Trouble With Toast

Proof in Penn Quarter

September 28, 2007
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Many nights of the week, I leave work and go directly to the Georgetown University Law Center (at 600 New Jersey Avenue NW) for rehearsal. I usually try to be frugal and either bring my dinner in a sack or opt for the cheaper Chinatown fare. However, on Wednesday evening, I decided to splurge a little and try Penn Quarter’s newest hot spot, Proof.

Described as a “wine-centric restaurant featuring modern American cuisine,” Proof combines the considerable talents of Chef Haidar Karoum (formerly of Asia Nora) and Sommelier Sebastian Zutant (formerly of Komi and Rasika). From the moment I stepped in the door, I understood why the early buzz about the place had been so resoundingly positive.

The space is gorgeous, with a sleek combination of glass and rich woods. I dipped into the ladies room before lighting at the bar, and I was instantly amused (though I won’t spoil the surprise by explaining why). There are many clever tie-ins to the National Portrait Gallery, which sits across G Street from Proof. In sum, the design of the restaurant seems to have been given as much thought as the wine and the food—which is saying a lot.

The by-the-glass list is varied and fairly priced, and I thoroughly enjoyed the Albarinho that the bartender selected for me. The wine was made even more enjoyable due to its being served at the proper temperature—thanks to a very cool-looking machine that is also programmed to distribute in precise amounts (I believe the glasses are available in 2-3 ounce “tastes,” 6 ounce pours, and 8 ounce pours). My Portuguese white was $9 for a 6 ounce pour, which I found quite reasonable.

For noshing, I opted for two “Firsts” (smaller plates). The “Yukon Gold Potato Gnocchi chanterelle mushrooms, roasted sweet corn” was absolutely divine—perfectly textured pillows of potato surrounded by intensely flavorful chanterelles. The dish was complex yet comforting, and it was not the least bit heavy (as lesser gnocchi can be). Next time, I’ll be ordering the large portion (entrée-priced at $21). The small was $14.

The $13 “Sautéed Veal Sweetbreads, medjool dates, bacon, spinach, caramel jus” was not quite as impressive. It was too sweet for my liking, with only the occasional heavily-salted bite of bacon. I should have known that the dates and the caramel would cause this dish to lean away from the savory side of things, but I went for it anyway—it wasn’t a complete miss (the sweetbreads were cooked very nicely, and the spinach was delicious), but I’ll probably opt for something else on subsequent visits.

Service at the bar was attentive without being cloying. Nothing about the place gives off a pretentious or exclusive vibe, though the crowd was well-dressed and attractive (and fairly diverse, especially age-wise). My tab, with two glasses of wine, two small plates, and a generous tip, was $65. So, while I won’t be able to dine at Proof every week, I will certainly return when I’m in the mood for serious food and wine in a refined-yet-accessible atmosphere. Well done!

House of Pies, Houston, TX

September 17, 2007
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My dad’s new job takes him to Houston on occasion, and he asked me for recommendations in terms of where to eat. Culinarily speaking, I don’t yet have a lot to say about that part of Texas. However, on my one and only voyage there, I was searching for a notable noshing experience and my boyfriend (who spent some time in the Lone Star State as a lad) said, “You HAVE to go to the House of Pies.” I was intrigued.

The House of Pies is an unassuming, almost Waffle House-esque diner whose tagline is, “A slice of heaven on Earth.” I couldn’t agree more. With reliable munchies (I had a Monte Christo sandwich and a heap of fabulously crunchy tater tots) and 24-hour service (with breakfast available anytime), it would already be a great place to add to the rotation. But there’s more! On the daily menu, there are about 8 fruit pies, 11 cream pies, 3 meringue pies, and 8 specialty pies from which to choose. You can buy them by the slice or by the pie, but one thing is for sure—you will never forget your first bite. When I went with some work colleagues while on a business trip, we tried the Dutch apple (yummy), the Bavarian chocolate banana (even yummier), and the strawberry rhubarb (the yummiest). We all decided that we should have skipped dinner and just eaten pie all night. If only they shipped…

The first time my dad went to Houston, he ignored my wholehearted endorsement and skipped the House of Pies. The second time, however, I wasn’t taking no for an answer and I told him I’d disown him if he didn’t give it a try. Then we had the following telephone exchange:

Dad: Guess where I am.
Betty: I don’t know, where?
Dad: The House of Pies.
Betty: * Delighted and jealous squeal * Do you love love love it? Are you eating tater tots? What kind of pie are you having?!?!
Dad: Yes, yes, Bavarian chocolate banana, and oh my god it is so $%#&*@! good.
Betty: * Stomach rumbling, wondering if her agency’s Houston office needs any help *

If you’re anywhere near Houston, you MUST visit this fine establishment. For those of us who are far far away from the magic, we can still talk about pie, which is probably the greatest fall dessert. What’s your favorite variety? Do you make your crust from scratch (and if so, what’s your secret)? Are there any local establishments that can compare to the House of Pies?

Foodie Book Review–The United States of Arugula

August 29, 2007
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As soon as I caught the lengthy-but-clever subtitle of David Kamp’s book, which read, “The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution,” I knew it would be a good read. I was not disappointed; The United States of Arugula is a fast-paced, intricately-researched, often-hilarious romp through the American food industry and its colorful history.

Kamp begins by introducing readers to “The Big Three”—also known as James Beard (the “father of American gastronomy”), Craig Claiborne (New York Times restaurant critic and food writer), and Julia Child (beloved Amazonian chef, cookbook author, and television personality). As the cast of characters grows to include disciples of Beard, Claiborne, and Child, the book journeys from New York to California and back again, not only describing how Americans went from Jell-O molds and Spam to foie gras and sushi.

From Francophilia to “New American” cuisine, Kamp does a wonderful job of chronicling this country’s great culinary voyage. His footnotes (which are often more interesting than the text itself) give fascinating glimpses into some of the peripheral characters and ironic coincidences that popped up throughout the years. He also strikes a fair balance between discussions of restaurant dining, home cooking, and retail food operations (interspersing stories about the likes of Dean & DeLuca, Williams-Sonoma, and Whole Foods with tales of bistro kitchens and cookbook recipes). Perhaps most intriguingly, Kamp includes a healthy dose of gossip about the power players on the U.S. culinary stage (it’s no surprise that many of the early food personalities were closeted gay men, but who knew that Chez Panisse was such a den of iniquity). Some hard-core epicureans might not appreciate the seedy stories and non-food-related lore, but I think it adds a human touch to some of America’s favorite culinary icons.

In Kamp’s discussion of American food history, no one is safe—from The Frugal Gourmet to The Food Network, from Moosewood to McDonald’s, from Batali to Boulud—and everyone’s influence on the current culinary state is analyzed. In the end, though, the note is positive—after all, we are eating better and smarter than ever before (despite a still-troubling rate of obesity and other food-related health problems).

Whether or not you agree with Kamp’s conclusions, chances are that you’ll enjoy the road he takes to get there. I wholeheartedly recommend this book—you’ll absolutely eat it up.

How orzo saved my dinner

August 22, 2007
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I looooove rice. White, brown, jasmine, saffron, Arborio, long-grain, short-grain, wild, enriched, instant, or “–A-Roni,” I’m a huge fan of the starchy goodness. I especially dig rice dishes where seemingly random, unrelated ingredients come together to form a cohesive, delicious whole (jambalaya, paella, and risotto come to mind).

After pondering what to serve with last night’s pork loin, I decided to prepare a vegetable risotto. Unfortunately, when I peeked into the cabinet, I didn’t see any Arborio rice—so that plan was right out. I found wild rice, but I don’t usually like it except in soup (which is why I had it on hand). Jasmine rice was available, but I thought it would be too floral for the sweet, oniony sauce in which I had marinated the meat. I had a teensy bit of brown rice, but it wouldn’t have been enough for me, my boyfriend, and our delicious leftovers. Dejected, I scanned the cupboard for a solution when it dawned on me…


Orzo is pasta masquerading as rice, and I had a big canister of it just waiting to be put to use. I boiled it up until it was just past al dente, and then I strained it and let it cool slightly. Meanwhile, I boiled and de-kerneled four beautiful ears of corn; diced and sauteed some garlic, red bell peppers, white onions, and jalapenos; and coarsely chopped some tomatoes and cucumbers.

When the orzo reached room temperature, I added the vegetables and threw in some jalapeno oil, garlic oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and oregano. A few good stirs, and voila! Carby, spicy, veggie-y goodness—yum! It was a great side dish for the pork loin, and now I can use the leftovers as a base for new creations.

I think orzo makes great summer salads, and it ends up being delicious whether heated or refrigerated. Are you a fan of orzo? What’s your favorite rice, and how do you use it?

Dishing about Let’s Dish!

August 14, 2007
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At the beginning of the year, I started eating lunch in our office’s small break room. One of the secretaries chowed down with me, and I noticed that her leftovers always looked and smelled great. When I asked her how she had time to cook (she has more kids and grandkids than I can count), she confessed that she “dished.” As in Let’s Dish!, a rapidly growing chain of retail meal preparation stores.

According to its website, “Let’s Dish! is an innovative store where you can make (or pick up) family-friendly dishes designed to be frozen and cooked when you need them.” Even though many of my colleagues raved about the food and the experience, I was a bit hesitant to jump in. After all, I love to cook—wouldn’t “dishing” be like cheating? I don’t have any kids (unless you count my boyfriend), so I felt like the concept wasn’t really designed for me. Nevertheless, in the interest of investigative blogging, I accompanied one of my officemates to a Let’s Dish! session in Fairfax, Virginia.

The first thing I noticed about the store was its operating room-esque cleanliness. “Wow,” I thought, “my kitchen usually looks destroyed before I’m even done chopping onions.” That is definitely one of the plus points of “dishing”—there is absolutely no clean up. If you spill all over the floor or the table, a staff member appears and takes care of the mess for you. Brilliant.

There are about 15 meal options each month, from which you can choose 4, 8, or 12 in advance. The packages cost $100, $180, and $240 respectively (which works out to $4.17, $3.75, and $3.33 per serving). Each meal equals six servings, and they can be split into two servings of three for smaller families (which is what I did, since it’s just me and the man). All of the meals can be grilled, broiled, baked, or sautéed—there is no microwaving involved. I chose an 8-meal package, and after tying my apron and bandana, I was on my way.

There is one station per meal, and all of the ingredients (which are either fresh or flash-frozen) are lined up logically with an appropriately sized measuring cup or spoon. The instructions are clear, and there are separate recipes for those who want to split their meals. Over the course of about two hours, “dishers” move from station to station (depending on what meals they selected), putting together the ingredients, storing everything in plastic and foil, and labeling the completed meals.

The dishes I chose for my first session were Chicken Casablanca, Frozen Strawberry Margarita Pie, Louisiana-Style Jambalaya, Pasta Pomodoro (vegetarian—I doubled up on this one), Sicilian Tilapia, Spring Vegetable Crostini (vegetarian), and Tropical Shrimp and Noodles. All of the meals were pretty darn easy to put together, and the ingredients were quite impressive in their quality. More importantly, I had a lot of fun and I didn’t have to chop or clean anything. I still wasn’t convinced, though. The real test would be cooking the dishes in my kitchen and then tasting them.

With the exception of the Tropical Shrimp and Noodles (which I knew I probably wasn’t going to dig, since it had mango and coconut in it, and I like neither mango nor coconut), all of the dishes were tasty. Some—like the Chicken Casablanca, Sicilian Tilapia, and Spring Vegetable Crostini—were downright delicious. I couldn’t get over how tender the meats were and how fresh the veggies tasted. The 48 servings of food lasted about two months, so I feel like I found a good balance between cooking from scratch, heating up the pre-made meals, and dining out. The meals that could be cooked straight from the freezer without thawing were wonderful when I ran out of the house without defrosting anything.

Since I was pleased with my first Let’s Dish! experience, I brought my culinarily challenged significant other with me to the next session. We had a great time making meals together, and he was impressed with how good everything looked and smelled. He also commented that, for the amount of food you get, Let’s Dish! is a pretty good deal. This time, we made BBQ Pork Tenderloins, Calypso Chicken with Grilled Pineapple (two of these), Spinach and Black Bean Enchiladas, Design-Your-Own Calzones, Southwestern Grilled Pork Chops with Black Bean Salsa, and Spinach Ravioli (two of these as well). So far, we’ve tried the enchiladas, which were VERY tasty; the calzones, which were pretty standard, but good; the ravioli, which was yummy and spicy; and the chicken, which had awesome flavor and was even better with the pineapple.

In addition to convenience, Let’s Dish! offers a healthful approach—most of the meals have been reasonable in caloric content without leaving me feeling hungry. My boyfriend and I are on a low-fat diet right now, and we’ve been able to choose dishes where the fat content doesn’t exceed the 15 grams that we’re allowed per meal.

While I wouldn’t go to Let’s Dish! more than once every 2-3 months, and while I do still love to cook and bake from scratch, I think the concept is an interesting and successful one. It is nice to not have to think about menu planning every day, and it is wonderfully un-stressful to have certain dishes prepped and portioned in advance. Does anyone else have experience with this type of business? What did you think?

Restaurant Week Hodgepodge

August 9, 2007
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I used to write individual reviews for each establishment I visited during Restaurant Week. However, now that I’ve finished my fifth go-round of the popular dining promotion, I realize that I don’t have enough novel things to say to merit three separate write-ups. Instead, I’ll share the highlights of Summer Restaurant Week 2007, during which I ate two discounted dinners (at Vidalia and PS 7’s) and one reduced-price lunch (at DC Coast).

Best value: DC Coast. To determine this, I added up the regular prices of the food I ordered (or the closest item to it) at each restaurant and then performed various complicated mathematical operations to determine which savings was the greatest. I would have normally paid about $36.00 for my lunch at DC Coast, so the $20.07 Restaurant Week price tag represented a 44.25% discount. Vidalia was a close second, coming in at 43.7%. PS 7’s savings were about 37.4%.

Best service: Vidalia. Our server was knowledgeable and friendly, and he was honest in his recommendations (instead of steering us toward things that would pad his tip). He was there when we needed him, but he allowed us to enjoy our meal in relative peace. Bravo.

Worst service: PS 7’s. Our server was painfully slow and awkward. We certainly didn’t want to be rushed, since we were having a lovely conversation and enjoying the food, but he often disappeared for 20-30 minutes at a time. He left to tend to another table in the middle of taking our appetizer orders, and then he did the same after picking up our credit cards. Worst of all, he was almost completely unresponsive to our friendly comments and questions.

Most upcharges: Vidalia. I counted six there. DC Coast only had one (for the crab cakes), and PS 7’s had none.

Most impressive appetizer: The tuna sliders that my friend ordered at PS 7’s, which consisted of tuna tartare (with lots of cilantro—yum) on Parker House rolls with a spicy miso-based sauce. Lovely on the plate, but even better in my mouth.

Least impressive appetizer: DC Coast’s soup of the day, a chilled cucumber-melon soup with shrimp. Tasty, but way too watery, and the shrimp were a bit tough.

Most impressive entrée: Shockingly, they were all pretty darn good. If I had to choose a favorite, I’d probably pick the pan-roasted rainbow trout from PS 7’s. It was VERY rich, but cooked perfectly (skin on, hooray!) and incredibly flavorful. Then again, the roasted poussin at Vidalia was nothing to sneeze at (the skin was crispy and the meat was tender), and my seared tuna at DC Coast was light and delicious. Well done on all three counts!

Least impressive entrée: My boyfriend’s veal Oscar at Vidalia, though he certainly cleaned his plate. The accompanying gnocchi was, quite possibly, the best I’ve ever had. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a huge veal fan to begin with.

Most impressive dessert: Vidalia’s pecan pie, hands down. So. Good. The peach crisp at PS 7’s was also delicious.

Least impressive dessert: Crème brulee at DC Coast. It was tasty, but it wasn’t mind-blowing, and it was a bit heavier than I’d prefer.

Other notable touches: the peach-chardonnay dressing on my frisee salad at Vidalia (I’d buy it by the gallon, it was so good); the perfectly cooked scallops at PS 7’s; and the lovely caprese salad that accompanied my tuna at DC Coast.

Best overall experience: Vidalia, which should come as no particular shock. The food was beautiful and satisfying, the service was attentive but not cloying, and the inclusion of a special, affordable wine list was an excellent extra (of which I definitely took advantage).

There you have it—DC Coast is consistently good (but not spectacular), I’d absolutely go back to PS 7’s (though I’d request a different waiter), and Vidalia is still my favorite restaurant in the city.

Now, back to my regularly scheduled diet…

Recipe: Low-Fat Chocolate Chip Banana Bread

August 1, 2007
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Banana bread

In my weekly produce delivery, I get a lot of bananas. When they are green, I eat them by themselves, on cereal, or with some granola and yogurt. When they are brown, they do not appeal to me at all. Rather than continue to throw them away, I began my search for the perfect banana bread.

My prayers were answered in a recent Slashfood post. The blogger found the original recipe on another blog, and that blogger got it from somewhere else, and so on, and so on. Since I had all of the (relatively few) ingredients handy, I whipped up a batch a few nights ago. The bread was moist, tasty, and an absolute hit with my hungry (and picky) co-workers.

The only hitch? My boyfriend and I are trying to stick to a low-fat, lower-calorie diet, and the bread–while it doesn’t contain any oil or butter–does have a couple of eggs and a lot of sugar. So, I modified a few ingredients and tried again, this time hoping to create a better-for-you baked treat that tastes as good as the original. Thankfully, my second, healthier batch was indistinguishable from the first in both flavor and texture. Victory!

Those who are unconcerned with matters of the waistline can certainly click the link above to find the original recipe. For the rest of us, here’s my edited version–enjoy!

Makes about 10-12 large slices. Cooking time: 40 minutes.

  • 3 very ripe bananas
  • 1/2 cup Egg Beaters
  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat, all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup Splenda for baking
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter or spray an 8-inch square pan.

In a medium mixing bowl, mash the bananas well with a fork or potato masher. Add the eggs, and stir well to combine. Add the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, and vanilla, and stir to mix. Add ¾ cup of the chocolate chips, and stir briefly. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and top with the remaining ¼ cup chocolate chips.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Vapiano–not for foodies?

July 26, 2007
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Last weekend, my boyfriend and I ventured to Vapiano, the new “fresh casual” restaurant at 18th and M Streets. A German chain (started, I believe, by a former McDonald’s franchise owner), the restaurant strives to combine hipness and affordability in a way that only those crazy Europeans can.

Here’s the hook: when you enter, you’re given a “chip,” which looks like a credit card and tracks your orders throughout the restaurant. Then, you are free to meander around the space, ordering food and drink from various stations. At the end of your journey, you bring your chip to the cashier to settle your tab.

When we visited, we started in the bar, where the happy hour specials were pretty enticing–$2.50 for draft beers (Pilsner Urquell or Peroni) and $2.50 for the house wines (both of which were pretty good, especially given the price). From there, we ordered pasta (pomodoro with spinach over linguine) and a pizza (prosciutto) and dug in. Was it the greatest meal of my life? Certainly not—but the pasta (which is made in-house) was fresh and the sauce/toppings were tasty, and the pizza crust was thin but not soggy. Not to mention we got out for less than $45, which included 6 drinks, the aforementioned food, and a large tip (there are no servers to speak of, but the employees pool all gratuities). On a Saturday night in DC, that’s nothing short of a miracle.

Quite pleased with the experience, I couldn’t wait to share the find with other DC food fans. Much to my surprise, however, there was already a lot of buzz about Vapiano in the blogosphere and on the message boards—and it was largely negative. Even worse, people who had never visited the restaurant were knocking it based solely on its cafeteria concept and price-point. In other words, the food snobs were on the attack.

Reading the naysayers’ comments got me thinking—is there a point at which your palate becomes so refined that you cannot eat “regular” food? Do true gourmands become so accustomed to all things haute cuisine that they cannot regress and appreciate the simplicity of a hearty, bargain-oriented meal? Or, does the lambasting of chains like Vapiano have less to do with taste buds and more to do with prestige and appearances and puffery?

I enjoy any opportunity to experience fine dining. I have been lucky enough to taste some truly incredible ingredients and to witness the genius of many of the country’s best chefs. But I have a pretty paltry paycheck, so I am constantly on the lookout for more modestly priced establishments at which to eat. Does eating at Vapiano mean that I don’t know food as well as someone who dines at The French Laundry or Le Bernardin every other month? Does enjoying my $7.75 pasta dish mean that I cannot also enjoy foie gras and Kobe beef?

I don’t know what makes a true epicure. All I know is that, while the world of gourmet cuisine and the world of fresh casual are vastly different, I’m sure glad that both worlds exist in Washington, DC.

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.

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