Dinner at T.W. Food.

http://twfoodrestaurant.com/

For the second year in a row, Keith and I ended up at Cambridge’s T.W. Food for my birthday dinner.  When the restaurant opened in 2007, it seemed to be on all of the local — and some national — “Don’t Miss” lists, making it something of a culinary darling.  It was the descriptions of Chef Tim Wiechmann’s menu that compelled me to make it my birthday stop last year, and it was the memory of that meal that made me want to repeat the experience.

tw-food-11Like last year, Keith and I opted to do the seven course grand tasting ($69.00) — which in a sense is misleading, as the meal is bookended with extra desserts on one side and an amuse bouche on the other.  (For the record, the tasting is also offered with a wine pairing; that meal is an additional $39.00.)

We received two different amuses: the first was a light egg salad on a circle of toasted brioche, the second was a turnip-ginger mousse on another circle; this one was of puff pastry.  Normally, I favor anything involving a puff pastry; while I will say the mousse was silky in texture and subtle in flavor, the egg salad was so awesomely light that I actually found myself preferring it.

tw-food-21Before our tasting began, we were presented with the one other item that we had ordered: T.W. Food’s oyster shooter ($3.00 each).  Last year, the shooter was a part of the tasting, and Keith can tell you how many often I’ve spoken of its cool brininess.

“Is oceany a word?” I would ask.

And later:  “What about sea-licious?”

This time around, the shooters came in flavored essences — beet, fennel or cucumber.  Keith choose the fennel while I opted for the beet, which was not only intensely flavored of beet but also — well, is oceany a word?

tw-food-31We were never able to resolve the issue, since our tasting then officially began with a smoked foie gras crème brûlée.  It was served alongside a cross-hatch of apples and a round of toast, and while it was incredibly creamy, I’ve never liked crème brûlée; even the foie’s richness couldn’t compete with the caramelized top.  I will say that the sugary top was perfectly crisp and had a pleasant snap to it, and that the foie’s texture was remarkably airy and almost like a custard but that is all.  My bias against crème brûlée prevents me from saying that I truly liked this demitasse of a starter, no matter how pretty it was or how well the crisply sweet apples complemented the foie.

tw-food-41The second course of the tasting was another story altogether.  I loved every aspect of this frothy cauliflower
soup.  Spiced with vanilla, curried gnocchi hid at the bottom of the mug, sidling onto my spoon at the very last minute to surprise me with their wholly unexpected zest.  The broth was at once creamy and light, and tasted almost intoxicatingly of cauliflower — rich, milky and utterly delicious.  What was interesting was the mixture of textures here: breezy cauliflower foam, atop lush cauliflower-vanilla soup, in which pillowy gnocchi swam.  It was absolutely lovely, and I had to hide my spoon from myself when I was done, since I was tempted to dip it into Keith’s mug.

tw-food-51The third course was one I was looking forward to very much, from the moment I read its description on the menu: “German spätzle, a special ‘Schwabish’ recipe: bacon, onion, parsley and Emmenthaler cheese.”  I love spätzle — well, I love noodles and those made with egg have a very warm place reserved in my heart — and I am one of those people who think that the addition of bacon to any recipe is a smart move, so I attacked this plate knowing that it was almost impossible for me to be disappointed.  That said, I think even if I hadn’t been already leaning towards affection, there would have been no chance of me not adoring this dish.  After all, what’s not love about crunchy, salty bacon paired with soft, chewy noodles and the tang of melty cheese?

tw-food-6I was a bit anxious about this next dish of Scottish salmon, but not because I get squeamish around fish.  In fact, I love most seafood, and a pan-seared fillet with wild mushrooms sounded particularly appetizing.  What was  getting me nervous, however, was our server described as “eggplant caviar.”  Here’s the thing:  I hate eggplant.  (I know it’s not cool to hate it, but the truth’s the truth.)  At first I took the childish route, performing surgery on my plate in order to transport as much salmon and mushroom to my mouth as little contact with the eggplant as possible.  Don’t worry, I quickly realized that this was utterly silly and that a little but of aubergine wasn’t going to kill me.  In fact, it was quite good…  for eggplant.

tw-food-7Our last of the main courses was game-centric: venison two ways.  The first was the cured and roasted leg meat, and the second was with braised and packaged in pasta.  While it should be noted that everything on the plate was  delicious (especially the smeared dollop of turnip purée and the tender wedges of pear), I found this dish to be exceedingly heavy.  Had the grand tasting been six courses, with the venison as the final savory plate, that would have been one thing, but to face it after the not-so-light salmon and the filling spätzle…  I thought it was a bit of a misstep on the planning stage of things.

tw-food-81Stage one of our dessert was a small cheese plate featuring Noble Cheddar from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and my beloved Comté from Jura, France.  As with the salmon earlier in the evening, I had some hesitation when approaching this dish.  This time, however, it was because of the cheddar.  I am a great aficionado of cheese, but I am most certainly on the fence when it comes to cheddars.  In fact, of all the different varieties that I’ve had, I can only think of three that I’ve liked:  Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, Montgomery’s and Keen’s.  I’m sad to say that the Noble didn’t make my list, though my wedge did find itself on Keith’s plate.

tw-food-91The final course of the grand tasting was one that I was quite curious about: pears suspended in a chamomile tea gelée with a sweet cream panna cotta and a pumpkin coulis.  I don’t know if it’s trendy to confess this, but here I go regardless — I really enjoy a nice gelée.  I like its slippery texture on the tongue, and I like its concentration of flavor.  This gelée satisfied me immensely, as did the panna cotta, which was perfectly balanced between firm and satiny.  The one aspect that I found myself spooning away from, however, was the pumpkin coulis.  Flavored with cinnamon, it was so overwhelming that a few smears on my spoon were more than enough for me to get a taste; after he had finished his, I swapped my goblet with Keith, a fan of cinnamon.

tw-food-101Immediately before we were presented with the bill, we were given some extra desserts to speed us home.  My absolute favorite was a sweet that tap-danced the line dividing cookie from cake; made of almond flour, it was so delicate and so subtle that I found myself chewing more and more slowly so that I could enjoy it even more.  The second-place finish goes to the golden brown tuille, whose sticky crunch was impossibly fun.  In the absolute dead last position were the sugar-dusted Concord grape jellies; after one bit I forfeited my candy to Keith.  I don’t know what it is about grape (and cherry, and raspberry) but I infinitely prefer the authentic fruit to a reproduction, or even a boiled down version of its essence.  I don’t know why this is, especially as I’ve no problems with candified versions of apple, peach and watermelon; grape, for whatever reason, is at the top of my can’t-stand-it list.

Now, first things first:  I love T.W. Food.  I love the casual-yet-refined ambiance, I love the eclectic mix of furnishings, I love the fact that our server remembered us from last year, and I of course love the practically worshipful attention-to-detail Chef Wiechmann and his team possess.  What I don’t love is that I’ve come to realize that there are so many foods and flavors that I dislike: crème brûlée, eggplant, most Cheddars, cinammon and concentrated grape.  Did my food preferences cause me to enjoy my meal any less?  Of course not; I just find myself wondering what else there is out there that I find unpalatable, and hoping they’re not on the menu next year.

T.W. Food
377 Walden Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
617.864.4745
twfoodrestaurant.com

T.W. Food on Urbanspoon

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Dinner at No. 9 Park.

For a while now, Keith and I had been tossing around restaurant ideas, trying to decide where we wanted to go to celebrate our anniversary.  The list was pretty short, and ultimately we chose Barbara Lynch‘s No. 9 Park.  I remember when I first moved to Boston years and years ago, I would walk past the Park Street brownstone and think about how cozy the diners looked, framed in the restaurant’s warmly-lit windows.

As we walked across the Common, Keith and I chatted about the meal ahead.  Did we want to order à la carte?  Should we try the $65.00 three-course prix-fixe?  Or maybe the seven-course tasting menu for $96.00?  Keith and I both love tasting menus — there’s something to be said about me, the Indecisive Wonder, not having to make any choices whatsoever as to what I want to eat.  And, of course, there’s also the thrill of seeing what exactly a kitchen is capable of, so we determined the tasting was the way to go that night.

Our first course was a lobster gelée, which was served alongside a dollop of paddlefish roe and a combination of avocado and cucumber that had been minced incredibly finely.  The gelée was so enjoyable and had a lovely silken texture, but what I liked best was the contrast of the roe with the avocado and cucumber.  The salty globules offered just the teeniest bit of resistance against the teeth, unlike the miniscule crunchy green squares.  All in all, it was a very subtle and refined introductory plate.

Next up was a dish of Chilean turbot with celeriac,  wax beans and a summer truffle.  Like the gelée before it, this course was very elegant; I found the celeriac in particular to be a memorable ingredient, as it added a really lovely freshness to the entire plate.  Actually, as I was slicing into the fish — which was cooked absolutely perfectly, I should add — I suddenly thought to myself, This is a very feminine dish.  It was simply so delicate and light, that I can’t think of a better word to describe the overall effect.

Earlier in the month I had gotten into a dispute of sorts with a friend who insisted the menu at No. 9 was Italian; I said that No. 9 leaned more towards the French, though I was willing to concede that its cuisine could be described at Mediterranean — which could go so far as to include Italy.  Our third course would definitely fall under the Italian and/or Mediterranean category:  housemade rigatoni  in an  heirloom tomato sauce with a scorched Japanese eggplant and ricotta salata.  This sauce was absolutely delicious; it had a surprising depth and — at the risk of sounding like the fortune teller on the Japanese version of Iron Chef — it tasted like summer.  Actually, it tasted like the most delicious tomato at the height of summer, and was at once comforting and delicious.

Keith and I both chose to get an additional course, which was served midway through the meal.  As there were two options we got both, agreeing to swap plates after we had the chance to sample each one.  This is something Keith and I rarely do; we generally order our own dishes, occasionally tasting the other’s, but it is really uncommon for us to trade altogether like some other dining couples do.

I don’t think it will be a surprise to anyone to read that I was most excited about the artisan foie gras plate.  It was paired with a portion of pommes Maxine, which basically are thinly sliced golden potatoes coated in butter and then baked.  Simple as they sound, they are infinitely more satisfying than words can convey.

If the potatoes were hard to describe, think of the trouble I’m having with the foie.  Yes, it was rich; yes, it was decadent.  The foie was something else as well — it was beautifully textured, and had a mouthfeel so creamy that each piece practically melted on the tongue.  Truly: imagine a soft ice cube, if that’s possible, slowly turning to liquid in your mouth.  That’s the best job I can do in telling you about this amazing foie.

The other optional course, which Keith in particular was very interested in trying, was the prune-stuffed gnocchi.  The gnocchi came with two luscious little bite of foie, which of course was the highlight of the plate for me. The gnocchi themselves weren’t much to my liking; I thought the prunes were too much on the sweet side, and after half a gnocchi, I was ready to swap plates with Keith.  And, just so you know that I’m not too too biased towards the foie, even Keith agreed the prune aspect of the plate was too intensely flavored.

Next was the fifth course, as I am counting the gnocchi and foie count as one together.  The fifth dish threw the No. 9 cuisine debate straight out the window.  We were presented with a plate of crispy pork belly, baby bok choi and kimchi; our server then poured a gorgeous bacon consommé over everything.  Though this dish may sound odd when placed alongside its predeccesors, this pork was just as flavorful.  It was lush and tender, with a skin that crunched like hard candy under my teeth.  The kimchi was of the perfect heat, even for someone like me who admittedly is a wimp when it comes to such things.  Wimp or no, this was flawless.

I wish I could use the word flawless or a synonym to describe our final savory course, but I know that would be a lie.  It was a braised beef brisket with cranberry beans, and I was barely able to eat any of it.  The brisket sat atop a piece or ribeye, and the entire column of meat was saturated with a thick sauce — the flavor of which was too intensely sweet for me to eat.  Come to think of it, I don’t know if it was sweet exactly; in fact, I believe it would be more accurate to describe it as sickly-sweet.  The meat was wonderfully tender, but regardless of this, I was hard-pressed to get more than a few bites in me.  I felt terribly guilty; after all, no one likes to pay any amount of money for an unsatisfactory dish.  I should say that I loved the cranberry beans, which is absolutely true, but my affection for them did not make up for my feelings towards the brisket and ribeye in any way.

In all honesty, I was a bit wary of our first dessert, a perspective I established solely on the description: printed in the menu:  “huckleberry soup — lemon meringue, huckleberry confit.”  (I don’t know the reason why so many restaurants describe their courses like this — the dish’s name, followed by two-to-four components.  It seems pretentious.)  I’ve had a few fruit-based soups lately, and they all seem to be much better in theory than in practice.  I was intruigued by the huckleberries though; until this meal, my only experience with them have been cartoon-based: Huckleberry Hound and Huckleberry Pie.

This was better.

Before I begin discussing the soup, let me first discuss its appearance: gorgeous.  Honestly, could a lovelier claret color exist?  I don’t think so, especially not one that could possibly taste as rich as this.  The huckleberries have a sweetness to them not unlike that of a perfectly-ripe blueberry, though I would say the huckleberry flavor has little to no tartness.  The lemon meringues, which look like little mini marshmallows, complimented the berries fantastically, adding the tiniest bit of acid to the dessert.  I would have loved a few dozen more of them.

Our last dessert, and our final course, was a chocolate and caramel mousse, which was served with an Italian cookie called lingue de gatto, or cat’s tongue.  Our server charmingly shrugged when we raised our eyebrows at the name.

“I have no idea why it’s called that,” he said sheepishly.

Etymology nonwithstanding, the cookie was unremarkable.  As was the mousse, which I found utterly disappointing.  (The same could be said for the caramel, which I promptly scooped off of my plate and onto Keith’s, but that might just be because I’ve never really liked caramel.)  What was quite nice, however, was the single spoonful of sorbet, which in a burst not unlike sunshine concentrated the best flavors of sweet grapefruit.  If the plate had consisted solely of that, I would have been beyond pleased.

As we walked back across the Common, I tried to pinpoint how I felt about the night.  Our cocktails were wonderful, the service was lovely, and the décor was stylish — though more modern than what I expected, and comprised of nothing so noteworthy as to be distinctive.  The food, with the exception of the brisket, had all been executed perfectly; in fact, I think I used the exact word (or variations of, or synonyms) several times as descriptors.  So why was I literally dragging my feet along the pathways, struggling to put a metaphorical finger on my opinion?  I finally realized that my meal had been missing something: excitement.  Not once throughout the evening did I place a forkful into my mouth and think, This is really something.  Certainly, I thought the food was flavorful and at times delicious, but never did I find it innovative or even evocative.  It was solidly-cooked, perfect food…  that was just a little boring.

No. 9 Park
9 Park Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02108
617.742.9991
no9park.com

No. 9 Park on Urbanspoon

Dinner at Craigie Street Bistrot.

http://www.craigiestreetbistrot.com

Cambridge’s Craigie Street Bistro has been on my list of restaurants to try for quite some time, but only this past weekend was I finally able to make it over for dinner. Keith and I knew we wanted to go on a Sunday night, in order to take advantage of the “Chef’s Whim” tasting menu, which is only available on Sundays and Wednesdays after nine. So at nine-thirty, we met up with Melissa and Kelly and descended the steps into the subterranean space.

There are two options for the Sunday night Chef’s Whim at Craigie Street: the four-course ($39.99) and the six-course ($54.99). As a table, we had to agree upon the same number of courses; we chose to go the six-course route, with Kelly opting for a vegetarian version — something I think a bit unfortunate, considering that Food & Wine recently named Craigie Street as one of their top picks for the “10 Best Restaurants for Carnivores” in the magazine’s 2008 Go List.

The first course we carnivores received was a salad of scallops, a few different varieties of beets and globes of salmon roe tossed in a Dijon and miso vinaigrette. The plate, which I think would be impossible to make any prettier, was dotted with purslane and edible flowers; a coin-sized quail egg rested on top of the salad. Each bite tasted so light and fresh that it’s hard to come up with the proper words to describe it, though “oceany” comes to mind. The brininess of the scallop combined with the spring-like flavor of the Dijon-miso combination was completely refreshing. It was a phenomenal first course and a perfect beginning.

Just when I started to think that no dish could possibly touch that beet-scallop-roe salad, our second course arrived. Another salad, this one was of several different types of tomatoes — all grown locally — sprinkled with shavings of salt-cured foie gras. Now, here is where I must confess to a certain bias: I love the tomato. I don’t care that it’s a fruit rather than a vegetable; all that interests me is that it is delicious. I love them raw, I love them cold, I love them off the vine, I love them in sandwiches à la Harriet M. Welch. I think that, even in spite of this, I would have absolutely adored this salad. I was blown away by the diverse range of flavors present in the different tomatoes; it was more than I could ever imagine, ranging from lushly sweet to pleasantly tart. I believe that’s a chive blossom resting atop the tomato pile; it gave the whole plate a really pleasant oniony-ness that was sharply crisp and very nice.

The lovely tomatoes were followed with a fish dish: cod cheek tempura with a pinenut-peppercress salad and chorizo sauce.  While this course was perfectly fine, I really do think it suffered, as it had the misfortune of following two utterly sublime  plates.  Could cod even aspire to compare itself to a luscious scallop or a sun-ripened tomato?  I think not, though I will say that these cheeks certainly were very tender, all but falling apart in the mouth (the cheeks of the cod are thought to be the most succulent part of the animal.)  The peppercress, or peppergrass, added a startling bite to the plate that I found very interesting…  but it wasn’t enough to put this in the same league as the first two courses.

For our fourth course we were served a soup of white corn drizzled with paprika oil.  Interestingly, it wasn’t until the bowl was placed directly before me that I smelled the  corn’s deeply sweet scent, which then hit me so fast and so strong that it was positively overwhelming.  For a moment, it was almost as if I was seeing beige — in a good way.  This soup’s rich, velvety texture was so decadent that, while Keith and Kelly discussed I-don’t-know-what, Melissa and I volleyed suggestions back and forth as to what would pair well with it.

“Shrimp, grilled,” one of us said.

“Bacon,” the other replied.

And et cetera, until Melissa said thoughtfully, “But you know, it’s so good, it really doesn’t need anything else at all.”

She was (and is) thoroughly correct.  This was pure corn essence, the absolute core of corn flavor, and was obscenely, astronomically, gastronomically delicious.

The greatness of the corn soup really should have prepared me for the next course: “pork two ways.”  Normally, menu items in quotation marks kind of irritate me, but this dish was so very marvelous that  I found it in my heart to forgive the copywriter.  (It was also so very marvelous that I forgot to take a picture.  Whoops.)  The pork duo consisted of luscious morsels of slow-cooked belly and a  simply  phenomenal Alsatian-style sausage that was — and I hate the overuse of this word but in this instance it is apropos — transcendent.  Served over over hakurei turnips, it was without a doubt The Best Sausage Ever.  I don’t proclaim to have tasted every sausage in the world, but after eating a nibble of this, I don’t have to.  So tender as to soften in the mouth from the tongue’s heat, this must be what all meat dreams of becoming when it grows up.

As I was slowly savoring each bite, I found myself wondering, What is this flavor that I’m tasting?  It’s like cumin, but not quite.  Again, I turned to Melissa, who volunteered cinnamon or nutmeg, but I wasn’t convinced.  Our server solved the mystery for us — turns out we were both right, as the lovely sausage included all three, along with clove, white pepper and French allspice.

Our final course was dessert, but rather than bring us four the same sweet, we were each presented with a different dish, which we were meant to share.  While I normally think sharing is a good idea, when it comes to dessert I can be extremely hoardy so I am very much opposed to this idea…  particularly since the olive oil and Taza chocolate mousse was placed in front of me.  I love chocolate mousse almost as much as I love the tomato, so that’s really saying something.  This version was drizzled with  a very sweet kumquat syrup, which I could have done without, and pierced with almond pralines, which I could have happily eaten more of.

The four of us picked off each other’s plates, sampling white corn grits with housemade strawberry jam and lemon balm ice cream, a mixed berry crisp with anise hyssop ice cream, and a pair of mint profiteroles drizzled with chocolate and rum sauce (clockwise from the mousse).  Of the quartet, my favorite actually was the berry crisp, a surprise since, had I been left to my own devices, I most certainly would have gone for the mousse, with the profiteroles as a close runner-up.  The grits-and-jam was a clever combination that I never would have selected normally but enjoyed immensely.

In the end, we dawdled over our desserts and coffee, not wanting to leave the restaurant.  Of course we had to, and spent the next twenty minutes finishing up our conversation in the parking lot, where I was promptly bitten by several mosquitoes.  I suppose, in a strange way, I can’t blame them — after such an enchanting meal, I probably tasted exquisite.

Craigie Street Bistrot
5 Craigie Circle
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
617.497.5511
craigiestreetbistrot.com

Craigie Street Bistrot on Urbanspoon

Dinner at L’Espalier.

lespalier.jpgWhen I asked Keith a few weeks ago where he wanted to go for dinner on his birthday, he barely took a moment to consider the many options before answering.

L’Espalier,” he said.

The Gloucester Street restaurant will be moving into a new space in the yet-as-unopened Mandarin Oriental hotel early this summer, and Keith had always wanted to have the experience of dining in the well-known Back Bay townhouse. Personally, as someone who has always had a special interest in architecture and design, I was looking forward to seeing the décor as well as tasting the food.

Oh, the food… but before I get into that, let me preface by stating a two things:

First: I had decided not to sneak a peek at the online menus as I normally do; this was Keith’s birthday after all, and if he wanted to order the multi-course “Chef’s Tasting Journey,” then I would be in the same boat.

Second: before leaving the house, I packed my tiny camera into my equally tiny bag but I feared I would get too self-conscious to use it. L’Espalier is known for its beyond-exceptional service, so I doubt the staff would have minded a snap-happy patron. That said, I chickened out. The setting was so extravagant and opulent that though I was enjoying myself, I too intimidated to take a photograph of anything but the exterior as we left.

Once we were seated, Keith asked if I would be interested in trying the “Spring Degustation,” the seasonal tasting menu, for ninety-five dollar each. As I looked it over, we were told that we could substitute any of the courses with selections from the à la carte menu. I had been dying to try the veal sweetbreads and Keith had been equally eager to taste the squab, so we both asked to swap out a tuna dish that was to be served with a red Thai curry.

For our first course, we were presented with Maine lobster poached in butter and served with crispy prosciutto. Of course, the lobster was rich and flavorful; how could it be anything otherwise, after having been swimming in a lavish and delicious ocean of butter? The prosciutto though, was not to my liking. I’m not quite sure of how it had been prepared — I think perhaps fried, like bacon? — but it had a certain gaminess to it that I found off-putting. I think I would have much rather preferred regular, salty prosciutto.

Next came the Muscovy duck terrine with cornichons, red onion, and brioche toast points, the last of which I absolutely loved. Keith set to work spreading the duck over the brioche and layering it with grainy mustard, red onion and a cornichon; I preferred instead to smear the mustard directly over the terrine and slice into it before spearing either a cornichon or an onion. I thought the brioche too perfect to adulterate its flavor with anything else.

The third course was where Keith and I had deviated from the menu with our squab and sweetbreads, respectively. Now, I had never had sweetbreads before and was practically kicking Keith’s leg in anticipation. What I should have done was ask as to whether I would be eating thymus or pancreas, not that it would have mattered since the dish was fantastic. The sweetbreads had been fried, then scattered amongst some truly beautiful greens. The sweetbreads were surprisingly earthy and rich, and made me wish I could ask for seconds.

For the fourth and last of the savory courses, we had grilled beef tenderloin served with a dollop of horseradish crème fraîche atop potato rösti, and a small amount of ratatouille. While it may sound as though there was a lot of contrasting flavors on the plate, I have to say that wasn’t the case at all. Instead, everything was so well-seasoned and delectable that if anything, the accompaniments just barely overshadowed the perfectly-cooked wonderfully tender tenderloin, which is really saying something.

The beef was followed by a cheese sampler and a palate cleanser of citrus sorbet over fruit compote and Port poached grapes. I will write more about the cheeses later, but I will say this about the sorbet — it was absolutely delicious. The combination of the astringent citrus and the Port-sweetened grapes was perfectly balanced, and I’m not ashamed to say that I would want to pop back in to ask for just this. Soon it will be humid and sticky in Boston, and knowing how much I enjoyed the cool treat on a blustery night, I can tell that it would be thoroughly refreshing in the summer weather.

Just when I thought we were done, we had the course I had completely forgotten about: dessert. That night it was a duo — “chocolate decadence cake” served alongside a vanilla panna cotta. Though it was the cake which was described as decadent, I would have used the adjective in regards to both sweets, for the creamy panna cotta was just was luxurious as the dense chocolate cake.

Before heading home, I braced myself for the cold with a coffee while Keith sipped at one last cocktail. Though almost three hours had passed, time seemed to both stop and whiz by. When you’re unaccustomed to being buoyed upon a cushion of elegance, it makes the utmost sense to want to linger as long as possible.

(A confession: after the meal, I stepped into the ladies’ room, where I rested my head against the wall (which was papered, I should mention, in an engrossing and interesting over-sized map of historic Paris). I had surpassed my capacity for food by the third course, and was well past the point of uncomfortable fullness. All I wanted to do at that moment was step out of my dress and lie down, but clearly that wasn’t an option. I knew I would have to drive us home first; after I parked the car and cleaned up, I fell prostrate upon the bed and didn’t move until the alarm went off the next day.)

L’Espalier
30 Gloucester Street, until June 2008
Boston, Massachusetts 02115
617.262.3023
lespalier.com

L'Espalier on Urbanspoon

Dinner at wd-50.

This past Saturday, Joann, Keith and I went to dinner at wd-50 on New York’s Lower East Side. We had been planning it for a while, since we’re forever talking about the miscellaneous restaurants and cuisines we want to try. We decided on Wylie Dufresne’s place; it would be interesting, it wouldn’t be as pricey as some of the other locations we had been tossing around and, most importantly, we could get reservations for a Saturday night. Granted, we booked our table almost a month in advance…

Things got off a bit oddly; we were punctual and seated right away, but our waitress — one of our many servers over the course of the night — approached our table just as Keith was standing to excuse himself. She tried to take our order right then and there, while Keith was hovering and he had to send her away. Maybe this wasn’t such a big deal, but I thought it added an unnecessary awkwardness to the meal, especially because it took place right at the start.

The three of us had agreed ahead of time that we would all get the tasting menu, but would pair it with wines of our own choosing. We each started off with a glass of sparkling Gruner Veltliner and followed it up with a bottle of Sancerre Roc L’Abbaye. The Gruner Velt was really nice, but I particularly liked the Sancerre — more about it in a later post though, because this one is going to be quite long, I think.

sesame-crisps.jpg The first item to arrive at the table were sesame crisps, which wd-50 serves in lieu of bread. Personally, I enjoy a bread basket since I have an ardent love for bread, but these crisps did not make me miss bread at all. Paper-thin and savory, these sesame-speckled crisps were ridiculously addictive. We went through two boxes of them — they arrived in a rectangular wooden box — and when I say “we” I mean “me,” as it was my hand that kept creeping back to snap off larger and larger pieces. My placemat was littered with crumbs. Joann rightfully noticed that the sheerer and thinner crisps had a more pervasive and rich taste, almost buttery, but honestly, I didn’t care. I just wanted to eat them all up. Which I practically did.

amuse-bouche.jpgAmuse bouche of king oyster noodles, pomegranate and purple cabbage. Aesthetically appealing enough, not that you can tell from my terrible picture here. My camera is still MIA, so I borrowed my mother’s, which she acquired from her mother, who purchased it in Hong Kong. I could not for the life of me figure out how to make it work properly, so I apologize for the quality of the photographs. That said, in the case of the amuse, it does not matter in the least, because I thought it was entirely forgettable. I’m sure it tasted lovely, and though my photodocumentation is terribly lacking, I can’t remember a blessed thing about it. Maybe I was just too flustered with the machinery of the foreign camera to appreciate the shavings of pomegranate piled delicately atop — atop what? I don’t remember.

pizza-pebbles-2.jpg This dish was described on the very minimal menu as “pizza pebbles, pepperoni, shiitake.” (There were no puffy or superfluous description-inflating wordage here; it was just ingredients, barring hydrocolloid gums.) The pebbles were literally made up of miscellaneous flavored powders, except for what in the picture looks like little black chips, which are dried shiitake slices. Joann described the pebbles as such: “They taste like Combos!” I’m sorry to say that she got the taste dead-on; I was looking for something really exceptional, but is something familiar a bad thing? The texture was what made the pebbles truly special — an extra-fine and silky powder that was surprisingly soft in the mouth… and intensely flavored of Combos.

knot-foie-1.jpgI was especially looking forward to this, what the menu called “knot foie,” because I love liver almost as much as I love bread. This malleable thread of foie gras was just the ticket for me, though I was a little nervous about the daubs of kimchi speckled around the knot and the plate. The foie was just as smooth and as decadent as I hoped, but with a little added snap, for lack of a better word. Here’s what I mean: when Keith, lovely man that he is, offered me some of his knot, I sliced a portion off and speared it with my fork; it lifted cleanly off of the plate, without smearing. Whatever Chef had added to the foie had lightly encased it, almost, so that the creaminess of the foie was contained within itself.

hamachi.jpg Here we have “hamachi tartare, wakame, sake lees tahini, grapefruit shallot.” Hopefully someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the dark beads on the left side of the plate is the wakame, a type of seaweed. What I can tell you for with absolute certainty that this was fantastically delicious. The hamachi — which, a la distance, looked like a solid piece of fish — was actually comprised of several shards of fish that were somehow held together to make these larger rectangles. The matchsticks of Asian pear that rested on the hamachi were so flavorful, and the tahini droplet was a less intense but still amazingly nutty version of your typical tahini, tempered by the sweetness of the pear. The mound of perfectly minced grapefruit was also tasty, but only when eaten in conjunction with another element from the plate. On its own, it was gravely sour.

eggs-benedict-1.jpg When we went through the menu at the end of the night, Joann decided that this course of eggs Benedict was her absolute favorite. While it wasn’t mine, I can definitely see how she, or anyone, could go for this crazy dish. I’ve never understood the concept behind Canadian bacon (a sorry, sorry substitute for the real deal) but these crispy, crunchy, salty petals were the exception. The deep yellow chunks of yolk were also amazing: eggy, but not overly so. The undisputed star, though, was the hollandaise, which was not the yellow slick across the plate but rather the cubes that kind of look like geometric chicken nuggets. Like chicken nuggets, the hollandaise had been breaded… in English muffin dust. Not only that, Chef had devised a way to deep fry them. I wish that this dish had been served in triplicate; I accidentally pierced my first hollandaise cube and cut into the second, spilling hollandaise all over my plate. Had there been a third, I would have put it in my mouth whole, and held it there until the English muffin casing dissolved.

french-onion-soup-1.jpgFor me, the best part of this French onion soup was the caramelized onion smeared on top of the crunchy wafers. I might have liked the globules of gruyère more, had I not had something similar this past fall at the restaurant at Hacienda Benazuza, an el Bulli hotel. In effect, the cheese was liquefied and somehow suspended in a coating to keep it in its liquid state. If placed in the mouth, the teensiest bit of pressure breaks the casing, causing the cheese to explode. This is potentially very messy. Like the amuse that started the meal, the soup was sadly lackluster. The broth itself was quite disappointing; there was none of the robust flavor associated with a classic French onion soup. Generally speaking, I’m appreciative of anyone who attempts to put his or her own spin onto a classic, but this was a dud.

cuttlefish-2.jpgBoth Joann and I were counting down to the cuttlefish; it must be an Asian thing, as Keith couldn’t awaken the same frenzied enthusiasm. As with all of the dishes, we didn’t know what to expect, particularly with the menu’s description of “cuttlefish, squash, chamomile, orange, toast oil.” There was no point even trying to imagine in what form the cuttlefish would arrive, and there was no possible way that we would have guessed cubed. Cubed, along with segments of squash (I don’t remember what type) and served with a generous smudge of orange-zest purée. We were warned that the purée was bitter on its own, and to only eat it mixed with cuttlefish and squash, but the three of us scraped our bowls regardless. Zest or no, this was a truly enjoyable plate: sweet, salty and bitter — all at once.

lamb-belly-2.jpgKeith was looking forward to this (“lamb belly, black chickpea, cherried cucumber”) probably just as much as Joann and I were the cuttlefish. And like us, he was not let down. To go through the components… crispy, salty lamb “bacon;” a black chickpea hummus of sorts; blades of lemongrass. I was particularly thrilled with the lemongrass — just chalk it up there with liver and bread. This was the sort of dish that had me wishing I hadn’t ordered the tasting menu. I wanted more of it. I’m especially pleased with the photograph; I think it’s undoubtedly the best of the bunch.

mint-2.jpg If there was something on the menu that I was not looking forward to, it was certainly the first dessert course of “wintergreen parfait, walnut, avocado, chartreuse.” Of the ingredients, the one that made me draw back a bit was the wintergreen — my dislike of it probably comes from years of my dad foisting mint tea on me whenever I didn’t feel well. He picked the mint from our backyard and kept it in a cupboard next to the oven; I hated having to retrieve something from inside because of the smell. Admittedly, because of this, my first bite of this parfait made me cringe. The mint was so acute, but then the flavor mellowed in my mouth, and ultimately it tasted of a bright mint cheesecake.

coconut-2.jpgAnother one I was wary about — “toasted coconut cake, carob, smoked hazelnut, brown butter sorbet.” Though I love the richness associated with coconut, the texture can be so off-putting. My nervousness, in this case, was completely unfounded as this was one amazing coconut cake: warm and buttery, with an unbelievably satisfying density. The brown butter sorbet, while a nice compliment to the coconut, didn’t conjure up nearly as many urges to to sneak spoonfuls from Keith and Joann’s plates as the cake.

white-chocolate-1.jpgLet’s review: thus far we’ve established my love of bread, liver, lemongrass and cuttlefish. To that list we can add chocolates, since I’m fond of them as well. It wasn’t unreasonable for me to think that “soft white chocolate, potato, malt, white beer ice cream” and I would be a perfect match. I’m not quite certain why, but I wasn’t anywhere as gaga about this smooth chocolate snake as I would have foreseen. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that this followed a near-perfect dessert.

chickory-marshmallow-3.jpg Of the three of us, I’m the only one who can describe this fantastic finisher of “chicory ice cream-coffee.” Keith was hesitant to try this, especially after Joann and I explained the history of chicory as a coffee alternative, a clear turn-off to an anti-aficionado of coffee. In a burst of reverse-chivalry, Joann traded Keith her orange-dusted marshmallow for a second pleasantly-gritty lump of coffee-infused ice cream. I wasn’t half as noble-minded; I would have eaten both of their semi-sweet chunks as well as the citrusy mashmallows, had I been given the chance.

All in all, dinner was incredibly fun. I had to stop myself several times from clapping my hands and cackling with glee, two of my signature moves, though I might have given myself away more than once whenever a server placed a new plate in front of me. Or when our box of sesame crisps was replenished. Or when Keith offered to ask if we could give our compliments to the chef. (I wouldn’t let him. What would I say? I am so uncool.) Though there were some bumpy bits along the way, I would definitely return to wd-50 for another go at a different tasting menu. Anyone want to come along?

(P.S. Niki, the bathroom was very cool indeed. And the stalls came with instructions.)

wd-50
50 Clinton Street
New York, New York 10002
212.477.2900
wd-50.com

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