Cosme (New York, NY)

Cosme Dining Room

Cosme Dining Room

The World’s 50-Best Restaurant List is a fraught exercise indeed, with invidious distinctions unsubstantiated by any extended analysis of the restaurants included. My issue isn’t with its evaluative nature, but with the lack of analytical muscle; the pleasures in reading food criticism lie in comparing one’s criteria with that of the critic, and the 50-Best List provides only capsule blurbs that introduce each restaurant. If one virtue redeems the vapid ritual, however, it’s that it has shed light on restaurants from Brazil, Peru, Mexico, and other regions traditionally elided from the gastronomic canon. If nothing else, then, the list amounts to a kind of ‘consciousness-raising’ endeavor.

Among the chefs heralded therein is Enrique Olvera, whose Mexico City restaurant, Pujol, has been featured in the 50-Best List for the past several years. In 2014, Olvera opened his second restaurant, Cosme, in New York, which currently ranks 25th on the list. Five years into its tenure, the restaurant has aged past the novelty threshold, although it remains among the city’s most exclusive reservations. This is not to say that Cosme has been insulated from criticism, with its considerable price tag inviting price gauging accusations (these charges may also reflect residual chauvinism concerning the permissible cost of Mexican cusine). Given this reputation, I was delighted by the irony of Cosme serving its regular (a la carte) menu on Valentine’s Day at no upcharge—and doubly delighted to find a reservation available for a solo diner in town for a conference (with the stipulation that I be finished by the second seating, at 7:15).

At this point, Cosme probably enjoys greater spotlight than any Mexican restaurant in the country. As such, it’s surprising that the dining room presents few cultural markers; cactacea frame the periphery, but the exposed beams and decorative dearth de-emphasize the parent culture. On the one hand, we can appreciate the absence of cartoonish ‘Mexicanicity’—but at the same time, indigenous art (of the kind found at Topolobampo, for example) would enliven the confines. It’s a dark space, which places the setting in aesthetic propinquity with a nightclub or ‘scene’ restaurant. However, where most (night)clubby places prioritize socializing (and libations fueling such activity), the track lighting at Cosme shines directly onto the table, resulting in the paradox of a ‘scene’ restaurant that foregrounds its cuisine as the primary attraction.

Whenever a major chef embarks on a second venture, the question arises as to whether one should expect them to produce a facsimile of their original institution, or to develop a fresh conceit. Should we favor replication or individuation? Both approaches, from my view, have merit, though Cosme prioritizes the latter. It occupies a more casual niche than Pujol, with its a la carte structure replacing the tasting format at the Mexico City temple (à la carte also, of course, representing the more expedient and hence more lucrative, format). Apropos of the differences between Pujol and Cosme, one must attribute joint authorship to both Olvera and Daniella Soto-Innes, who supervises the kitchen on a daily basis. (She also operates a separate restaurant, Atla, in New York.) Still just 29 years of age, Soto-Innes was recently featured in Bon Appetit, and has been regaled with the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year. She is, as much as Olvera, the face of this restaurant, and the discrepancies between Pujol and Cosme may result in part from her influence.

Cosme triangulates its menu into categories that suggest a traditional 3-course format. However, my server clarified that, with the exception of the pork chop and duck, everything qualifies as a small plate. The expectation is that the table shares everything—a common, though potentially irksome structure insofar as one has to synchronize their preferences with their dinnermates. The uppermost grouping refers to raw/marinated fish, with vegetables occupying the middle grouping and cooked proteins at bottom. Italics are liberally sprinkled throughout the descriptions. Like quotation marks, italics suggest citation of international products and methods, yet I generally find italics to evoke greater referential fidelity than quotation marks, which often signal interpretive latitude; however, we will see that Cosme exercises healthy creative license. Some of the italics in this menu, including carnitas and infladita, are probably familiar to the seasoned enthusiast; others, including chicatanas (ants), are likely to raise most Anglo eyebrows. These unfamiliar components exist alongside more regionally-specific foodstuffs, including Rohan duck (a New York breed produced by D’Artagnan), and honey nut squash, a particularly-intense butternut squash engineered in part by Dan Barber of Blue Hill. All of this is to say that Cosme grounds itself in Mexican cuisine, but with a synthetic eye toward utilizing local products.

Cosme Menu

Cosme Menu

After placing my order, a runner delivered a bowl of purple corn tostadas with a ramekin of salsa macha, a peanut-chile salsa. I didn’t like this combination at all. Mystifyingly, the tostadas were quite stale, which shouldn’t be the case at 5:30. And the salsa brought more heat than I could bear, though this intolerance may, I suppose, reflect my own piquant limitations more than any faults of the kitchen.

Cosme Corn Chips

Purple Corn Tostadas

Cosme Salsa Macha

Salsa Macha

My mood improved with the first course: “Cobia al pastor, pineapple puree, cilantro.” I had solicited my server as to his recommendations and he isolated this as a particular favorite. Where al pastor is typically reserved for hearty meat applications, Cosme reworks convention, presenting the fish with sashimi-style knifework. Key to this preparation is the inverted ratio of pineapple and al pastor, with the fruit taking center stage and the marinade acceding to a more peripheral function. I worried that the puree would present an unbearably sweet profile, yet it represented a tour de force distillation of pineapple. Surprisingly, the al pastor was quite mild in its profile, with the primary heat component generated by a jalapeno garnish that avoided ambushing the dish. This was served with warm, purple corn tortillas that expiated the injustice of the stale tostadas. Unlike Rick Bayless, the focus isn’t anthropological here so much as interpretive, a risky approach that happened to pay off handsomely. (We also see this deconstructive impulse through the mole negro, in which mole is applied to Arborio rice in a dead ringer for squid ink risotto.) A brilliant item that demands inclusion in any meal at Cosme.

Cosme Cobia Al Pastor

Cobia al Pastor: Pineapple Puree, Cilantro

I’d considered a number of other savory courses but restricted myself to the duck, which is also offered in a larger-format version. More than any other, this is Cosme’s signature dish, with a catalogue of ingredients that includes Mexican Coke. The Rohan duck worked to unimpeachable effect, carrying an unctuousness that still felt restrained in comparison with other duck breeds. As with the cobia, tortillas accompanied the protein, and a pair of salsas. This is one of the most highly-Instagrammed dishes in New York, but to my mind, needs a presentational makeover. I could have done without the mask of garnishes, which capitulated to the unfortunate ‘buried treasure’ convention, rather than the presentational clarity found in the cobia. On the level of execution, the key feature was the crisped skin (and the seasoning therein), with the meat remaining tender. Though a fantastic item earning its signature status, its large scale leaves me wistful that I didn’t have the monetary or gustatory space to sample other items.

Cosme Duck 1

Duck Carnitas, Onions, Radishes, Cilantro

Cosme Duck Detail

Duck (Unadorned by Garnishes)

Cosme Duck Detail 2

Detail of Duck

Cosme Salsas

Accompaniments for the Duck

Cosme Duck Plated Detail

Detail of the Duck

I ended with “Husk Meringue,” a kind of reinterpreted pavlova. A meringue shell contained soft sweet cream; the black specks are produced by grating charred corn husk. This dessert resonated as a play on a toasted marshmallow, and the two-way corn preparation produced a rich textural interplay that explored the flavor of corn in its full intensity. As with the pineapple puree from the cobia, Soto-Innes and Olvera show a deft capacity to capture flavors in their full concentration.

Cosme Husk Meringue

Husk Meringue

Cosme Raspberry Meringue

Raspberry Meringue

I’ve analyzed the three most decorated dishes at Cosme, and this was really a ‘greatest hits’ menu. Return visits would be necessary to get a sense of the chefs’ live thinking. Having been to Rick Bayless’s restaurants on many occasions, I can say that, pace Bayless, Cosme makes little claim toward excavating Mexico’s culinary history; nor, for that matter, is there a Bourdainian quest to produce the authentic soul of an international cuisine. If anything, I found myself likening the preparations to other culinary traditions—the duck evokes a Chinese pekin duck service, and I’ve noted that the dessert reminded me of toasted marshmallow. While Cosme may feel less ‘authentic’ (an admittedly problematic label) than Topolobampo or Frontera Grill, we should appreciate the restaurant as a site in which some of Mexico’s brightest chefs are taking the cuisine in new directions.

 

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Le Coucou (New York, NY)

Le Coucou Entrance

Le Coucou Entrance

I first learned of Le Coucou through a Michelin interview with Chicago chef Carrie Nahabedian. In that discussion, Nahabedian distinguishes Brindille (the French restaurant she opened in 2013) from Le Coucou, remarking that her operation maintains a less traditional bent. That my introduction to Le Coucou came by way of a prominent Chicago chef symptomatizes my lack of fluency with New York dining culture. More to the point, however, the interview signals that Le Coucou represents a force to be reckoned with, and that to prepare French cuisine circa 2019 necessitates acknowledgment of where one stands in relation to the New York eatery. Just as a fastidious lit review positions one’s research in relation to key scholars, contemporary chefs cannot ignore Le Coucou, at least within the French context. Le Coucou enjoys this pride of place by virtue of its awards, which include the 2017 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant, the #85 position on the World’s Best Restaurant list, and a Michelin Star. In his New York Times review, meanwhile, Pete Wells positions it in favorable distinction to La Grenouille, the latter representing an arrière-garde institution epitomic of a stuffier era for French fine dining. All of this is to say that I prioritized Le Coucou in my planning strategies and secured a weekend lunch reservation.

My 11:30 timeslot fell on the front end of the lunch service, yielding a serene dining room. Chandeliers, white linens, and well-spaced tables radiate luxury. There’s a certain sleekness to the space, however, that bespeaks the financial armature of its restaurant group. My favored dining rooms wear their history, and this one, by contrast, resonates like a simulacrum; dressed differently, the exposed brick, hardwood floors, and tall ceilings could just as easily fulfill the ubiquitous industrial hipster standard (it may be that this dining room was self-consciously conceived as an antidote to the cramped, high-decibel convention). I can appreciate the space for its handsomeness, yet it lacks the historical fabric that enlivens the confines at Fore Street or White Barn Inn.

Le Coucou Dining Room

Dining Room

Le Coucou Table Setting

Table Setting

The menu carries an archival focus that excavates pre-Nouvelle cuisine. The restaurant’s mascots—two namesake birds—initiate a dose of levity, even as they confront the diner in a disquieting return of the gaze (I’m joking here). I found the handling of line used in rendering them to evoke Jean Cocteau, and indeed Cocteau, Brancusi, and Calder have been cited as influences. In any event, my sense is that Le Coucou resides on the ground floor of a return to French classicism, observable elsewhere in the city through such newer examples as Frenchette and Bistro Pierre Lapin (both of which, admittedly, orient themselves closer in the direction of classical bistro than classical haute, per se). Overwhelmed with choices and absent a dining companion with whom to explore more of the menu, I queried my server as to her preferences. To my appreciation, she resisted upselling the many dishes carrying surcharges and endorsed the potato velouté and bavette steak.

Le Coucou Birds

Mascot Birds

A flawless bread basket (alongside an equally pristine sphere of butter) opened the meal on a strong note. If memory serves, Le Coucou doesn’t bake their breads in house, although it’s clear they spare no expense in sourcing quality loaves—especially important for such sauce-driven cuisine.

Le Coucou Breads

Breads

Le Coucou Butter

Butter

On the heels of the bread, I received an oyster with seaweed granité. The appetizer menu includes a serving of four oysters with the same accompaniment. As a single oyster, this offering felt like an amuse bouché, although I was the only one in the dining room to receive it and so I don’t believe it’s standard practice for the kitchen to serve an amuse. The brininess of the oyster and seaweed complemented one another and anticipated elements of the course that followed.

Le Coucou Oyster

Oyster, Seaweed Granité

Seduced by my serveuse’s recommendation, I ordered velouté de pommes de terre: crème fråiche, caviar. First, the foodrunner presented a shallow bowl with caviar, chive, and crème fråiche. Then, my serveuse poured the velouté tableside via a protracted sifting method. I stirred the components together to integrate the broth with the tangy crème fraiche and punchy caviar. On its own merits, the silky velouté was flawless, but the caviar elevated this above the potato soups that pepper French menus. In the hands of so many chefs, potato soup can feel flat-footed, so it’s a testament to the precision of this kitchen that they elevate the dish without resorting to indiscriminate experimentation.

Le Coucou Tableside Pour

Velouté de pommes de terre: crème fråiche, caviar

Le Coucou Potato Veloute

Velouté de pommes de terre: crème fråiche, caviar

The main course arrived on a grand scale: Cànette a L’orange: roasted duckling, chanterelles. In the background sat two slices of rare duck breast and sauce; at the foreground were orange segments and pieces of duck heart. A side dish included the confit duck leg and mushrooms. Serving the chanterelles in the casserole pan was a savvy move, allowing the funghi to absorb the concentrated flavor of the duck leg. Oftentimes, dishes with multiple components betray a lack of focus, but here the mushrooms and duck leg completed—rather than competing with—the dish. The bipartite composition maintained the theatrical flourish established through the tableside soup presentation, inviting one to linger and serve a ‘second helping,’ so to speak. This is cuisine that doesn’t wish to be contained; the pageantry of these presentational strategies cultivates slowness, in welcome contrast to the harried contemporary standard.

Le Coucou Duck Breast and Duck Heart

Cànette a L’orange: roasted duckling, chanterelles.

Le Coucou Duck Leg and Chanterelles

Duck Leg, Chanterelles

Le Coucou Duck Breast Detail

Detail of Duck Breast

A concise dessert menu contained four choices of classical lineage. One may also order cheeses, although I didn’t request the list and can’t speak to their provenance. I ordered the Paris-brest out of a love for hazelnut and wasn’t disappointed. Lacking prior experience with the dessert, I can’t compare this rendition with others but have to believe this was a textbook execution.

Le Coucou Paris-Brest

Paris-brest: Hazelnut Praline, Påte Choux

Shortbread cookies and passionfruit påte de fruit closed out the meal.

Le Coucou Mignardises

Shortbread Cookies, Passionfruit Påte de Fruit

I’ve enlisted a roster of synonyms to capture my high esteem toward Le Coucou: pristine, textbook, luxurious, theatrical, classical, and flawless. At the same time, these descriptors suggest proficiency more than ingenuity. Were one to advance a critique, therefore, it might be that the cuisine privileges tradition over imagination; it not only prepares an institutionalized cuisine, but dishes that amount to institutions unto themselves. In the artistic context, we refer to practitioners as being ‘academic’ when their work remains technically unimpeachable but without the ‘something extra’ that distinguishes an original master. A critical interpretation might charge the cuisine at Le Coucou with being academic in this sense. Given that the architects for this cuisine are long deceased, however, good luck finding these dishes prepared so well elsewhere.

Le Bernardin (New York, NY)

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Table Setting at Le Bernardin

In the Instagram age, chefs have upped their aesthetic ambition and exhibited escalating concern for the pictorial representation of their cuisine. The public, consequently, evaluates chefs on the merits of their visual as well as culinary chops. From my perspective, these developments often precipitate diminishing returns, as young chefs drown their compositions with floral garnishes and other ornamentation. It’s perhaps no accident, then, that the most attractive plates I’ve observed come from a wizened chef whose fame predates social media (while still benefitting from it), namely, Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin. His plates are more colorful than those of other chefs, achieved through a light hand with seafood and über-saturated sauces. The dishes contain only trace garnishment, resulting in an aesthetic of unmatched clarity.

A longstanding staple of Manhattan dining (with a prior location in Paris), Le Bernardin has faced the imperative to stay dynamic, and its website cites proprietress Maguy Le Coze on the issue: “You must always evolve. If the restaurant were still like it was the day we opened, it would be old! You must always change—but subtly.” So, a restaurant may be old, but it has to feel current; one is reminded of Walter Benjamin’s discussion of fashion: “to each generation the one immediately preceding it seems the most radical antiaphrodisiac imaginable.” In an effort to stay vibrant, Le Bernardin redesigned its space in 2011 and introduced a more casual lounge, which offers a cheaper lunchtime lounge prix fixe and posh a la carte choices (in addition to the standard menu). This blog post addresses two Le Bernardin lunches—the first in the dining room (the regular menu) and the latter in the lounge (the budget prix fixe)—to probe the following: would taste measure up to appearance? How would the value-centric lounge menu compare with the dining room dishes? And what does value mean in the context of Le Bernardin, anyhow?

On entering, a right turn places one in the lounge/bar, while a left turn leads to the formal dining room. A narrow screen partitions the spaces. A glow emanates from the bar, but otherwise, it’s a dark room bereft of natural light, its formality exacerbated by the suits clad by the lead waitstaff. A 3-paneled contemporary painting by Ran Ortner, titled Deep Water No. 1, acts as visual centerpiece. The water motif is underscored by the charger plates, whose gilded perimeter evokes a bubbling surface. In the 3-star Michelin style, each table enjoys healthy real estate, boasting premium linens that confer a luxurious ambiance.

Le Bernardin Charger Plate

Charger Plate

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Deep Water No. 1, By Ran Ortner

During lunch, patrons select 3 options from courses that progress in degree of doneness. The cuisine is global but not fusion, drawing from South America, Asia, the Mediterranean, and other regions, while generally resisting cross-pollination. One may supplement the basic template with additional choices, and I added a fourth plate. Two tasting menus are also on offer, yet each is merely composed of options from the standard menu. My impression is therefore that Chef Ripert thinks in terms of individual courses rather than narratives; this is not to say that sequencing isn’t prioritized, however, as meals progress from “almost raw” to “barely touched” and finally “lightly cooked” (the prospect of ‘fully cooked’ is eschewed altogether, consonant with the restaurant’s seafood focus).

Le Bernardin’s signature salmon rillettes arrived first on the table, alongside thin toasted crisps. I didn’t care for the rillettes so much; though high-quality, they tasted like luncheonette fare, more homestyle than haute—and without the elevation necessary to reinterpret a humble classic.

Salmon Rillettes

Salmon Rillettes

Melba Toasts

Breads were more successful and spanned the generic (baguette) and esoteric (tomato focaccia).

Le Bernardin Bread

Breads

The opening dish was seared octopus with tomatillo salsa and red wine-mole sauce. This is probably the closest Le Bernardin gets to fusion cooking, drawing from French and Mexican idioms. Le Bernardin serves all of their cuisine—savory and pastry—on these plates, which contain micro-depressions around the perimeter that invert the motif of the charger plates and frame the colorful cuisine quite beautifully. I would query the hyphenated account of the sauce, as the mole and red wine sauces felt like separate entities, with the latter applied tableside atop the octopus and the mole represented through the brushstroke on the right-hand side of the plate. I generally prefer that dishes contain single sauces rather than dual ones, and while the hyphen purported to solder the mole and red wine sauce, I’d have preferred the mole to stand alone, particularly as it complemented the tomatillo, which imparted a restrained heat that hit just the right note.

Le Bernardin Octopus 1

Seared Octopus, Tomatillo Salsa, Red Wine-Mole Sauce

Le Bernardin Octopus 2

Seared Octopus, Tomatillo Salsa, Red Wine-Mole Sauce

My second appetizer was baked lobster tail with butternut squash manicotti and shrimp-black pepper-brandy sauce. I’ve enjoyed lobster with shellfish-brandy sauce before, but never this skillfully prepared. The lobster was cooked to a rarer temperature than most any other I’ve tasted, which I offer as praise. The incorporation of black pepper softly mediated the decadent sauce. I’m not convinced that the manicotti bore an organic relation to the dish, and the truffles were quite weak (I queried my server as to their provenance and he confirmed my suspicion—they were Burgundian, and the more pungent Perigord variety would not arrive for some time). Lobster with pasta and truffle is a classic combination, but the dish could have been enhanced through a different pasta and truffle. In sum, this was a memorable dish, but on the merits of its protein and sauce.

Le Bernardin Lobster 1

Baked Lobster, Butternut Squash Manicotti, Shrimp-Black Pepper-Brandy Sauce

Le Bernardin Lobster 2

Baked Lobster, Butternut Squash Manicotti, Shrimp-Black Pepper-Brandy Sauce

It was after some deliberation that I settled on the monkfish dish when placing my order at the start of the meal. To say that I’m content with my choice would be an understatement, and this was one of the very best plates I’ve ever been served. The monkfish arrived alongside squid ink fideos and chorizo emulsion. Mild chips lent a crunchy accent, and the delicate brine of the squid ink married the smoky chorizo. Pan-roasting the fish allowed the kitchen to achieve a delicate crust, and my preference is always for a restaurant to render a natural crust, rather than resorting to nuts or bread crumbs. Given that monkfish is unfortunately bestowed with the nickname of ‘poor man’s lobster,’ one might suspect regression from the last course to this one, yet this one carries the strongest resonance—a memorable dish.

Le Bernardin Monkfish 1

Pan-Roasted Monkfish, Squid Ink Fideos, Chorizo Emulsion

Le Bernardin Monkfish 2

Pan-Roasted Monkfish, Squid Ink Fideos, Chorizo Emulsion

My dessert was titled “Apple: brown butter mousse, apple confit, Armagnac sabayon.” What arrived was a trompe l’oeil apple, and I’ve noticed several trompe l’oeil desserts in New York, including the avocado dessert at Empellón (a frozen puree of lime, avocado, and whipped cream) and the banana offering at Jungsik (a white chocolate coating filled with coffee and banana flavors). I enjoy trompe l’oeil, but wonder: why is optical trickery relegated to pastry? I suppose this is because desserts are granted greater whimsical latitude than savories, even if Ferran Adría or Grant Achatz might advocate otherwise. Considering that trompe l’oeil bears an unsavory identity as a ‘lowly’ genre of painting, it makes sense that it should get transposed to the culinary context within pastry—a less-heralded culinary domain than savory. I can never say no to liquor-infused fruit desserts and can’t divine any means through which to improve this fantastic preparation.

Le Bernardin Apple

Apple: Brown Butter Mousse, Apple Confit, Armagnac Sabayon

Le Bernardin Apple 2

Apple: Brown Butter Mousse, Apple Confit, Armagnac Sabayon

A textbook canelé was served with the dessert.

Le Bernardin Canele

When placing my order, I requested a trademark Le Bernardin dessert: “The Egg: Milk Chocolate Pot De Crème, Caramel Foam, Maple Syrup, Maldon Salt.” It arrived gratis and my server instructed me to stir the components together. My high expectations were certainly cleared. The dish was the brainchild of former pastry chef Michael Laiskonis, who left Le Bernardin in 2012; chocolate, caramel, and salt have become mainstreamed, but this would have represented an even greater tour de force at the time of its creation.

Pot De Creme LB

The Egg: Milk Chocolate Pot De Crème, Caramel Foam, Maple Syrup, Maldon Salt

Pot De Creme 2 LB

The Egg: Milk Chocolate Pot De Crème, Caramel Foam, Maple Syrup, Maldon Salt

Lunch #2 took place around 3 months later. The restaurant does not accept lounge reservations, but I chanced upon one of a couple available seats. As one can see from the picture below, placemats replace tablecloths and elaborate charger plates, which allows the restaurant to more expeditiously turn tables over, but also signals a more attenuated luxury than the dining room. The tables are much closer together, and one dines in close proximity with neighbors; on this occasion, Madame Le Coze happened to occupy the table to my right.

LB NEw Lounge Placemat

Lounge Table Setting

I ordered from the lunchtime prix fixe, which offered 2 choices from each course. These were not plates featured on the dining room menu, although they utilized identical proteins. With a price of $57, this menu appears to represent a value buy compared with the $90 3-course dining room price (which rises to $160 for 4 courses at dinner). However, items that arrive complimentary in the dining room are not amortized into the $57 cost. The salmon rillettes, for example, are $24, and as such, the lounge can become at least as costly as the dining room.

Service did not meet the standard established in the dining room. This may result from the fact that one is served by junior waitstaff (a senior captain served Madame Le Coze, addressing her in French); at least, the lounge servers wear the same outfits as the backwaiters in the dining room. Bread, for example, was not offered prior to the arrival of my first course, although it was graciously provided upon request.

Absent bread, my appetizer opened the meal: “Lobster: Maine Lobster, Saffron-Mussel Potato Soup.” It was delivered minus any description. Upon arrival, the soup was too hot, perhaps because its broth was not poured tableside. The serving was larger than may be suggested through the picture. As I expected based on the lobster appetizer from the meal documented above, the lobster was flawlessly cooked. However, I’d have preferred a broth enhanced with lobster stock and liquor; this soup, by contrast, tasted first of potato, with secondary notes of saffron (the mussels were emulsified into the broth, rather than incorporated whole, and did not make an impact). This was not a bad winter appetizer, but lacked depth; it tasted like a fancified potato soup rather than a preparation structured around its titular ingredient.

LB New Lobster Soup

Lobster: Maine Lobster, Saffron-Mussel Potato Soup

LB Lobster Soup Detail

Detail of Lobster

Next was “Salmon: Barely-Cooked Organic Salmon, Pea Puree, Yuzu Butter Sauce.” The fish arrived adjoined by its vegetable accompaniments (pea, broccoli, asparagus), with sauce applied tableside. The rare temperature allowed the flavor of the top-quality Scottish salmon to shine, although I found the yuzu sauce a trace more acidic than I’d have liked.

Salmon Pre-Finished

Salmon: Barely-Cooked Organic Salmon, Pea Puree, Yuzu Butter Sauce

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Salmon: Barely-Cooked Organic Salmon, Pea Puree, Yuzu Butter Sauce

I substituted the apple dessert in lieu of the prix-fixe choices and can confirm that it’s a renewably arresting dessert.

I inquired as to the possibility of ordering the egg dessert in the lounge and was informed that the dish carries an $18 price tag. This felt excessive and I declined. However, I was then generously comped the egg—perhaps Madame Le Coze intervened on my behalf? It was, and remains, an inspired finish.

As I noted at the outset, the compositions at Le Bernardin excite me like none other, proffering something like what Andrew Sarris called “stylistic epiphanies.” The dishes honor the originary shapes of their featured proteins, but reconstructed through Ripert’s interpretive spark rather than rehearsing tropes. We especially observe this through the first meal, as the octopus tentacle, lobster tail, and monkfish loin are dissected and recomposed alongside their accompaniments. The salmon in the lounge meal, meanwhile, retained the restaurant’s minimalist fish+sauce calculus. I suppose I favor these plates for much the same reason that I enjoy Noland or Stella; there’s a clarity and precision to this presentational mode that speaks to the confidence of the creator.

In the first meal especially, my enthusiasm for the food equaled that of its exhibition. The sauces accompanying the lobster tail and monkfish were arresting in their depth, and all three dishes from that lunch featured spicy components—tomatillo (octopus), black pepper (lobster) and chorizo (monkfish)—that mediated the richness at play. That same calibration wasn’t so manifest in the second lunch, even if the cooking was more than a single standard deviation above the norm. If my first lunch ranks among the finest meals I’ve enjoyed, the second brought less distinguished pleasures. To this end, were I to return, I’d make a left turn for the dining room, forget about price tag, and luxuriate in the value of a bucket-list meal.

 

 

 

Benno (New York, NY)

Benno Dining Room

Benno Dining Room

Like many, I try to avoid patronizing a restaurant during its first few months of service. It takes time for a restaurant to overcome opening adversities—and dining out during a restaurant’s initial period feels trendy. So Benno, which opened in late Fall of 2018, represented an unlikely dinner destination for a January New York visit.

What piqued my interest? First, the pedigree of the namesake chef, Jonathan Benno, the erstwhile chef de cuisine of Per Se and executive chef of Lincoln Ristorante. And second, Pete Wells’s New York Times review, whose title characterized Benno as “proudly out of step with the age,” by which he meant that Benno eschews the Nordic and Mandarin techniques that influence so many contemporary kitchens. If it typically feels like chasing hype to try out a restaurant during its opening chapter, Wells’s assessment framed Benno as self-assuredly unfashionable—just unfashionable enough for me to give it a try.

Benno’s throwback identity owes as much to its ambiance as its cuisine. The Art Deco flourishes– symmetrical layout, geometric patterns, solid metallic tones, and glassy atrium—stand in stark relief to the edgy postmodern fixtures one often encounters. Flowers rest atop each table, but the décor remains anything but florid. The tables lie a bit closer than characteristic of the grande luxe style, and the absence of white linens conforms to the current vogue. Overall, the space feels clean and ‘tailored’ and yet close inspection yields visual delights, including micro ceramic floor tiles and stately candle fixtures on the otherwise blank side walls.

Benno Atrium

Atrium

The menu reprises the sense of balance imparted by the space. Diners choose 3, 4, or 5 courses from a 5-category template that includes vegetables, pastas, seafood and meat, mains, and dessert. This structure feels vaguely Italian, a possible nod to Benno’s time at Lincoln, an upscale Italian eatery. It also adds to the sense in which Benno moves against the contemporary grain; I often feel as if fine dining formats are represented by 2 poles: on the one hand, marathon tastings; and on the other, large format pieces of meat (Beatrice Inn and The Grill constituting perhaps the most prominent New York examples of the latter). There was a sharable veal chop on offer, but all of the other choices were sized for one. Most, if not all, of the surrounding tables ordered 3 courses, with an elderly-skewing clientele. It’s a comfortable menu design, featuring a wealth of attractive options that forces one to exercise selectivity. Rather than install a blanket seasonal menu, the chef tinkers quite often with the choices, and there were discrepancies between the menu on this evening and that posted online; if Benno is “out of step with the age,” this doesn’t reflect deficient dynamism. Given the chef’s renown for pastas, I felt internal pressure to incorporate a pasta preparation into my roster, but the seductive preparations across the other appetizer categories militated against this, and I placed my order with the allowance that my captain sequence the plates as he saw fit.

First to arrive were peppery grissini, a sharp welcome that managed not to overwhelm.

Benno Grissini

Grissini

The amuse bouche was mackerel (or a close analogue), with aioli and potato chip. Composed differently—with the chip on bottom and fish on top—this would feel rather like the kind of item one might find on a passed hors d’oeuvre tray. Though somewhat generic, I vastly prefer this preparation over other amuse bouches of recent memory, which frequently present an unfocused amalgam of contrasting flavors and textures that can’t be harmonized within a single bite.

Benno Amuse

Amuse Bouche: Mackerel, Potato Chip, Aioli

The proper bread service featured filone, an Italian variant of baguette. It was paired with a buttery, herb-accented spread—perhaps seasoned with lavender or oregano. Warm and moderately crusty, I enjoyed 2 more across the meal.

Benno Filone

Filone

Benno Lavendar Spread

Herb Butter

Course 1 included California abalone with abalone mushroom, paprika, capers, brown butter, and parsley vinaigrette. Enticing on paper, this combination boasted a rich combination of salty, earthy, and tart flavors. Great dishes often contain unexpected felicities, and that was the case with the smoked egg yolk aioli, (unannounced on the menu and residing at the base of the composition). This was my favorite preparation of the night. My server confirmed it as his top choice as well.

Benno Abalone

Abalone, Abalone Mushroom, Capers, Parsley Vinaigrette

I was then served my lone vegetarian preparation, a coddled egg alongside potatoes, pioppini mushroom, leeks, and black truffle mousseline. In his review, Wells applied the backhanded compliment that while delicious, this was a safe preparation that didn’t pressure the culinary envelope. His coddled egg experience exceeds mine, but I found ample ingenuity. The snappy potatoes and mushrooms supplied necessary textural contrast against the mousse, while the egg rested at the base. The mushrooms and potatoes carried a prosaic, stew-like facade (perhaps because they resemble beans), but the truffle mousse lent decadent earthiness. Through this course, in sum, Benno presents a convincing argument for the reciprocal virtues of luxury and rusticity. I don’t mean to say that the chef combines high and lowbrow cuisine, which would entail pairing luxury ingredients with junk food or other degraded items (similar to what one finds with David Chang or Graham Elliott). Rather, I’d characterize this as ‘high and humble’ cooking.

Benno Coddled Egg 1      Benno Coddled Egg 2

Benno Coddled Egg 3

Coddled Egg, Potato, Mushroom, Black Truffle Mousseline

My second fish was smoked sea trout, accompanied by potato galette, oscietra caviar, and herb mousse. To my mind, this should have been served ahead of the abalone and egg, as it was strange to see a generous portion of caviar introduced midway through the meal. The conceit was relatively similar to the amuse—both involving a strong fish with potato and puree—so perhaps the server wanted to leverage some distance. The culinary referent here was the traditional caviar/smoked fish/herb blini combination, but the herb mousse felt like an original interpretation on the theme. I appreciate the sturdy plating; as with the restaurant’s décor, Benno’s cuisine is stable and not scattershot, shapely rather than abstract, and it’s refreshing to glance at a dish and manage to identify its components.

Benni Smoked Sea Trout

Smoked Sea Trout, Potato Galette, Herb Mousse, Oscietra Caviar

Next was a surprise gift: mortadella-stuffed tortellini in chicken consommé. I believe this was a new dish, as it wasn’t listed on the website (though it was on the evening’s menu). I rarely order tortellini because the pasta can become soggy when submerged in liquid, but the shallow broth worked nicely. The mortadella lent an impeccably gentle heat, with the consommé contributing a savory undertone. “Perfect for the winter months!” enthused the serveuse as she grated aged parmesan onto my plate.

Benno Tortellini

Mortadella-Stuffed Tortellini, Chicken Consomme, Aged Parmesan

I moved on to lamb saddle with merguez sausage (on the right), eggplant, chickpeas, and carrots. I believe the sauce contained piquillo pepper. The rustic vegetables complemented the mild gaminess of the lamb, which was served bone-in. As evidenced by the charred exterior, the kitchen cooked this over a flame, which imparted good charred flavor. I’d have preferred a rarer temperature, although it’s possible that the meat had to be cooked longer to prevent it from clinging to the bone. The meat wasn’t as tender as the lamb saddle I recently enjoyed at Per Se, which was prepared sous vide and also yielded more pronounced lamb flavor. I enjoyed this course, but feel as if I’d have better enjoyed one of the other offerings.

Benno Lamb

Lamb Saddle, Mergeuz, Chickpeas, Eggplant, Carrot, Piquillo Pepper Sauce

The pre-dessert consisted of a miniature floating island, with the meringue resting in a grapefruit broth.

Benno Floating Island

Palate Cleanser: Floating Island with Grapefruit Soup

Dessert was babka with coffee-cardamom gelato and pistachio halvah (evocative of a dense nougat). I ordered this in part as an homage to Seinfeld, and in retrospect, I’d have better enjoyed the cheese service or pear dessert. I don’t mean to discredit this preparation, particularly as I enjoy chocolate with pistachio. Cakes simply aren’t a favorite pastry genre, however nicely prepared.

Benno Babka

Babka, Coffee-Cardamom Gelato, Pistachio Halvah

A passionfruit pate de fruit served as the lone mignardise. A take-home box of 2 caramels arrived alongside the check. Compared with other restaurants in this weight class, the mignardise program feels rather pathetic—why bother with a take-home gift at all, when just a single jelly is served in the meal?

Benno Pate De Fruit

Passionfruit Pate de Fruit

Benno Take-Home Gift

Take-Home Caramels

I’ve offered measured assessments of the past couple courses (though both were certainly more than competent), which obscures my high regard for this meal overall. The first three plates in particular were extraordinary preparations of luxury ingredients. Each ingredient served an evident purpose, reflecting great clarity of thought. My impression is that Chef Benno utilizes a subtractive method, whittling each plate down to its necessary essentials.

In some of her reviews from the 1970s, film critic Pauline Kael wrote of feeling assaulted by high-octane Hollywood films that sustain a violent tempo from start to finish. I wonder if today’s restaurants frequently produce an analogous impression. Of course, I don’t mean that one is subjected to explicit material; rather, the cramped tables, loud setting, and heavy hand with bitter/acid/heat leave me feeling w(e)ary by meal’s end, battered by the double-whammy of overbearing cuisine and decor. This dinner, by contrast, was as notable for what was left out (on the levels of food and setting) as what was included. In this respect, I share Pete Wells’s sentiment that Benno is out of touch with the current fashion, although I find more conceptual bravura than he acknowledges. Chef Benno has taken the time to think through each dish and excise superfluous touches, his judicious savvy presenting a worthy riposte to the amped-up excesses of much current cuisine.

Three Tennessee Restaurants

Husk Dining Room

Husk Dining Room

A brief Tennessee jaunt yielded the opportunity to sample a (very) small concentration of the state’s restaurants: Easy Bistro and St. John’s Meeting Place in Chattanooga, as well as Husk in Nashville. As Tennessee neophytes, these meals acquainted us with a new culinary landscape, and we were eager to survey both cities through their cuisine, on however limited a scope. This post unfolds chronologically, beginning with Easy Bistro and progressing to St. John’s Meeting Place and Husk.

As Easy Bistro enjoys a prime perch in Chattanooga, walking there acquainted us with the city. Just down the street lies an aquarium, a rather unusual urban centerpiece and one which hardly feels organic to the city, given the absence of a proper coastline, the Tennessee River notwithstanding. Also along that route (literally and figuratively), we passed a couple of chains, viz., Chili’s and Applebee’s. This generalization may well be purist and unwarranted, but the fact that these ersatz family eateries—eateries characteristically confined to the suburban context—resided downtown feels like cultural amnesia, an elision of Chattanooga’s history from its current culinary culture. Considering that the city rests against an Edenic mountain backdrop, one confronts an unsavory bifurcation pitting the lush natural environment against the contrived glamour of the city proper.

Easy Bistro rehearses this effaced history through its design. With tall ceilings and an expansive interior (not to mention its central position within the city’s geography), one senses that the building assumes historical significance. To this end, it’s unfortunate that in its current incarnation, the space not only feels awkward, but also lacks cultural specificity. Like most restaurants in the casual-upscale category, Easy Bistro features a bar and dining room, yet rather than install a formal division between the two components, a vast gulf of vacant space provides the only separation. The absence of proper segregation—and the porosity between the two domains that results—means that the dining room shoulders the acoustic burden of receiving more ancillary noise from the bar than one might reasonably expect. On the visual register, Easy Bistro eschews all manner of color and restricts its palette to black and cream. A wall of mirrors amounts to a relatively distinctive touch, but overall, the space sacrifices distinction in the interest of chasing a hip aesthetic.

The menu presented a series of categories—oysters/charcuterie/cheese; snacks; small; medium; large; and classic (this last referring to more traditional main courses.) Diners have the option of following a traditional, three-course format (and we did), but our server reflexively assumed that we were sharing and my sense is that many patrons go with a trendy, small plate experience in which everyone splits everything. Following another trend, the bread service carries a surcharge, although it goes beyond just a standard bread offering (bearing the description, “Cornbread: bacon fat, sorghum butter”) and likely justifies the $4.50 price tag, even if we declined it. I’ll also note that prices were quite reasonable (with most everything under $25, even the larger plates), which may result from the fact that the menu proper isn’t tasked with offsetting gratis bread. Overall, the menu surfeits the customer with options, with everything from pork osso bucco to shrimp and grits to pork belly to mussels.

An alumnus of St. John’s restaurant in Chattanooga, chef Erik Niel was nominated for Best Chef Southeast earlier this year and qualifies as a significant cook in this city. Perhaps due to the menu’s depth and breadth, however, I couldn’t locate a distinct culinary style, which prioritizes ‘something for everyone’ over culinary singularity—or even a voice connected to the region. The menu featured regional touchstones like trout and country ham, but the latter remained buried in a broader charcuterie plate. The trout, meanwhile, suffered from being paired alongside watercress and brown butter; while I’m sure the brown butter supplies a decadent note, the inclusion of watercress makes the dish feel like dieting fare. My broader point is that while one could construct a meal out of canonical Tennessee ingredients, these are not foregrounded. I ordered soft shell crab to start and then the roast chicken from the “classic” section; my brother started with a heavier plate in moules frites (which he felt would pair nicely with his opening beer), and followed with pork belly.

Our appetizers missed the mark. The soft-shell crab bore a very heavy breading; I’d have preferred a thinner coating that supplied textural contrast without compromising the delicacy of the crustacean. A two-way preparation of zephyr squash (sautéed and pureed) served as the primary accompaniment, although florid garnishes rained down on the plate. To my mind, the squash would have paired more successfully with a lighter crab preparation; the heavy batter overshadowed the squash, and more decadent or acidic accoutrements might have better held their own. Although it didn’t impede consumption, I also prefer a cleaner composition. The free-form design feels like an exercise in complexification; I understand that abstract patterns have been de rigeur for some time, yet for this reason, this configuration just demonstrates cognizance of current fashion. Displaced from its postwar context, Abstract Expressionism seems to serve as the guiding aesthetic for much contemporary cuisine, but when this style becomes common practice, compositions such as this one carry, paradoxically, a certain academicism.

Easy Bistro Crab

Soft Shell Crab, Zephr Squash Two Ways

I don’t have a photo of the mussels, but they arrived in a hefty portion. The relatively limp fries didn’t marry well with the broth, which my brother found underseasoned and uninspired inspired anyhow.

My main dish better showcased the kitchen’s capacities. The roasted chicken quarter achieved textural contrast between skin and meat, while the decadent mushroom sauce enlivened everything. Bacon, onions, cremini mushrooms, and lyonnaise potatoes rested beneath the bird. While I enjoy baby portabellas, their inclusion was cause for surprise, given that the menu listed shiitakes (a particular favorite of mine.) When I queried our server as to the absent shiitakes, he conferenced with the chef and remarked that they’d substituted the creminis. In a gesture of Southern Hospitality (or something like that), the chef offered to prepare a small plate of morels—I accepted without hesitation, of course. Needless to say, this dish compensated for the disappointment of the prior offering, even while I recognize that ordering one of the less traditional dishes might have better illuminated the chef’s contemporary flourishes. The unannounced mushroom swap, meanwhile, may be attributable to the fact that this meal occurred on a Sunday. Morels are always welcome—and a great complement to roast chicken—but I now wonder whether surreptitious ingredient swaps are common practice on the Sabbath.

Easy Bistro Chicken

Roast Chicken, Cremini Mushrooms, Lardons, Lyonnaise Potatoes

My brother enjoyed his roasted pork belly, which boasted a robust scale in excess of what I’d expected from the $14 price. The composition reprised the abstraction of the crab, but to a more restrained degree. Under the pork belly sat a black garlic paste, while a ramp puree (organized in circular discs of escalating size) amplified the dish’s garlic character. A light dusting of paprika offset the greenish hues and compounded the intense flavors at play. I didn’t try it, but my brother enjoyed the plate.

Easy Bistro Pork Belly

Roasted Pork Belly, Black Garlic Paste, Ramp Puree, Paprika

Two desserts caught my attention: strawberry shortcake and bourbon bread pudding. My brother ordered the former and I chose the latter, which seemed a fitting choice for Tennessee, adjacent as the state is to Kentucky. I found the pudding successful; the custardy consistency might have benefitted from the juxtapository effect of a crust, but the pecans at top supplied some textural balance. The caramel veered on the slightly bitter end of the spectrum, avoiding the more saccharine notes of less felicitous preparations. The shortcake caught us by surprise in that scones replaced the customary biscuit or sponge cake. But the ingredients harmonized and my brother gave the dessert his unequivocal endorsement.

Easy Bistro Bread Pudding

Bourbon-Caramel Bread Pudding, Roasted Pecans

***

St. John’s Meeting Place resides adjacent to its more formal sibling, St. John’s Restaurant, with which it shares an executive chef in Rebecca Baron. In contrast with Easy Bistro, the menu features just two categories, “Small” and “Large.” However, given that each category contains at least a dozen choices, one doesn’t lack options. As with Easy Bistro, little effort is made to project native ingredients; with options like lobster mac, duck fried rice, and steak frites, cultural borrowing assumes priority over fidelity to local heritage. Regional specialties exist, including trout, pimento cheese, and Southern sturgeon, but these represent outliers. Even though this meal began very late (9:30 reservation), our patient and excellent server unpacked the menu and fluently fielded our queries. I ordered steak tartare and roast chicken, while my brother went with pasta primavera and duck fried rice.

Complimentary bread consisted of potato-sourdough bread with sorghum butter; both were outstanding, but we especially enjoyed the savory-sweet balance of the butter.

SJMP Bread

Potato-Sourdough Bread, Sorghum Butter

While waiting for our first courses, we admired the interior, a dark space (at any hour) with little light from outside. With its two-story layout, the space is reminiscent of someone’s home, an impression underscored by the decision to only use the first story for tables. A tall pillar adorned with a Vitruvian Man covered in red graffiti provided a postmodern artistic centerpiece that amplified the restaurant’s youthful energy. An open kitchen broke up the space and, in large part because the restaurant wasn’t crowded, avoided the uncomfortable Taylorist aesthetic that sometimes plagues open kitchens. The space assumes a contemporary feel, but with greater distinction than Easy Bistro.

The steak tartare arrived with crostini, lemon, and chili aioli (underneath the lemon.) Ordinarily, I’d lament the paltry helping of the tangy aioli, but the steak boasted a luxurious beefiness that generated enough complexity on its own. The generous marbling suggests that ribeye might have been used, but our server noted that Wagyu beef was used (perhaps cross-bred with Angus?) and so it’s possible that the grade accounted for the marbling more than the cut. Capers—a despised ingredient that usually prevents me from ordering this dish—resisted overpowering the beef. I can’t recall enjoying a tartare this much in recent memory, but my brother mourned the absence of an egg yolk.

SJMP Tartare

Steak Tartare, Chili Aioli, Crostini, Lemon

The pasta primavera earned my brother’s highest recommendation. The kitchen made the spinach pasta in house, with tomatoes, peppers, and balsamic syrup achieving a tapestry that amounted to more than the sum of its parts. I’ll also note the great bargain this dish posed at $9.

SJMP Pasta

Spinach Pasta Primavera, Balsamic Glaze

My roast chicken arrived with asparagus, zephyr squash, and gnocchi. A garlicky lemon butter provided ample decadence. This bird didn’t possess the degree of crispiness from a night prior, but the meat contained a slightly more tender texture, complying with my own preference. A fantastic plate of food.

SJMP Roast chicken

Roast Chicken, Zephyr Squash, Asparagus, Gnocchi, Lemon-Garlic Butter Sauce

The duck fried rice contained confit duck leg, sesame aioli, and a fried egg. I can’t justify the plating, insofar as serving the egg atop the rice would have allowed the rice to absorb the yolk. It may not rank among the most delicate plates, but this plate delivered bold flavors and my brother continues to rave about it. This was another generous deal at $13.

SJMP Duck Fried Rice

Confit Duck Leg, Fried Rice, Fried Egg, Sesame Aioli

Given the late hour, we declined dessert—but considering the high standard of each course, suffice to say that we ended on a high note.

***

Despite being the less-famous sibling of Sean Brock’s decorated restaurant nexus, Husk Nashville already claims a central position in the roster of key Tennessee restaurants. In every way, Husk serves as a counterpoint to the restaurants discussed above; architecturally, the space honors its heritage. The website, for example, chronicles the evolution of the 19th-century building, which once housed a mayor of the city. On the culinary level, the restaurant adopts the neologism of “New Southern Cuisine.” To be certain, Husk benefits from the financial muscle generated by Brock’s family of restaurants and by no means qualifies as a hole-in-the-wall authentic spot; even still, I appreciate the interplay between culinary tradition and modernity encompassed by the “New Southern Cuisine” moniker.

As I’ve noted in the last paragraph, Husk resides in an actual house that on outside view, still appears more residential than commercial. With its sunken lower level, viewing the restaurant from outside belies its expansiveness. In lieu of a single dining room, the interior contains a series of smaller rooms, reminiscent of Primo in Rockland. Wallpaper and curtains heighten the domesticity and while the patterned wallpaper might ordinarily seem anachronistic, the contemporary flavor supplied by the immaculate tables, chairs, and hardwood floors mediates this impression. A healthy volume of covers lines the room, but with room enough to breathe and still preserve the hospitable tenor. Overall, a certain sheen imbues the building, but with a tastefulness that honors its history.

On its website, Husk lists as its subtitle “A Celebration of Southern Ingredients.” To be sure, “Southern” encompasses such a vast spectrum that the descriptor remains very broad, but the regional focus still exceeds that of the Chattanooga restaurants. Fried chicken, catfish, and country ham earned prominent placement. The lunch menu doesn’t stratify the plates into courses, but dishes are easy enough to classify and everyone in the dining room seemed to follow a conventional format. We ordered deviled eggs and ember-grilled chicken wings to start; I followed with shrimp and grits, and my brother selected the fried chicken. Our server understood the menu inside and out, and while I find the overall-aprons worn by the servers a touch precious, everyone had clearly been trained to the point of confident polish.

First to arrive were the deviled eggs. These were spiked with what the menu listed as “deviled ham,” resulting in a more savory—and less creamy—preparation than one might habitually expect from the dish. I’m not sure how I feel about serving these on a tree stump; on the one hand, the serving vessel was distinctive, but on a separate view, one might argue that it betrays a kitschy, fabricated rusticitiy. Still, we both found the eggs outstanding.

Husk Deviled Eggs

Deviled Pork Deviled Eggs

Parker house rolls were served on the heels of the eggs. These were enhanced by benne seed and a rich butter. Served warm, I couldn’t improve these in any way and overall, we were treated to great bread on this trip.

Husk Bread

Parker House Rolls (In Back), Benne Seed

The chicken wings were cooked over embers, which refers to grilling directly over coals. This hearth-based method has escalated in popularity over the past decade, although my understanding is that Husk’s Executive Chef, Sean Brock, played an instrumental role in recuperating the historic technique. As a result of the unmediated contact between food and flame, ash envelopes the foodstuff, and the uninitiated might infer that our chicken wings were overcooked past the point of rescue. However, the ash coating was deliberate and our server explained that the wings were actually twice-grilled, exponentiating their concentrated smokiness. These were easily the most intense chicken wings I’ve had, and I appreciated that they acquired their intensity from a more organic source than the sugary-sweet amalgam that one often encounters with wings that rely on tacked-on glazes for flavor. The accompanying “MS Comeback Sauce” denotes a Mississippi delicacy essentially consisting of mayonnaise and chili sauce, per Wikipedia. The ashy coating, however, challenged even my own salt threshold, and I could only manage two wings (I don’t mean this as an indictment of them, as I enjoyed them for the singular pleasures they proffered, but rather as a testament to their force.)

Husk Wings

Chicken Wings Grilled Over Embers, Mississippi Comeback Sauce

The shrimp and grits wore a circular nest of vegetal garnishes that both belied their ample serving and very loosely evoked Michel Bras’s “Le Gargouillou” or David Kinch’s “Tidal Pool.” Our server explained that the kitchen had just shifted from a more tomato-based preparation to the decadent one on offer at this meal, which included a healthy dose of whipping cream. I could have done without the layer of garnishes, but the shrimp weren’t tough (as they so often are) and I found this dish more or less perfect.

Husk Shrimp Grits

Shrimp and Grits

No less successful was the fried chicken. Our server warned us that the fried chicken was prepared in the uber-spicy Nashville style (not his exact words) and so the rather mild spiciness disappointed my brother at first. Yet countering this initial disappointment was the extraordinary texture of the breading, which my brother considered the best he’d tasted. He enjoyed the mac-and-cheese and cabbage served alongside, although the cabbage skewed sweeter than he’d have liked.

As we had a full afternoon of driving in front of us, we skipped dessert, but with plans to return to Husk at the first opportunity.

This essay has discussed three successful meals, and the ones at St. John’s Meeting Place and Husk stand near the top of my favorite dining experiences this year. All three of the executive chefs—Erik Niel, Rebecca Baron, and Sean Brock—are modern (though not necessarily modernist) chefs, products of the current century. Brock distinguishes himself from the other two, however, through his sharper Southern focus. Niel and Baron are fluent in current culinary fashions, but their restaurants could more or less exist anywhere. What results is a kind of culinary cosmopolitanism, in which the Chattanooga restaurants deftly conform to dominant tendencies. Such compliance isn’t objectionable, but betrays a certain diminution, in the sense that the richness of local culinary heritage (and its avenues for cross-pollination with other regions) is left underexplored. For those of us who enjoy discovering a region through its cuisine, meanwhile, Brock’s more anthropological approach—probing the history of the south through its culinary lens—feels preferable.

The Modern (NYC)

the modern dining room

The Modern Dining Room

Art museum restaurants carry particular interest through their intermedial constitution; that is, the genre brings the fine arts and the culinary arts into conversation through its placement within the parent institution of the art museum. Of course, museums necessarily privilege the fine arts, but there remain ones whose restaurants showcase world-class ambition and innovation, to the point that the cuisine exists on par—or even in conversation with—the collection of artworks proper. In this model, the restaurant’s seasonal menu registers as an artistic gesture executed by the chief chef and commissioned by the museum (here it’s worth noting in passing, however, that restaurant kitchens still conform to a broad atelier mold, in the sense that an army of cooks satisfy the vision of an executive chef; the atelier system, of course, has long been superseded within the artworld, although exceptions exist.) The Modern, the flagship restaurant of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, offers one such example of a restaurant whose cuisine showcases a degree of seriousness that elevates it beyond just subsidiary status. This essay uses The Modern as a case study through which to explore this approach for synchronizing art museum with restaurant, with an eye toward also pursuing whether the example of the MoMA’s flagship restaurant might help us reconsider the definitional question of what “modernist” cuisine looks like in the first place.

Now, MoMA isn’t the only governing body presiding over this restaurant, as The Modern also represents the prize member within Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. Although I’m out of my depth when it comes to New York dining, my understanding is that Meyer’s primary contribution to North American gastronomy lies in popularizing an approachable model for fine dining through restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Café. These remain some of New York’s most beloved restaurants, both for their cuisine and for their relatively democratic character, which purports to showcase a cheery, ‘can-do’ attitude in lieu of the supercilious tenor of traditional temples of New York haute cuisine, Le Cirque being the most notorious example. While I went into this meal at The Modern cognizant of, and appreciative toward, Meyer’s approachability, I wondered: in which ways would The Modern negotiate its twin institutional presences—between MoMA on the one hand and Danny Meyer on the other? After all, while MoMA stands as a a paradigmatic blockbuster museum, it still enjoys (rightly or wrongly) a pole position as arbiter of cultural taste, in contradistinction to Meyer’s restaurant group, which is seen as a more middlebrow approach to fine dining (I don’t say this to reinscribe distinctions between highbrow and middlebrow, but to acknowledge the distinct identities of MoMA and Meyer within the public sphere.) While the restaurant’s price point and 2 Michelin Stars foreground its lofty aspirations, the restaurant still begged the questions: in which ways would the cuisine at The Modern push the culinary envelope, and in which ways might the restaurant’s affiliation with Danny Meyer constrain its synchronization with the art museum?

Architecturally, the Modern invites such questions of synchronization because the dining room exists adjacent to the Museum’s Abby Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. My windowside 2-top afforded an ideal view of the sculptures. The light, groundless aesthetic of Calder and Caro corresponded with the minimalist the dining room; I’m not just using “minimalist” in the colloquial sense here, as the serial distribution of thin ceiling beams evoked Donald Judd. The long and lanky servers confirmed the lean verticality of the space. A small tree stood near the center of the dining room and literalized the reciprocity between inside and outside; the incorporation of an arboreal centerpiece also obliquely gestures to the now-defunct Four Seasons, although I doubt any intentionality undergirds this association. Overall, I appreciated how interior and exterior coalesce around a shared modernist/minimalist aesthetic. But would the cuisine share this focus?

the modern view

View From My Table

The Modern Ceiling

Ceiling (Shades of Donald Judd)

At first, no it didn’t. I ordered the full tasting (listed as 8 courses, although I was served more) and for my first course, was greeted with one of the more decadent preparations I’ve ever received: a benevolent scoop of high-end, Caspian caviar with egg yolk and buttered brioche. (Here I’ll note from the outset that my descriptions have no doubt forfeited precision as a consequence of my oxidized memories of this February dinner.) A mild crema/aioli rested underneath the caviar and gilded the lily. Perhaps it goes without saying that this was one of the most delicious compositions I’ve ever eaten, although I’m not accustomed to a contemporary restaurant initiating this degree of decadent hedonism—in an age in which even desserts sometimes feature fennel or savory spices, I’ve noticed a prevailing sentiment wherein the yin of luxury or decadence needs to find a counterpoint with the yang of the acrid or acid; thankfully, The Modern bucked this tendency and presented this memorable plate.

Caviar The Modern

Caviar, Egg Yolk, Brioche

As a prelude to the bread service, I enjoyed a small croissant with a thick slice of Perigord truffle. As with the caviar preparation, the kitchen restricts this item to those partaking in the full tasting. I imagine that some might struggle to consume such a rich offering on the footsteps of the caviar course. My understanding is that the erstwhile chef, Gabriel Kreuther, brought a more decadent hand than the current chef, Abram Bissell. This croissant seemed like something Kreuther might have served, and the unfettered indulgence of these opening bites clashed with the dining room and modernist collection at MoMA. Put differently, if pictorial modernism claims to reject the optical confections of popular art in favor of ‘difficult’ works, one might levy a similar critique here and charge the croissant with proferring easy pleasures. Yet I have to qualify this critique with the appreciation that this was as delicious as the caviar preparation, and the two items alone justified the extended menu’s elevated price tag.

croissant the modern

Croissant, Black Truffle, Black Truffle Butter

The formal bread service included three offerings: pumpernickel seed, bagel with beef consommé, and cheddar roll. All were great, but the novelty of the bagel with consommé earned it favored status.

the modern breads

Bagel with Beef Consomme, Cheddar Roll, Pumpernickel Seed

The next proper course was raw tuna with a blood orange marinade, fennel bulb, and yuzu vinaigrette. The tuna continued the emphasis on luxury ingredients, although the fennel and yuzu really blunted the fattiness of the fish and curbed the general decadence of the cuisine to this point. I understand the impulse to counter the preceding courses—and this did—but to my mind the inclusion of both acid (yuzu) and bitter (fennel) went too far in the other direction. Bitter seems to enjoy a degree of reverence in the flavor pantheon, and I don’t share this celebration. To my mind, the acid of the vinaigrette mediated the fattiness of the fish and foreclosed the necessity for any other countering agent.

the modern tuna

Tuna, Yuzu Sauce, Blood Orange Vinaigrette, Fennel

Another luxury offering, Course 3 consisted of foie gras tarte accompanied by quince braised in white wine, and radicchio traviso. As a cold foie partisan, I appreciated that the chef went this route rather than searing the liver, which seems to be the default option during the winter months. I believe this preparation has been a signature of The Modern for some time (possibly antedating Chef Bissell), and it’s easy to see why, as the kitchen can simply swap the quince out for a separate seasonal fruit as the months progress. I could see this preparation pairing well with rhubarb during the spring or raspberry in late summer. In any event, the foie was perfectly prepared, with none of the visible tissue that stains the efforts of those with less foie facility. I don’t however, believe the radicchio earned its place, and its inclusion rehearsed the gratuitous bitter note that compromised the tuna.

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Foie Gras Tarte, Quince, Radicchio Traviso

The foie concluded the appetizer chapter of the menu, and lobster initiated the second act. It featured claw and knuckle meat, poached in sea urchin butter. Oven roasted cauliflower and a toothsome grain of some variety rounded out the preparation; I can’t recall what the green sauce consisted of, or its flavor profile. The sea urchin butter was a tour de force and a brilliant complement to the shellfish and cauliflower. I love cauliflower but often find it starchy and undercooked in restaurants—this same critique applies to Brussels sprouts as well—and so I took particular surprise and delight in finding the cauliflower roasted to the point of dissolving at the slight prod of the fork. And of course, the cauliflower absorbed the rich umami of the urchin to brilliant effect. Unfortunately, my compliments don’t extend to the lobster, which was (way) overcooked. My lone regret for this meal is that I didn’t send the lobster back, since with properly-cooked lobster, this plate would find its way on my hypothetical short list of favorite all-time dishes. Yet by this point, I’d developed a conversational rapport with my captain, and he presented the dish with such pride that I felt uncomfortable sending it back—in the same way one wouldn’t critique the culinary shortcomings of a dinner party host.

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Lobster Poached in Sea Urchin Butter, Roasted Cauliflower

The last fish was turbot, roasted on the bone and served with endive, morels, and a grain with a toasted texture. The fish isn’t visible in the picture, as it was wrapped in the green endive leaf. My only prior experience with turbot was at Sixteen, where Thomas Lents cooked the fish to a rarer temperature; Chef Bissell, by contrast, cooked it a bit longer, but still well within the bounds of enjoyability. The fish also paired quite nicely with the morels and the grain (and the endive wasn’t overly bitter), so this dish registered as another terrific effort.

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Turbot Roasted on the Bone, Endive, Morels

Closing out the savory plates was 100-day dry-aged ribeye, served with black truffle sauce and potato (my notes on this course may be incomplete.) Here we had a contemporary take on the beef-and-potato archetype, all geared around celebrating the pristine ribeye. This was the most intense beef I’ve ever had; my understanding is that the kitchen typically serves either a filet or a ribeye aged to a far shorter duration, and that the 100-day beef was a limited offering. This was terrific.

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100-Day Dry-Aged Ribeye, Potato, Black Truffle Sauce

And so the savory chapter reached its conclusion. The rich beef found its counterpoint in the item that segued into dessert: coconut and shiso shell with tapioca caviar. I suppose “caviar” now qualifies as a euphemism for anything pearl-shaped, since this obviously wasn’t caviar in any traditional sense. Unfamiliar with shiso, I wasn’t prepared for its minty burn, but if this palate cleanser supplied greater intensity than most transitional courses, this was warranted in light of the concentrated beefiness of the prior dish.

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Coconut and Shiso Shell with Tapioca Pears

Pastry chef Jiho Kim greeted me to finish the cheese course tableside. He began by presenting the cheese enclosed in its package— “Tete de Moine”—after which he lifted the top to reveal the cheese and its intense odor. He then grated dark chocolate atop the cheese, and the juxtaposition cream and cocoa hues loosely mimicked the color contrast of risotto with shaved black truffle. I enjoyed the olfactory and textural counterpoint between the aromatics on the one hand and the ethereal consistency on the other. I can’t offer enough superlatives for this course—a fantastic preparation that straddled the line between a straight and composed cheese course.

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Tete de Moine, Shaved Dark Chocolate

The first proper dessert (or perhaps this was a second palate cleanser) was marshmallow and green apple sorbet. I typically find marshmallow cloying, but it paired to great effect with the sorbet, which was uncompromising in the best sense of the term.

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Green Apple Sorbet, Marshmallow

To close, I received two desserts simultaneously: dark chocolate marquise with earl grey ice cream (the ‘official’ culminating dessert for the tasting), and a gift from the kitchen in the form of a hazelnut dessert that included truffle-spiked cornbread pudding. The latter was the clear winner and easily one of the most enjoyable desserts I’ve ever been served, even if—as with the beef course—the truffle exerted only a quiet presence. While the savory plates established a high standard, my highest compliments go to Chef Kim; typically, I prefer very traditional desserts, on the belief that experimentation within the domain of pastry typically yields diminishing returns. But Chef Kim’s desserts married technique and ingredients to rarified effect.

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Cornbread Pudding Spiked with Truffle, Hazelnut Ice Cream

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Dark Chocolate Marquise, Earl Grey Ice Cream

Mignardises included dark chocolate salted caramel, and a milk chocolate spiked with pop rocks.

It occurs to me that there exist a number of grounds on which one could critique The Modern. For one, in an age in which the most cutting-edge restaurants (particularly in NYC) offer tasting menus of nearly double this length, this menu structure feels very traditional. One could point to exceptions, of course—Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, and Per Se come to mind—but Eleven Madison Park, Brooklyn Fare, and Atera go well beyond even a dozen courses. And the trajectory followed a relatively standard progression, beginning with caviar and progressing first to raw fish and meat, then to cooked fish, cooked meat, cheese, and desserts. At no point did the cuisine really challenge my idea of what food could look like, unlike past dinners at Moto or Alinea. One wonders whether Danny Meyer mandated this conformity, and what Bissell might engineer if he were independent of the Union Square group.

Yet there was creativity, and I don’t think we can point to sins of commission resulting from the protective watch of Danny Meyer. At each point, the kitchen began with a luxury item and applied a novel spin emphasizing the virtues of the prime ingredient in question—the foie with quince, the lobster with urchin, the turbot with the textural counterpoint of the toasted grain, and the aged beef with black truffle sauce. I’d categorize Chefs Bissell and Kim as more ingredient-driven than technique driven, which complies with my own preferences. I’ve called attention to unwarranted bitter notes, but overall, the cuisine demonstrated superior focus to the showy exploits of more technique-driven chefs. I attribute this achievement to the fact that these were complete dishes, distinct from the trend within fine dining to serve a flurry of 15 or 20 bite-sized courses—an approach that may (I speculate) derive from the venerable Japanese omakase structure, but which often results in the unfortunate consequence of feeling like a series of incomplete thoughts. In this sense, adherence to the traditional 8-course structure served as an affordance more than a constraint.

I’ll also note that this cuisine was certainly more creative than most art museums, which offer plates that don’t deviate from what can find elsewhere. In a recent trip to Kansas City, for example, I enjoyed a superb meal at Café Sebastienne (at the Kemper Contemporary Art Museum), where I lunched on halibut with grilled potatoes, asparagus, and salsa verde. The dish offered everything I wanted, but a sizable gulf exists between the inventiveness of the art installations at the Kemper and the safe comfort of the cuisine. While The Modern may not provoke the diner in the same way as Alinea, the many creative achievements across this meal speak to the kitchen’s ability to synthesize its voice with the conventions of fine dining; perhaps working for Danny Meyer and MoMA has presented Bissell and Kim with an imperative that they follow certain conventions, but this has resulted in a dynamic interplay between their own authorial voices and existing standards.

In closing, I want to suggest that this reciprocity between individuality and conventionality actually makes The Modern more of a modernist restaurant. This claim, of course, necessitates reorienting what we mean by modernist cuisine; in common parlance, modernist cuisine refers to technique-driven food that breaks from traditions. In this spirit, the Modernist Cuisine website offers 10 guiding principles, among which is an emphasis on “creatively breaking culinary rules.” Other imperatives include the virtue of expanding what the diner believes to be food, principally through scientific experimentation and unorthodox techniques. However, I would argue that what we commonly refer to as modernist cooking is actually something closer to “avant-garde” cooking; food that initiates a kind of ontological indeterminacy—raising the questions of “is it food?” or “is it fine dining?” is more avant-garde than modernist, going beyond the standard deviation for experimentation accommodated by the modernist signifier. Within the fine arts, after all, modernism has always referred to a more restrained degree of experimentation than “avant-garde”; where the avant-garde is defined by propositionality (i.e., the logic that something is art because the artist proposes it as such), modernism is irreducibly bound by tradition, so that the artist respects preexisting rules in order to rethink them (rather than rupture them) as he or she sees fit. I’m not trying to initiate a hard binary between modernism and the avant-garde, since the two intersect to the point that artists have degrees of both. At the same time, recognizing the definitional distinction between modernism and the avant-garde lends taxonomic clarity and offers a pathway through which to think through and identify the degrees of experimentation in contemporary fine dining. This is all a long way of saying that The Modern, with its restrained creativity, is an archetypal modernist restaurant (more than an avant-garde one)—and therefore, singularly synchronized with the museum in which it resides.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Rompope Sundae, Pecan Polvoron, Pear, Jamoncillo

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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.