New Zealand John Dory, by nature a "fishy" fish, was fresh and perfectly grilled, but none of us cottoned to the bland "saffron pearl pasta" served alongside, nor could we detect the note of anise in a "tomato Ricard" juice that dressed the fish. Zucchini was present, too.
Desserts were the meal's downfall. Those we tried all tried too hard. For example, pear clafoutis, normally a simple French fruit-studded custard, was gussied up like a Parisian tart. Resembling upside-down cake more than pudding, its batter was so sweet it overwhelmed the pear; superfluous garnishes included pear sorbet, whipped cream, slivered almonds, and bourbon caramel sauce. A goat cheese mille-feuilles piled on a similar excess of ingredients, while the "soufflé du jour" -- blueberry with Meyer lemon -- suffered from second-rate berries and too much cream.
But that's all right, mama, because El Biz is nothing like a hound dog, and the Inn will never be Heartbreak Hotel. Just a couple of weeks ago (after I'd already eaten there, darn it!), the bill of fare got all shook up when chef Kaysen devised five new "tasting menus" to entice every taste bud -- these range from four courses of veggies or seafood up to an eight-course "Grand Tasting" of luxury grub. If you've got the money, honey, and want to dress up and celebrate with a special meal in a country setting, you'll find much brilliant cooking here, and service fit for a king.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Gavin Kaysen, now 26, got into cooking early: "When I was six I asked for an Easy-Bake Oven, and my mother thought two things at that point -- 'Either he's gonna be a great baker, or he's gonna want to go to school.' I'd bake with my grandma all the time. We used to do traditional Norwegian and Swedish Christmas cookies. Even at a young age, cooking was something I always knew I wanted to do. My father's business involved a lot of travel, and I thought to myself, 'I want to be able to travel around the world, too,' and I realized that cooking was going to be the thing that allowed me to do that.
"And when I was 15, I met the right guy to make it happen -- named George Serra. He was born and raised in France, and he did a lot of Italian cooking, Mediterranean cooking. I met him when I was working at a Subway in Minnesota, where I'm from. I don't know what he saw in me -- maybe that whenever I saw a regular customer coming in, I'd have his favorite sandwich ready before he reached the counter. Every Saturday, George would come in and order a tuna fish sandwich -- and he hates tuna fish. He would buy the sandwich, walk out of the store, and throw the tuna fish in the garbage. I finally asked him, 'Why do you always come in and buy that sandwich if you're never gonna eat it?' And he said, 'I'm trying to get you to come over and work with me. But you always wear your hat backwards. You need to turn your hat around before I can hire you.' So he came in the next day, and my hat was turned around frontwards, because I thought it would be a lot more fun to work with him. He was opening up a new Italian restaurant next door, and I thought it would be really cool to learn to cook pasta and Mediterranean food.
"So I took the job for a dollar more an hour, and I was the dishwasher. I didn't do anything I thought I was going to do. He said, 'You can't cut until you're 16.' So two weeks later I lied and said it was my birthday. He knew it wasn't, but then he started to let me cook...George taught me about passion. He didn't teach me techniques, he didn't teach me the proper way to dice an onion or a carrot, what he taught me was to love food, love the people who come in and eat, love the job for what it is...Because you may have seen a dish a thousand times, but for that guest, it may be the first time, the only time, they ever see that dish. When I asked him for my pay, he'd say, 'First, you must learn to have it in your heart before you have it in your pocketbook.' I thought that was intriguing. After three years, when I graduated from high school, he finally paid me everything he owed me in a lump sum.
"I'd promised myself to at least try college, to make sure that cooking was what I really wanted to do. I went to University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, for a year. After that year, I knew that I wanted to be a chef -- a cook, that is, because a chef is what you get to be after years and years.
"I went to the New England Culinary Academy in Montpelier, Vermont, where you have six months of class alternating with six months of internship; the first internship is national and the second international. My first one, I went to Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley under chef Robert Curry...The second externship I did at L'Auberge de Lavaux in Switzerland, working under chef Jacky Vuillet, a protégé of Freddy Girardet [ed. note: the legendary Swiss chef, now retired, regarded by many as the world's best]. ...That was tough, because he doesn't have a set menu, he cooks different things for each group. The workday was both lunch and dinner, starting at 8 in the morning, with a break from 4 to 5, and then until 11 at night...But I lived right on Lake Geneva, and on my days off I'd travel around Switzerland.
"I'd do stages -- which means, working for free for a few days or months in order to learn -- at Freddy Girardet's restaurant. I think it's very important to stage...This past year, I did a stage at Alinea in Chicago...Grant [Atchaz, the chef] has picked up, from El Bulli in Spain, doing a completely new type of cooking, serving tasting menus with up to 22 courses. I did pick up the foam-making technique there...And I just got back from doing another stage in New York City with Daniel Boulud. That was incredible -- he has 220 people in the kitchen. It's like a machine, a theater. I love to learn, and to train my cooks."