Continuation of earlier posts:

Part 1

Part 2

***

So, where were we? We had just finished the Pretzel/Crab, and we were moving on to the next course.

COURSE 3: STEELHEAD- roe/beet/kefir/chrysanthemum

I’ve gone through a tumultuous relationship with beets, and I don’t know where I turned the corner. In school, I prepped 30 gallons of borscht, peeling each beet, leaving me with blood-stained hands. After that, I swore off beets for a long while. After about ten years, though, I came back around. I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was how they laid them out at the market in rainbow colored stacks of edible excitement. Maybe I saw a recipe somewhere, and I just had to have them. I remember bringing a bunch home, roasting them, sauteeing the tops, and falling for them all over again.

A lot of people dismiss them as muddy, and I can see that. However, with the right additions of flavor and a cooking method that leaves them with a pleasing texture, they can be enjoyed in any number of ways. We enjoy the root on salads or roasted alongside squash and other vegetables, and the greens are always great quick seared in a pan with the most minimal of seasonings, quite similar to all the other variegated greens.

Back to the third course, though. I figured that the preparation would be more than the borscht I had made 15 years ago, with equal or greater depth of flavor. The course proved my hypothesis correct both in preparation and presentation.

Here’s a closeup of the dish. What the chef presented us with was a smoked steelhead roe atop pickled beet with dried beet leaves dusted with malt powder and a light yogurt/kefir sauce.

When we were out in Seattle, I became acquainted with the men who ran the Bacon Salt/Baconnaise empire, and they passed me off a bottle of a malt vinegar flavored salt. We’ve only used it for seasoning potatoes so far, but with this dish, the lightness and pucker of malt vinegar dissolved into the crisp nothingness of the beet leaves.

The smoked roe, local-ish from Michigan, was a great centerpiece to the dish. Bright orange eggs with a light smokiness and pop seasoned the accompanying beet, and although I’ve smoked many meats and fish in the past, I still don’t know how the smoked roe was achieved. That’s another nod to the chef for putting the quizzical nature of the origin of flavor in my mind to ponder. The kefir and light chrysanthemum balanced the boldness of smoke, steelhead, and pickled beet in a sea of competing flavor strengths. Overall, the dish was one of our favorites.

COURSE 4: BLACK URCHIN- lime/cocoa/cauliflower

I’ve had great experiences with urchin before. Similar to an oyster, if you get a fresh urchin, tasting the fresh roe is reminiscent of the ocean; It’s briny, smooth, and lives up to its billing as the nautical cousin to foie gras. Conversely, bad urchin can be horrible. It’s so delicate that if it is frozen, which it very well might be, and thawed, it loses its potency and takes on a terrible after taste and texture. Recently, I went to a sushi counter at Mitsuwa in the suburbs of Chicago, and in my sampler, found some pieces with urchin roe. As I brought the piece close to my mouth, I inhaled the smell that I dreaded. It wasn’t fresh. Surprisingly, I didn’t immediately turn up my nose, as I was to give it a good try. When I put it in my mouth, I realized I had made a mistake. The urchin was amoebic and texturally unsound, filling my senses with dread and coating my tongue with an old fishy toothpaste. My experience with urchin was not to be repeated unless it was forced.

***

So far, at the table at Crux, we were three for three. First Course- simple. Second Course- Inventive. Third Course- Rock solid. Please, oh, please don’t make me regret trying the urchin again.

From the other room came the plates. They set them down in front of us, one at a time. Since there were two or three people serving ten, we had a little bit of time to stare at our plates and make sense of what was going on.

Everything’s there. There was a floret of charred cauliflower, and resting on top of that, largely untouched, lounged a lobe from the urchin shells that were hanging out on the tabletop, smoldering with a bit of vanilla pod. To complement the urchin, we had a supreme of lime, a bit of zest, cacao nibs as a second sweet/bitter combination, and, in the foreground, a swatch of  savory sea urchin whipped cream.

It’s always interesting, as I eat something new, to think about how the combinations of flavors came to be. Coming from the Midwest, where fish is flavored with either tartar sauce or lemon, I’ve come to understand that the combination of citrus and seafood works together. However, in addition to the sharp flavor influence of citrus on seafood, the astringency of a bitter cacao nib can also serve a similar purpose.

As I ate, my mind searched for answers to this dish, how it came to be, how the flavors played off of one another, and how it all fit together. It went something like this:

“Okay. Sea Urchin. Briny, yes. Seafood? Definitely. Add citrus. Citrus is bitter. Cacao nibs are bitter. Ah, yes, but cacao nibs are also toasted. Toasted. What else can be toasted? Hey, look at that. The cauliflower. It’s charred, so those things go together, but cauliflower’s real flavor is fairly mild. Oh, look. There’s the urchin whipped cream. Wow. It’s also really light.”

And there we are back at the lobe of fresh urchin. It looked fresh. It didn’t look or feel like its cellular structure had collapsed. It tasted like a fresh West Coast Oyster, which is to say, exactly like the sea. The flavor was both dialed up and brought down in waves by the contrasting accoutrements of the plating. The flavors came in waves, which for a meal celebrating bodies of water was appropriate.

COURSE 5: OYSTER- apple/hay/mustard

This was our extra course for the evening. No pictures exist of it, because it is an oyster, and we had reached a point where we were not only talking about how great the food was, but other things that peppered our lives with meaning. We were all at least a few glasses of wine into the night, and there was much crosstalk happening at the table. I heard “Gulf Oyster”, “Pickled Apple”, and looked down at my plate. Nestled on a bed of grassy stalks, there was one oyster, which I believed to be lightly smoked, on the half shell. tucked underneath the muscle meat was a tiny spoonful of diced apple and a bit of mustard seed. I do love the oysters, so I sent it straight down the hatch without thinking to take a picture.

To my knowledge, I haven’t had a gulf oyster before. I’m so used to the West Coast varieties that I didn’t know what to look for as I ate it, and didn’t have time to adequately reflect on the flavors. My recollection was that 1) I ate it too fast, 2)The gulf oyster is mild and earthy, and 3) the apples and mustard made it the dish that felt like it could be placed on a Midwestern Meat and Potatoes menu without too much quarrel.

COURSE 6: WALLEYE- grapefruit/vanilla/potato/brulee

Remember the post I made a couple weeks ago about how to fillet a walleye? This is why you follow the rules of properly cleaning and gutting a fish. It’s so you can have a finished product like this:

“What we have here is a Sous vide fillet of walleye with a crisp skin, tiny potatoes, fennel dusted with sumac powder, grapefruit, and balsamic vinegar.”

Sous vide. What a relationship I have with you. Mostly, I don’t understand it, but I get the basic idea of it. Long, low and slow cooking of meats that don’t necessarily need to be further tenderized- that’s how it goes. It goes by the principles of aquariums, wherein you place a sealed object in a water bath and warm water is circulated around your sealed protein to gently bring it up to an acceptable service temperature. When it is ready, all that needs to be done, if anything, is cut open the bag, perhaps finish it off in a pan or with a blowtorch to add a bit of caramelization, and put it on a plate. What you’re left with is a piece of protein that is tender, moist, as it has reserved all its own juices from cooking in a closed receptacle, and flavorful.

The walleye was no exception. Once again, subscribing to the fact that fish goes well with citrus, grapefruit, the entirely underutilized citrus, was paired with it for flavor. The crispy skin was added for texture, the potatoes for a fish fry complement, and the tart, woodsy sumac sprinkle on the fennel added another dimension of simple seasoning to a dish that was not in need of much to make it as comfort food.

As we ate, the most common exclamation was that people couldn’t believe how well the grapefruit went with the walleye. The conversation bounced back to the lime from the urchin course, and tangentially to how well the fruit went with any fish or flavor. Personally, I’ve prepared it with fluke and miso, and in a strange turn based on what i had in the fridge, with avocado, bacon, and monkfish. Both turned out exceptional. The walleye was lovely, but the standout was the versatile grapefruit.

COURSE 7: SHORT RIB- seaweed/egg/roots

OR

MONKFISH- seaweed/egg/roots

For the only meat course of the evening, we were offered Short Ribs. One of the great things about Crux was how they were able to accommodate diners with discriminating palates not only on short notice, but by adapting menu items to suit flavors that were well-tested enough to stand up to different proteins. My menu said “Short Rib”. The lady’s menu said “Monkfish”. As they came out, it was apparent that the base of the dish was the same, but the simple prep of the meat was the only difference.

My dish was Short Ribs with Sea Beans, a pressed pear with pepper with a cured egg yolk on top, fennel fronds, and a carrot top pesto.

Sea Beans, going with the theme of the meal, gave the course a dose of salinity. They don’t have a particularly descriptive flavor on their own, but they can be served fresh or lightly steamed, and have the texture of fiddleheads or very young asparagus.

The pesto also utilized an underused edible: The carrot top. As with beet greens, a lot of times, carrot tops are discarded. However, being that they’re the part of the carrot that gets the sunlight, the greens themselves have a great grassy taste to them that complements a pesto quite well.

I wish more people would give chlorophyll a chance.

Alongside the braised short rib, there was a pear. I understand just how hard it is to find an excellent pear, and this was a pretty good one. There was a little bit of black pepper on it, and a lightly cured egg yolk, done just long enough so that it was a bit salty, but still runny. Overall, it was a fancy steak and egg plate with a lot of added dimension. If anyone thinks that steak and eggs is primarily for greasy spoons, there is much to be learned about how to utilize your steak and/or eggs.

Here’s the monkfish version of the dish. Two diners got this one, a double tail of monkfish roasted on the bone. I loved the short rib, but once again, another great mark of a restaurant is if they make you want to try everyone else’s food. Since my lady couldn’t try the short ribs, I was content to leave her to the full enjoyment of her monkfish.

COURSE 8: CARROT- broken

I didn’t know what this was going to be. It’s a carrot. And the description? It’s broken. Interesting and curious.

It was a sorbet. The palate cleanser of the meal before the final course. It was served, mine in a tiny dish the size of a coaster, and hers in a giant bowl. I dig the individuality of the vessels as we enjoy our meals. It adds a uniqueness to each person’s experience. Even though we are all receiving the same courses, how we see them plated in front of us is what really makes it special.

We were given a quenelle of carrot cardamom sorbet that was bright and refreshing. The top, in this picture seen dangling over the edge of my plate, was candied, and the root was pickled. Once again, a mix of sweet, light, savory, and the bite of vinegar made an appearance, and once again, it hit the mark. As with most sorbet courses, the bites were the perfect size, and at this point in the meal, one bite of each (maybe two for the sorbet, because it was quite good) was all I needed .

COURSE 9: Sponge- orange/carob/buttermilk/darjeeling

The night was cold and we were about three hours into a meal tucked away in the back room of a gallery where there might as well have been a fireplace going. We were all feeling filled with conversation, wine, food, and little side conversations on how we’d stay in touch sprung up on different sides of the table.

Last course coming. Out from the kitchen came our hosts with our desserts.

“Thank you all for coming tonight. For our last course, we have a carob sponge cake with a buttermilk darjeeling gelato and an orange cream.”

The cake wasn’t a slice, but in fact a tiny sponge that was moist and had absorbed a lot of the lighter carob flavor. Alongside that was a quenelle of a buttermilk darjeeling gelato, as promised, and the spoonful of orange curd. The sharpness of the orange (was it a whole orange curd?) really woke me up from the thousand flavor evening that I’d just experienced, and the gelato was mellow and soothing. I’ve done custards flavored with black tea, and this was another variation on a theme, one that I continue to enjoy to this day.

***

The plates went back to the dishroom licked clean, and we were all invited to mill about as a gallery reception was taking place directly afterward. We chatted with our fellow diners for a bit, and I got to speak with those responsible for the dinner. The source of the phantom meowing, we had discovered, was a tiny serval kitten about two weeks old, and as the dinner hour waned, he was passed around from person to person, enjoying all the attention and smells of seafood that permeated the warm, inviting atmosphere.

Between the room, the diners, and the imagination and creativity of the chef, the dinner will never be the same twice. In talking with the chef, I realized that it’s a 72 hour marathon of menu planning, product acquisition, prepping, and service that make an event like this come together, and each experience, each weekend dinner is different. They may share some similarities from week to week, but it gives the chef the impulse to create and adjust from service to service. As with all those who have a passion for things that come out of a kitchen, the ideal situation is to cook your food, and cook it your way to those who can appreciate it. If it is a success, it rests on your shoulders as a work of art that you can be proud of. If it misses the mark, there’s always room for improvement. It is the constant pursuit of innovation and invention that drives those who cook to create flavors and menus that challenge diners’ palates, and it is the willingness of those who dine to entrust those palates to the chef that enables the creativity to flourish.

If I cook for you, all I ask is that you eat and enjoy yourselves. That’s what the Crux really is. The thought that goes into each successful dinner service yields a deconstructed idea of what the chef really wants to put out there. There is the idea of a finished product. Strip it down. Build it back up. Adapt. Taste. Adjust. Try it once. Try it twice. Retool it. It’s a constant state of recreation. The menu will never be finished. It might be similar to something you’ve tried in the past, but it will never be the same. Isn’t that fascinating? Isn’t that the way you’d always want to eat?

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