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.

Street and Company (Portland, ME)

Open Kitchen at Street and Company

Open Kitchen at Street and Company


It was only five years ago that Portland was named “America’s Foodiest Small Town” by Bon Appetit. This generated national attention, to be sure, but the recency of the designation belies the fact that some of Portland’s major restaurants have been cooking for decades. One such eatery is Street and Company, which is celebrating its 25th year. At one point, Street was my favorite restaurant in Portland, and I would go almost monthly as an undergrad. My preferences have reoriented somewhat, though, and so it had been about two years since I’d dined there. With its tight-quartered dining room, I think Street is best enjoyed in the cooler months, but I will be out of state by then and so my mother and I made reservations on a recent summer evening.

Street is bifurcated into two dining rooms: one that overlooks Wharf Street and another that gazes into the open kitchen (for this meal, we were seated in the latter.) I’ve dined in both on multiple occasions but prefer the one that’s away from the kitchen. Ideally, of course, open kitchens offer a nice spectacle, but this one is hard for me to appreciate. To begin with, the close proximity to the dining room meant that a forceful billow of smoke penetrated the space. The kitchen also looked overburdened all evening and I felt bad watching the cooks work without a minute’s rest. This made me reflect on one of the differences between dining at a restaurant and watching a film or reading a book: in the latter cases, I think it can be very effective/affective when the audience is implicated, as it gestures for them to reflect on cultural/ideological considerations that are ordinarily effaced in the interests of entertainment. Meanwhile, for me at least, dining out carries the expectation for unalloyed pleasure (maybe because it’s vastly more expensive) and so guilt was not the intended emotion.

Like most Portland restaurants, Street and Company carries an a la carte format. The menu is technique-driven but in a different manner from the typical connotation. Typically, technique-driven refers to experimental or elemental preparations. With Street, on the other hand, the main plates are organized by technique, but they are all traditional: “Grilled,” “Blackened,” “Broiled,” etc. The strangest aspect of the menu is that the tastes (small bites) and appetizers contain a wealth of ingredients and are more experimental and/or unusual than the much simpler main plates. Most of the appetizers change quite often, but the main plates stay unchanged and many, such as the sole Francaise and lobster over linguine, are signature dishes for the city. So, there was a definite schism between the small plates and the main ones; the menu descriptions for the appetizers were exponentially longer than the larger plates—appetizers obviously constitute a different chapter of the meal from the starters, but one would think that a restaurant would want to make sure that the two courses are at least operating in the same spirit and this was not the case.

My mother and I assembled a robust order. We each chose the prosciutto and melon from the ‘tastes’ portion and shared the mussels as a joint appetizer. In the past, I have enjoyed the lobster diavolo, which feeds at least two people, but we were in the mood for other fish instead. I chose grilled swordfish and my mother went with broiled halibut.

Things got started with this crusty bread, identical to that served at Fore Street, the sister restaurant to Street and Co. Excellent.

Bread from Standard Baking

Bread from Standard Baking

The prosciutto and melon arrived in a larger portion than I’d anticipated. Were I to unknowingly guess the cost for this plate of food, I would hypothesize $8-10 and so this was a value buy at $4. Iowa proscioutto was paired with grilled melon, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar and we were quite satisfied. This was a classic Italian combination and the proscioutto and balsamic generated easy color as well.

Prosciutto, Grilled Melon, Balsamic

Prosciutto, Grilled Melon, Balsamic

Street doesn’t mess around with their mussels and one has to watch out ordering them as I know from experience that they can spoil one’s appetite in advance of the main course. With two of us present, we were able to handle it and the broth (butter, white wine, and lots of garlic) was quite marvelous.

Mussels, Butter, White Wine, Garlic

Mussels, Butter, White Wine, Garlic

Here was my swordfish. The portion was more than adequate and they also managed not to overcook it. Yet, the accompanying vegetables were just the chef’s nightly selection. I can’t understand why restaurants resort to that approach, and it seems to me that they should consider the message they’re sending when they serve ‘vegetables of the day.’ As I see it, this approach erects a hierarchy between the protein and everything else on the plate—when the same vegetables are served with the sole francaise, the halibut, and the swordfish (vastly different fishes), the restaurant is saying that the accompaniments really aren’t chosen with the purpose of supporting a particular protein. In other words, what differentiates one dish from the next aren’t the plates as a whole but rather the principal ingredients. The vegetables were also overcooked. Making matters worse, 2/3 of my fish was salted past the point of edibility (and my salt threshold has grown in recent years.) I am pretty sure that this was because the kitchen was swamped by an eight-top in the other room. My mom and I could see the cooks preparing the large party (which was synchronized with ours) at breakneck speed and I suspect this led them to carelessness.

Grilled Swordfish, Potatoes, Zucchini, Tomato

Grilled Swordfish, Potatoes, Zucchini, Tomato

Ordinarily, it might be possible to look beyond oversalted fish, but with the ‘vegetables of the day,’ the restaurant made it so that there was no consolation prize on the plate. In addition, this may seem catty, but the plating just looks so unimpressive; were I to view it out of context, I would guess that a home cook plated it, as the ingredients were huddled together with too much negative space. The lazy plating and ‘vegetable of the day’ methodology just make everything seem as if little effort went into it. This leads to a queasy paradox: on the one hand, this course felt lazy, and yet at the same time, with the open kitchen I could visibly see how overworked the kitchen was all evening. Basically, a situation in which nobody wins.

The halibut was somewhat unevenly seasoned but that didn’t compromise the dish. The overcooked vegetables limited enjoyment to the protein but a nice piece of halibut is quite satisfying.

Broiled Halibut, Potato, Zucchini, Tomato

Broiled Halibut, Potato, Zucchini, Tomato

Street only serves a few desserts and they are predicated around efficient preparation. It was at Street that I first ordered panna cotta and I still consider their rendition to be my favorite. My mom ordered a fruit pie of some variety. We were both happy with them and one can see our plated desserts at the photo that introduces this post.

Panna Cotta, Blueberry

Panna Cotta, Blueberry


Red Berry Pie, Vanilla Ice Cream, Whipped Cream

Red Berry Pie, Vanilla Ice Cream, Whipped Cream

Whenever dining out (or reading an academic article, viewing a presentation, etc.), I think it’s important to first consider what has been done well, and this meal did have some clear high notes. In fact, everything but the swordfish made us very happy and my mother’s meal was pretty great from start to finish. High-quality ingredients were sourced and the mussels are worth return visits. Prices are high for Maine but justified by the portions and sourcing.

Part of me feels that this meal would have been a hit were it not for a cook’s unsteady hand with the salt, but then again, my critique really extends beyond the seasoning. The dish wasn’t just frustrating due to the protein but also because there wasn’t anything else interesting on the plate. It also rubs me the wrong way that the appetizers were disproportionately more creative than the main dishes. I suspect that the main plates are so conservative because they are all signature plates. Maybe they can get away with overhauling the smaller plates with regularity but a face lift to the more substantial ones might alienate the customer base of this very popular restaurant. I’m sure that most restaurants would kill to be as successful as Street and Company, but signature dishes exert their own sort of pressure as they can make it tough for the restaurant to evolve. As long as the appetizers and main dishes continue to operate in different directions, it will be hard to see how much Street is capable of accomplishing. I think it tries to offer simple, rustic cuisine (these descriptors are referenced on the website, at least) and I respect this, but simplicity doesn’t preclude creativity and this is where the main plates disappointed. After a two-year hiatus, I’m glad to have returned to Street and Company, but the apparent struggle to construct a coherent plate of fish makes me wonder whether their skills have grown coarser than before.

Fore Street (June 2014)

Fore Street Open Kitchen

Fore Street Open Kitchen


After spending several months away from Maine, Fore Street was one of the restaurants I missed most. This affection didn’t always exist; when I first dined there four years ago, its reputation as Maine’s most famous restaurant led me to expect a more ‘white table cloth’ fine dining experience. In fact, it was only after spending most of the last few years out of state that it really went up in my estimation—this isn’t a backhanded compliment so much as a testament to the lasting impression that Fore Street makes. The cooking isn’t always the most precise (I’ve had pork belly and arctic char with burnt skin), and my blog post from two years ago wasn’t glowing, but one simply won’t encounter a restaurant that feels like Fore Street anywhere else in the country and that counts for a lot. I’ve now dined there roughly 10 times and my family congregates at Fore Street each December for a holiday meal. Father’s Day was a good excuse for a nice dinner out and I treated my dad to celebrate the occasion.

Our reservation was for 5:30 and so there was the usual nervous energy one finds at the start of a dinner service. We could see the waitstaff slicing the bread and reviewing notes. Natural light circulated throughout the space. Normally, I prefer dining at one of the four-tops that flank the windows, but this was impossible with just the two of us and the bright sun might have been tough to handle anyhow. The centerpiece of the restaurant is the kitchen; what makes this open kitchen so memorable is that there is no boundary between kitchen and dining room, making for a most immersive experience. Years before it got trendy with Joshua Skenes or Sean Brock, Fore Street embraced cooking with fire and one of the pleasures of dining there is watching the flames and proteins roasting on the spit. The fire imparts a cozy feel that is mitigated somewhat during the summer and for this reason I think Fore Street is best appreciated in winter.

Tasting menus are out of the picture at Fore Street. Instead, the menu is organized primarily by preparation method, with 11 categories that include “Garden,” “Grilled, Pan Seared and Oven Roasted Meats,” Turnspit Roasted Meats,” and “Vegetables to Share.” This latter category refers to vegetable side dishes that one can order to supplement the main plates. The menu is much larger than it needs to be and invariably overwhelms, but that is just part of the experience. Many of the ingredients, particularly the vegetables and seafood (including the halibut, as well as the Seussian duo of redfish and bluefish) were sourced from Maine, but I wouldn’t categorize Fore Street within the legion of elite Maine farm-to-table restaurants—a category which included the late Arrows and is now spearheaded by Primo. One senses that Fore Street seeks the very best of a particular item, embracing Maine’s premium ingredients while celebrating other ingredients as well. For example, the superb Columbia River King Salmon was on offer, and they also source Kansas beef, which I know from experience is excellent. I like this approach more than a dogmatic approach to farm-to-table. I’m not the first to say this, but one of the issues with treating farm-to-table as if it were an article of faith is that it forecloses many of the best seasonal ingredients that one can find elsewhere (this has hampered my dinners at Primo, for example.) At Fore Street, I feel like ingredients are chosen discriminatingly rather than because they are readily available.

Fore Street should also be commended for offering ingredients that are at least one standard deviation from the norm in Maine. One can find roasted sardines, veal sweetbreads, esoteric offal, and foie gras, none of which enjoy much visibility in this state. When Fore Street opened its doors in the mid-1990s, I believe that the menu was much more conservative. The restaurant’s success seems to have given Chef Sam Hayward the confidence to branch out, with his demographic growing more ambitious accordingly. It is in this sense that Fore Street could be said to have constructed the palate of its audience.

For this meal I returned to some of my favorite proteins. I knew from experience that the mussels come in a Ruthian portion and so my dad and I split them as an appetizer. For our main plates, I chose the halibut and my dad ordered the hanger steak. We also chose the ‘grilled and chilled’ asparagus to supplement our more substantial offerings.

Breads were sourced by Standard Baking, which is owned by Fore Street. This has always been my favorite bread service and I’m glad that there isn’t a supplemental charge.

Bread from Standard Baking

Bread from Standard Baking

While enjoying our bread, we watched the cooks in action. Open kitchens seem to be popular now but I don’t always find them enjoyable. This is because oftentimes they just expose how overworked the kitchen is, to the point that each cook is not so much an ‘artist’ as a laborer. I think this kitchen overcomes this on two counts: first, the cooks face frontally, which makes it look more as if they are performing. When kitchens are viewed in profile, by contrast, there is more of an alienated feel as they seem to work in a separate spatial register. Second, there is the awesome spectacle of the kitchen equipment, particularly the spit, the grill, and the giant oven. Of course Fore Street is as invested in maximum efficiency as any other kitchen, but these aspects at least made the action seem less like a Fordist assembly line.

Cooks

Cooks

We’d ordered these mussels many times in the past and so we knew what to expect. The fantastic recipe contains lots of butter and garlic, which is pretty standard, but also almonds. They are cooked in the oven, which makes the mussels very easy to open. Serving them in the skillet is a trademark of this restaurant and reflects the Fore Street style. On the one hand, this is a minimalist approach, since the dish is served exactly as it was cooked in the oven, but the novelty of the skillet is also quite showy—this is the balance that makes Fore Street so distinctive. An outstanding dish.

Oven-Roasted Mussels

Oven-Roasted Mussels

My halibut was also cooked in the oven and so it arrived in its cast-iron pan. The halibut is sourced from Maine, and I ordered this as I wanted to take advantage of the narrow East Coast halibut season. Accompaniments included yellow lentils, broccoli, onions, and good chive blossom butter. This is not manicured cuisine; as with the mussels, the intent, I think, is to serve everything as it appears while cooking. This rehearses the same paradox that we saw with the mussels, in which the dish looks quite stunning even though no trace has been left of the chef’s hand. Everything looks so simple, even though lots of thought went into it.

Maine Halibut, Brocolli, Lentils, Chive Butter

Maine Halibut, Brocolli, Lentils, Chive Butter

The hanger steak was cooked to the medium temperature that my dad had specified. This is a preparation that Fore Street has served for several years and the beef is served with cipollini onions, chard, and an oxtail reduction. Hanger steaks are ubiquitous now but Fore Street distinguishes themselves through excellent butchering, as there is none of the connective tissue that one often finds with this cut.

Hanger Steak, Chard, Cipollini Onions, Oxtail Reduction

Hanger Steak, Chard, Cipollini Onions, Oxtail Reduction

We also shared a side dish of asparagus. These were the most pristine asparagus I’ve ever seen and the ricotta salata was just right in this context. With Fore Street, side dishes are never an afterthought. In the winter months, they often serve butternut squash with molasses, for example.

Grilled and Chilled Asparagus, Ricotta Salata, Olive Oil

Grilled and Chilled Asparagus, Ricotta Salata, Olive Oil

Dessert was amazing. I ordered cherry tarte tatin with caramel sauce and coconut chocolate chip ice cream. In the past, I’ve never been that impressed with Fore Street’s desserts since they’ve always seemed like gussied-up versions of the pastries at Standard Baking, and I guess this fit within that vein to some extent. What made this so special, though, was the fresh caramel and it was hard not to feel inspired. Coconut is normally something I stay away from but it mixed with the chocolate nicely—if anyone has ever wondered what German chocolate cake ice cream would taste like, this was a decent approximation. I’ve had some strong desserts this year but this might have been my favorite.

Cherry Tarte Tatin, Fresh Caramel, Chocolate-Coconut Ice Cream

Cherry Tarte Tatin, Fresh Caramel, Chocolate-Coconut Ice Cream

My dad ordered the “Bite Size Dessert,” which on this evening was bourbon chocolate cake with dark chocolate glaze and needhams ice cream. It was good but not in the same league as my dessert.

Chocolate-Bourbon Cake, Needhams Ice Cream

Chocolate-Bourbon Cake, Needhams Ice Cream

As a veteran Fore Street customer, I thought I knew what to expect but this meal blew us away. The ingredients were well-sourced as always, but this meal displayed a level of precision that I’ve never seen from this restaurant and so this was my favorite meal of the year to this point. Past favorites were perfectly executed, while new plates confirmed that the kitchen’s creative faculties remain intact. The one clear area for improvement is the vegetables. Considering the kitchen’s facility with the vegetable side dishes, I would love to see what they could do with proper vegetarian main dishes (here I’m not talking about pasta plates but rather courses that are predicated on bringing out the best in a core vegetable.)

This meal was contemporary, and American, but I wouldn’t give it the “Contemporary American” label, at least as the label is commonly constituted. Indeed, there was none of the inappropriate fusion that characterizes so much of American cuisine these days. This was food that was grounded in New England but with a glance, rather than a fixation, toward other regions of the country. Also, after months of railing against the overabundant garnishes that seem to be everywhere in contemporary dining—specifically pea shoots, micro greens, and edible flowers—it was nice to be served food that I could actually discern. Everything looked very blatant but in the best possible way, and what the cuisine may lose in complexity it gains in lucidity. Whether or not Fore Street is a fine dining restaurant is open for debate, but it’s refreshing to dine somewhere with such a clear and confident approach.

Crush (Seattle, WA)

Crush Dining Room

Crush Dining Room

Crush is one of several tasting menu restaurants in Washington State. Over the past couple of years, Blaine Wentzel has claimed much of the regional press for his work at Willows Inn, but Crush’s chef, Jason Wilson, boasts several high-profile recognitions as well, including the James Beard Best Chef Northwest award in 2010. He has also spent time in Singapore and Southeast Asia, but these influences are not pronounced in his cooking. More importantly, with its Capitol Hill location Crush was also perched within walking distance of my hotel (Willows Inn certainly was not), and so it was a logical fit for a nice Seattle meal.

When I read Crush’s website, it seemed as if the restaurant would be quite trendy and so I was surprised to find it reside in a two-story house. This wasn’t an Alinea-style townhouse that had been heavily renovated—Crush is actually set in a building whose floorplan looks and feels exactly like a home. To reach the second story, one climbs up a narrow staircase, which must be brutal for waitstaff executing extended tastings. As one can see from the top photo, the interior design showcases shades of white and off-white, similar to Blackbird in Chicago. I’m surprised that they went with this design scheme since it seems very 90s to me. It also contrasts with the quaintness of the building, but I suppose that is the point.

Another reason I chose Crush is that they allow the customer to customize their own tasting menu, with various sizes available. Crush offers 4-course, 6-course, and 15-course menus; that they are able to avoid an a la carte service reflects the popularity of this restaurant and Seattle’s capacity to support fine dining (one could order a la carte, but the portions would still be tasting-size and so the meal would be quite insubstantial.) Even though my reservation was for early in the evening, I was not up for the largest menu and constructed my own progression. Because the menu only included 1 dessert, I added a second one, tallying 7 courses in total. I’ll note up front that my choices were not the most Seattle-specific, but this doesn’t mean that Crush rejects local ingredients—salmon was on the menu, for example, but after having already had great salmon at Sitka and Spruce, I directed my gaze toward other selections.

I forgot to request a take-home menu, and the online menu hasn’t been updated since last summer, so I am working from memory. Some of the following descriptions will be incomplete and the ingredients are not always self-evident. This first dish, though, is indelibly fixed in my memory, and not for all the right reasons. Crush follows in the lead of several restaurants by opening with an item that one would normally find at the end of the meal; I think this practice first began at Manresa, but I have experienced it at Menton in Boston. This was a squid ink macaron filled with goat cheese. It is Crush’s signature canapé, but even though it was expertly prepared, this tiny item wound up compromising the meal, since when my server removed the lid, I was hit with a heady dose of pot smoke. I asked my server whether the scent was cannabis, but he stated that it was green tea, which apparently approximates marijuana when smoked. In theory, this makes for a fun opening dish, and it’s very much in the spirit of Seattle. However, what worked in theory failed in practice, as I wound up smelling this all evening when it was served to other tables. As unpleasant as this was, it did clarify the challenges intrinsic to making smell an active component of the experience. Simply put, there needs to be more distance between tables in order to get away with a trick like this. Many restaurants emphasize smell; for years, luxury restaurants have offered cheese carts, and Alinea often serves a course with a burning leaf. The spacing between tables at these restaurants, though, makes it possible for private smells to exist within the public space of the dining room. I can only imagine how this macaron affects wine drinkers. Chef Wilson should be more cognizant of the ways in which his dining room layout impacts the dining experience, and smelling this ad infinitum transformed a novel trick into a stale joke. I sympathize with the quest to emphasize scent, but paradoxically, this was so invasive that it had the opposite effect and masked the scent of everything else I was served.

Green Tea-Smoked Squid Ink Macaron

Green Tea-Smoked Squid Ink Macaron

Things got back on track with this bread plate which included pumpernickel and a crusty sort of biscuit. I liked the fleur de sel they sprinkled on the butter.

Crush Breads

Crush Breads

My first course was a foie gras torchon wrapped in nori. Underneath was pickled rhubarb, and honey circled the perimeter. This was exquisite and offered a more uncompromised glimpse into Chef Wilson’s talents. I will sometimes go months between restaurant meals and cold foie gras is one of the items I miss most. There really wasn’t any way of improving on this memorable preparation.

Foie Gras Terrine Wrapped in Nori, Pickled Rhubarb, Honey

Foie Gras Terrine Wrapped in Nori, Pickled Rhubarb, Honey

This next course was listed as asparagus a la plancha, but there was much more going on, including plump English peas (and pea puree), parmesan, and a piquillo pepper sauce. According to my server, this item was new on this evening and I was the first to enjoy it. Everything was excellent and I had fun mixing and matching the ingredients. These free-flowing vegetable dishes seem to be quite popular. One could point to Michel Bras as a progenitor, but also to the mushroom dishes that now populate fine dining menus (Atelier Crenn, Next, etc.) This dish made me wonder: what is the difference—or is there a difference—between a salad and a composed vegetable dish? Crush didn’t refer to it as a salad, but could one do so? Do salads generally contain more raw vegetables, such that cooking them on the plancha would preclude the salad designation? Are salads considered more generic, or less predicated on a titular ingredient? This seems unlikely, since caprese salads, for example, definitely place greatest emphasis on the tomato. In any event, I think this course reflected the impact that a title makes; the peas were emphasized as strongly as the asparagus, so perhaps the title should have reflected this. I wonder whether any changes to the composition or title were made as the spring season progressed.

Asparagus a la Plancha, English Peas, Piquillo Pepper Sauce

Asparagus a la Plancha, English Peas, Piquillo Pepper Sauce

This orange dish was carrot risotto with manchego and almonds. I’m not sure what the white gravy was, but it didn’t need to be there. I’ve never liked carrots very much, but I do like risotto and this sounded interesting. The almost cartoonish orange color is, I think, rather alarming, looking almost like Kraft Mac N’ Cheese. I think the prototype for this dish is the carrot risotto that Amanda Cohen served at Dirt Candy in New York, but it can probably be seen at other restaurants. The rice is cooked in carrot stock and one absolutely has to love carrots to embrace this preparation, since the potency of the stock drowns out the other components. The carrot flavor was too intense for me and a larger portion would have been impossible to handle.

Carrot Risotto, Manchego, Almonds

Carrot Risotto, Manchego, Almonds

While walking around the Pike Place Market, I spotted a sign advertising the start of the Alaskan Halibut season and so I was happy to see this same fish offered at Crush. The halibut was more than an inch thick and cooked to a nice crust, which to me is the ideal presentation. The fish was cooked properly and served with onions, taggiasca olives, and cauliflower. Cauliflower is my favorite vegetable and appropriate in this context, but I think there needed to be a sauce here, as things got dry quickly. Also, when I look at the photo below, I just see so much white: white plate, white fish, white onions, and white dining room. There is already so much white in the dining room that I wonder whether Crush doesn’t have a responsibility to include more colors in their plates, but serving this on a colored plate would have probably circumvented the issue.

Halibut Advertisement at Pike Place Market

Halibut Advertisement at Pike Place Market

Alaskan Halibut, Cauliflower, Taggiasca Olives

Alaskan Halibut, Cauliflower, Taggiasca Olives

My fifth course was a giant veal sweetbread wrapped in chicken skin. I don’t remember the supporting ingredients but there was white gravy, similar to the one that rested on the carrot risotto. The sweetbread was outstanding but none of the other ingredients satisfied. This black plate would have really enhanced the halibut dish.

Veal Sweetbread, Chicken Skin

Veal Sweetbread, Chicken Skin

The red meat was domestic wagyu striploin with tater tots, ramp puree, beet puree, and swiss chard. The piece of steak was much larger than it appears. The striploin is my favorite cut of beef and, I think, also the best for Wagyu—fatty enough to appreciate the marbling, at least. When I read the menu description, I was quite excited for the vegetable purees, and they were terrific and added some color. The beef, though, was poor, and in the image below one can see that there was almost no marbling. I asked my server about this, and he confirmed that it was intentional and that sous viding the meat masks any marbling, but that the meat should at least still taste marbled. After the meal, I did some casual research online and it looks as if sous vide may have this effect, but the meat didn’t taste marbled at all. I might as well have been eating a filet. This leads me to believe that perhaps the problem is not the sous vide, but rather the domestic sourcing. I have found in the past that domestic wagyu never approaches the level of marbling one finds with Japanese or even Australian wagyu and I won’t order it again.

Domestic Wagyu Striploin, Beet Puree, Ramp Puree, Tater Tots, Chard

Domestic Wagyu Striploin, Beet Puree, Ramp Puree, Tater Tots, Chard

An interesting palate cleanser of kumquat sorbet with candied ginger was served.

Kumquat Sorbet, Candied Ginger

Kumquat Sorbet, Candied Ginger

I couldn’t choose which desserts to order and so I asked my server to just bring his two favorites. For some reason, he understood this to mean that he should bring them at the same time. I don’t mean to insult him since he was otherwise a fine server, but why would he think that I’d want the desserts delivered together? I understand that Crush is not used to people having two desserts (even the largest menu only has one dessert), but this was a real error in judgment. He remedied the situation somewhat by removing the heavier dessert and (re)serving it after I finished the first one, and as an apology I was only charged for one of them. However, I’m pretty sure that the second dessert was not re-prepared but instead just sat around, since it was lukewarm and its syrup had coagulated by the time it arrived once again.

I can understand why my server gave this first dessert, a deconstructed key lime pie, his vote of confidence. I never order key lime pie but this was one of my favorite desserts of the year. The key lime bar on the left-hand side was pretty mild, a perfect complement to the intense lime sorbet on the right.

Key Lime Bar, Lime Sorbet

Key Lime Bar, Lime Sorbet

As I noted earlier, this last dessert was not in ideal condition by the time it made it to my table a second time. Peanut butter ganache and chocolate cake were served in a hollow bone marrow bone. I think the marrow and raspberry are intended to evoke a bone with blood. However crude, this is at least in the same jokey spirit as the macaron that opened this meal.

Peanut Butter Ganache, Chocolate Cake, Raspberry Syrup

Peanut Butter Ganache, Chocolate Cake, Raspberry Syrup

A chocolate macaron ended the meal.

Chocolate Macaron

Chocolate Macaron

Of the seven courses, about half of them were really outstanding. The foie gras, asparagus, and key lime dessert made this meal worthwhile. My exuberance for them isn’t off-the-cuff, either; this meal took place almost three months ago and my enthusiasm remains intact. The carrot risotto, while too intense for my palate, was also successful. I have hypothesized as to possible derivations for some of these courses, specifically the asparagus and carrot risotto, but this doesn’t mean that the cuisine at Crush is unoriginal. This meal wasn’t like Senza, where I found everything to be generic, and Chef Wilson’s personality comes through in most dishes. With the less enjoyable courses, I feel as if they could be substantially improved through tweaking some aspect or another, be it the main ingredient (beef), sauce (halibut), or supporting ingredients (sweetbread.) To my mind none of the courses were total misfires, but I’m not sure that Wilson has the tight command one finds with really elite chefs.

The squid ink macaron offers a paradox. Technically, it was a perfect macaron, but badly marred by the smoked green tea. Crush has been serving it for a long time, so it must not bother most of their patrons, but to me it just seems like the sort of puerile trick I would expect to find with Graham Elliot.

Based on this meal, I think one would infer that Crush has been around for 3 or 4 years—the cuisine is generally at a high level, but very young in spirit. So, I was surprised to learn that it has already been around for 9 years. This sustained success leads me to believe that what comes off as tacky to me must be embraced by his core demographic. We’ll see where his boyish humor takes him in the coming years.

Senza (Chicago, IL)

senza facade

Senza Facade (Taken from Senza’s Yelp Page)

Senza holds the distinction of being the only gluten-free Michelin-starred restaurant. In a big city like Chicago, this gives them a fertile demographic and has made them quite popular. Senza’s executive chef, Noah Sandoval, was previously at Schwa, a background that undergirds Senza in several ways. Senza has borrowed the same all-tasting menu structure that one finds at Schwa, and, while I’ve never been to Schwa, I believe both restaurants are similarly dark (even if Schwa is much noisier.) Senza was one of the few Michelin-starred restaurants that neither I nor my friend had dined at, so when a conference brought me to Chicago in April, we made reservations.

At the start of this meal, my companion aptly mentioned that he feels that while Chicago harbors a reputation for elemental cuisine, occupying an equally potent presence are a legion of ‘supper club’-style restaurants. This genre, which I believe found its genesis in Los Angeles, is characterized by long tasting menus, BYO alcohol policy, an ‘underground’ décor, casual service, and youthful/trendy ingredients that shy away from traditional luxury fare. In Chicago, this category is principally represented by EL Ideas, Elizabeth, 42 Grams, Schwa, and Goosefoot. These supper club restaurants also overlap with molecular gastronomy, of course, and their direct convergence can be seen in Schwa and EL Ideas. Senza fits less tightly into this group, since it is not BYO. Yet, the restaurant is a bakery during the day, and its chameleon act supplies the requisite underground feel. Meanwhile, the restaurant prepares a similar brand of new American cooking, and exclusive tasting menu format, as these other supper club restaurants.

Senza offers tasting menus in two formats: five courses and nine courses. The longer menu, which we ordered, contains the same courses as the smaller ones, plus another appetizer, larger course, composed cheese course, and dessert.

Before being served any food, we were served complimentary glasses of this sparkling wine.

Complimentary Sparking Wine

Complimentary Sparking Wine

The amuse bouche was a small oyster with a silly floral garnish. It paired naturally with our sparkling wine.

Kumamoto Oyster

Kumamoto Oyster

The first course of the tasting was a scallop/seared foie gras dish. But, with my scallop allergy, I was served this dish of pickled tomato, burrata, and lingonberry syrup. Note also the inclusion of pea shoots, another in a long line of distracting, senseless floral garnishes. I feel bad critiquing this course since it wasn’t actually on the menu, but it was less than satisfying. To begin with, these ingredients seem more at home on an August tasting menu; I’m not sure whether this dish was recycled from last summer or whether they composed it on the fly, but it didn’t make sense in the context of this menu. We were already to be served a composed cheese course later in the menu, so it seems an error in judgment to weigh down the meal with two cheese dishes. I would have liked to see a vegetarian dish with spring produce. Another superior alternative would have been to just serve the regular first course, but with a larger serving of foie gras and no scallop.

Pickled Tomato, Burrata, Lingonberry Syrup

Pickled Tomato, Burrata, Lingonberry Syrup

Next was a loaf of gluten-free caraway seed bread with whipped gluten-free butter. I believe they make this using rice flour. Senza is proud of their bread, since they sell gluten-free pastries during the day, but there really wasn’t anything to recommend with this bread.

Gluten-Free Caraway Seed Bread

Gluten-Free Caraway Seed Bread

Course #2 was a parsnip soup with horseradish cream, drops of cherry syrup, guanciale, and crab. This dish typifies the kitchen’s plating style, which involves, paradoxically, a composed abstraction of five or so core ingredients, in addition to a superfluous garnish. This was probably my favorite course. I like crab in decadent preparations, and the parsnip broth and horseradish cream served this purpose, while the guanciale and cherry kept things interesting.

Parsnip Soup, Crab, Guanciale, Horseradish Cream

Parsnip Soup, Crab, Guanciale, Horseradish Cream

Our fish course came third. Here we have a nice piece of loup de mer, with artichokes, trout roe, and dashi broth. Rather than serving the skin on the fish, it was fried and dusted with paprika, presumably in an effort to mimic a chicharron. This application of the skin probably constitutes the most inventive flourish from the meal and so conceptually, I liked this dish. Unfortunately, I would have rather just had the skin served on the bass, although the sea bass was perfectly cooked and the dashi broth appropriate for this very delicate treatment of fish.

Loup de Mer, Paprika-Dusted Skin, Artichoke, Trout Roe, Dashi Broth

Loup de Mer, Paprika-Dusted Skin, Artichoke, Dashi Broth

Pork belly comprised the first meat course, served with celeriac, coriander, marshmallow and lingonberry syrup. The kitchen did a nice job of achieving a crispy texture while also keeping the meat tender. The supporting ingredients didn’t add much of anything and seemed aesthetically motivated more than anything.

Pork Belly, Celeriac, Lingonberry

Pork Belly, Celeriac, Lingonberry

The meal then took a detour away from proteins, with agnolotti filled with morel mushrooms and served with kumquats and huckleberries. I think the kitchen includes this pasta dish in an effort to overcome perceived limitations relating to gluten-free cuisine. The pasta tasted way off, though—there was no substance to the wrapper. Also, I love morels, but the incorporation of fruit didn’t make much sense. For morel agnolotti, I’d rather the kitchen embrace the luxurious flavors all the way, which didn’t need to be tempered with the acid of the fruit. A very disappointing dish.

(Gluten-Free) Agnolotti, Morel, Kumquat, Huckleberry

(Gluten-Free) Agnolotti, Morel, Kumquat, Huckleberry

The last meat was lamb rack, lamb belly, cippolini onion, garlic chip, nasturtium, and pickled mustard seeds. The lamb rack was roasted in ash, a technique I experienced earlier this year at Sixteen. It is salty but successful, yet I think it works better with heartier winter flavors than the spring garnishes featured in this presentation.

Ash-Roasted Lamb, Cipollini, Garlic Chip

Ash-Roasted Lamb, Cipollini, Garlic Chip

A composed cheese course featured raclette, with membrillo, raisin, pancetta, and basil. This seemed overly heavy for a meal that rested on light flavors. My enjoyment was also mitigated by the fact that I’d already been served a heavy cheese earlier.

Raclette, Pancetta, Raisin, Membrillo

Raclette, Pancetta, Raisin, Membrillo

Senza includes two desserts in the nine-course menu. The first of these was an oatmeal dessert that also included pine nut, toasted marshmallow meringue, apricot, and sherry vanilla ice cream. This was better than the second dessert, but I don’t think the oatmeal worked. Rather than offering any crunch, it was powdery and dominated by the ice cream.

Oatmeal, Vanilla-Sherry Ice Cream, Apricot

Oatmeal, Vanilla-Sherry Ice Cream, Apricot

The last dessert was a chocolate butterscotch cake, with butterscotch ice cream, pumpkin seed brittle, rosemary, and raspberry. This dessert was marred by the absence of any butterscotch, either in the ice cream or the cake. Chocolate and raspberry is a classic combination but this could have been better. I do like that this was a rare case in which the composition of the desserts was actually in line with the aesthetic of the savories. This style of abstract dessert is ubiquitous now, and for most restaurants, the free-form composition breaks away from the more composed look of the savories. However, because Senza’s earlier dishes were also abstract, we don’t see the schism that often takes place in the shift from savories to sweets.

Chocolate-Butterscotch Cake, Butterscotch Ice Cream, Raspberry

Chocolate-Butterscotch Cake, Butterscotch Ice Cream, Raspberry

Considering that Senza is the only Michelin-starred gluten-free restaurant, I am not surprised that it’s attracted a lot of attention over the past year. Moving past the singularity of its dietary precepts, however, this meal was not impressive. In fact, given that Senza holds fast to dietary restrictions, I’m shocked by how much this meal felt like what I could find anywhere else. There is a weightless feeling to the cuisine; the meal had no centerpiece, and for the most part, what we were served felt like trite variations of contemporary American cuisine. Most plates had a few different textures and a decent protein, but nothing inspired. The only exception to this was the unique application of skin in the loup de mer, but that was not ultimately satisfying to me. From one dish to the next, risks were not taken. I know that Chef Sandoval cooked at Schwa, but I don’t see that he is taking the chances that Michael Carlson does. The cuisine at Boka may seem less ambitious, but I would rather have an a la carte meal with clear flavors than what we were served this evening.

I also have to take issue with the way in which Senza presents its food. Specifically, the use of floral granishes was way out of control. Counting the amuse bouche, we were served 10 plates of food, and all 10(!) had ridiculous herb/sprout garnishes. They can’t be doing this to distinguish themselves visually, since this practice is seen everywhere now. There is no need for a composed cheese plate to be covered in herbs. I began noticing this trend in gastropubs/casual restaurants a few years ago, and it seems to be getting absorbed within the sphere of fine dining.

In addition, the aesthetics could be enhanced through the use of more creative service ware. Virtually everything was served on a white plate, which is fine for an a la carte meal but gets boring over nine courses. To be fair, the plates came in different shapes, but I would like to see more color. The only exceptions were transitional courses: the bread (served on a nice slate), the cheese, and the oyster. Senza clearly puts a lot of thought into their compositions, and they should be supported by more lively plates. It feels very high-modernist for all of the food to be framed by these white plates, which wind up flattening the compositions and countering the sculptural three-dimensionality of many of the designs. Grant Achatz’s genius, for example, doesn’t just lie in the food he puts on the plate; he also realizes that the impact of a dish is enhanced by serving it in a distinctive vessel. To my mind, extended tasting menus, particularly in youthful restaurants like Senza, need to be mindful of the stale rhythm of one white plate following another.

It is admittedly unfair to pin this visual criticism on Senza alone, since their method of presentation is shared by many restaurants. My central critique has to do with the restaurant’s treatment of gluten-free cuisine. I was hoping for this meal to really address the particularities of gluten-free, not unlike a vegetarian menu that foregrounds the virtues of good produce. Instead, the proposition here seems to be: “we can make gluten-free look like ‘normal’ modern American cooking,” not “this is what is special about gluten-free.” The two courses that offered specifically gluten-free versions of dishes that would normally contain gluten, the pasta and the bread, just tasted like impoverished versions of their gluten counterparts. I suppose that gluten-free may not offer any pleasures distinct from non-gluten-free cooking, but if that is the case I have no reason to dine at this restaurant in the first place. At least in this meal, gluten-free seems to be defined by negation—what it doesn’t have (gluten)—rather than what it may offer. I know one could point to many artistic movements premised on setting restrictions, with the idea that implementing limitations stimulates the creative process. However, I don’t see such creativity taking place at this restaurant, and it shows that the executive chef’s background is in non-gluten-free restaurants. Senza may hold the distinction of being the only gluten-free Michelin-starred restaurant, but I can find more distinctive cuisine elsewhere.

Boka (Chicago, IL)

Boka Dining Room

Boka Dining Room

This past fall, I had just two memorable meals, largely because with the semester in full swing, I only ate out a few times. My top meal was at Alinea, but the other was at The Lobby (at The Peninsula hotel), a restaurant that went on to receive a Michelin Star just a couple weeks following my dinner there. Lee Wollen’s food impressed me with its precision, as my friend and I had a tasting menu with one perfect protein after another. Just after winning his first Michelin star, Wollen left The Lobby for Boka, a restaurant that I’d enjoyed twice while Guiseppe Tentorri was in charge. While I enjoyed Tentorri, though, Wollen has the higher upside as he’s better able to let ingredients speak for themselves. Tentorri is more imaginative, but prone to incorporating more ingredients than necessary; not only is Wollen skilled at foregrounding the virtues of each ingredient, but his subtractive methodology ensures that there are no wasted ingredients and that each carries a clear purpose. With Wollen at Boka, I knew that I would make it back there, and when I found myself headed to Chicago in April, it was an easy decision to return.

It is worth noting that hiring Wollen was just one component of a comprehensive overhaul that Boka underwent over the winter. These changes also included a major overhaul to the dining room, which now bears what I would categorize as an upscale chain restaurant vibe. The most curious aspect of the setting is the ‘living wall,’ which one can see at the photo at the top of this post. I suppose that many might like incorporating vegetation into the dining room, but I am always taken aback by sites that combine the living with the unliving, particularly as it relates to the domestication of nature. For me, there is an uncanny, haptic quality that arises when vegetation is given free rein to comprise an entire wall of a room—I have always been similarly unnerved by all of the overgrown ivy at U Chicago, which seems to take over the campus. Throughout this meal, I had the sense that nature was returning my gaze—a purely irrational response, but an unsettling one, nonetheless.

This was actually the first time in which I’ve had the same chef’s food at two different restaurants at which he/she’s cooked. Typically, when I return to a restaurant, it’s to chart the evolution of that eatery, but this was different in that I was more interested in the evolution of Lee Wollen than of the restaurant whose kitchen he commandeers. Because this write-up addresses Wollen’s cooking at the two restaurants, it may be helpful to read this post with a separate browser tab open with my post on The Lobby from November. The Lobby was a luxury hotel restaurant and so I’m sure there were restrictions placed on him that he probably doesn’t have to deal with at Boka, particularly since he is now a partner at Boka. Considering that he just arrived at Boka, it’s unreasonable to expect that Wollen has implemented all of the changes he envisions, but for anyone who dined at Boka under Tentorri, a cursory glance at the new menu reveals the breadth of the overhaul to this restaurant.

A structural change to the menu is that where Tentorri used to feature tasting menus of various lengths, Boka now offers just an a la carte option, with a vast array of choices for each course. For many restaurant enthusiasts, the lack of a tasting option—particularly at a Michelin-starred restaurant like this one—would be a deterrent. I actually feel, however, that the a la carte structure suits Chef Wollen better than the tasting. While I enjoyed the tasting menu meal at The Lobby, it resonated more as a series of great courses than a meal that wove a compelling narrative, which to my mind is the aspiration of any tasting meal. Wollen’s execution is gifted and he knows how to combine ingredients to inspired effect, but sequencing is not his forte and in this regard the a la carte structure suggests he is cognizant of his own strengths and limitations.

Boka probably holds less appeal for vegetarians than meat eaters. This is because Wollen’s cuisine privileges the protein, and even many of the salad dishes incorporated fish or meat, at least in an accenting role. There were four salads, six starters, and eight main dishes. One could order a plate from each category, but my companion and I restricted ourselves to a starter and a main. There were many interesting choices, and one of the benefits of dining in April is that we were far enough into the spring season that one could assume that any necessary editing had already been made to the courses and that the dishes had been fully thought through. Boka is a good example of how a la carte restaurants are not necessarily less ambitious than tasting menu ones; each plate was structured around a fish or meat, but complemented by interesting accoutrements, including fresh takes on proteins that Wollen prepared to great effect at The Lobby. He has developed a new preparation of chicken, which had become his signature at The Lobby—this skill with the bird dates back to The Nomad in New York City, where Wollen cooked before moving to Chicago. I also remembered his skill with octopus and so I ordered that as a starter. For a main, I chose the seared halibut. A side benefit of dining at Boka is that the prices are quite reasonable—the starters were ~$15, while the main plates were about $30 each—very fair for food of this caliber.

The amuse bouche was a cool carrot soup, punctuated with a dose of chili oil. The oil didn’t overwhelm and this was refreshing; it was basically the spring equivalent of the pumpkin soup that prefaced my meal at The Lobby. Wollen must really like opening meals with these orange soups.

Amuse Bouche: Carrot Soup with Chili Oil

Amuse Bouche: Carrot Soup with Chili Oil

We were served two breads: a delicious ciabatta and a heartier, crusty bread. Lemon zest was grated over the butter. Neither the breads nor the butter were baked in-house.

Duo of Breads

Duo of Breads

Lemon-Zested Butter

Lemon-Zested Butter

Here is my octopus. It was grilled and served with scallion and a broth of burnt orange and pork that was poured tableside. An extraneous garnish of green herbs topped the presentation. Serving an entire scallion amplified its flavor but was also cumbersome and not particularly attractive. The composition gestured toward the cluttered aesthetic of a bowl of Japanese ramen, which is fine but not as elegant as I’d come to expect from Wollen. I would order this dish again because the octopus was absolutely marvelous and complemented by the thoughtful supporting ingredients. One could not cook octopus any better—a well-spent $16.

Grilled Octopus, Scallion, Pork Broth

Grilled Octopus, Scallion, Pork Broth

The halibut was lighter than the octopus and clearly constructed with an eye toward honoring seasonal produce. A reasonably-sized piece of the fish rested in the center, supplemented by peas, carrots, fava beans, shaved radishes, asparagus, and a pickled pearl onion. Adding some decadence was a butter sauce that was accented with orange and thyme. There was much to recommend here; the dish toed the seductive line between being decadent without overdoing it. The vegetables were delicious and there were many different textures at work. Meanwhile, the fish was near-flawless; its texture was not quite at the level of my turbot from Sixteen, but still much better-prepared than what one finds even with the majority of Michelin-starred chefs (at least in Chicago.) As with the first course, my main critique concerns the presentation. Simply put, I don’t see why the vegetables needed to adorn the fish, which made the plate look too messy. One can also see weird green herbs scattered throughout—unnecessary in a dish that already boasted fresh vegetable flavors. So, this was a delicious main course, but the presentation could have shown more restraint.

Seared Halibut, Spring Vegetables, Orange-Thyme Butter Sauce

Seared Halibut, Spring Vegetables, Orange-Thyme Butter Sauce

There were around a half-dozen desserts from which to choose, including a composed cheese course. In the absence of a compelling fruit offering, I ordered the chocolate ganache, which was served with caramel ice cream, a fruity meringue, and a cassis gel. This was fine but no different from the sorts of desserts one finds everywhere nowadays. I think I’ve mentioned this in other posts, but one of the ironies of contemporary dining is that desserts have grown more abstract but less original. One would think that the free-flowing compositions typical in most fine pastry kitchens would facilitate more original compositions, but when everyone is thinking in the same spirit, the result is a lot of desserts that all look the same. This dessert, for example, had the same deconstructed, poly-textural composition one can find everywhere else. While delicious, I feel as if the groupthink in dessert composition has led to few distinctive voices in pastry right now.

Chocolate Ganache, Caramel Ice Cream, Meringue

Chocolate Ganache, Caramel Ice Cream, Meringue

A meringue and a superb chocolate truffle rounded out the meal.

Closing Candies

Closing Candies

This meal generally replicated the pleasures of my meal at The Lobby. The octopus was even better than the version I had at The Lobby and the halibut is also worthy of commendation. Wollen possesses a strong understanding of flavor combinations and his execution is almost flawless. This dinner also reinforced my preference for Wollen over Tentorri; where Tentorri inherited Trotter’s abstract plating design (which I like) and talent for combining flavors and textures that one wouldn’t ordinarily think of, he also inherited Trotter’s tendency toward awkward fusion cooking. This dinner borrowed from many cuisines (French, Japanese, etc.), but always with the focus that I’ve come to expect from this talented chef. My main critique involves the deployment of gratuitous vegetal garnishes, which cheapened the presentation and occluded the precision of each dish. At The Lobby, these garnishes were nowhere to be found, so I’d love to see Wollen return to a less-cluttered plating technique, which would be more synchronized with his culinary style.

While I feel that the plating could use some work, this meal actually accomplished more than my meal from last fall. With my meal at The Lobby, I felt that Wollen prepared a tasting menu when in fact his sensibilities lay in the 3-act realm of the a la carte meal. There is obviously a difference between a tasting menu meal and an a la carte meal, but there’s also a distinction to be made between a tasting menu dish and an a la carte one. With a la carte, one will spend more time with each plate and so it is not enough to have a clear focal point to each dish; there need to be interesting supporting ingredients in order to sustain one’s interest. This was on display with this meal, not only through the excellent vegetables in both dishes but also the exquisite sauces. I have no doubt that Boka will retain its Michelin star under Wollen, and I’ll be sure to return for another celebration of a la carte dining.