive marinate. The ceviche could have been served with a thinner cracker that would have brought out the luxurious and bracing taste of chill raw fish.
Chef Nash was on stronger ground with his meat dishes: these revealed his abilities to transform comfort food into memories, and were the cuisine for which Otom should strive: not Moto upendings of expectations, but energetic challenges to the tried and true. Our first quartet consisted of: 1) macaroni and cheese with creamy rosemary-white cheddar sauce, smoked carrots, and parmesan-panko crust (no photo), 2) roasted acorn squash and oyster mushrooms with seared tofu and crispy shallots, 3) braised beef pot pie with roasted root vegetables, veal demi-glace and puff pastry, and 4) house-smoked apricot and chili glazed pork back ribs with crisp sherry slaw and pickles. The pork ribs were a real triumph, as Chef Nash transformed a rather traditional dish to one with special resonance. Perhaps the slaw could have used more sherry, but the dish was heroic. The pot pie was an admirable rendition of the classic comfort food. Perhaps it might have incorporated a few twists and turns, but it was nicely prepared. The squash and tofu was deserving of praise, but it is difficult to treat tofu as the sensory center of a plate. Tofu does not – for me – lend itself to memory. The mac ‘n’ cheese was fine, but less evocative than the description. The sauce could have used a few more jolts of rosemary to deserve a poetic account.
The second quartet included: 1) grilled top sirloin with butter-poached new potatoes, golden onion rings, and veal reduction, 2) grilled swordfish and jicama-Anaheim relish with gooseberry soup, 3) beef short rib ravioli with shallot and sage goat cheese, candied sweet potato and brown butter, and 4) raised lamb shank, white bean cassoulet, rutabaga, and olive oil. The weakest dish of the night was surely the overcooked fish. But the trouble went beyond the cooking; often the dishes on the menu read better than they taste – the promised snappy and distinctive accompaniments, such as the gooseberry soup, are more muted than one might imagine. What promises to make a dish stand out is no more than a back taste; the soup could have had more zing. I encourage Chef Nash to be less afraid of the power of taste, less subtle in his cuisine. In contrast to the fish, the short rib ravioli was the strongest dish of the night. Here the goat cheese, beef, and sweet potato blended in symphonic fashion. It was a superb dish. The lamb shank was also a fine dish, well worth ordering, although perhaps a more generous drizzle of olive oil would have made the dish stand out further.
I have recently had a problem with desserts. Many pastries cannot meet the standards of the rest of the meal, just as many restaurants (although not Otom) find it hard to insure that the main courses equal the appetizers. We were served 1) apple crisp, topped with house-made vanilla ice cream, 2) strawberry shortcake with crème fraiche and mint syrup (no photo), 3) banana split pops with caramel, roast pineapple, and maraschino cherry, and 4) homemade brownie with home made marshmallow. Of this quartet, the brownie, although simple, stood out, mostly through the virtues of the honest, rough-cut marshmallows. The shortcake was rather dense for my taste, and the apple crisp was too salty. The suckers were easy to love, although not particularly complex in their creation.
From the accounts of the restaurant, it is not certain how much input Chef Cantu has in its vision and its cuisine. Still, Otom stands on its own. It is a restaurant in process: a restaurant that needs to decide the extent to which its cuisine is designed to jolt the diner or blanket her in nostalgic comfort. For Otom to become a destination restaurant for its cuisine the former must be emphasized as with the bean salad and short rib ravioli, and this does appear to be the goal. Otherwise, Otom is in danger of serving 1970 food in a 2010 space.
Not all of the photos are up to standard, sorry.
951 W. Fulton Market
Chicago (West Loop)
Friday, June 29, 2007
Having friends in high places can challenge restaurant criticism. I recently was invited to spend three minutes asking a question at a Ph.D. oral in Utrecht for which my transportation, hotel, and most meals were paid, plus an honorarium that paid me several Euros for each second of talk. Me and Ms. Hilton, what scammers. With this kind of largess, I decided to blow my pay packet on dinner at Oud Sluis, one of a Dutch trio of Michelin three star restaurants, and the establishment that under the leadership of chef Sergio Herman is making the greatest impact on global dining. I planned my trip carefully, wishing on the one hand to indulge and on the other to be a just and tough-minded critic. But a friend with tasty connection with Chef Herman arranged a special dinner, a plot that I only discovered on my arrival. My evening was an extension and intensification of what other diners might experience.
Oud Sluis is a treasure, much in the culinary style of Per Se/French Laundry, a restaurant that is much aware of the latest trends in molecular cuisine, but, unlike The Fat Duck or Alinea or El Bulli, does not fetishize the odd and abnormal, but uses those techniques along with more classical preparations. Herman is a chef who wishes to explore the savory but without permitting strong flavors to brutalize subtle flavors. He embraces the complex and the whimsical in ways that often succeed gloriously. If there is a caution, it is that Chef Herman is still in process of developing a uniquely personal style and a singular astonishing signature dish, although the entire menu and several presentation reveal considerable culinary facility. After three weeks I can still recall vividly some of Herman's creations, always an important sign. Chef Herman is young and some of the thematic linkages of the meal may have been lost in the generous blizzard of courses I was gifted. But my meal was superior to recent meals at Le Bernardin and Alain Ducasse in New York and the equal of those at Gordon Ramsay and Joel Robuchon.
Perhaps it was due to my connections that service was impeccable, although as best I could tell those diners sitting near me were happily and efficiently chowing down. The restaurant, comfortable, modern, and spare, with an emphasis on light woods and black trim, was attractive in itself, although not so architecturally fluent that one would visit for the decor.
The adventure began with a startling starter. Since these dishes were "off the menu," my descriptions may be less adequate than acceptable on a website of record. The first offering was buckwheat spaghetti with mackerel, marinated in lime and pepper, served beneath an orb of wasabi-sake ice. This aperitif glass was platonic, wakening one's taste buds while revealing the chef's philosophy: a willingness to play with strong tastes (mackerel, lime, wasabi, buckwheat), while moderating them in practice. Despite what might have been a set of clashing tastes and textures, the melding was pure joy.
My second opener was a simple cup of aioli with thin crostini. The crostinis of fragile sourdough crust were extravagantly crackly. The garlicky aioli was mixed as an airy cloud. As with the mackerel, this dish played with the strong taste of garlic, but lightened its texture and flavor.
Just over the Dutch border, Chef Herman next teased national expectations, producing a Brussel Waffle. This small pleasure was marinated herring tucked inside a mini-waffle, decorated with dots of curry and avocado cream. The theme of the meal becomes ever clearer: herring and curry, but moderated with cream and wheat. Smooth and rough. This four-bite starter was quite lovely, each bite, both those curried and those floral and nutty green.
The fourth offering was a Tiffany gem: a gustatory bon bon infused with a puree of Granny Smith apple and a liquid foie gras. The presentation literally bursted with aqueous flavor. This jewel was among the most impressive construction that I have eaten, a surprise that was beautiful to espy, startling to consume, and evocative in memory: rich liver and tart apple, held together by some enlightened gelatin that did not feel or taste like tired and rubbery aspic.
This was followed by a double tribute to Chefs Keller and Adria: nitrogenated emulsion of "oyster caviar." It lacked the lushness of Keller's "Oysters and Pearls," but the flinty pearls were more mature than, say, "Caesar Salad Dipping Dots." If one must have such frozen treats, oyster pearls made a lively and amusing choice.
Next I was presented with a salad tasting: 1) marinated salmon, champagne, dill and asparagus, 2) a salad of potatoes and shallots, 3) A marinated cucumber salad of lobster and radicchio on cracker, and 4) ratatouille with a espuma of escoviche (a Jamaican snapper). Although I found the potato salad less compelling, the other three were excellent. This is a chef who uses foam carefully, adding an edge of fish to his vegetables. The marinated salmon was a lovely take on lox in a modern style. Of the quartet it was the lobster that captured through its luxury - a postage stamp salad that could be sent anywhere.
Finally the menu, as printed, began. First, Tomato Structures with Marinated Gamba, Basil, Sorbet of Cabernet-Sauvignon Vinegar and Olive Oil Powder. I love fresh tomatoes, but I adored the single cherry tomato that was infused with oil and vinegar: the single best tomato on earth. The remaining four structures, although otherwise notable, didn't stand a chance. They were bystanders.
The next dish was my star of the evening, a tartare of langoustine with an emulsion of olive oil and yuzu, with caviar, seafood jelly, and cream of sea vegetables. This rather complex dish (and like Tom Keller, Sergio Herman is partial to complexity - except the above-mentioned cherry tomato) was a brave medley of tastes and textures. The fruity, herbal, salty, and buttery notes were symphonic. Even though complex, the dish had an astonishing lightness of being. Herman's strong tastes did not overpower.
This was quickly followed with a foamy turbot: turbot with verbena and "barigoul (artichoke farci) foam" with pan-fried langoustine and tempura of verbena. This was another complex langoustine dish that tamed the savory to good effect. Perhaps the turbot is not as joyous a fish as some, but this was an astonishing and beautiful plate that successful melded fish and crustacean.
In short order we moved from langoustines to lobster: "Bomba rice" paella with Zealand lobster, chorizo and slowly cooked squid with a sauce of crustaceans and cremolata of peas. Another ravishing and complex dish. Yet, this was the dish that I found disappointing. In comparing this deconstruction to a more traditional paella, my strong preference was for the latter. This was a stripped-down, constricted paella. When deconstructing tradition - "paella" - a chef needs to insure that the quotation marks add value. One can hardly complain about perfectly prepared lobster, but the dish felt cramped and theoretical; it lacked integrity as a tribute.
The palate cleanser was cucumber three-way: jellied, foamy, and marinated, served as a cocktail. Cucumber when prepared right is God's treat of summer: the refreshment of Eden. This break was glorious.
The single meat course was lamb "Sisteron" with courgette (zucchini) flowers, lamb sauce, Parmesan jelly and "poudre d'or." Granted the gold powder was a conceit of a culture with too much disposable income, but the lamb was ideally cooked - juicy and moist, fully lamby - but with a startlingly crispy crust that must have taken some thoughtful effort to achieve. The strip of cheese preserves was good fun. If not the most compelling dish of the night, it was a straight-forward center-piece with memorable twists and turns.
This brings a diner to a trio of dessert courses with their own variants: structures of chocolate and caramel with ice cream from salted peanuts; almond biscuit with strawberries and ice cream of elderberry flower; and preparations of raspberry and coconut. At some restaurants desserts are an afterthought, but desserts at Oud Sluis contain the same attempt to tame the savory, and they largely work. I particularly admired the chocolate cream with passion fruit. The fruit was ripe and robust and the elderberry sorbet was well made. Viewing the photographs reveals a pastry chef who works in the same register as the chef: tart complexity, shaped and channeled by an insistence on subtlety.
Oud Sluis deserves the praise it has received. And with a young chef who is still developing his own culinary style, it is likely to improve, although no fourth Michelin star will be in the offing. Oud Sluis may lack the explosive flash and gunpowder of the Fat Duck or Alinea, but it reveals a culinary mind. Today every ambitious young chef is a student of Thomas Keller, but some students are more attentive than others. If Sergio Herman is not a teacher's pet, he is a diner's pet.
At high-end restaurants no meal is truly typical, but thanks to an expansive chef my meal was less typical than some, thanks to the soft kindnesses of my network. Yet, the vision and care of Oud Sluis is sure to be evident for every diner, even those not so well connected as this diner-in-full.
Restaurant Oud Sluis
Sluis THE NETHERLANDS
(0031) 0117 46 12 69
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
The Fat Duck, surely one of the galaxy’s most famous dining destinations, tucked away in the London exurb of Bray, is in fact two of the world’s most creative restaurants. The problem is that they do not always fit together harmoniously. One is to be applauded for its culinary brilliance; the other for its cleverness. One is Per Se, the other April Fools. One produces astonishing food; the other forces astonished diners to question what food really is. Is food anything that a chef dares to place on the plate? One is modern cuisine, the other hyper-modern games and molecular buzz.
The Fat Duck appears a rural inn from its pubby name to its exposed beams and white walls. The only signal that this is other than small-town Britain is a few abstractions on the walls in yellow and chartreuse. As is so common, service in the temple of modern cuisine is attentive and gracious; service at the house of games is demanding and controlling. At the first the diner is king; at the later, he is a pawn. And throughout the meal The Fat Duck sells itself from the small placard on the table that encourages the purchase of Chef Heston Blumenthal’s cookbooks to the several odd objects emblazoned with the name and visual markings of the establishment. Blumenthal has not moved as far as some in turning himself into a brand, not yet opening branches in Dubai and Las Vegas, but perhaps the time is not so far off. The current chef, overseeing the cuisine at The Fat Duck is Ashley Palmer-Watts, who deserves much credit for the day.
One’s tasting menu begins with play. A server appears with a smoking kettle of nitrogenated ice in which she places a white sphere: a immediate freeze by one of MacBeth’s witches. This is the opening palate cleanser of Nitro-Green Tea and Lime Mousse. I am informed that it is to be eaten whole; and when I chose to consider the dish in two bites, I am chided for my effrontery. So much for clichés about the client’s authority. The ball itself is tartly citrus with a smidge of vodka. As advertised, it is a clarifying moment.
The second amuse brings a plate with two small squares of jelly: one orange and one beet red. The server orders me to eat the orange first. I follow instructions despite a growing desire to rebel by combining half of each. What’s up? The orange gel tastes of beet; the red square tastes of orange, just like those experiments in home economics in which green food coloring is added to cherry ice and red to mint. As it always has been, this is a cute idea for a class in food science to demonstrate the power of expectations, but the idea triumphs over the senses.
This experiment was followed by a lovely, little thing: a fresh oyster with passion fruit jelly and a sprig of lavender. Although the lavender didn’t add much to this particular dish, the combination of fruit and bay was delightful. This is the first of the dishes that demonstrates that the kitchen can cook – although if one is discussing raw oysters, “cook” is not precisely apt.
The next small treat was “soup,” although soup that one needed a magnifying glass to spot, Red Cabbage Gazpacho, served with a micro-scoop of Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream. The soup was luscious, luminous, and light, all that one expects of a chilled soup. I only wish I had a bowl and not a tumbler. The flavor of cabbage was distinctive, but not overwhelming, and the royal purple contrasted smoothly with the tan custard.
The following intersecting courses were described as an “Homage to Alain Chapel.” How the late chef might feel about such an honor will never be known. I was informed that I must first lay a small film infused with oak flavor on my tongue, waking me for the touches to come, adding a whispered note of terror, if not terroir. However, this Sleeping Beauty trick was neither deadly nor delightful. Set on my table was a bonny package of oak moss that was flirtatious enough, but even when a liquid infusion caused it to smoke vigorously, it was more a proposition than than a passion. Here was molecular cuisine at its most jejune. A jest of the dark woods at table. This complaint does not neglect the insistent flavors of the dishes served as sides. The oak moss and truffle toast was carefully plotted and an evocative of the fungal bed. Compact, tightly bound, and explosive with aroma. Better still was one of the finest preparations of the day, an inspiring parfait with layers of quail jelly, langoustine cream, and foie gras mousse. Each satin sheet was urgently composed and together was an amorous moment. This parfait was as much a climax as an appetizer could be.
And now the meal became serious and profound – for awhile. The first of the larger course was Chef Blumenthal’s signature Snail Porridge, served with Joselito ham and shaved fennel, described by the organizationally immodest server as “our famous snail porridge.” The snails might speak for themselves, but whether famous, infamous, or anonymous, this was a breakfast of champions – fusing two of the meal’s motifs: breakfast in the woods. The green porridge, the translucent fennel, the rosy ham, and the dark snails made beautiful harmony. Flavors that seemed far distant became as one. This porridge wakens the limp and restless.
Following the porridge was is tribute to Foie Gras, what each fat duck will be without: Roast Foie Gras with Almond Fluid Gel, Cherry Sauce and Chamomile Jelly. Here was foie gras marzipan with bursting cherry notes. The fruit was cherry cubed, so intense was its flavor. Not only was the dish symphonic in taste, it was fluid and expressionist in presentation. A magnificent treat.
And then “The Sound of the Sea.” Here was molecular cuisine as wack. The server brought out a large conch shell with earphones which I was ordered to wear. Inside the shell – why? – was a small iPod – why? Putting on the earphones, one heard the sound of waves – why? And I sat for perhaps five minutes experiencing a cross between vexation and bondage, feeling little of the wispy shore breeze in this snug little cottage by inland Bray. Let me be blunt: it was dumb. The chef’s desire for discipline outweighed any hint of pampering.
As I began to lose hope, fearing that I would be dunce for the afternoon, perhaps feeling a touch nauseated, the food arrived. If the dish was not among the finest creations of the tasting menu, it was far more evocative than the attempt at Radio Free Bulli. The chef sculpted a shore scene with tapioca sand, sea foam, fried baby eels, razor clams, cockles, and a quartet of Japanese seaweed species. It was a curiosity, too clever by half for greatness, but a thoughtful attempt to build on an unusual mix of textures.
Finally arrived the crux of the meal: an indelible dishes, a creation of gustatory renown: Salmon Poached with Liquorice, Asparagus, Pink Grapefruit, Vanilla Mayonnaise, and Olive Oil. The salmon, moist and succulent, was enveloped by a dark, mysterious, potent, slightly bitter film. Served on a plate by its lonesome it would have been splendid, but the companion tastes, each paired in a bite were gravely symphonic. Modern cuisine does not get better than this, and inspires me to forgive – sort of – the fooling before and after. I was tempted to ask for Hester’s technique, but then realized that my evening fumblings might tarnish my memories of what Chef Blumenthal unfolded.
The meat course was perhaps the most “traditional” of the afternoon: best end of lamb with onion and thyme fluid gel with a potato fondant. The best end of lamb included tongue, neck, and sweetbreads, leaving this lamb silenced – along with part of the lamb’s rack. This was a fine, sturdy dish – and a rich and thoughtful one, unafraid of the dense flavor of the thyme gel. If it was an anti-climax – and in some measure it was – this evaluation was a function of what came before.
The liquid palate cleanser was labeled “Hot and Iced Tea.” Two distinctly textured liquids – one rather warm and gummy, the other cool and fresh within the same cup. The trick was that the cup appeared to contain a single liquid, while actually constituting a science experiment. Like teaching a dog to waltz, it was more impressive in theory than in practice.
This was followed by a small dish, “Mrs. Marshall’s Margaret Cornet,” named after a frozen dessert pioneer: apple ice cream with orange and ginger granita. This small cone with its smooth flavors and elaborated decoration was a nostalgic reference to the days when visiting the ice cream parlor was an occasion, not merely an errand.
I could have skipped the “Pine Sherbet Fountain” – sugar powder with a pine aroma. First, oak, now pine, soon poison ivy. I scooped the power with a vanilla bean that added some taste, but didn’t persuade me that this was other than a tease of the late afternoon heat.
The main dessert – Mango and Douglas Fir Puree with a Bavarois (Bavarian cream) of lychee and mango with an intense blackcurrant sorbet – was precisely presented, a stunning picture. As a serious presentation, the dessert was welcome, although I felt that the flavors did not merge as well as some earlier courses. It was a plate in which the sum of the parts was more impressive than the combined taste.
After this effort of the pastry kitchen, we returned to ideas, forgetting gustatory triumphs. First, I was served a Carrot and Orange Tuile – a high-end lollypop - with a beetroot jelly square, a reference to the earlier surprise but with the color matching the taste.
As the meal ended – perhaps most appropriate for those evening repasts that concluded in the wee hours – I received a box of parsnip cereal – Fat Duck brand - served with parsnip milk. Perhaps one can’t squeeze blood from a turnip, but apparently Chef Blumenthal can tease breast milk from a parsnip. Cereality indeed.
I concluded with the second course of a molecular morning repast, another Blumenthal signature: Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream with Pain Perdu and Tea Jelly. Like the opening nitro-Green Team and Lime Mousse, this was a tableside presentation. The kitchen wizards infused an egg in its shelf with bits of bacon, When cracked into a pan, mixed with liquid nitrogen – kazaam! – ice cream resulted. Cuteness trebled, cooled and warmed through magic. Better living through chemistry, although I prefer better living though stovework. It was an impressive end, although not the most impressive in flavor. The conjurer’s trick seemed designed to wheedle a standing ovation. The breakfast was somewhat in-between brilliant and curious, in-between funny delightful and funny odd.
With the weak American dollar a tasting menu at The Fat Duck is an investment in reverie, and has some rough patches. Yet, it is not an experience that I would have missed. Perhaps The Fat Duck is two restaurants in one – one molecular, one inspired – but both reveal how magical a meal can be. This is a cuisine agape. I left with my heart aflutter and my mouth agape.
The Fat Duck
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