Trouble With Toast

Cyrus: A Sonoma Standout

June 28, 2007
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When planning my weekend in San Francisco—my first time in the city—there were some things that were obvious. I wanted to get a burrito in the Mission District. I wanted to eat at my sister’s neighborhood sushi joint. I wanted to have pasta and chianti in North Beach. What wasn’t obvious, however, was that my finest dining experience in Northern California wouldn’t be in the City by the Bay. Rather, I traveled to Healdsburg with sis and Mr. Barzelay and enjoyed dinner at Cyrus.

Located in a quaint little town square, Cyrus almost seems out of place. It is opulently decorated, almost to the point of unnecessary pretension. The air of affectation continues when, shortly after napkins are placed on laps, a tuxedoed gentleman visits the table with a cart full of caviar and champagne options. It’s enough to make a usually bargain-oriented diner downright nervous.

Luckily, the haughtiness pretty much ended there. Our server was warm and friendly, and she explained how things worked: we could order the Chef’s seven-course tasting menu for $110, or we could custom-build a three course ($68), four course ($80), or five course ($92) meal. There was plenty that intrigued me about the regular menu, and I had recently treated myself to two phenomenal tasting menus, so I opted to create a unique five-course experience. Jeanette and David did the same (and I hope they will share their experiences, as I can only really remember my own).

A few canapés came out first, and they were delicious and delicate. One was a bit of asparagus puree on a small spoon, another was a homemade falafel, and another was some sort of fritter with a wonderful saffron flavor. Next, an amuse bouche of smoked salmon (sadly, I don’t remember the exact presentation). The flavors were very clean, and it was a treat to have another unexpected bite.

Just when we thought our first courses were arriving, we were presented with another amuse (at least, that’s how the servers described it). It was less like an amuse, though, and more like an appetizer—in fact, the “Roasted Asparagus with Fennel and Licorice Coulis” was on the dinner menu in the section marked “Vegetables.” No matter—it was fantastic. The asparagus was perfectly cooked, and the fennel was pickled beneath it and added a great tang. I don’t like licorice at all, but the coulis was a perfect match.

Course number one was “Black Cod with Uni, Zucchini and Green Papaya, Ginger Basil Broth.” Uni is sea urchin “roe,” and it is definitely an acquired taste—it has a very strong flavor, and the texture is akin to runny custard. On top of the sweet, firm cod, it was phenomenal. And even though I didn’t want to stuff myself with bread, I had to break off some crusty goodness and dip it in the wonderful ginger basil broth. Yum.

Next came “Truffled Red Wine Risotto, Parmesan Broth.” I am a risotto fanatic, and I make it at home quite frequently, so I relish any opportunity to taste how the chefs interpret the dish. The Parmesan broth was actually more like a foam, and there was a bit too much of it on the plate. The flavor of the dish was exquisite—very earthy and rich. However, the texture was disappointing; I like my risotto to be creamy, with just a little bite to the Arborio rice, but this version was far too al dente. It almost felt crunchy in my mouth, which I did not enjoy. I was very torn about this particular course, though my companions seemed to love it.

Course number three was “Hoisin Squab with Black Bean Rice Cake and Candied Kumquats.” This dish was absolutely delicious—the bird was perfectly cooked, and the skin was almost caramelized in the hoisin sauce. I enjoyed eating it by itself, but the squab was enhanced even further with a bit of candied kumquat on the fork. The black bean cake was just a touch overdone, but it added a great crunch. If all poultry could be prepared like this, I’d eat it a lot more often.

My final savory course was “Bacon Wrapped Pork Loin with Green Garlic Potato Puree and Chard.” Sadly, the best was not saved for last—this course was pretty disappointing. Part of why I ordered it was to see if (and how) the chef could make pork loin—a fairly lean, bland cut—unique and mouth-watering. The bacon in which the pork loin was wrapped was delicious, and the loin itself was cooked perfectly (which, for me, means slightly underdone), but the dish, as a whole, was lackluster.

Dessert for me was “Three Custards: Mousse of Crème Brulee, Blackberry Almond Pot de Crème, Tarragon Cheesecake.” The crème brulee mousse was out of this world—sweet and creamy, but with a very uncharacteristic lightness that I thoroughly enjoyed. The top layer of sugar wasn’t torched like in traditional crème brulee, but its crunchiness was a welcome finish. The blackberry pot de crème was my least favorite of the three (it was more liquidy than I would have liked), though its color was lovely. The cheesecake by itself was just the slightest bit dry, but it was remedied by dipping it in the accompanying tarragon sauce (which was quite good).

All in all, Cyrus was a lovely experience. Not everything scored a perfect ten, but the full-fledged disappointments were fairly few. I love the flexibility that the menu offers, and I appreciate the nod to individual taste with the ability to dress a meal up or keep it more casual. I’m not sure that a meal at Cyrus on its own merits the drive from San Francisco (like, say, The French Laundry does), but if you’re in the Sonoma area and want to experience fine dining, I would recommend making reservations.

He blinded me with science!

June 13, 2007
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Wylie Dufresne is a polarizing figure, to be sure. His critics lambaste him for being too intellectual, too scientific, too “out there.” His loyal fans defend his madcap kitchen antics, claiming that his avant-garde food is both challenging and tasty. When I visited wd~50 the first Saturday in June, I wasn’t sure on which side of the fence I would land. I was familiar with Chef Dufresne’s biography (he attended the French Culinary Institute in New York, and he worked his way up the food chain—pun intended—in Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant empire), and I was infinitely curious about his devotion to molecular gastronomy. With that knowledge, and with my girlfriend Erica and my love of food in tow, I arrived at 50 Clinton Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

The maitre’d escorted us to our table, which was quite close to the kitchen. I immediately began craning my head to see if “the mad scientist” was back there. Those famous sideburns would be visible soon enough—as I learned later, Chef Dufresne is almost always in the kitchen, experimenting, collaborating, and perfecting his craft. Erica and I ordered cocktails and opted for the tasting menu. I took a sip of my vodka concoction and prepared for an interesting evening.

The amuse bouche was described as “Fluke, nigella-raisin, asparagus, arugula blossoms.” I was immediately hesitant, as raisins are one of my least-favorite foods. However, the addition of nigella (which is akin to cumin, from what I could taste) to the puree made it complex, spicy-sweet, and delicious. The clean-tasting fish and crisp asparagus were tasty, and the dish certainly woke up my mouth (and my brain).

The second course: “Shrimp and tarragon macaroons.” When I think about macaroons, my mind usually jumps to the dense, coconut-laden Passover dessert. These? Nothing like that. The consistency actually reminded me of meringue—they practically melted on my tongue. Even better, they tasted like shrimp (which I definitely prefer over coconut)! The tarragon was a little too heavy on two of the three macaroons, but it’s not my favorite herb, so I may just be a tad sensitive.

Next up: “Foie gras in the round.” I was totally blown away by the presentation of this dish. It looked like some kind of kids’ breakfast cereal, with little pellets of foie, a green herb (maybe watercress?), and crisp rice covered in dark chocolate. While the visual was interesting, I didn’t fall head over heels for the taste—the chocolate definitely overpowered the foie. The texture, however, mixed soft and crunchy and liquid and solid quite ingeniously, and I enjoyed that aspect of the course.

For the fourth course, we were served “Sweetbreads, cabbage-kaffir, water chestnuts.” This was probably my favorite course of the evening. The sweetbreads were perfectly cooked, braised before being coated in chamomile flour and deep fried. I was initially concerned that the cabbage-kaffir puree would overpower the dish, but it brought a tart, slightly pickled flavor to the sweetbreads, and it worked very well. The water chestnuts were crunchy and tangy (I believe there was some balsamic vinegar involved in their preparation)—I could have eaten many more of them.

Course number five: “Beef tongue, fried mayo, tomato molasses.” I tried this one both separately (each ingredient on its own) and put together like a high-class sandwich. The verdict? It was fantastic either way. The tongue tasted gently pickled, and I really enjoyed the thinness of the slices—it made the meat seem even more tender. The tomato molasses was smoky and strong. The star of the plate, however, was the fried mayo. When I initially heard about this dish, I balked at the concept, finding it almost revolting (mostly because I’m a “light on the mayonnaise” kind of gal). In actuality, it was rich and creamy on the inside, with just the right amount of crunch in the coating. All I had to do was press the cube lightly against the roof of my mouth, and warm, luscious deliciousness exploded across my taste buds. Who knew a condiment could be so erotic?

Next: “Miso soup, sesame ‘noodles.’” I wish my local Japanese joint served miso like this. I usually find it too salty, but this version had great flavor without too much salinity. The mushrooms added a woody richness, and the sesame tofu paste (which came in a plastic tube and had to be squeezed into the bowl of hot liquid) turned into delicious noodles, far better than the usual squares of limp bean curd that float lifelessly in most renditions. This dish proved that soup isn’t just for cold winter nights—despite the heat outside, I relished every drop of the comforting broth.

For the seventh course, we had “Langoustine, popcorn, hibiscus, endive.” This was probably the low point of the tasting menu for me. The endive was very good, but the rest of the components just didn’t work well together—the langoustine was practically flavorless, the popcorn was incredibly overwhelming (and unappetizing in look and mouth-feel), and the hibiscus was gorgeous but way too sugary. I appreciated the presentation effort, but the flavors were incongruous at best.

Course number eight was “Squab breast, beets, sorrel, coconut pebbles.” Yum! My dining companion, who is not a fan of beets, really disliked this dish. I thought it was great. The squab was tender and full-bodied, and the beets—both on the crust of the meat and as an accompaniment—were out of this world. I didn’t think I would enjoy the coconut pebbles, but they brought a milky lightness to the otherwise dark, lush ingredients. I’ll never look at a pigeon quite the same way again.

Whew, we made it to dessert! The first sweet treat on the tasting menu was “Peach puree, peanut, pandan,” but I was presented with “Yuzu curd, shortbread, spruce yogurt, pistachio” due to my peanut allergy. I don’t know how the peach dessert tasted (it must have been good, since Erica cleaned her plate), but the yuzu was amazing—clean and lemony, the curd was impeccably textured. The shortbread was wonderfully buttery, and the pistachio added a great nutty finish.

The next dessert: “Fried butterscotch pudding, mango, taro, smoked macadamia.” After the pleasant surprise of the fried mayo, I expected to delight in this dessert—and, for the most part, pastry chef Alex Stupak did not disappoint. Aside from the taro ice cream (which I didn’t care for at all), the flavors of this course were unique and harmonious. In this course and the previous, the use of nuts was really spectacular—they really accentuated the overall effect of the desserts.

Finally: “Soft chocolate, avocado, licorice, lime.” I almost didn’t want to eat this course, since it was so breathtaking on the plate—but, it was chocolate, so that thought didn’t stick around too long. Because it was twirled so perfectly, I expected the “ribbon” of chocolate to be harder or more rigid than the menu described (like candy, I suppose). To the contrary, it was soft and smooth and utterly decadent. The lime ice cream (which I saved for last) was cool and refreshing, and the avocado puree added some vibrant color and cut the sweetness of the chocolate a bit.

The service was excellent, and folks seemed to be enjoying their respective jobs. While waiting for the check and chewing on “‘Cool’ black currant jelly,” I tried to ask each member of the staff (we received assistance from a number of individuals) what drew them to wd~50. Some were in culinary school and had done intern stints in the kitchen. Some were attracted to the team-oriented atmosphere. All seemed excited by Chef Dufresne’s gastronomic vision and the customers’ varied reactions to it.

Before departing, I approached the maitre’d and told him what a great time we’d had. He seemed confused. “You’re not leaving yet, are you?” he asked. “We’d love to show you the kitchen and give you an opportunity to meet the chef.” I don’t know if they offer this treat to everyone, or if the fact that I mentioned (when asking permission to take pictures of the food) that I write for a DC food blog played some sort of role, but he didn’t have to ask me twice! We entered the kitchen and stood to the side, hearing about how the space was designed to allow for optimum communication, mobility, and performance. I saw a shelf full of emulsifiers and crazy chemicals that the crew uses to create its delicacies. I even saw a flyer advertising Chef Dufresne’s birthday bash–if we were going to be in town the next day, I probably would have invited myself. Chefs Dufresne and Stupak (among others) were hard at work, but the former was incredibly gracious and friendly (which is not to imply that the latter was unfriendly—he was just on the other side of the kitchen). He thanked us for coming, asked if we enjoyed our meal, and chatted briefly with us about the DC and Manhattan dining scenes. To my great delight, he even posed for a quick photo.

I left wd~50 absolutely elated. Sure, there were a few misses on the menu, but the hits were far more numerous (and quite grand in scope). The experience as a whole was like nothing I’ve ever seen, smelled, tasted, heard, or felt before. It challenged everything I thought I knew about food and its interaction with the senses. It certainly made me think, and it often made me laugh.

Every genius will have haters—talent, drive, and creativity are simultaneously blessings and curses. However, until you experience wd~50 firsthand, you have no idea how fresh, exciting, and innovative a meal can be. Bravo, Chef Dufresne—you can now count me among your many admirers.