Monday, April 26, 2010

layers of the onion

Last Friday, I went to Vidalia 24 with my friends Ed, Kriste, and Gennaro.

It was, in a word, fantastic.

The only words that exist to describe how delicious and interesting the courses we tasted over three hours seem hackneyed and overused. Come up with a rave, and I would agree it applies to one if not many or most of the dishes Chef Cooper set before us tonight. I could have made a meal of the interpretation of caviar, the scallops, the lamb, and the bacon -- oh, and the foie gras -- but as much as I hated it when those dishes were gone, I was thrilled to discover what new masterpiece would take their places.

I've never eaten in Vidalia's dining room -- only the bar. In fact, that was where I took my Air Force friend before, who was so impressed with the bar food that he decided 24 had to be on his "must eat" list before he leaves DC for good. He's recently been to minibar, Komi, and Volt (although not Table 21), so Vidalia 24 came next in the line. Well, halfway through he was contemplating if he could get in again with friends from New Zealand.

Me? I was wondering why I'd not done anything like this before, and glad I was doing it at a place that feels probably too homey after a cruddy day at the office. Getting not only to see, but to participate in, the process of a chef and his staff orchestrating an event like this truly adds to the experience -- but the food was so far beyond what I could have anticipated that I don't even know how to demonstrate that.

I don't think of foam as food; while molecular gastronomy interests me academically, I'll take a burger over a "burger" any day. But 24 wasn't just about showing off; it was a pure synthesis of techniques both classical and creative, pairings both time-tested and innovative, and most tellingly, a joyous exploration on behalf of both those creating and those dining alike.

Part of the fun is that Chef Cooper really wants those seated at the table to let loose and have a blast. Ed Jenks and his seemingly endless perfect pairings definitely help with that, but honestly, the freedom to be as silly and over the top as we might want was a real pleasure. That freakin' bacon & bread dish so good you want to steal some off your friend's plate? Have a spoon war -- no one's judging! Playing with your napkin ring and naming the iron pig Fat Bastard Reuben? (Not that we did that. Ahem.) All part of the experience. Part of being at 24 is creating the synaesthesia most of us don't actually ever experience; laughter and camaraderie woke up the taste buds, and let one -- or, anyway, let me -- experience combinations and depths of flavors I didn't know existed.

So in the vein of creativity, Kriste and I decided to write our responses to the night as abstract but meaningful responses to the menu itself. (But, for those of you who find this utterly ridiculous, never fear -- Gennaro has the more traditional write-up, and our combined pictures).

Without further ado, then, and on behalf of newly-minted auntie K, I give your our impressions of the highlights.

pink piggy / black linen / eat with your eyes first

beef liver jalapeno matsuhisa picked radish / unctuous umami / mmmmm

peas & carrots/ whispering whimsy / shouting of spring

scallop & avocado / smoke and flame / eyes-roll-back good

vegetable ash / "rocks" of potato and egg / earth wanting wind, seeking fire

mirabelle, grüner veltliner, pinot noir / lime, vodka, cucumber / aromatic fantastic

8 mile / 8 ball / bacon powder is the new cocaine

don't need no heaven / lamb, peanut, rye / more, please

pigeon, blood pudding, rhubarb / mineral symphony / 2005 mourvedre domaine du gros' noré

green garlic / oh baby / sturgeon sublime

palate fixer / test tube / mirepoix elixir

fancy chocolate crunchies / oooh melty ice cream / sweets for the sweet

riffing on riffing / want more detail? /
see this post

Friday, April 23, 2010

didn't siroc my world

Last night was a lovely night to sit outside anywhere in Washington. I had thought it might get a bit chilly, but surprisingly, the patio at Siroc (which lacks heaters, as far as I noticed) remained pleasant after the sun went down. Dinner itself, however, was less so.

My friend and I wanted to taste several dishes from the menu, and as noted upthread, Siroc happily does half-portions of pasta, which meant we could do two appetizers and two pastas. For our first course, we had the
Cappelacci filled with Lobster and Roasted Corn with a Sweet Pepper Beurre Blanc and Baby Cilantro and an off-menu special of Soft-Shell Crabwith Crispy Pork Belly and Baby Bok Choi. The latter was absolutely the dish of the night: a big, meaty soft-shell, prepared expertly, with crispy pieces of pork and tender greens, all tied together with just enough of a balsamic-reduction drizzle (which is an ingredient that likely belongs on the trite food list if not already there, but did work in this dish, adding a bit of tang and cutting the richness of the fried crab).

Sadly, the pasta did not work as well. This dish was basically another riff on lobster and butter, but although many dishes succeed with only those two elements, this dish completely failed to pull it off. There was an odd sour-citrus note (from the sweet pepper?) and a bit of a chili oil (hot pepper as a balancing element? I don't know, it was just confusing) that didn't integrate; if there was corn present, it surely wasn't roasted, because none of that flavor came through. The lobster itself was compressed into dense balls at the center of the cappelacci, and so lacking in any forthright lobster flavor that it seems safe to assume it had been frozen. This was likely also the case with the crabmeat in the crabcake amuse over a spot of mango puree, although the mere presence of an amuse was a pleasant surprise, and highlights the very good service we had throughout.

For our second courses, we had another half-portion of pasta, this time the
Hand-made Potato Gnocchi with a Ragu of Muscovy Duck with Caramelized Carrots and Parsnips. For a dish with so many elements that should have exploded with flavor, we wound up instead with a bowl of dumplings under-topped with a sauce at once overly herbaceous and bland. This would have benefited from a brief encounter with a salt-shaker, which might have allowed the flavors of the duck and the root vegetables to emerge and lend some life to the dish; instead, this was just sad. We also had the Quail Marinated in Pomegranate with Fingerling Potatoes baked with Goat Cheese Curd, Green Olives and Crushed Tomatoes, which did at least have flavor; unfortunately, many of them just didn't belong together! One of the odd men out here was the cheese; luckily, to some degree, there was very little of it (I think we each had one small bite that included it). I don't recall actually seeing any olives, and the fingerlings were sad and limp, although properly seasoned. I think I got the one fairly meaty bite of the bird, the skin of which had been lacquered to a sticky-sweet shine by the marinade.

It's disappointing when a meal that seems promising falls this far short of the mark, especially when there are little elements that shine. The plates evinced plenty of good technique: the vegetables in the ragu had been chopped into perfect, tiny dice; the crab was fried with neither too light nor too heavy a hand. Service was unobtrusive and spot-on throughout the night, as well; when we realized that our chosen orders of the Nero d'Avola and Soave wouldn't be exactly right with our first course dishes (particularly the Nero), we added a glass of the Chardonnay, which managed to appear before the appetizer after all, allowing us to pair it with the pasta dish.

I hadn't been to Siroc before and very much wanted to like it, and if invited back I would get the soft-shell crab again in a hot minute and have not a single qualm. But for a small, independent restaurant to fight off the corporate behemoth, it has to be far more consistent -- after all, even this short-ish thread yields a sense that the highs are high and the lows are definitely low -- and send out dishes that don't wind up less than the sum of their parts.