CRUX


I’m inspired by a piece I saw on BoingBoing (and about a hundred other media outlets today). There’s a lot of good stuff out there. People are doing things for their community, and finding a lot of cool bits of life to catalog and share, and this is one of them.

Remember when you were bored, or tired of everything, and you just wanted to create something that made your day a little bit more worthwhile? This kid did it out of necessity to alleviate being stuck in the doldrums of summer, and came up with something fascinating.

There’s a bit of greatness to come out of this- In addition to bringing the smiles to this kid’s face, and customers to this rarely trafficked East LA cornershop, the producers of this video have set up a website, and since my first viewing from four hours ago, they’ve raised $6,000 more towards putting this kid through college. It doesn’t look like the donations will stop at $25,000, either.

So, what am I going to do with my time? How will I showcase whatever it is that I want to do with the middling talents I cling to?

1) I can write. Sort of. I have the bad habit of not self-editing any more than quickly skimming these blog posts and changing a grammatical typo or restructuring a word or two. Overall, though, the end product of a blog post here is the direct result of sitting and typing until I run out of words to say, tied up with aMulligan Stew© Approved, Doogie Howser sanctioned ending. Somewhere in between, there may be a story, or there may be incoherent nonsense and internet babble. I don’t know. After I read them, I occasionally return to the scene of the crime to remember something, but I  rarely ever read old posts in their entirety to see how they come out.

2) I can cook. Sort of.  I mean, I know my flavors, and I know the dishes that I want to create in my mind, but I’m critical of my production. That’s not to say that I get down on it too much, but for where I am as a cook/chef/whatever, I sometimes feel like I’m underachieving.

I can sear a steak. I can cook a piece of fish. I can plate something that looks nice, and I guess I should be happy with that. If it tastes good, and if it looks good, that’s really all that matters. I try not to use those who have gone through similar experiences as a barometer for where I stand today, because back then, they were better than me at cooking, had more of the chef’s kitchen mentality than I did, and actually cooked a fair amount post-graduation in restaurants. This left me with an inferiority complex which I’ve mostly come to terms with, but I still wonder if I could hack it, or what could have been. These days, if I explain to people my trajectory in the foodservice industry, I usually include tidbits about how I came back from internships around the world with an ego that outshone my talents. When in that situation, you don’t see yourself for what you are. Such glaring perspective comes later, when you make the proclamation to those listening intently to your stories from behind the scenes of restaurants that you got out because you possessed a fire for the life that detracted from the food. You hear chefs talk about it all the time, from anybody who has spent more than a month in a kitchen who is willing to talk to you about what you once read in Kitchen Confidential.

 I never got too wrapped up in the trappings of working in restaurants. I was a passable outsider. Neither the strongest nor the weakest in the kitchen, I could do what needed to be done to promote a successful service. I could do what was asked of me. With that, I didn’t think I could hack it. I still had the lust for creating things with my hands, and the desire for tasting something new through the buzz of a third glass of wine, and to have the aromas and flavors float around in my mind as I relaxed after a few hard spent hours chopping, dicing, tasting, adjusting. I was content to experiment with my cooking from a place that was comfortable for me, someplace outside the time constraints and pressures that those who made it fed off of.

So that’s what I did.

Today, I’m content with where my skills are, and it’s easy enough to wow people with a strong flavor combination. It’s like watching someone break the tape on a lopsided hundred yard dash, leaving competitors in the dust. You see a small fragment of what got them there, and believe that the ten second snippet from start to finish is the greatest thing you could see or feel at that moment. It’s so much more. You go to a restaurant, sit down for two hours, have a couple beverages, some food that sings to the passion of your soul, and then you reminisce, but for those who do it every day, your dinner represents a drop in the bucket.

Planning a meal takes time. Gathering ingredients, pairing flavors, determining cooking methods, managing time- all of these factors go into making a meal, whether you’re in a restaurant or not. It’s easy enough to do it for a few people on a nightly basis, or a dozen people once a month, but for a dining room full of patrons with high expectations on a nightly basis, I would not care to be in that boat. I want to set up a special occasion with friends, discussing with them and fabricating a menu that we can create together. In continuation of my posting of a couple weeks ago, I want to make it happen.

I’m sitting, as I have been intermittently for the past three hours, with my recipe book to my right, the Gonzo documentary playing in the background, with the seasonal inspiration waiting to strike. I catalog my taste palate. I purposefully saved a spoonful of gelato from the other night because I wanted to remember the burnt peanut flavor and build from that.

I got ramps for the first time this season. Morels can’t be far behind. I just saw a dish with both, and asparagus as well. That’s coming soon. I have some nice eggs in the fridge that I’d like to use for cured yolks. I want to make pickles. Many pickles. All the time.

This is how it starts. With an idea. Now I’m looking for ideas for implementation, and execution, and of course, a few extra willing participants in making something stick. I want to start a Sunday Supper series, similar to how they do it at Nana, a restaurant just down the block.

I just want to share it, and I want to write about it, and figure out if it’s a viable model for something different, if not new.

I watched the hell out of this next video over the last couple days. It’s a call to arms for those who have some measure of skill and an insatiable itch to start a revolution from their range. Watch it, see if you catch the bug, and get back to me. I may not be able to do anything under a moniker, but it’s videos like the one up top and the one below that lead me to believe that there’s more that I could be doing with my free time, and with whatever measure of talent I may have. In any case, I think it’s time to push some boundaries.

Stagnation, Boredom, Conformity…The Time to Combat Complacency is Now.

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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?

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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If you’ve read my blog before, you know that through food, I have tried to find a better understanding of why we eat the way we do. I cook at home four to five times a week, and the meals that I make together with my lady are shared as we sit down and eat at the same time, in the same room.

I understand that most people don’t do this anymore. We eat on the run, or when we go out to eat, we sit and critique what’s on our plate while keeping to ourselves. We can relay our night out to our friends, but often, it’s more about the idea that you can tell them what you did rather than relive the experience with fondness.

For weeks, I’ve been thinking about eating at CRUX.  I’ve followed the Twitter account of both the chef and the restaurant, I’ve looked at menus, followed what’s happening on the Facebook page, and nothing that I’ve done has come close to the replicating the total experience of being in the moment around a table with ten strangers with whom over the course of a three hour meal you have become familiar. The concept of of familiarity, broken down, is to become well-acquainted on a family footing with someone who enhances your comfort level. The easiest way for me to accomplish that with some sense of ease is around a dinner table. In their efforts to create an evening of intimacy and curiousity, the table was set for an evening exploring the unknown.

***

Earlier in the week, I had made a short visit back home to Madison to visit with friends who have been overseas. The one night of my short stay, we visited another restaurant that I’ve been meaning to try for a long time, 43 North. It’s run by an old culinary friend of mine, Nick Johnson. Formerly of Restaurant Magnus in Madison, he has since moved his James Beard nominated talents a couple blocks up the street, and we were fortunate to dine with a new acquaintance in his company.

Over the course of that meal, I remembered that the joy of dining is taking pleasure in those with whom you are surrounded, but also in entrusting those who are preparing your meal with the fate of your palate. We subscribe, as a culture, to flavors and textures that are simple and pleasing, hence the trends of pesto, sun dried tomatoes, etc., but with balance and inventiveness come the meals that leave lasting impressions on the senses.

***

On the short ride back to Chicago, I found out that two tickets for Friday Night’s pop-up dinner had just become available from a post on Twitter:

RT @brandonbaltzley: Cancelation of three for this weeks bodies of water dinner @glryprovocateur . Reserve through cruxrestaurant@gmail.com

Bodies of Water? Set to the music of Isis? I had read recently that they were able to accommodate diners with a variety of preferences, but since this dinner was from the looks of the menu going to be mostly seafood, I figured it would be the best opportunity to get my feet wet with the restaurant. The theme of Bodies of Water? Intriguing hook. In quick order, I went about making a reservation for two for that Friday Night.

When Friday came around, our pleasant 50 degree weather had changed to 6 inches of snow, which by then had devolved into the sludge. We made our way up to Gallery Provocateur, the site of that night’s dinner, just before 7, where we were greeted and led through the gallery to the back room. The walls were covered in artwork of sea monsters, Cat-eyed vixens painted on handbags, and various tattooed hides stretched with leather string.

The table was set for 12, with dripping candelabras and a large television in the background playing a silent documentary about undersea life with a cuttlefish scurrying along the sea floor. Scattered alongside the handwritten menus and embroidered napkins were tiny glasses with live fish flitting around.

For the opening few minutes, we remained quiet and reserved, both mesmerized by the wonders of the briny deep and slightly hesitant to introduce ourselves to our fellow diners. As bottles of wine were opened, everyone began to relax, and after introductions and a collective pondering over where a phantom cat was meowing from, we were ready to begin our meal.

***

Continued Part 2

Continued Part 3

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The Michelin star review came out a few weeks ago, and Chicago was given its share of glowing reviews and awards. As expected, Alinea came out with three stars for its stellar presentation, service, decor, inventiveness, Charlie Trotter’s, the Chicago institution, received two, and a sizeable handful of restaurants received 1 star.

Seriously? This is Art.

Michelin stars were originally designated by the Michelin Tire Company as a roadside guide to assist in helping the vacationing French population find food and lodging that was worthy of pulling off the motorway and adding to the overall enjoyment of a trip. It has since evolved into a high-stakes Zagat’s guide, more about showcasing the inventiveness and consistent creativity of the restaurant and the chef to create a full-scale dining experience for its guests.

As I read through the list of restaurants that had been awarded stars and dispensations, I saw the same familiar names. Rick Bayless’ Frontera and Topolobampo, both great and consistent restaurants, were there. So were Graham Elliot, Blackbird, Tru, Moto, L20, and many others that I recognized. With the exception of Moto, most of these establishments tend to stay away from Molecular Gastronomy, but, at least in those that I’ve had the pleasure of dining, they tend to make the dinner more about the experience as a whole, rather than simply sinking in to the flavors of a dish.

In Japan, there is the concept of Omakase (お任せ), that equates to leaving it to the discretion of the chef to create your dining experience. Here, we have the tasting menu, where portions of everything are served, giving you little bites and inklings of what the kitchen is capable of, and on what concepts your palate is willing to pontificate.

Most of the high end restaurants, where you’ll be expected to spend well in excess of $100/person when all the wine is served, have a tasting menu. I’ve been through a few in my life, most notably at the French Laundry in the winter of 2001, and it really plays to the strength of the kitchen that so many elements come together in harmony while giving you the flavor that evokes a very specific, visceral reaction.

This explains why Ratatouille is an excellent movie, but so much more.

Food has the power to transform and transport, and on the menu and in reviews, no restaurant has been more successful this year, or more talked about, than Grant Achatz’ and David Beran’s Next. The concept behind the menu is seemingly simple: variations on a theme, with their concept and entire menu changing quarterly. Thusfar, they have been inarguably successful with menus, in order, from a concept of Paris in the year 1906, Thailand, and according to reviews, the most personal menu of Childhood.

Through the brilliant idea of a concept album per menu, the dishes and feelings are stripped down and rebuilt on a frame of nostalgia. Courses appear at your place in a gift wrapped present, a lunchbox (offerings of fruit roll-up, pudding, and a note from dad), on a beater (as Foie-sting, a foie gras mousse accompanying donuts), and my personal favorite, a painted plate with a fisherman’s scene, reminiscent of many a refrigerator drawing.

I haven't even eaten here, and I get nostalgic.

And like everything else on the menu, it’s all eatable. Edible.

***

Through Grant Achatz’ twitter account, I found a companion chef who is doing something that I wish more people could take advantage of. Brandon Baltzley, with a Chicago restaurant pedigree broader than his 26 years, has opened up CRUX. I stumbled on it while leafing through his blog, also a great read, and while still curious about what’s happening behind its doors, I’m fascinated by the concept.

CRUX is a micro-restaurant. Two nights a week, their culinary collective gets together in the concept of shared fate with ten diners, and puts on a ten course menu that they have created, also using variations on a theme. As I’ve followed him on twitter, and continued reading  his blog on the evolution of the menu and its components, I become more interested in how these dishes come to be, and how a concept like this, where chefs are allowed to cook what they want, how they want, in an atmosphere that is less outwardly manic and instead insanely creative existing between the mind and the plate at their own pace.

It is a concept like this that makes me realize why I take pleasure from cooking from the mind. Yes, in a restaurant setting, under the watchful eye of an executive chef or silent partner, you can turn out incredible plates of food. Unburdened by the constraints of stifled creativity, as you cook for someone on your own terms, you come to understand more about who you are in your own kitchen.

Read Brandon’s blog. Tell me that a Dungeons and Dragons themed dish isn’t one of the most creative ideas you’ve heard in terms of concept, presentation, flavor, and execution. It’s remarkable, the ideas that spring forth when brainstorming what your dinner could be.

A little more on shared fate: As a diner, you are putting your trust in who is preparing your meal. With the concept of CRUX, a restaurant on such a small scale, (10 diners at a community table in a dining room the size of, well, somebody’s dining room), there is little buffer zone between the diners and the chefs. The feedback is immediate, and the chefs trust that their diners will be honest and open with it, as in this capacity, it serves to better the reality of their true cooking. It is to the advantage of both diners and chefs to be honest and equal with one another so that they can leave the table with an experience unmatched, one that is exclusively and authentically that of those in the restaurant at that moment in time.

I haven’t been to Next. I haven’t been to CRUX. I don’t know if I’ll get the opportunity to go, but I’d like to find out more. As these concepts become clearer in the minds of their creators, I want to be aware of their evolutions. One of the largest oversights of the year, in many Michelin followers opinions, was that Next was not awarded a star. Some joked that maybe it was because the reviewers couldn’t get a reservation. Others said that it was because the reviewers didn’t know what to make of the menu. They said the same thing of el Bulli, unquestionably the most influential restaurant of the last 20 years, when it opened. Now it is the standard to which top restaurants are compared.

Baltzley has worked in Michelin-starred kitchens before, according to his bio. It may not be necessary for CRUX to be awarded a star. In the way that you get to share something so personal and intimate as your own cooking with a select few, the satisfaction of a meal well-served may be enough. It may just be that stripping the veneer off the modern restaurant kitchen to get back to the heart of cooking may bring about a change in the way we view our food.

I look forward to it.

Microrestaurant Video 1 from Pouya on Vimeo.

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