Dos Urban Cantina (Chicago, IL)

I first learned of Dos Urban Cantina during a meal at Topolobampo in November of 2015. Startled by the elision of Jennifer Jones’s name from the menu credits, our server confirmed that she had left to start Dos Urban Cantina with her husband, Brian Enyart (himself a longtime Rick Bayless alum.) The name struck a harsh chord; “Dos Urban” evokes the kind of cartoonish Mexican cuisine that’s all too common in this country. The phonetic proximity between “Dos Urban” and “Dos Equis” doesn’t help matters, either, and indeed, “Cantina” unwittingly positions the restaurant within the generic framework of the Mexican watering hole. How, I wondered, could a serious restaurant emerge from the silly wrapping of this woefully-misnamed venture?

That I was willing to suspend disbelief speaks to my admiration for Jennifer Jones’s talents. Having enjoyed her desserts at roughly ten different meals at Topolo, she was responsible for many of my most memorable desserts, including “Vida, Muerta, y un Tazon de Chocolate,” a chocolate offering that ranks as perhaps my all-time favorite. Even her ice creams, of both fruit and chocolate variety, resonated as exquisite examples within their category. Given these past experiences, it wasn’t hard to muster enthusiasm for this restaurant, weird name aside.

Located in Logan Square—prime hipster locus of Chicago—I was expecting a rather cramped interior. So it came as no small surprise to see a dining room with ample space between tables, not unlike what one might find at a Michelin 2- or 3-star establishment. Most of the tables were filled with families dining, and the dining room produced mixed signals: on the one hand, the sizable gulf between tables fostered the hushed seriousness of a fine dining temple; at the same time, the many children filling the dining room blunted this severity.

Apropos of my remarks on the table spacing, I should also note that Dos Urban’s dining room bears few of the other attributes associated with Mexican restaurant dining rooms. Many Mexican restaurants in Chicagoland, for example, boast macabre touches—skeletons and skulls, for example—whose exoticism complements the somewhat mysterious character of Mexican cuisine, with its hyper-saturated moles belying scores of ingredients. Meanwhile, the brick walls and chocolate-colored booths at Dos Urban feel ‘safe.’ Here it’s worth noting that the other two of the restaurant’s four owners (Enyart and Jones being the first two) have backgrounds with Lettuce Entertain You. This may be confirmation bias, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a certain LEY flavor to the space, by which I mean a ‘lite’ quality that avoids all manner of drama.

Having loosely monitored its progress over the past year, I’ve noticed an array of structural changes to the menu. The originating menu forwent the standard 3-course structure, instead adopting unusual diacritic flourishes. For example, larger menu items were listed in boldface and in a larger size than the smaller plates. These touches must have posed untenable interpretive hurdles, as the design has been overhauled to feature 3 intuitive categories: small plates (roughly appetizer size), family-style sharable dishes, and desserts.

On its website, Dos Urban trumpeted the family-style offerings, which included cochinita pibil, chicken in mole negro, and a whole sea bass. My sense, however, is that these are crowd-pleasing concessions to timid diners who were previously jaded by the less-familiar plates. For the restaurant’s more distinctive offerings, one is best advised to restrict attention to the smaller plates, and so my brother and I ordered 3 each, as well as a dessert. Our server gave our choices her vote of confidence and hinted that the small plates offered the clearest route to a memorable meal. This essay focuses exclusively on my dishes.

I began with “Roasted Winter Squash: brown butter tamarind glaze, walnut pipian, chile escabeche.” Unlike Topolo, sauces are not finished tableside, yet the clean layers—walnut pipian at bottom, then squash, then chile—still carried precision. This was a fantastic dish for those, like me, who love sauces. Others might find themselves taken aback by the surfeit of sauce, resulting in a dish that straddled the line between squash plate and squash soup. As I suffer a relatively low spice tolerance, I was pleased to find that the chiles emitted a slow heat that never overwhelmed the palate. I am aware, of course, that some might consider this to be another inauthentic concession to the timid palate—although it does irritate me that, in certain circles, “authenticity” finds itself conflated with degree of spiciness.

winter-squash-walnut-pipian

Winter Squashes: Walnut Pipian, Chile Escabeche

I then selected “Goat Albondigas: black mole, masa gnudi.” Obsessive-compulsive customers may question the curious asymmetry between meatball and gnudi, with 6 of the former and 4 of the latter. The Mexican-Italian fusion worked conceptually, although the meatballs were too tough for my liking. I understand that the intention may have been to juxtapose the albondigas against the silky dumplings, but I would have preferred softer meatballs. Perhaps using pork, beef, or veal might have paid dividends. The mole rescued the dish, but only makes me fantasize over how memorable this would have been with plusher albondigas.

goat-albondigas-black-mole

Goat Albondigas, Masa Gnudi, Mole Negro

The most substantial of my savory plates was “Grilled Mushrooms: maitake and shimeji, Oaxacan red mole, chestnut cornbread.” As with the meatballs, this has been on the menu since the restaurant’s inception and must be emerging as a signature dish. One really has to love mushrooms to appreciate it (as there wasn’t much to offset them), and as a mushroom fan I was in my comfort zone. The mole and cornbread brought a nutty accent that complemented the earthy mushrooms. I could see some people finding this dish boring or perhaps lacking a proper centerpiece, but I could not have been happier. As with the squash preparation, the generous portion of sauce brought this composition to the precipice of being a soup, and I was able to linger over the delicious flavors.

mushroom-red-mole

Grilled Mushrooms (Maitake and Hon Shimeji), Chestnut Cornbread, Oaxacan Red Mole

I finished with “Rompope Sundae: pecan polvoron, pear and jamoncillo.” This was just delicious, and the pecan polvoron, pear, and jamoncillo demonstrated Jones’s facility for integrating contrasting textures. To her credit, Jones has resisted the urge to over-experiment that currently pervades pastry programs; I’ve grown tired of the widespread attempts to incorporate herbs and other savory elements within the domain of pastry, almost invariably to the detriment of the desserts. Even so, it’s hard not to feel as if Jones is limiting herself here. Below, I’ve displayed this dessert alongside the aforementioned dessert from Topolo a few years ago, and I just don’t see that this sundae showcases the same degree of ambition. Where “Vida, Muerte, y Un Tazon de Chocolate” presented a focused study in chocolate, the sundae proffered easy pleasures that didn’t necessarily speak to the presence of a master pastry chef. I will also note that the other options (apple crisp and chocolate cake, for example) were no more ambitious.

rompope-sundae

Rompope Sundae, Pecan Polvoron, Pear, Jamoncillo

vida-muerte-chocolate

Vida, Muerte, Y Un Tazon de Chocolate (Topolobampo, c.2012)

Overall, three of four dishes were quite delicious, a high batting average indeed. Yet I feel that the sundae captures the spirit of this restaurant, namely the sense in which it provides delectable cuisine that never risks challenging the diner—and I say this having ordered what I’d consider to be some of the more ambitious offerings. Fans of Topolobampo, a restaurant that has upped its ambitious ante in recent years, are likely to find their hopes unrequited. I will return when I want delicious Mexican, but not when I’m looking for gastronomic challenges or want to probe deeper into Mexican cuisine. Jones and Enyart are skilled culinary artisans, but lack Bayless’s anthropological charge. I still think highly of Dos Urban Cantina, however, especially as it manages to overcome its most unsavory appellation.

Vie and North Pond (Fall 2016)

north-pond-dining-room

North Pond Dining Room

This post revisits Vie and North Pond with the primary aim of exploring how the two paradigmatic farm-to-table restaurants illuminate what “farm-to-table” means as a taxonomic marker. Or put differently, the question motivating this post might be phrased thusly: does “farm-to-table” signify an actual cuisine, or a method through which to execute a cuisine?

Certainly, farm-to-table carries certain generic attributes: prioritization of local, micro-seasonal ingredients; simple, often rustic preparations; transparent disclosure of ingredient provenance, with an expectation that purveyors engage in humane treatment of animals; and culinary handiwork stressing ingredients over technique, simplicity over complexification. These qualities have of course been commoditized, with grocery stores and restaurants alike well-attuned to the surplus value conferred by farm-to-table and adjacent keywords like “fresh,” “farm-raised,” and “free-range.” But is this enough to constitute a proper cuisine? After all, Rick Bayless uses seasonal, humane ingredients to produce Mexican cuisine. Given that the aforementioned keywords may be applied toward any cuisine, are we best off conceptualizing farm-to-table in loose, methodological terms, referring more to the ingredients one uses (or perhaps, one’s attitude toward ingredients) than the dishes one composes?

Within Chicagoland, Vie and North Pond register as ideal sites through which to open this investigation. After all, Vie was named a Top 25 Farm to Table Restaurant in the country by Best Life Magazine. Meanwhile, North Pond appears in Zagat’s list of “Chicago’s Best Farm-to-Table Restaurants.” I refer to these lists this not because I see merit in ranking restaurants along these or any other lines, but because the designation speaks to the collective image of farm-to-table as a cuisine, and to Vie and North Pond as archetypal examples. Yet after 5 meals at North Pond (1 recent, 4 further removed) and 4 at Vie, I consider both among my favorite restaurants in Chicago, but also consider them to offer evidence for farm-to-table as more of a method than a cuisine. What follows carries a more definitional than evaluative focus, using recent meals at Vie and North Pond to explore—on an admittedly limited scope—what we mean when we talk about ‘farm-to-table’ in the restaurant context.

It should be noted that neither Vie nor North Pond advertises itself as explicitly farm-to-table; the North Pond website introduces the cuisine of its chef, Bruce Sherman, as follows:
“Chef Bruce Sherman holds true to the Arts and Crafts ideal in the culinary philosophy of North Pond restaurant. Drawing inspiration from the local market, he utilizes exceptional ingredients at the height of their season. Whenever possible, Chef Sherman supports small local farmers and treats their products with respect in his kitchen. The path from earth to plate remains clear and his cuisine reflects the decor of the dining room – complex layers of subtle craft beneath a simple decorative style.”
The verbs deployed—“utilizes” and “treats”—allude to farm-to-table as a procedure, deployed to achieve an isomorphic relationship between dining room and food; rather than executing a preexisting cuisine, the implication is that Chef Sherman serves his own distinct cuisine, indelibly informed by not only local ingredients but the physical space of the building.

Vie, meanwhile, introduces itself as follows:
“Named after the French word for life, offer(ing) contemporary American cuisine inspired by Western European cultures and rustic fare. Chef and Owner Paul Virant opened Vie in 2004 and focuses on year-round seasonal eating and housemade pickles and preserves. Locally grown, artisan ingredients from Midwestern family farms are showcased.”
Local ingredients and purveyors are foregrounded here, but utilized toward the production of contemporary American and Western European cuisine. In sum, North Pond and Vie make reference to farm-to-table attributes, but farm-to-table remains procedurally-determined, suggesting that the common tendency to think of farm-to-table as a cuisine owes as much or more to the food media and the dining public than to the ways in which chefs define and market their craft. My recent meals at both restaurants confirm this conclusion.

These meals occurred during late Summer and early Fall, with a common rubric of ingredients on display. Menus falling on the late summer end of the spectrum featured much seasonal produce, including sweet corn, berries, summer squashes, watermelon, and tomatoes. The early fall meal, which took place at Vie, included hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, fall squashes, and brussels sprouts. Both North Pond and Vie offer tasting menus, yet my sense is that the focus remains on a la-carte. As this was a brunch at North Pond, we ordered from a 3-course prix fixe, in which each course carried 4 choices; at dinner, the standard shifts to 4 courses. At Vie, the expectation is that each diner experiences a traditional, 3-course endeavor.

Both North Pond and Vie welcome the diner with bread; Vie also includes an amuse bouche and mignardise (North Pond might also for dinner, but not brunch.) At our last meal, we were treated to an especially outstanding raw fish preparation.

vie-amuse

Raw Fish Amuse at Vie

My North Pond appetizer was griddled tuna with feta cheese, watermelon, and a sauce whose components escape my memory. I’m not sure why they call this “griddled tuna”—which evoked images of cooking it diner-style (my first association when I think of the griddle is of pancakes and burgers)—especially as our server indicated that it was prepared on a plancha, and thus grilled more than griddled. The fish was cooked longer than I like, as I generally favor tuna raw. It was also a relatively lean piece, and I wished for a more luxurious cut, closer in hue to the watermelon. My chief gripe, though, lies with the unsavory combination of a small portion and long list of ingredients. As this was a brunch app, I wouldn’t expect a grand portion, but the consequences of scale shouldn’t just get rationalized under the pretense of this being a midday meal. I couldn’t harmonize the ingredients and each bite felt more like a gamble than a foray; should I eat the tuna with the watermelon, feta, and sauce all together, or try to marry the ingredients in another fashion? There wasn’t an opportunity to taste the tuna by itself and see whether eating it with the other ingredients improved or compromised its merits. I’ve encountered this same problem in restaurants serving voluminous tasting menus, contributing to my general preference for a la carte.

north-pond-tuna

North Pond: Griddled Tuna, Feta, Watermelon

By contrast, Vie serves sizeable appetizers that solicit exploration. Below I’ve included pictures of a ribollita soup; an octopus dish prepared escabeche style (with lots of paprika), with chorizo and new potatoes; and a sweetbread preparation that included a memorable black garlic glaze. The octopus and sweetbreads were off the menu by the time of my third meal at Vie, leading me to order the soup instead, but it was no less enjoyable.

vie-octopus-escabeche

Vie: Octopus Escabeche, Chorizo, New Potatoes

vie-sweetbreads

Vie: Black Garlic Sweetbreads, Zucchini, Onion Rings

vie-ribollita

Vie: Ribollita Soup, Grilled Sourdough, Cranberry Beans, Sausage, Swiss Chard

I would be hard-pressed to locate any limitations to these appetizers, which presented simple, straightforward flavors and graceful cross-pollination of humble (potatoes, egg, sourdough) and luxurious (octopus, sweetbreads) ingredients alike. This was neither comfort food nor fine dining proper, but rather their glorious marriage.

Chef Virant doesn’t just synthesize the prosaic and the luxurious, however; these appetizers also brought the local and the global into contact. Ingredients like octopus and paprika, not to mention ribollita soup, assume European roots, and black garlic is a staple of Korean fare. These aren’t farm-to-table dishes in any pure sense of the term, but dishes that use fresh-from-the-farm ingredients (as well as other non-local ones) to produce plates with strong ties to the Midwest, Europe, and Asia. What results is not so much cultural pluralism, but rather a more synthetic approach that weaves cultural influences together toward plates that defy facile taxonomic relegation.

We also ordered charcuterie on a recent visit, which included a country-style pate, as well as headcheese (tete de cochon) and bresaola. Each was enjoyed, and while there appeared to be few other tables ordering charcuterie, this is a necessary menu item for a restaurant that prides itself on its butchering.

Vie Charcuterie: Pate, Tete de Cochon, Bresaola

Vie Charcuterie: Pate, Tete de Cochon, Bresaola

North Pond draws from an equally broad array of cuisines. My main course, for example, was an Indian-style whitefish, which included an exemplary yogurt crust. On each visit, the kitchen has shown great facility with all manner of seafood, from shrimp to trout to whitefish to cod. The cauliflower was pickled, which isn’t my preference, but I enjoyed the spinach coulis. A bland cracker (behind the fish) lent a superfluous accent, easily overcome by the pleasures of the fish.

Whitefish, Pickled Cauliflower, Spinach Coulis

North Pond: Whitefish, Pickled Cauliflower, Spinach Coulis

I’ve ordered two main courses at my recent meals at Vie: first, slow-cooked lamb leg with lamb sausage, toasted hominy, and blueberry; and second, walleye pike with paw paw vinaigrette, Minnesota wild rice, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and caramelized fennel. The walleye was easily one of the most enjoyable dishes I’ve had all year. I’ve become increasingly fond of freshwater fish, especially with its delicate texture punctuated by a subtle crust such as this one. Rice, particularly wild rice, isn’t something I’d go out of my way to order, but it absorbed the vinaigrette to great effect. As a great fan of wild mushrooms, I couldn’t have asked for a more fitting accoutrement than the seasonal ones on display.

Walleye, Minnesota Wild Rice, Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms, Paw Paw Vinaigrette

Vie: Walleye, Minnesota Wild Rice, Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms, Paw Paw Vinaigrette

While the lamb leg was nicely done and the blueberry and toasted hominy both seasonally appropriate and brilliant textural complements, I could have done without the rather bland sausage. Chef Virant proves quite fond of two-way preparations: chicken breast was advertised alongside its sausage, while the pork dish featured multiple cuts of the pig. I understand that such dishes foreground the kitchen’s butchering skill, but in general, I find two-way preparations amount to a reductive ‘squaring’ of the protein that compromises focus, foreclosing the greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts sensation afforded by memorable dishes.

Roasted Leg of Lamb, Lamb Sausage, Toasted Hominy, Blueberry

Vie: Roasted Leg of Lamb, Lamb Sausage, Toasted Hominy, Blueberry

I also have to make note of Chef Virant’s rather unusual (euphemism) plating technique. If we compare the lamb, for example, with the whitefish at North Pond, both compositions possess a general abstraction (although “abstract” means something different in relation to gastronomy than it does in the fine arts, given that there aren’t “figural” culinary compositions.) Yet North Pond achieves abstraction without forfeiting precision. By contrast, my lamb at Vie suffered aesthetically on multiple counts, from the bubbling blueberries and hominy to the generally monochromatic study (compare this to North Pond, which makes great use of color, as evidenced by the watermelon and spinach coulis.) My critique isn’t that the dish is stacked high—more 3-dimensional than most restaurants—but that the whole thing looks rather sloppy, and not beyond the compositional talents of the home cook. Certain dishes, including the ribollita, are more aesthetically inviting, but these exceptions only prove the rule. Simply put, I admire Chef Virant’s palate but not his palette.

I’m not aware of a separate pastry chef at North Pond or Vie, and at North Pond in particular, desserts retain the accretional aesthetic of the savories. I ordered caramel profiteroles with champagne sorbet and a host of other ingredients, including blackberries. The horizontal fanning of the ingredients carried visual appeal, and while it wasn’t easy to harmonize the ingredients, I had fun enjoying the different ingredients (especially the sorbet) on their own.

Caramel Profiteroles, Blackberry, Champagne Sorbet

North Pond: Caramel Profiteroles, Blackberry, Champagne Sorbet

At Vie, we ordered a chocolate-hazelnut-raspberry dessert, with caramel poured tableside. The mason-style jar resonates as a salient prop at Vie, a restaurant that has built much of its reputation on canning and preserving, but while the tableside finish added drama, a more traditional serving vessel might have allowed for easier consumption (I struggled to scrape the dessert out.) This is a very minor critique, though, and I’d order this again in a heartbeat.

Chocolate, Hazelnut, Raspberry, Caramel

Vie: Chocolate, Hazelnut, Raspberry, Caramel

A refrain throughout this essay has been the deployment of regional and international ingredients and preparations, even within two restaurants known for farm-to-table tendencies. Rather than dogmatic adherents to a particular farm-to-table cuisine, Chefs Sherman and Virant resonate more as deft synthesizers of disparate culinary influences. To be sure, they use local ingredients to a greater degree than most chefs, which contributes in no small part to the pleasure their food imparts; yet it still feels to me as if farm-to-table refers more to the ingredients they use than to the dishes they produce. Indeed, I’m not sure I could actually name a farm-to-table “dish,” the way one could with Mexican, French, or even molecular gastronomy (hypothetically, sous-vide steak with a cauliflower foam, falls within molecular gastronomy.) Of course, no cuisine is born in a vacuum and cuisines are never entirely stable, but I still feel as if farm-to-table refers more to a method—to a principle of using primarily local items—than to a cuisine all its own. In a sense, farm-to-table is too amorphous to allow for a distinct cuisine, since ingredients that are farm-to-table in one region will by definition not qualify as such in another region. The institutionalization of farm-to-table as a cuisine would necessitate a canon of dishes that its relational constitution precludes. Beyond this distinction, though, few chefs, particularly at the fine dining level, confine themselves to all-local foood.

If Chefs Sherman and Chef Virant don’t produce farm-to-table cuisine per se, then which cuisines do they execute? Virant may refer to his cooking as “contemporary American” with “Western European” influences, but these categories are so ambiguous—not to mention that he draws from broader influences, such as the black garlic in the sweetbreads—that I don’t think we can align these chefs (or indeed, most chefs working today) within a set cuisine. Certainly, there are chefs who do cook within a particular cuisine, including Rick Bayless (Mexican) and Jean Joho (Alsatian), but these feel like rare examples. A cuisine requires an institutional presence and a history that most chefs today resist.

All of this is to say that the contemporary chef produces his or her own cuisine, rather than adhering to an extant heritage. Through this dynamic, we may observe the parallel trajectories of the culinary arts and the fine arts. That is, I wonder whether the postmodern decline of medium specificity evidenced through contemporary art—cause for celebration or critique, depending on one’s view—finds a corollary in the general resistance to conform to a particular cuisine. Trends, dominant methods (of which farm-to-table is one) and groupthink still abound, but the stability of cuisines and artistic mediums seem to have atrophied, with chefs free to borrow from different cuisines at will in exercises of culinary promiscuity. In many, if not most cases, the chef’s own vision supersedes the constraints imposed by a culinary tradition, so that Paul Virant and Bruce Sherman cook their own cuisines, just as Grant Achatz and Curtis Duffy cook theirs. I don’t mean to suggest that these chefs don’t face their own constraints, and I admire anyone who can operate a kitchen and restaurant given all of the moving parts involved. But rather than misidentifying farm-to-table as a cuisine, we may be better off conceptualizing it as a method through which to express the authorial cuisine of the chef.

Fuel (Lewiston, ME)

Fuel Dining Room

Fuel Dining Room

In previous blog posts, I’ve elaborated on the dynamic wherein the fanciest restaurant in a college town becomes a kind of ‘default-fine dining’ outpost. That is, such restaurants would not qualify as fine dining were they in large cities, but advance a standard deviation in the (perceived) generic hierarchy by virtue of their relative exclusivity. These restaurants depend on the patronage of students and staff, and are where search committees take prospective faculty to dinner following job talks. Fare characteristically includes baseline luxury ingredients (filets of beef, duck), nicely-prepared but without taking the diner out of her comfort zone.

Perched in close proximity to Bates College, Fuel is the Lewiston, ME example of this genre. While I consider these college town restaurants to benefit from a captive audience, one still has to admire the longevity of Fuel in light of Lewiston’s economically-depressed condition. Expanding the geographic horizon, Central Maine has proven a most challenging region for anything pricier than the pub or chain; neither Augusta nor Waterville boasts a restaurant of Fuel’s (still modest) ambition or price point. As an undergraduate, I twice dined at Fuel, but this was a number of years ago and so the Robert Indiana exhibit at the Bates Art [Gallery] motivated my family and me to venture off-the-beaten-trail to this now well-tenured Lewiston institution.

By Lewiston standards, Fuel claims a prime location, situated on the relatively busy, but not particularly attractive, Lisbon Street. Yet the dining room stands at a far remove from the street—no windowside tables or natural light (a couple of outside tables are available, though I can’t imagine anyone choosing to dine al fresco in such a setting.) This segregation from the street registers as a slightly aberrational gesture, particularly given the undramatic mise-en-scene of the dining room; with its low ceiling and narrow confines, the space feels as if it may have been a banquet hall in a prior incarnation. Decorating the walls are (reproductions of) French lithographic posters in the Lautrec style; this is pleasant-enough (if a trope), but also called attention to the contrast between the dynamic iconography of the posters and the relative blandness of the space.

Fuel bills itself as a “modern French bistro,” but in Maine, “bistro” has become an ambiguous signifier, co-opted to refer to anything from upscale, chef-driven cuisine to gastropub fare. Perhaps as a result of such elasticity,  very few restaurants in Maine serve bistro cuisine in its native context. So, Fuel distinguishes itself from other restaurants in this state by staying relatively faithful to proper bistro fare, offering such dishes as braised pork shank, steak frites, charcuterie, and escargot. Other dishes, such as the burger, French onion soup, and fries, claim French provenance but have obviously been absorbed by American cuisine. Fuel seems to frame the pork shank as its signature dish, declaring “A dish that truly defines our French Country heritage. Using all aspects of traditional French cooking, we sear the shank, then slowly braise it in red wine, aromatic vegetables, and balsamic vinegar. The braising liquid is strained and reduced to make a rich, flavorful sauce. The shank is fall-off-the-bone tender, and served atop Brussels sprout, bacon, and sweet potato hash.” This dish isn’t earning high marks for creativity, but the granularity of the description reflects a serious approach, as well as, perhaps, an attempt to educate the diner uninitiated in French cuisine.

With advance notice, one may order a four-course tasting menu. I understand that the chef may not have the time to compose a tasting menu a la minute, but requiring advance notice also suggests that perhaps the menu doesn’t showcase the best of what this chef has to offer. This suggests that what we have isn’t a case of an auteur chef developing his voice in spite of external constraints, but rather an instance in which the chef’s ambition has acquiesced to the exigencies of surviving in this setting.

For this midsummer meal, pork shank seemed too heavy, although there weren’t many light offerings either. I shared the charcuterie plate with my dad, and my mom chose the beat salad. My dad went with the burger for his main, while my mom and I chose mustard-glazed salmon with lentils. We also added the broccoli appetizer to augment the main courses.

Warm bread with butter made for a great opening.

Fuel bread

Fuel Bread Service

The charcuterie consisted of four cured meats: duck prosciutto, coppa, speck, and fennel sausage. Only the duck prosciutto was actually cured in house, and it was the highlight. The gaminess of the duck shone through, tempered by black pepper that accented the sides of each slice. We were very satisfied with the meats and the generosity of the presentation, although some other textures would have been welcome; I would expect a charcuterie plate to include a terrine or pate, for example. The intensity of the duck also would have benefitted from a berry compote, rather than the texturally-incompatible dried fruits accompanying the meats.

Fuel Charcuterie

Charcuterie: Duck Prosciutto, Speck, Coppa, Fennel Sausage (with Dried Fruits, Cornichons, Dijon Mustard, Crostini)

The beat salad boasted red and golden beets, adorned with a champagne vinaigrette, candied walnuts, blue cheese and baby lettuces. The opacity of this dressing challenged expectations, but my mother expressed her satisfaction.

Fuel beet salads

Red and Golden Beets, Champagne Vinaigrette, Blue Cheese, Baby Lettuces, Candied Walnuts

Here we have the salmon, a generous (~10-12 ounce) portion atop a lentils. The menu listed this as “Glazed with Dijon and bread crumbs,” and while more than serviceable, I’m not sure this was successful. Cooked to medium temperature, the fish was cooked more than my preference, and while the bread crumbs offered textural contrast, they overpowered the mustard. To my mind, a more enticing preparation would forgo the bread crumbs altogether, prepare the fish to a rarer temperature, and achieve a mustard crust. Ostensibly the lightest course on the menu, this became very dense. The heaviness of this course was only amplified by the lentils, and the dish became boring. Ordering the broccoli (pictured below the salmon) proved a savvy move insofar as it lightened the salmon and lentils, although the chickpeas rehearsed the starchiness of the lentils and bread crumbs. On its own merits, the broccoli dish was quite nice and we enjoyed that the chick peas seemed to have been treated with chili oil, but the overabundance of chick peas actually resulted in a rather heavy dish.

Fuel Salmon

Salmon with Dijon and Bread Crumbs, French Lentils

 

Fuel Broccoli

Broccoli, Parmesan, Chickpeas

Fuel offers an 8-ounce, ground ribeye burger. Served with cheddar, fried onions, and horseradish mustard, complementary textures and flavors made this a favorite with my dad.

Fuel Burger

Ribeye Burger, Horseradish, Fried Onions, Cheddar, French Fries

Dessert options included pot de crème, profiteroles, crème brulee, and my choice, apple tarte tatin. I ordered the tarte a la mode, while my parents chose the crème brulee with grand marnier.

The tarte boasted a classic texture, although it was served with maple syrup that proved a bit cloying. My preference would have been to serve this with caramel. The real misstep here, to my estimation, was serving this with chocolate ice cream, which overwhelmed the dessert, as chocolate is wont to do. Considering that the menu did not specify chocolate ice cream but rather mentioned simply that the tarte could be served “a la mode,” why would they serve chocolate? I find this particularly baffling in light of the fact that this was the only fruit-based dessert on offer, so we may conclude that to order this is to deliberately eschew chocolate. A satisfying dessert, but forgoing a la mode would have been wiser and cheaper.

Fuel Tarte Tatin

Apple Tarte Tatin, Maple Syrup, Chocolate Ice Cream

Fuel Creme Brulee (2)

Creme Brulee, Grand Marnier

My conclusion is that Fuel serves comfortable cuisine free of gratuitous complexification. Certain components, such as the bread crumb crust and chocolate ice cream were unwarranted, but perhaps reflect capitulation to a local palate. As for Fuel’s enduring popularity, the restaurant seems to have hit on lucrative cross-pollination between French cuisine and pub fare. A menu item like steak frites, for example, carries a kind of ‘double consciousness’—existing as both highbrow cuisine (by Maine standards) and meat-and-potato pub grub. Consequently, Fuel purports to provide a certain luxury (through declaring a French orientation) without taking the diner out of her comfort zone. Better appreciated within the college town genre than within the broad category of French cuisine, we emerged from this meal satisfied with the cuisine and content with the knowledge—not at all intended as a backhanded compliment—that this was the best we could have eaten on this evening, in this town.

Salero (Chicago, IL)

Salero Dining Room

Salero Dining Room

Salero arrived in Fall of 2014 and its website announces its mission in clear terms: “Welcome to Spain in Chicago’s West Loop.” Visually embedded within this greeting is an aqua asterisk symbol, similar to the Michelin star icon. This may lead the uninitiated to infer that Salero has garnered a Michelin star (it hasn’t); or we may read this as ornamental augury—a wishful foreshadow of Michelin recognition in the upcoming year. The website, then, begs the following: how, exactly, would Salero transport us to Spain? And is there the promise for culinary greatness?

While this restaurant is a relative newcomer, its chef, Ashlee Aubin, isn’t. In addition to the usual platitudes (an investment in eating local, on the relationship between food and community, and the forth), his website bio indicates that he spent four years at Zealous, which no longer exists but seems to have been a paradigmatic locus for early aughties fusion. Aubin then spent a year at Alinea, and the website credits Grant Achatz as Aubin’s chief mentor. Most recently, he headed the kitchen at Wood Restaurant in Chicago, a respected eatery but without the Spanish concentration Salero declares; this left me wondering whether Spanish cuisine was indeed native to Aubin’s culinary vision.

Locating Salero presented no challenges, since it occupies a small space adjacent to Blackbird and Avec, both of which I’ve dined at in the past. Our early reservation netted us the option of indoor or outdoor seating; arriving before my companion, I chose the former. Were I in Maine, I might have gone al fresco; at Salero, however, to dine outdoor is not to enjoy a prime layer of real estate, but rather to come into physical contact with Blackbird and Avec, the restaurant’s formidable competition. With exposed brick and wood, as well as wooden chairs and tables unadorned with cloth, the indoor dining room registers as fashionable, yet not particularly comfortable (perhaps these attributes are correlated.) One can see from the photo above the substantial variance in luminosity between the blinding sun outside and the dark interior milieu; combined with the nearly empty early evening dining room, the space felt almost cavelike (I imagine, however, that the exposed brick makes for a noisy late evening scene.)

Our server performed an efficient menu description, her presentation made all the easier by the absence of nightly specials. I was disappointed to find that jamon iberico had been replaced by cheaper serrano ham, which is delicious but relatively ubiquitous. Many dishes still caught my eye. Despite the Spanish focus, Chef Aubin accents his menu with touches extracted from a broader spectrum of European fare—harissa, foie gras, and orecchiette pasta, for example. I have no problem with such cultural borrowing; a nationally-specific focus need not entail the outright exclusion of other cuisines. I chose grilled octopus as a starter and whole lubina for my main. My companion chose differently, but I only tried my dishes and so I’ve limited this report to my plates.

A foodrunner stopped by with good bread, which I neglected to snapshot.

The octopus came with radicchio, escarole, and a croquette filled with tete de cochon. I don’t find the composition particularly attractive, perhaps because of the relatively monochromatic interplay between the reddish hues of the octopus and those of the lettuce and croquette. If there was aesthetic overlap, the taste proved just the opposite, and I couldn’t harmonize everything. The croquette wasn’t a bad match for the octopus and while the octopus was slightly overcooked, it remained within the bounds of enjoyability; yet the harshness of the lettuce really besmirched the complementary flavors otherwise at work.

Octopus, Radicchio, Tete de Cochon Croquette

Octopus, Radicchio, Tete de Cochon Croquette

The lubina was the real star of this meal, served with rouille, potato sticks, and charred escarole. I could have done without the latter (especially after the escarole and radicchio from the course prior), but this seems to be the age of bitter lettuces and so its presence may have been inevitable. The fish was cooked perfectly and the kitchen dexterously filleted it so zero bones littered the composition—often an issue with whole fish preparations. This dish had everything: a well-prepared protein, textural contrast, and an appropriate sauce. Given the youth of this restaurant, I imagine that Chef Aubin is mediating between overhauling his menu as the season dictates and hitting upon signature dishes; I hope this course claims signature status as it was a real tour de force.

Whole Lubina, Sauce Rouille, Charred Escarole, Potato Sticks

Whole Lubina, Sauce Rouille, Charred Escarole, Potato Sticks

To conclude, I ordered churros, served with salted whipped chocolate, and milk jam. These lacked the more dense sugar coating of the decorated version at Xoco, yet we may perhaps attribute this to a difference between Mexican and Spanish churros. The churros were satisfying, but lacked the modicum of sweetness that I enjoy in a dessert.

Churros, Salted Whipped Chocolate, Milk Jam

Churros, Salted Whipped Chocolate, Milk Jam

My hasty, one-meal conclusion is that Salero’s cuisine isn’t vastly different from what one finds at other West Loop spots, particularly Spanish-inflected restaurants like Vera and Avec (there may be others as well.) Certainly, those two restaurants remain anchored in small plates, distinct from the 3-course experience of this meal; all the same, Salero’s forte doesn’t seem to involve serving atypical ingredients, but rather configuring those ingredients into a more conventional dining experience than its competition. Salero might do well solidify its niche through offering more luxurious Spanish ingredients. The most high-end ingredient was foie gras—what does it say about an upscale Spanish restaurant when its chief luxury ingredient derives from another cuisine? I have no objection to foie gras being served, but the absence of iberico ham feels like a lost opportunity.

It was also a mistake, I think, not to produce a more distinctive décor, perhaps with more Spanish artwork. In other words: if Salero purports to transport its diner to Spain, national specificity is achieved through cuisine alone (unlike Topolobampo, for example, which represents Mexico through cuisine, décor, stemware, and so on.)

Fortunately, in Chef Aubin, Salero possesses a worthy chef who produces plates that are attractive to both eye and tongue. I can see that the middling octopus preparation has been replaced by a more compelling preparation, and other dishes invite return visits. Salero may not achieve a proper Spanish experience, nor even a singular experience within the West Loop, but the skilled preparation of my fish leaves me optimistic that Salero should manage to avoid getting muscled out of town by its more famous neighborhood competition.

Niche (St. Louis, MO)

An investigation into St. Louis fine dining restaurants won’t generate many results, but the city lays claim to a few high-end destinations. The best-known of these is Niche, whose executive chef, Gerard Craft, stands fresh off winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest. My brother and I have eaten at Niche on several occasions over the last 6 months and so have developed a degree of familiarity with the cuisine and staff; unfortunately, the academic year exerted too many demands on my time to chronicle those earlier meals and so this post will have to suffice.

Niche has resided in its current location on Forsythe Street only recently, and at our first meal, the GPS led us to the old location. The dining room boasts a spectrum of brownish hues and an attractive open layout. The only aspect of the interior design that leaves me wanting is the floor; in lieu of hardwood floors, I believe Niche uses one of those cheap floor mats designed to simulate the look of real wood. I imagine this fabric goes unnoticed by most, particularly since the lighting is relatively low, and so I doubt they’re planning to overhaul the floor anytime soon.

Niche features a refreshingly transparent menu structure, with no blind tasting progressions. One chooses from either a 4-course prix fixe or a longer tasting menu comprised of dishes from the prix fixe. The prix fixe features a grid of three options for each course, so at any point in time, the restaurant offers 12 courses from which to choose—this is compact enough to suggest that nothing is on offer just to take up room. There are also some ‘snack’ offerings to punctuate the opening chapter of the meal. We always go with the prix fixe as that is now my favorite format in which to dine—long enough for a variety of flavors, but with course selection still in the hands of the diner.

Before ordering, we were served gratis cocktails (mine was non-alcoholic, my brother’s was not.)

Cocktail

Cocktail

One of the big calling cards of this restaurant is their policy of sourcing everything from a 300-mile radius. According to the website:

“To take the common and remind you how beautiful it can be. We look to the past to see what was here long before us and we look to the future to see what might be possible. As chefs we are never satisfied and always evolving. We are more in awe of a carrot or potato, grown by one of our trusted farmers, than we are by a white truffle flown in from Italy. To us, this is what defines cooking in Missouri.”

Conceptually, this is easy to admire and clarifies that Niche isn’t just copying what restaurants in other states are doing. But, this isn’t Conceptual Art we’re dealing with; the high degree of geographic specificity also raises the same question that any other farm-to-table restaurant poses: would the cuisine benefit from a wider geographic base? At any rate, this is not a seafood restaurant (the only fish I’ve seen on offer is trout)—lots of root vegetables, grains, and poultry instead. We began by ordering the potato beignets with a smoked trout dip, as well as house-cured ham and cheese bread. For the prix fix courses, I chose the swiss chard dish, then a mushroom course, and the lamb as my main dish. Dessert was pecan financier My brother went with a butternut squash soup and then the same mushroom preparation. His main course was a local ribeye, and then the same dessert.

The first items delivered were ‘tea’ (a pork broth) and English muffins topped with house-made camembert.) When one is served a deconstructed tea like this, it’s hard to know the spirit in which it is presented. Was this a genuine act of hospitality or an ironic joke? At Alinea, this would certainly have been the latter, served with a sneer. At Niche, it felt more genuine—a joke for us to enjoy, but also a welcoming gesture at the start of the meal. Sadly, while the English muffin was great, I couldn’t handle the tea—way too one-note with the fattiness, and the broth had coagulated anyhow.

Pork 'Tea'

Pork ‘Tea’

English Muffin, Camembert

English Muffin, Camembert

Niche prides itself on its bread offering, which makes good use of local grains. In this article, the sous chef went so far as to claim that “I think where we’re at now, the bread tells as much of a story as any other dish on the menu.” The bread was awesome and enhanced by the accompanying butter and fleur de sel.

Wheat Bread

Wheat Bread

Next were the potato beignets and charcuterie. This latter offering was served with cheese bread, which my brother likes but which became rather redundant with the bread service. I’d still recommend either of these offerings.

Potato Beignets, Smoked Trout Dip

Potato Beignets, Smoked Trout Dip

The complete title for my first plate was “Swiss Chard: egg yolk, fromage blanc, green garlic.” This was plenty rich without the egg yolk (poured tableside), which took everything to another level. I knew from experience that Niche has great facility with vegetables and this was another winning preparation.

Chard, Fromage Blanc, Egg Yolk, Green Garlic

Chard, Fromage Blanc, Egg Yolk, Green Garlic

My brother always orders soup to start and he enjoyed this one. Given that this was mid-April, butternut squash soup was a bit out of season (replaced with asparagus not long thereafter.) Ordinarily, squash soups can get a bit sweet, but this one was spiked with local miso (and pecans), which cut through the cloying flavors. Very good.

Butternut Squash Soup, MO Miso, Pecan (pre-pour)

Butternut Squash Soup, MO Miso, Pecan (pre-pour)

The mushroom are the only plate that never leaves the menu and this execution was great as usual. Oyster and maitake mushrooms are plated on a bed of grits, alongside a chorizo/butter/paprika sauce, carrots, and a superfluous herbal garnish. We love this rich and complex way of foregrounding the mushrooms.

Local Mushrooms: Chorizo Spices, Carrot, Polenta

Local Mushrooms: Chorizo Spices, Carrot, Polenta

Next were blackberry popsicles; my brother’s was enhanced with bourbon.

Blackberry Popsicles

Blackberry Popsicles

My lamb course offered loin and (if memory serves) sweetbread. The composition here didn’t carry the same level of precision as the other offerings and there was a lot going on here. Everything was perfectly-executed; this brought a sigh of relief since on occasion, meat has been overcooked in the past (also, just parenthetically, fish has been over-citrused.)

Lamb Duo: Carrot, Yogurt, Black Walnut

Lamb Duo: Carrot, Yogurt, Black Walnut

The steak was served with potato, onion, malt, and ramp hollandaise (poured tableside.) Niche has always done an awesome job sourcing their beef and this was cooked sous-vide at the requested medium-rare. Very satisfying.

Ribeye: Potato, Onion, Malt, Ramp Hollandaise

Ribeye: Potato, Onion, Malt, Ramp Hollandaise

We each ordered pecan financier for dessert; this was served with a bourbon anglaise, blueberry, and meringue. The preparation sounded interesting, but the anglaise had some kind of elemental technique that solidified the cream—a major disappointment as everything was dry. This preparation rehearsed my frustrations with the pastry program from past meals, as they invariably mar the desserts through gratuitous techniques. To a certain degree, this complaint applies to the state of desserts right now, which seem overly obsessed with techniques and deconstruction. I’ve remarked on this in past blog posts, but pastry programs have become disproportionately more abstract and technique-driven than savory, to the point of diminishing returns.

Pecan Financier: Whiskey Barrel Anglaise, Blueberry, Meringue

Pecan Financier: Whiskey Barrel Anglaise, Blueberry, Meringue

A couple of candies ended the meal.

If the dessert rehearsed extant frustrations with the pastry program, the rest of the meal reprised pleasures that compel us to return every other month or so: a dexterous hand with vegetables, top-notch steak preparations, and gracious service. Remaining grounded in hyper-local ingredients has not compromised the cuisine. I’d also say that Niche’s cuisine and culinary ethos comport with what has come to mean “contemporary American” cooking: on the one hand, a principle of spatiality that involves excavating local ingredients, to the point of also growing local variants of international staples; and on the other hand, a principle of temporality shown through the careful selection of time-honored Missouri ingredients like grains and earthy vegetables. The executive chef seems to be aiming for these principles, remarking in reference to the localism of the recent winter menu that it “gives the restaurant a sense of time and place; it gives a sense of the winter of Missouri in 2015.” Yet as the quote cited early in this post makes evident, the emphasis on time and place is dialectical, bringing past and present together and even placing Missouri ingredients in dialogue with international cuisines through, for example, the Missouri miso included in the soup. Niche might confuse first-time visitors since the uber-local focus perhaps suggests a simple culinary approach rather than the technique-driven cuisine on display at points in this meal, but a clear culinary voice still governed this meal. Of course, we knew in advance that red meat and vegetables were areas of strength and so there is always the chance that ordering other items might have resulted in less sanguine impressions. But with its regional focus and culinary foray into Missouri’s past and present, Niche occupies a worthy place in ‘contemporary American’ fine dining.

Tru (October, 2014)

Charger Plate at Tru

Charger Plate at Tru


My first meal at Tru took place three years ago: same chef, same time of year, same dining companion. That meal has only grown worse in my estimation, lowlighted by a faux caviar course (smoked sturgeon shaped to look like caviar) and a kohlrabi soup that remain two of the most horrifying dishes I’ve had in any restaurant context, fine dining or otherwise—fancy preparations and serviceware (the faux caviar was served in a caviar tin, while the soup was served in its gourd), but each reduced to saltiness and nothing else. An intervening visit in the Spring of 2012, chronicled on this blog, delivered better results, but there were still faulty preparations (a friend’s red meat was dry and the desserts were poor) and nothing that engendered any kind of commitment. It was only after learning of Tru’s whole duck preparation, which actually debuted in 2013, that my friend and I made reservations for an October evening.

The longevity of the chef, Anthony Martin, might signal a kind of stasis, and the restaurant has actually been around since 1999, and so it now slips into the old guard of Chicago fine dining. Still, one of the more interesting developments in Chicago culinaria has been the impulse by old guard restaurants to modernize: Spiaggia is another restaurant that has made even more drastic efforts in this area. In an apparent attempt to keep up with exclusively tasting menu restaurants like Grace, EL Ideas, 42 Grams, and others, Tru has scrapped its 3-course prix fixe and so diners are now locked into tasting menu structures of varying lengths. Martin himself is still quite young and he must feel that an elongated structure is key for his culinary growth. These changes, as well as the duck course, impelled us to return, but questions remained: would Tru remain hamstrung by the conception and execution errors that compromised past visits? And does the dynamism of Martin (and his staff) necessarily correspond with culinary improvement?

Tru is known for its dining room, which boasts pricey Pop, Minimal, and Post-Minimal works by Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Yves Klein, and others. The space feels very much like a museal installation, with pieces rationally disbursed against white walls. On the level of taste politics, I understand this connection: fine art (and its public) corresponds with fine dining (and its public.) At the same time, I don’t think the design logics of the 20th-century museum can be unproblematically applied toward restaurants. When a restaurant feels like the modernist white cube, this presents its own paradox: the white walls of a museum purport to isolate vision in the high-modernist tradition, but this is obviously destabilized when food is served and taste enters the equation. Put differently, it’s all very well for restaurants to display nice artwork on the walls, but this becomes disorienting when the space feels more like a museum and less like a restaurant.

Tru offers three menu lengths: 5-courses, 7, or 12. We went with the seven, in large part because our tasting menu from Fall 2011 was not as successful as the shorter meal from Spring 2012. Two of our courses carried surcharges: the duck cost an extra $40 over the other meat choice (filet of beef), and a foie gras dish was $30 over a squash soup (I wasn’t going down that road after the soup debacle of 2011.)

The first item was a comte gougere. These have been served since before my first meal here.

Comte Gougere

Comte Gougere

Next we were deluged with opening bites: this first contained sweet corn in different textures, including freeze-dried, which I suppose allowed them to get away with serving sweet corn post-season. There were burgundy truffles shaved in there, but they didn’t generate much impact.

Corn Amuse

Corn Amuse

Other bites included cold foie gras enveloped in a strawberry shell (delicious) and a raw tuna preparation. Very good.

Cold Foie Gras

Cold Foie Gras

Our first course was dashi custard with California sturgeon caviar and yuzu kushu, a very spicy jelly. This composition signaled that Martin’s eye for style had not evaporated, and the plating and serviceware looked like something I wouldn’t find elsewhere. That couldn’t save this course, though; the yuzu paste wound up overpowering everything else, ruining good caviar. I think my friend liked this more, so one’s mileage may vary depending on heat tolerance.

Dashi Custard, Yuzu Koshu, White Sturgeon Caviar

Dashi Custard, Yuzu Koshu, White Sturgeon Caviar

Next up was an even worse use of luxury ingredients. We were served seared foie gras with chestnut cream, quince, and shaved Alba truffles. I’ve never been fond of seared foie gras since it tends to be quite sweet, and that was the case here as well, although it wasn’t a deal-breaker. The problem lay in layering rich flavors on top of each other: first the foie gras and then the cream and truffle. To my mind, each of those luxury flavors should have anchored a dish on its own, rather than this cluttered concoction. I don’t think the chestnut cream had any business getting involved with either the liver or the truffle. Pairing foie gras with quince made sense, but should have been segregated into its own course. A more dexterous handling of truffle would have foregrounded it simply, with either pasta or risotto. Instead, these first two courses just showcased Martin’s lack of restraint when handling luxury ingredients and this felt like vulgar cooking, with square pegs crammed into round holes in the name of combining expensive foods just for the sake of it.

Seared Foie Gras, Chestnut Cream, Quince, Shaved White Truffle

Seared Foie Gras, Chestnut Cream, Quince, Shaved White Truffle

Between courses, we were served small croissants with black truffle-spiked butter. They were awesome.

Croissant, Black Truffle-Butter

Croissant, Black Truffle-Butter

Our fish preparation was this monkfish, served with chard, matsutake mushroom broth, and smoked pine nuts. It was good but looked and felt incomplete. This fragmental character reminded of the kinds of dishes that comprised my unsteady marathon meal at Sixteen last January. I don’t really see the point of serving this, especially with a substantial duck course to follow—it just distracted us from the main attraction, even if the fish was nicely prepared.

Monkfish, Matsutake, Chard

Monkfish, Matsutake, Chard

Before the duck was served, a runner presented us with this photo-op; it was a ‘dummy duck’ and not the one we were to be served, but it was an accurate replica.

Duck

Duck

Our actual duck was served in two components, delivered simultaneously. The breast was served with caramelized endive and pineapple-ginger chutney. I couldn’t help but contrast this with the shoddy foie gras from two dishes prior: there was evident care here, with everything well thought through. The duck was aged for 8 to 10 days, with the skin containing honey, orange, Dijon mustard, coriander, black pepper, and cumin. This was a marvelous combination, and Martin achieved a perfect skin. I found the temperature to be great (roughly medium-rare); I wouldn’t have minded it cooked a bit less, but I think that might have foreclosed the possibility of crispy skin. The portion was generous, and the thigh meat was included in an apple-potato puree.

Duck Breast, Endive, Pinneaple-Ginger Chutney

Duck Breast, Endive, Pinneaple-Ginger Chutney

This was probably my favorite duck preparation of all time. I also appreciate the Versace plate; this classy preparation reminded me of when Grant Achatz used to serve a traditional course at Alinea, complete with period serviceware, just to break up the progression of more avant-garde preparations; in both cases, the luxury serviceware just brings an extra layer of grandeur.

I feel like this duck course could be a real signature for Martin, although this does raise the question: can a course qualify as a signature dish if it doesn’t actually represent a chef’s style? This duck was remarkable, but it worked against what I see to be Martins’ primary qualities: to be sure, there was the ornamental imperative that defines his compositions, but the tendency to overdo everything was mercifully absent, as this presented clear and intuitive flavors. In most cases, Martin’s preparations taste worse than they look, but this wasn’t the case here. I think Martin would do well to structure his menu around the duck and make it his signature, but I actually see that he’s just taken it off the menu—a real error in judgment as I see it. Also: what will they do with the Versace plates?

We were then presented with the cheese cart. I didn’t see many that interested me and so I went with three soft cheeses, which were nice.

Cheese Cart

Cheese Cart


Cheese

Cheese

The pre-dessert was verjus sorbet with mint. I have a low mint tolerance and so this wasn’t as refreshing for me.

Verjus-Mint Sorbet

Verjus-Mint Sorbet

A basket of madeleines was delivered.

Madeleine

Madeleine

One of the peculiarities of Tru is that Martin presides over both savory and pastry, and it’s not hard to see where most of his energies go (not toward the pastry.) There were only two dessert options, neither of which brought any originality: the first was a “plane” of good dark chocolate, and the other an apple-chestnut strudel. This was an easy choice and I went with the strudel, which was paired with pear sorbet. This was an absolutely uninspired dessert, though; I respect how hard Martin must have to work in order to manage each component of the menu, but also wonder whether he may have been more invested in choosing the serving vessel than crafting a memorable dessert.
tru dessert

The closing bites were much better, with a liquid truffle (not shown), pate de fruit, non-liquid truffle, and canele. All were great. A muffin was given as a nice parting gift.

Mignardises

Mignardises

On my way out, I snapped pictures of a couple artworks, the first a light and space work by Ed Ruscha and the second a statue by Yves Klein.

Ed Ruscha, Somebody's Mother

Ed Ruscha, Somebody’s Mother


Yves Klein, Somebody's Mother

Yves Klein, Venus Bleue

This meal was certainly successful, highlighted by a duck preparation that was absolutely one of my favorite dishes of 2014. Even so, the excision of the duck also gives me little reason to return, and this meal also evidenced the less savory aspects of Chef Martin’s style: a reticence to let expensive ingredients speak for themselves, a lackluster pastry program, and overaggressive seasoning. I also wonder whether Martin is actually to be commended for his dynamism, a question that really emerges after seeing that the duck has been removed. Why didn’t he just recognize that he’d hit on something really special and continue to serve it? Most tables in the dining room had ordered it and so the interest would seem to be there. In general, I think we have an impulse to reward chefs who are constantly experimenting and in this regard Martin should be lauded, but I might actually prefer the frozen rhythms of restaurants that don’t overhaul their menus (Everest, for example) if it means that I can count on past favorites.

Martin is also part of a cohort of Chicago chefs who spent considerable time at Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, with others including Thomas Lents of Sixteen and Matthew Kirkley of L2O. I can’t help but draw similarities between Martin and Lents. I enjoyed this meal more than my dinners at Sixteen, but I think both chefs suffer the same limitations: they select clever serviceware and have great ideas, but overshoot their target and venture into gratuitous complexity. In the case of Lents, I think he executes seafood better than anyone in Chicago, but his talents are undone by wearisome tasting progressions. Martin, meanwhile, would have done well to cap this at 3 courses, without introducing a superfluous monkfish course. I understand that maybe these chefs feel that more courses=a more enjoyable meal, but in both cases diminishing returns materialized.

On a different note, but related at an angle: I was recently curious about the historical context in which Moto was received upon opening and so I browsed the lthforum. Several commenters remarked that Homaru Cantu displayed a firm grounding in classical technique (born out of his background at Charlie Trotter’s), which was occluded rather than enhanced by his experimentation. Moto has since come a long way, and I loved my one meal there. I think Martin and Lents are somewhat like Moto circa 2004; Lents is, in my mind, far more talented with proteins than Martin, but the same struggles to craft a compelling tasting menu manifest across their cooking, to the point that the progressions feel tacky.

To close, I think Tru is in a difficult boat because, as a Michelin 1-star restaurant, it’s both part of and distinct from the 1-star contingent. Part of this group, since Michelin gave it a lone star; and also distinct from this category by virtue of its elevated price point, which begins at $125 (for the 5-course with no upgrades) and can easily cross $200. There is an air of exclusivity to Tru that one doesn’t get from most one star Michelin restaurants, but I can also think of 1-stars whose cuisine I prefer, including Topolobampo, Boka, and North Pond, and it is at that point that a return visit becomes unlikely—that is, unless the duck ever gets resurrected.

Slates (Hallowell, ME)

Slates Signage; Taken from Facebook Page

Slates Signage; Taken from Facebook Page

The Central Maine restaurant scene is as unheralded as they come. Having lived in the region for four years earlier this century, I’m very familiar with the area, and yet I haven’t written about any of the restaurants there during the 2.5 years I’ve been operating this blog. One of the most compelling aspects of restaurants (at least to me), though, is that even if an area isn’t known for its dining, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t restaurants there, or that they don’t mean a great deal to the local population. Put differently, if we want to arrive at the cultural significance of a restaurant, we have to look beyond the food they put on the plate and address the relationship they maintain with their community. Food and cultural significance are related, of course, since a restaurant serving long tasting menus probably won’t survive in this region, but the point remains that even towns that are generally subpar in the restaurant department still maintain a restaurant culture all their own, with their own cherished eateries. An example of such a restaurant is Slates, in downtown Hallowell, ME, which is probably the most beloved restaurant within a 50-mile radius. Several years ago, part of the building burned down in a fire, but it rallied back and continues to enjoy a packed dining room every night. I first started dining at Slates during my undergrad years, when I lived not too far from Hallowell. In the intervening years, I’ve found occasion to eat there 2-3 times per year, not because I find the cuisine challenging but for its nourishing dose of nostalgia and delicious cooking. My family was happy to return on a recent summer evening on our way back from Waterville.

Slates isn’t limited to its restaurant. Next door is a bakery that is open until the evening, where they sell baked goods, as well as signature side dishes, hummus, and salad dressings from the restaurant menu. This means that Slates isn’t just contained within the physical boundaries of its property, but is a part of the daily lunch and dinner spread for many Central Mainers. The restaurant is, therefore, less a restaurant and more a town institution.

One of the challenges faced by Slates and other neighborhood restaurants concerns how to satisfy a varied clientele. On any given evening at this restaurant, one may find business diners (Hallowell stands adjacent to Augusta, the state capital), couples celebrating their anniversaries, families with their children, or people in for a quick one-course meal. This means that Slates doesn’t just mean different things to different people, but may mean different things based on the day of the week or occasion. Because the restaurant flows between casual to special occasion-worthy and everything in between, this makes constructing a coherent menu a challenge. Slates covers its bases by emphasizing breadth, with dozens of menu items. There are burgers, pizzas, and pasta dishes, but also substantial proteins like lobster, beef tenderloin, lamb, and duck. I would generally rather see a more streamlined menu since my interest in menus are typically inversely proportional to their length (shorter menus give the impression that the menu has been pared down to what’s really delicious), yet I understand the commercial motives for doing it this way and in fairness, my family has ordered from each section and never found something that didn’t belong.

The menu hasn’t been overhauled in several years and so I encountered past favorites, including the Cajun seared haddock with jalapeno mayo and the gazpacho with Maine crabmeat. The constancy of so many of these dishes means that people don’t just develop a relationship with this particular restaurant, but also with the specific plates served. One of the questions raised by such a menu is the duration for which a dish can stay before it feels stale? I suppose that there is no clear answer, and that a dish can simply stay until it feels dated. This is an interesting dilemma to me, though, because it speaks to the way in which we expect restaurants to stay innovative while also crafting signature plates of food—satisfying this tension between innovation and distinction seems to me to constitute the goal to which every restaurant aspires.

Collectively, my parents and I ordered from most sections of the menu. For the main dishes, one selects their choice of sides from a template of four possible choices. This is lazier than crafting composed dishes and recalls a critique I had of Street and Company, where I mentioned that the restaurant would benefit from a more careful selection of accompaniments for each dish. Here we ran into the same problem to a degree, but this was better since at least I could choose which sides I wanted. I wound up going with the shaved broccoli salad and Thai cabbage salad. I began with the greens salad because I love the accompanying house dressing, and progressed to the haddock with jalapeno mayo. My dad forwent an appetizer and selected the burger with crispy prosciutto and roasted red peppers. Lastly, my mom began with the gazpacho and crab, and progressed to a greens salad with grilled salmon.

While waiting for our food, we admired the dining room, which has retained its eclecticism. The vitality of this restaurant stems not just from its cuisine but also from the abundant color. The deliberately-unmatching plates and linens are not of great quality, but they keep everything cheerful, which is a particular virtue in the winter months, when temperatures cross the zero-degree threshold.

Following tradition, for bread we were served this crusty offering with garilic-infused olive oil. Because our reservation was at 5:30—the first seating—the bread was still warm.

(Bread and Olive Oil)

(Bread and Olive Oil)

A greens salad is something I almost never order and my decision was prompted by the excellent salad dressing, which has a strong sesame-ginger taste. The pickled beets were good and the red cabbage an unusual treat.

(Greens Salad, House Dressing)

(Greens Salad, House Dressing Not Pictured)

I’ve ordered the gazpacho with crab in the past and so I can speak to the strength of my mom’s dish, which was perfect with the hot weather outside.

(Gazpacho, Maine Crab)

(Gazpacho, Maine Crab)

One doesn’t see haddock too often outside of Maine, I suppose because it isn’t one of the more prestigious Atlantic fish. Here it was given the sort of heavy seasoning one often finds with catfish, but haddock can withstand this kind of treatment and everything was delicious. Both sides presented nice summer flavors.

(Cajun-Seared Haddock, Jalapeno Mayo, Brocolli Salad, Thai Cabbage Salad)

(Cajun-Seared Haddock, Jalapeno Mayo, Brocolli Salad, Thai Cabbage Salad)

My dad enjoyed his burger, which featured good local beef. He appreciated that a grainy mustard was used in lieu of ketchup or aioi.

(Burger, Crispy Prosciutto, Roasted Red Pepper)

(Burger, Crispy Prosciutto, Roasted Red Pepper)

The salad was an enlarged version of mine, with the addition of a nicely-prepared filet of salmon.

(Grilled Salmon, House Dressing)

(Grilled Salmon, House Dressing)

All of the desserts are made next door at the bakery, which makes it easy for the small kitchen to expedite large volumes of desserts. We shared two desserts: a butterscotch sundae with housemade butterfinger and chocolate ice creams, as well as toasted almonds and whipped cream. Supplementing this was a slice of strawberry rhubarb pie with vanilla ice cream. These were traditionally-minded but very New England and perfectly executed.

(Butterscotch Sundae, Butterfinger Ice Cream, Chocolate Ice Cream, Toasted Almonds)

(Butterscotch Sundae, Butterfinger Ice Cream, Chocolate Ice Cream, Toasted Almonds)

(Strawberry Rhubard Pie a la Mode)

(Strawberry Rhubard Pie a la Mode)

I’m not sure how photogenic this cuisine was, but we loved everything we ate. I don’t think Slates places much emphasis on their plating style, but to my mind that isn’t a problem since they only purport to be a neighborhood restaurant. While some people may treat it as a special occasion restaurant, at its core Slates serves more of the kind of food one might cook at home. To this end, I think Slates is successful because they beat the home cook at their own game; the cuisine is relatively unambitious, but chances are that the home cook doesn’t prepare salad dressings, pies, or burgers this delicious.

Slates doesn’t really have a signature style, nor does the restaurant necessarily specialize in native Maine ingredients. Therefore, I wouldn’t designate it as an important restaurant on a statewide level. It is, however, an important restaurant for Hallowell and Central Maine, and one can see why it occupies a central position in the culture of this culinarily impoverished region of the state.