Clay's is evidently accustomed to foodies sharing dinners -- our waiter later told us about a regular dining group who call themselves "the Foodies" -- because the appetizers arrived by ones and twos to let us savor each in turn. We ordered blue-crab salad as a mid-course, and it duly arrived solo -- a warm mélange of substantial chunks of sweet crab (not mere shreds and bits), surrounding islands of butter lettuce, small oval tomatoes, and raspberries. After appreciating its merits for a while, I realized I wasn't totally content with butter lettuce in the context. "I think it needs a more assertive green to go against the Gorgonzola cream," I said. "Maybe raw fennel." Jim thought arugula. Lynne suggested raw Belgian endive, which won the crowd's acclaim, a communal vision of ideal warm blue-crab salad. On second thought -- artichoke heart might do it, too.
"Even if the main courses fall down after this, I'm already happy I came," said the Lynnester. But they didn't fall down. We chose entrées as much on the basis of interesting garnishes as the central proteins. Hence, the first one I faced was my fish-of-constant-ridicule, halibut. It was cooked to soft velvet flakiness -- even better than at George's California Modern. At one end, the fillet was topped with purple and dark green "licorice"-flavored microgreens (anise, fennel, arugula, plus radicchio for color), a decorating tactic echoed in the center by slim, garlic-flavored green beans and tiny purple Peruvian potatoes, plus poached white peaches on the side. "Aww, look!" I cooed, uncovering the first petite purple potato. "There's purple and green at the top, and here's the purple with the green beans to match." "The chef could be an interior designer," said Michelle, an interior designer. "He could redo your living room in food."
"I can't believe it, I'm actually clinging to halibut!" I said, when I had to move the plate along on its rotation around the table. Next was Angus filet mignon. It was not quite as rare as I'd hoped. Samurai Jim, the classic beef-eater among us, actually hated the blackberry reduction sauce, the summery soprano substitute for the standard, mellow-alto red-wine bordelaise sauce. The rest of us liked the beef and sauce well enough, but what really won us all over (Jim included) were the side dishes -- a succulent little gratin of potatoes with manchego cheese, plus roasted red pearl onions, grilled white asparagus, and sautéed garlic spinach.
Maple Leaf duck breast is the standard duck in local restaurants, but rarely is it served as rare as it ought to be. Here it was -- darkly rosy, utterly tender, set atop dreamy, thin-skinned butternut squash ravioli with garlic cream sauce, spinach, and plushy reconstituted oven-dried tomatoes. (I can't believe they were really ever dried. They tasted fresh-baked.) We were all jazzed as the plate made its way around the table. The difference between great duck breast and boring duck breast? Ten degrees less cooking and zap, OFF with the heat!
The major entrée disappointment was pan-seared Jidori chicken breast, from an aristocratic, flavorful Japanese breed. Even with Jidori, nicely cooked breast is still breast and needs more help to become something wonderful, rather than just (yawn) white meat. Here it was cooked plainly, accompanied by yummy fennel-scented goat cheese mashed potatoes, grilled ramps (wild scallions, in the final week of their season), baby carrots glazed with lychee-infused sake from Japan, and pan jus. (Next evening, the doggie-bagged Jidori leftovers were reincarnated into fabulously flavorful chilaquiles -- much tastier than "any-old-chicken" chilaquiles.)
Desserts are exhibited on one of those sampler platters equivalent to the plastic food displays in the window of a Tokyo restaurant. We (meaning the chocoholic samurai) chose a layered chocolate pastry-thing. It proved as exciting as a plastic window display (ditto the espresso). It turns out that, due to the small size of the kitchen (and Clay's own disinclination for baking), most desserts at the restaurant are purchased from a contractor. But sweets are superfluous anyway, when you've already extracted so much pleasure from the earlier courses.
We'd arrived early and were second-last to leave. I rode down the elevator with Jim, and after powder-room breaks, Lynne and Michelle rode down with our handsome waiter. Michelle, a petite pretty blonde, marched in lockstep with the waiter toward the back parking lot. "Whoo-hoo, we're over here," Jim called from the other exit door. (Sorry, Michelle, it was too cute a moment to go unrecorded. Writers are dangerous friends.) Then we all poured into Jim's car and glowed all the way back to town. "This has been surprisingly...divine," said the Lynnester, surprising herself with the razzle-dazzle adjective. Yes, surprisingly divine.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Chef Clay Bordan has primarily worked as a corporate chef, which is basically a teaching position -- that is, "I'd go to all these cities, and I'd put together restaurants [including the opening of Nectar, downtown], put together menus, bring in staffs, go through the build-out stage, be there for the opening, stay there for a month or two, and hand it off to my chefs," he says. "But a lot of these restaurants were in hotels, and we'd get interference from the hotel management. They were more interested in saving money than in keeping that creative edge, so I wasn't always happy doing that.
"The company I was with, American Property Management, bought this hotel about two years ago.... They had a couple of third-party operators doing the restaurant here, Elario's, and one day they came to me and said, 'You've got to go to Elario's and babysit it.' So I started working with the people here, and I really didn't have much interest in the menu -- it was just hotel food, you wouldn't even give it two stars. I was bored, and about three months afterwards...I suggested to the company that I'd take it on myself, but I'd quit my job as a corporate chef. They said, 'Well, okay, but we won't give you any money to get started.'"