Friday, December 16, 2011

Chef's Tasting

Here are the photos from last night's Chef's Table. We used our customers as guinea pigs in a sense: we were auditioning new dishes for the main dinner menu. In most cases, this is the first time we've tried these dishes. Some may go on to feature on the main menu, some may get tweaked and tried again, and at least one will be relegated to the bit-bin here on the blog.

Dueling Pork Belly. You may have noticed a theme to recent Chef's Tasting menus: pork belly. In our quest to convert people to the Pork Belly Legion™, we seem to be serving it everywhere. Here, we have two quick one-biters for our amuse course.

The first (closest) is the way we have been featuring pork belly on the main dinner menu since we first started experimenting with this combination back in November for another tasting. Sitting on a mound of grits is the pork belly, which is drizzled with local hickory bark syrup, and topped with what we are calling a red grape "olivada" after the Italian condiment of the same name. It consists of red grapes, olives, capers, anchovies, lemon juice, oregano, and olive oil.

The second presentation (the farthest away) is a classic Vietnamese treatment of pork belly, but one we've never featured here at the restaurant. I braised the pork belly in a sauce that I made from caramel, fish sauce, black pepper, and shallots. You see the pork belly sitting on a mound of grits, topped with more of the braising caramel sauce, and topped with a cilantro leaf.

Seared Sea Scallop. This dish is the result of us having baby Shanghai bok choy, lop cheung (Chinese sausage), and pickled mustard greens in the cooler and trying to find a way to use them. Coupled with this, Matt just delivered us a huge bunch of chicken feet when he last brought us rabbits, so we had a big batch of super good chicken stock in the cooler as well. Soup was a natural thought given this bunch of ingredients, but we decided to change the form and do the old soup in the wonton trick. In the photo, you see a soup-filled wonton down and a quarter of a baby bok choy, cilantro leaves, pickled mustard greens, green onions, and lop cheung coins over, with a scallop topping the feast.

What you don't see is a tiny bit of the fish sauce caramel from the pork belly underneath the wonton. When the guest cuts into the wonton, the ginger-flavored chicken stock spews forth, mixes with the caramel, and fills the bowl with a delicious soup broth. It worked as intended, but the guests seemed non-plussed by the dish: they didn't seem to know how to eat it. Not knowing how I should eat something has never stopped me from trying, but then I am not most people, and that is why we test some of these dishes at the Chef's Table before launching them in the main dining room. This dish, as good as it looked and smelled and as fun as it appeared to us to be, will probably never make it to the dining room.

Wild Mushrooms on Celery Root Latke. There is nothing earth shattering here, just plain old-fashioned deliciousness. In recent weeks, we have really taken a liking to celery root paired with wild mushrooms and this is that pairing's latest incarnation. The chanterelle mushrooms (the last of the season before we switch to hedgehogs for the winter) are finished old-school, with veal demiglace and heavy cream. Classic French habits die hard in old chefs!

Roasted Red Drum. This is a test use of Tony's puttanesca-style lentils. I am a big fan of lentils with fish; the pairing just works for me. And pasta puttanesca, with it's bold seasonings, just may be my all-time favorite pasta dish. Here you see the lentils flavored with olives, capers, anchovies, garlic, basil, and crushed red pepper flakes under a piece of drum that has been rubbed with olive oil, salt, pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, and garlic, and then roasted. This is headed for the dinner menu this weekend. It will probably perplex customers, but I love the pairing and the plate presentation is clean and inviting.

Jerked Veal with Sweet Potato Spätzle. And now for something completely different and a dish that will never go any further than this. We've been serving a classic schnitzel with spätzle on the dinner menu this week. Tony had the idea of taking that dish and doing a Caribbean riff on it. The veal cutlets were rubbed and marinated with our house-made jerk paste then grilled, sliced, and stacked Lincoln Log-style. On top of this stack you see a cranberry salsa made from cranberries, lime, jerk paste, allspice, and cilantro. The salsa was pretty good and may be something we would try again. Next to this you see the sweet potato spätzle, browned with brunoise of sweet potato, and finished with a touch of grated ginger, lime zest, and allspice. I was unhappy with the presentation and the Caribbean flavors just didn't add anything to the dish; they weren't bad, but if they don't add anything, why are they there?

Caramel Apple Butterscotch Bread Pudding. What? This doesn't look like a bread pudding? Well, it is. These small local Blushing Golden apples are hollowed out and then baked with the bread pudding inside. Sauced with house-made dulce de leche, crème anglaise, and a touch of maple syrup, this dish was a fun way to finish dinner.


  1. Some thoughts from last night, now that I've had time to obsess over these amazing dishes...

    The pork belly dish was a spectacular success. The first time I ever had pork belly was in your restaurant, actually the last time we visited. I was an instant convert, so I heartily endorse this trend. More pork!

    The olivada bite was perfectly executed - the hickory syrup was a great touch - but it's the other one that is going to haunt my dreams. The use of the caramel/fish sauce combo resulted in a depth that was completely unexpected, and left me smacking my lips trying to discern all the complex flavors. One bite wasn't enough - I loved it.

    The second dish was probably the most controversial, but the more I think about it, the more I think that might have been my favorite dish of the night.

    The lop cheung was a little Slim Jim-esque, and I didn't really know what to do with it. Sure, it fit thematically because it was Asian, but because it sat alone, not flavoring the rest of the dish, it was kind of a distraction to stop interacting with the rest of this great plate and eat it.

    The giant wonton presentation was novel, but I would have been happy with smaller wontons or noodles already floating in that gorgeous broth.

    So let's talk about the broth. Absolutely stunning, for my money. Complex, rich, and with those mustard greens and the bok choy - very sharp in a great way. My favorite bite was when I scooped up some of the onions with my last spoon of broth. The contrasting sweetness of those green onions with the salty broth and peppery greens was one of the highlights of last night.

    The scallop, as always at your place, was perfect.

    As far as the "fun" aspect, who cares? The fun part about this dish was how tasty it was, not the fact that soup was hidden in my wonton.

    I loved this dish despite its quirks, and I'd order it again. I know it might not have the best curb appeal on the menu (Is it a protein dish or is it a soup?) but it was very, very tasty. I'm still thinking about it the next day and wishing I had more.

    On to the mushrooms. Not a lot to say, except that I loved it. Great sauce, very classic, very earthy and meaty. How could anyone have anything bad to say about wild mushrooms in a cream sauce?

    The fish dish was a success as well. The red pepper sauce (right?) was the highlight for me, and the fish was cooked with skill. I'd order this. Didn't completely devour the lentils because I was on the fourth course at this point, but they were the best lentils I've ever had.

    Just like in the mushroom dish, I loved the micro greens. Very classy and also just bitter enough to contrast the other flavors. You may have an obsession with micro greens, but it's one of the reasons I love your restaurant...

    Can't agree with you more on the veal. We've been calling it "the Jenga Veal." Both of us thought the jerk rub was a little strange. It had a little bit of a "wet dog" quality at times. But we loved the spatzle. It was crisp and salty-sweet, and we'd love to see it accompany more dishes. The salsa was complex and interesting and I'd eat it by itself. I wouldn't order this, but hey, I ate the whole thing.

    The bread pudding - I have nothing bad to say, but you know that. Great sauce, classy presentation. The roasted apple was the best part, actually.

    Thank you for a spectacular dinner. I may have criticisms but they don't matter. We loved the combination of traditional sure-fire fine-dining hits like the chanterelles with risky but rewarding dishes like the wonton.

    You could have played it safe and done six tenderloins of different tasty animals with cream sauces, maybe a pasta and a creme brulee, and we'd have been happy. But you got inventive, and we're thrilled.

    Thank you for doing the chef's table with just two people. We wish you the best and we'll be back again!

  2. The red sauce on the fish was a tomato vinaigrette, tomatoes, vinegar, canola oil.