With the entrées, the velvet curtain rises, the orchestra strikes up the overture, the spotlights come on, and the dishes come out singing and dancing, with an all-star cast strutting the stage.
Four pan-seared day-boat scallops, large and luscious, are set atop a buttered-leek fondue. Most chefs would automatically plate scallops atop a starch, but leeks offer full, complementary flavor with none of the carbs. Each scallop was topped with a sweet-tart swirl of "Moroccan tomato jam" and set over a red-wine reduction. For the carbs, if you want them, there's a rather dry chorizo bread pudding that my tablemates and I found anticlimactic.
On a menu that changes with the weather, Sea Bass Dynamite has replaced the Scottish Salmon Dynamite of two weeks previous. I think I'd prefer the salmon with this treatment, a moister, more assertive species, better able to stand up to the aggressive seasoning. The "dynamite" isn't the mayo-inflected béchamel of most sushi bars but a sharp, spicy glaze of mayo, hot pepper, and eel sauce. Two large pieces of fish (enough for two normal diners) sat on the plate, each surrounded by a pretty bull's-eye of glazes, dribbles, and garnishes, including twin beds of garlicky edamame-and-corn succotash and a slick of scallion-infused oil.
Surf and Turf is a bold, far cry from steakhouse stuff. The "surf" is a seafood chile relleno, a large, gently spicy poblano cradling sizable chunks of lobster and shreds of crab in a cream sauce, with three cheeses and a complex blend of dried chiles -- ancho, New Mexico, and guajillo, for a little pica. The "turf" is tender Kobe flat-iron steak, a deeply flavorful cut, rubbed with the same dried-chile mix and plated over a succulent hash of purple potatoes and a black-bean demi-glace. There's a small pool of spicy, acidic guajillo chile cream to dip your steak into. The combination is as brilliant as it sounds.
New to the menu at my second visit were Brandt natural short ribs braised in Syrah, then removed from the bone to serve in cubes decoratively plated next to orbs of sweet cipollini onions, all set atop a long pale streak of goat cheese--potato purée and sauced with an intense Syrah reduction. It is both beautiful and thoroughly appropriate winter fare. There's a bit of white corn and a spoonful of sautéed spinach. This chef never rests.
Two entrées that were simplified in the space of a couple of weeks are the Jidori chicken and the pork tenderloin. The Jidori lost its ginger pot stickers, the pork its shoulder meat, along with a "sponge bread" cradle resembling a traditional Ozark sweet bread called Sally Lunn, or Sol et Lune in its original Canadian-Huguenot form. (Turns out that the chef, although Southern born, has never heard of Sally Lunn but reinvented it from scratch, inspired by Ethiopian injera.)
What remains of the poultry is soft breast meat slow-cooked sous vide (gently poached in a vacuum-sealed pouch), plus a spring roll stuffed with the braised thigh, over an avocado mousseline. It's good, but of course I liked it better with the pot sticker and crazy soup. And a former heirloom pork duo is now an ancho-rubbed tenderloin that arrived thrillingly rare (about 130û F), the way they cook this cut in France -- where they have fewer food fears and ingredient scares. Tender and juicy, the meat arrives with a pleasant corn pudding, a sauce of rum and molasses, and crispy fried plantain chips -- not in the often ponderous LatinAmerican style, but thin-shaved to create crisp, greaseless rectangles.
With so many interesting sauces to sop, it's too bad the table bread is third rate, an almost gummy rosemary bread. I don't know who makes it, but Bread & Cie is a near neighbor and could provide much better.
Because the cooking is so interesting and the portions so large, it's hard to manage dessert. Nonetheless, three of us enjoyed a shared Carlsbad strawberry tart. It wasn't exactly light, but it was refreshing enough to reawaken our palates. The strawberries, glazed with frangipane for shine, not excessive sweetness, maintained their tart, clean nature. They were topped with dense sweetened whipped cream (superfluous, to my mouth) and sat atop a smooth crème anglaise custard, with a thin layer of chocolate against the faintly sweet, crumbly, and rather heavy crust. On the plate were small concentric ovals of two glazes -- a reduction of blood orange, with ancho chile and vanilla bean, surrounding a center of tart champagne-and- kiwi-juice glaze. What started out as a summery Normal Rockwell soda-shop dessert remained cheerful, but as you plunged deeper, its graces no longer seemed simple -- it was art, sunny art, on a dark and stormy night.
ABOUT THE CHEF
"My grandmother was an excellent cook and I spent a lot of time in the kitchen watching her, and because of that I naturally gravitated to it," says Comer D. Smith. "It started with summer jobs working in kitchens, peeling shrimp -- the classic dishwasher story. I just really took to it. By the time I was 16, 17, I was working the line during the summer, and by the time I was 18, it was time to take a career because I had to support myself -- I didn't come from very much money. I got my first break working for a chef on a little island off the coast of Georgia, a little restaurant called Chelsea. It wasn't super-high-end food but it was done right, with classical French techniques. All the stocks were done in-house. Fresh ingredients, proper technique. It just fascinated me, because the flavors were mind-blowing. I've always had a kind of advanced palate, and this job gave me my first experience with tasting phenomenal food. From then on, I've never had any job outside of the kitchen.
"I went to Johnson and Wales Culinary School in Charleston, South Carolina. I worked and went to school at the same time -- but school was a little bit easier for me because I'd already got it. A lot of the people who were in culinary school with me had never worked in restaurants and are out of the business by now.