4055 Adams Avenue, Kensington
Restaurateur Tracy Borkum (Laurel, Chive, Kensington Grill) is a demanding mistress. Chefs who don't meet her exalted standards (or who don't want to meet them) vanish swiftly. But chef Hanis Cavin, now cooking at Kensington Grill, seems a heaven-made match, and I hope it's a long and happy one. Not only is Hanis an imaginative chef with a fine palate for big, forward flavors, but due to his secret workaday weapon -- fluent kitchen Spanish -- the execution of the dishes is flawless, wherever he's in charge. (See About the Chef, next page.) And with Tracy as his boss, he can buy the great ingredients he needs to make his food shine.
Kensington Grill is a slightly upscale neighborhood restaurant in a decidedly upscale neighborhood, and Hanis cooks just the sort of mouth-friendly, sophisticated food you want from such a spot. It's not madly avant-garde -- but nearly every dish at every meal is fresh, imaginative, and tastes terrific.
My eating buddy Samurai Jim recruited a couple of friends who are longtime Kensington residents: James, a well-traveled ex-Navy guy turned chef (and now realtor) and his wife Anita, a Nordstrom executive who travels the country staging training exercises. After about three food-related sentences, I told Jim, "Add 'em to the posse; they've traveled enough and eaten enough." (I admit that their midlife beauty added to the appeal. Treat the eyes while you treat the mouth.)
Kensington Grill was redecorated a few years ago, but on a balmy, humid night at the start of the Labor Day weekend, when the air felt like a perfect New Orleans evening, we couldn't resist the sidewalk patio, foregoing the air-conditioned interior with its subdued golden lighting and clean, bright decor.
Jim, recently moved to nearby Talmadge, had previously sampled the fried calamari. "I don't really like squid, but this was special," he said. And so it was: The crisp-crusted tender circlets were engulfed in a vivacious cabbage and red pepper "slaw" dressed with sweet Thai chili sauce (Mae Plow brand, from a nearby Asian supermarket), a combination brimming with spirit. Hanis created the dish when he first worked at this restaurant, seven years ago. "Mmm, dis bust da mout'," quipped James in Pacific Islander argot. A few nights later, enjoying the doggie bag, I realized where I'd tasted a similar dressing -- in a raw cockle salad at my favorite dive on slummy lower Sukhumvit Road (Bangkok). That's a rave.
Small Prince Edward Island mussels also were treated to Southeast Asian flavors, but this time as comfort food -- swimming in a caressing broth of coconut milk, Kaffir lime, and lemongrass. Not only were the mussels cooked to succulence, but the broth was ideally salted, with the mussels' own brine contribution factored into the equation.
House-cured salmon gravlax, with grilled baguette, lemon-whipped cream cheese, and marinated cucumber salad was fresh and easygoing, an ideal summer-night starter. And a mango and Brie quesadilla was a light, bright surprise, since Brie can be overfilling. This holdover from a previous chef's menu deserves its long run. There was just enough cheese to hold the quesadilla together, but the real stars, along with the fruit, were the golden corn kernels as garnish. The combination tasted like an instant Caribbean vacation.
I was hoping to try the bouillabaisse (listed on the website menu) so I could play "compare and contrast" with the version at nearby Bleu Boheme (where I had reservations for the next night). But bouillabaisse has been banished from the current menu (it may come back in winter), with a substitution of a seafood pasta. (Sorry, anybody can cook that, whereas bouillabaisse takes real work.) Instead, we chose "crispy skin salmon," and it was a delight, the fish moist, thick, and medium-rare, the skin indeed crispy. The Scottish salmon (from cold waters with strong currents) was both lean and succulent, served over a light miso broth with delicate green tea soba, the "Asian trinity" (garlic, shallots, ginger), and minced celery, carrots, and bamboo shoots.
Tender, medium-sized pan-roasted Callo de Hacha sea scallops from Baja were fresh and of fine quality, perched atop crisp, interesting shrimp-and-potato cakes, the shrimp subtly pushing the spuds to a higher realm. Alongside each scallop was a heaping tablespoonful of a lush, tropical-tasting veggie medley of white corn, fresh peas, and teardrop tomatoes on little beds of fresh pea shoots.
Horseradish-coated sea bass is comfort food (another of the few dishes held over from previous chefs) and James's longtime favorite here. "People think about horseradish as harsh tasting," he said, "but if you grate it raw and then cook it, it's mellow. If you serve it raw, it'll blow your head off." This mellow rendition came with lush mashed potatoes and crispy leeks. The leek juices seeped into the spuds, turning their edges chartreuse and elevating the flavor well above ordinary.
Both Jim and Anita love steak, so we bypassed several other interesting meats (game meatloaf, stuffed "Sterling Silver"--grade well-marbled pork chops, and braised lamb shanks with couscous) in favor of grilled rib eye, which came with ramekins of two sauces, salsa verde and mustard aioli. "I like it so much better this way," said Jim, "served with a choice of sauces, instead of having it arrive already slathered with something." I was neutral on this dish because my tablemates wanted "medium rare" while I prefer "ultra rare." (The "vampire hours" I work apparently breed vampire tastes.) But if you're a steak conservative, take their word that it was good.
The wine list is sheerly wonderful, put together by an adventurous palate. With the temperature that evening slowly descending from the day's high of 92 degrees, I spotted a Vouvray, France's favorite picnic wine -- a dry, insouciant Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley. It's available by the glass, but we all wanted it, so we enjoyed a bottle with our first course. For our entrées (three seafoods overruling one meat), the lure was a French Marsanne blend called Las Valse. It proved crisp, but deep and rich. (None of us picked up any hint of the "marshmallow" flavor the wine list promised, but we enjoyed a faint minty undertone along with ripe stone-fruit flavors.)