The Importance of Being…Inspired

Oh a busy busy busy bee is me!  I know it’s been months since my last post, but between having a new puppy, caring for old cats, resolving yet another car accident (not my fault, I wasn’t even in the car), my novice attempts at gardening, and the demands of the restaurant, I don’t know where all that time went.  A girl can get pretty jaded, living in such a whirlwind.  Thank goodness I recently had a birthday, which always makes me restless to shake up my routine, and reflect on what my goals are for the next year to come.  Some people make new year’s resolutions.  Instead I make birthday resolutions.

Resolution number one is to actively stay inspired.  Sure, a strong routine can be very valuable for a line cook.  It helps you set up your station on time, multi-task during service, and strive toward machine-like precision and consistency.  But it can be very easy to let the machine take over and to forget why you’re working so hard in the first place.  So I’m trying to take better advantage of the city, and see what other chefs are doing from my ever-growing list of restaurants to check out.  On a line cook’s pay, that’s certainly not easy, but at least on my birthday, Boyfriend was picking up the tab!

So for my birthday dinner I chose Degustation, one of the top restaurants on my list.  Serving a menu of small plates from an open kitchen surrounded by only 19 seats, it’s definitely a restaurant designed with industry folks and food & wine enthusiasts in mind.  A friend who recently left the kitchen at Prune to follow her med student fiance to Grenada (winter in the caribbean? me? jealous?) raved about Degustation after having their anniversary dinner there a few months back.  Then one of our cooks who recently relocated from the west coast touted his meal at Degustation as among the best he’s had.  Then when I told one of our bartenders I was considering going there for my birthday he said it was the best meal he’d ever had, and if I had any trouble getting reservations he knew someone who knew someone…  So I figured it was time to go and see what all the fuss was about.  My day off that week fell on a Tuesday, so  I called Degustation that afternoon to make reservations for two.  They could only fit us in either really early at 6pm, or later at 9pm because they were expecting a large party at 8pm. 6pm was too early so we took the 9pm reservation.

Degustation’s unassuming exterior

Degustation‘s entrance, located on E 5th street off 1st avenue, is simple and unassuming.  We almost walked right past the restaurant and probably would not have even noticed it if we weren’t looking for it.  In the dark, the name was barely visible on the solid front door, and the only light was a warm glow that emanated from two square, porthole like windows.  We entered through the heavy door into a space that was contemporary and chic, yet warm and comfortable.  The host greeted us and immediately showed us to our seats.  I was delighted to find that we were seated right in front of the chef ‘s station, where executive chef Wesley Genovart was artfully plating all the food.

We started off our evening with a couple of beers as we looked over the menu and tried to decide whether or not to try a tasting menu.  Boyfriend stuck with his usual Amstel light, while I sipped an Alhambra Negra, a dark Spanish lager with a soft caramel like flavor.  The small plates menu featured a crudo of seasonal fish, coca mallorquina, carabinero, and other items also inspired by the chef’s Spanish up-bringing.  In addition to the a la carte small plates, the restaurant offers a five course tasting menu for $50 per person, and a 10 course tasting for $75 per person.  When asked, our server kindly explained that both tasting menus were pre-determined for the evening and that the five course tasting featured only menu items, while the 10 course tasting also featured special items that changed daily, such as sweetbreads and some other things that I didn’t hear after she mentioned sweetbreads.  So we chose the 10 course tasting.  Our server asked us if we had any allergies, which they would be happy to accommodate.  No, we didn’t, but Boyfriend was really excited to see oxtail among the small plates, so we asked if that might be included as one of our courses.  “I’m sure we can make that happen,” she replied.

The meal started with an amuse-bouche of two bite size menu items: a pork croqueta and Spanish “tortilla” filled with quail egg and shallot confit.  The croqueta was crispy and flavorful, and paired nicely with its bed of paprika spiced aioli.  The tortilla was much more delicate in texture and subtle in flavor.  While I could appreciate the contrast, it seemed strange to pair the two on the same plate.  It did a slight disservice to the tortilla, which I think was good, but whose subtlety was somewhat overpowered by the more assertive croqueta next to it.

Pork Croqueta and Spanish “Tortilla”

The first course was a delicious chilled marcona almond soup, simply garnished with chives, pea flower, and a marcona almond.  It was milky and smooth, and perhaps there was just the slightest suggestion of roasted garlic which pleasantly enhanced the salty sweetness of the almonds.

Chilled Marcona Almond Soup

Our second course was a crudo of spanish mackerel served over tomato granita and topped with crispy slivered garlic and serrano chiles.  The fish was fresh and firm, and I thought the tomato granita added nice chill and acidity to an otherwise oily fish, but Boyfriend did find the garlic too overpowering.

Next, we were served the Puerro Salda, a  warm pureed potato leek soup garnished with octopus, a Barron Point oyster, and padron pepper (which I believe was in the form of a green infused oil).  Boyfriend did not like this soup.  He found it overwhelmingly “fishy.”  I could see where he got that, since it  had a familiar flavor that was reminiscent of braised abalone I’d eaten at Chinese wedding banquets as a child.

Boyfriend and I shared much discussion about the next dish, which was a trio of sardines.  One was simply pan seared and served over roasted red pepper.  The second, our favorite preparation, was the chef’s play on a sardine sandwich, and featured a sardine seemingly dusted with rice flour, then fried and served over pickled onion and topped again with serrano chiles.  The sardine was pleasantly crispy and the onions were tart and I thought I detected a hint of fish sauce in the brine.  The third and least favorite was a sardine fillet rolled and served over sauce gribiche, whose flavor Boyfriend likened to the smell Tester’s modeling glue.  Humbly I must admit that I don’t know what sauce gribiche is supposed to taste like, but I had to agree with Boyfriend on this one.

Crudo of Spanish Mackerel
Trio of Sardines

Next the servers brought us bowls of seared durade with matsutake mushrooms, and eggplant.  At the table, they finished the dishes with a matsutake mushroom broth.  This was our fifth course, (sixth, if you include the amuse) and to be truthful, by now I was beginning to feel the food equivalent of “Museum Fatigue,” a term from my art school days used to describe the kind of sensory overload and subsequent shut-down caused by viewing too much artwork in one visit to the museum.  So I have to say that outside of enjoying the broth and the texture of the eggplant and the fish, I can’t recall much about the dish’s flavors.

Amazingly enough, the next course was just the thing to bring my senses back to life:  a warm duck egg mouse with tiny brioche croutons, smoked maple syrup and a strip of lamb bacon all served in the eggshell.  It was perfect.  The mousse was light, airy, and was just the right temperature to evoke the warmth of a freshly laid egg.  The croutons and the bacon were nice and crunchy, and the syrup underneath the mousse added a great sweet smoky finish.  I asked Boyfriend, who normally does not like the flavor of lamb, what he thought of the lamb bacon, and he replied, “C’mon, it’s bacon, of course it’s good.”

Duck Egg Mousse

After having my senses re-awakened, and hearing the server describe it, I was really excited about the next dish: coca Mallorquina with sobresada, wild mushrooms and a red wine reduction.  It was good, but after experiencing the perfection of the duck egg mousse, I have to say the coca Mallorquina was a little disappointing.  Inspired by a Spanish style pizza or flatbread typical of the Mallorca region, the crust was crispy, but the sobresada seemed a little dry and chewy, and the flavors, though good, were kind of lackluster.

Finally, grilled sweetbreads!  I have to admit I had only had sweetbreads either dusted with flour and pan-fried, or poached and glazed with a veal reduction like they did in culinary school.  The first being light and crispy on the outside, and rich and creamy inside, the second is just gross.  Here however, chef Genovart presented us with grilled veal sweetbreads served over a of succotash-like mixture of fresh corn, green beans, crispy okra and chanterelle mushrooms dressed with tomatillo salsa and cilantro.  This was a texture and flavor I had not experienced with sweetbreads before.  The char from the grill changed the flavor of the sweetbreads by adding what I can only describe as a kind of bite.  Grilling also gave it a supple yet meaty texture that was pleasing to eat, and the acidity of the tomatillo salsa in the corn mixture was just the right foil to the richness of the sweetbreads.  Boyfriend and I both really enjoyed this dish.

Grilled Sweetbreads
Oxtail “Cannelloni”

Then came the dish Boyfriend was waiting for: potato “Cannelloni” filled with oxtail and grilled on the plancha, served with crispy shallot, a fresh herb salad and radishes. This was a delicious and enjoyable dish. The cannelloni was actually thinly sliced potato wrapped around a tender filling of braised oxtail. The potato had a crisp sear from the plancha, the radishes were a peppery accompaniment, and the herbs added a nice freshness to the dish. This was the last savory course and was a good way to move onto dessert.

But wait!  Before dessert we were presented with a lovely cheese plate, with birthday wishes from my bartender friend.  What a nice surprise.  It featured cheeses from Spain and Switzerland accompanied by a marcona almond puree, fresh honey on the comb, black currant preserves, and a poached pear.

Surprise Cheese Plate

Last, but not least, dessert was a simple yet delicious bread pudding of brioche soaked in cream, then caramelized on top, and served with fresh berries.  Our server said it was a dessert very typical of the Basque region.  As we enjoyed our dessert, we chatted a little with chef Genovart as he and his crew packed up their stations (by now the restaurant had been closed for almost a half hour) and dutifully scrubbed everything clean.  I thought of how this crew was expected to perform every evening, with all their actions totally exposed to their patrons, and from the eater’s point of view, how our reactions and comments about the food were visible and audible to those preparing it.  I pondered on how different this was from the closed kitchen, where among the din of servers coming in and out of the swinging door, the clang of the dish machine hatch opening and closing, the scrambling of dishwashers rushing to restock clean pans and collect dirty ones from the line, and the voice of the chef calling out orders, our only connection to the dining room is through the waitstaff.

Overall I would have to say that our meal at Degustation was a really good one.  At $75 per person, it was well worth it for a 10 course tasting, and at the end of the meal I was satisfied without being full.  The servers described each dish as it was served, and patiently answered any questions I had about particular components.  The dishes were generally well executed and good, although some were definitely more memorable than others.  We’ll definitely go back, but now that we’ve had the tasting menu, there are some other items on the small plates menu we would like to try, and some dishes from our tasting that we would order a la carte.  As for my birthday resolution, it was a great success.  I definitely left feeling re-freshed, and inspired with ideas for new ingredients, techiniques, and combinations I’ll be trying myself.

3 thoughts on “The Importance of Being…Inspired

  1. Thanks for the alert as to a new post. I haven’t had the chance to taste how you cook, but how you write about what you eat means a lot. Keep your hand in at writing and when you get too old to be a line cook, fall back on your food writing skills.

    I wish I could take my husband there for dinner when in NYC, but he’s allergic to anything that swims. Yes, that makes my time in our kitchen more difficult as I love fish and would rather that or vegetarian to meat every day.

    Oh, and a belated Happy Birthday! Mine’s next week. I think we’re going to the Cowboy Poet gathering nearby, and perhaps we’ll try the burger at Hi-Mountain Drug, with a real old-fashioned soda fountain counter and handmade ice cream. Hey, a birthday feast is what you make of it out here in the west! Cheers, Dee


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