Continued from Part 1

***

I haven’t done pop-up dinners before. Sure, I’ve  cooked and plated for private catering events, and hosted my share of dinners, but this? This was something different, and I had no idea what to expect. My experience dining in high end restaurants is middling, as I’ve been to the big names, although for eonomical reasons I don’t make a habit of it. When I make the choice to dine out, I select dinners that provide something that justifies both the cost and experience. Rarely, I find myself paying 20 dollars for a burger billed as “ground short rib” with an apple slaw, as I did during last year’s restaurant week in Chicago. Although it’s typical to expect paying a premium price for a quality dish at a Michelin starred restaurant, so often the price does not justify the creativity. Retaining a background in foodservice and knowing my wholesale price points, $15 for a coffee-scented two bite fluke sashimi was not high on my list of things to revisit. However, with the first course of our dinner at Crux, a different take on the fish proved my earlier interaction with fluke was probably just a mistake.

COURSE 1: FLUKEraw/grilled/caramelized/coconut

There is nothing on that plate that jumps out at me as inappropriate. Two bites of fish, coconut caramel, and grill marks painted on with charred beet reduction. Simple, fresh, balanced, uncomplicated, and satisfying. All the flavors that were mentioned as the chef came out to tell us what we were about to eat were indeed present, and played well off of one another. I didn’t have to guess where the coffee scent was coming from as with the first dish (I guessed it was there because I looked at the espresso machine rumbling across the dining room).

There was just a fleck of salt on the fish, and it was treated kindly, letting the freshness speak as the prominent flavor to set the tone. A tiny paintbrush was used to mark with the charred beet, and the coconut as caramel was presented as a preparation that I’d never think to try.  As only the first part of a whole, it was an unfussy introduction to what came next.

COURSE 2: CRAB- pretzel/cheddar/habanero

I was wary of the description. How do you separate the flavors of what looks to be a mall food court combination of pretzel choices from one of my favorite bits of seafood, the crab?

Was hoping for this

I have so many memories from Seattle tied to a Dungeness crab. It was the first thing I bought when I went out to visit the lady for the first time, making crabcakes out of what she had available: Picked a dungeness crab, mixed it with mashed potatoes and pepperoncini, and rolled it in triscuits. I know it can be made to taste great with similar combinations, but I still had reservations. After all, this is what we typically hold up in our memory when we think of the combination listed above:

Imagining this

Seeing the first course, though, I was almost positive it had to be something completely different. Even as a capable cook, I couldn’t picture how it would turn out.

If I find myself at a chain restaurant, eating a Cobb salad, I can tell the order in which they sprinkled the egg, the bacon, and that they were instructed to add five cobs of baby corn and six tomato wedges. That’s all I can think of when I think of a Cobb Salad. I couldn’t see past a big soft pretzel smothered in cheese, stuffed with crab(?) I was betting on something that would break down my floating thoughts of what it could be, and build around what I couldn’t even fathom.  The servers came into the dining room carrying bowls.

Oh. My. Bearded. GodoftheOceans.

There’s the crab. That stuff is…cheese? The…pretzel? Habanero? The broth. It’s got to be spicy, right? Like, really spicy? Wow. When a menu makes you think about the conventions of what you can do with flavors, and how you can present them to yield a dish that turns your dining experience upside down, the objective is virtually accomplished. In presentation, the chef and artist can  paint their canvas with colors and shapes, as every kitchen counter serves as their easel. Bucking the conventions of how people expect them to serve a dish, though? That’s the master stroke.

“What we have here is a pretzel consomme with habanero and cornflower petals, encapsulated 20 month old cheddar cheese, and dungeness crab on top. Make sure your mouth is closed before biting down on the cheddar to get the full feel.”

I took a spoonful of the consomme. This broth had tricked me into believing it was a pretzel. Without treading into Wonka territory, he said it would taste like a pretzel, and it tasted like a pretzel. Whaaaaat the hell? Not only that, but it had the finish of a pepper. The heat didn’t bring the dish down at all. It wasn’t overbearing. It didn’t make my upper lip sweat like too much Old Bay on a Bushel at the Boardwalk. Like the best uses of peppers, it was flavor first, finish last.

When I was cooking, I missed the boat on a lot of what’s become more prevalent on menus these days. Foams were just starting to hit middle America, and by the time I made it out to New York, they were over. As for how cheddar cheese becomes encapsulated? It dates me, but I have no idea. When I eat it, does it matter? Nope. That’s for me to ponder for days on end after the fact.

How was it? It was like an egg yolk, barely cooked and runny. It was like a soup dumpling, where you can’t fathom how they got that stuff in there. It was also comforting, because it was cheese. Curious, and similar to the burst you get when you try a little caviar.

A little sexy. What? Egg yolks can be sexy. For those in the know, Juzo Itami’s film Tampopo demonstrates this to great effect.

Lastly, I savored the bite of crab. I swirled it in the consomme, mopped up a couple of cornflower petals, and popped it in my mouth. I don’t feel guilty at all when I say that dungeness is the best crab to eat. Maybe it’s a bit of bias, but having had the Dungeness/Blue Crab/King Crab debate more than a hundred times, fresh dungeness is hard to beat.

The crab course was a standout. It is to the credit of the chef that I say that I want to eat it again, but next time, I want to eat it in a different fashion. In hindsight, I was so wrapped up in the individual components of the dish that I feel I neglected to mix them to the full effect.

As the plates were being cleared, over the comments, most of which seemed to be centered around that encapsulated cheese, our dining room manager commiserated with each diner’s pining for more.

“It’s so difficult to see them sitting on the countertop back in the kitchen and not want to keep eating them.”

I know. We all knew.

***

Continued in Part 3

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