Origami of Sashimi was even more intricate: a wreath of long strips of raw red ahi and white hamachi, persimmon strips, miso-cider noodles, firm unidentified fruit chunks, and celery root, all lightly dressed with yuzu. The ingredients encircled a central pool of lightly sweetened puréed Asian pear, bearing two tiny, toasted anchovy sandwiches and a melting couple of cloves of caramel-like black garlic (regular garlic that is aged and fermented, turning very sweet — the latest rage among the gastronomes, and one taste tells you why).
Everybody’s doing pork belly, but not like this. Small chunks of tender meat showcased a “tasting of corn, pineapple, miso” — three dark, intense sauces, at least one of them achingly sweet. Unfortunately, on this plate (a shallow bowl, if memory serves) the sauces congregated at the center and the sweetest one usurped the other flavors — an omen of the entrées.
Main courses revealed superb technical know-how, along with a tendency to throw too many unrelated elements onto each plate at the expense of coherence. Usually, restaurant scallops are halved crosswise into modest coins about an inch thick, a strategy that’s both thrifty and easier on the cook. Here, a pair of lightly bronzed New England diver scallops were almost fist-sized, but tender all through, accompanied by stuffed figs, purple plum, chanterelles, guanciale (smoked hog jaw, aka “face bacon”). But the plum was transformed into a powerful sweet-tart sauce that swamped all in its path. Why are so many chefs (Searsucker, Addison, El Biz) stubbing their toes on the sugar bowl lately? Is this a recessionary reach for comfort and joy? Will it go away soon?
Butter-poached Maine lobster offered a silky section of a small tail, sliced in one-inch increments, and the buttery meat of a small claw, plated over lobster jus. The rest was crazy, in a good way. “Eucalyptus lime pudding” proved a streak of an olive-green colloid, its flavor elusive, less powerful than you might guess. There were pieces of “pimento-smoked” plantains and a small “Kaffir butter balloon,” but I got this dish second and the balloon had already burst, leaving only a trace of lime-butter on the plate.
Duck Vinoise focused on a thick slab of duck breast, lightly roasted in fearless French-style to a perfect garnet-colored, moist interior that chewed like the best filet mignon. “Before I tasted this, I thought I didn’t like duck,” said Jim, “because at most local restaurants it’s dry and stringy.” The accompaniments tended to the sweet side again — roasted pumpkin, “chamomile banana” with plum sauce — but also, ruby chard for needed contrast. At the edge of the plate were a pair of “duck confit farenette” — little square pillows of a sort of bread pudding containing chopped confit of duck legs and duck foie gras. Yes to those!
The wine list is much briefer than the tome it used to be, although there are still plenty of enviable, unaffordable bottles and some secret high-end bottles hidden away, unlisted. There are, however, more bottles under $50. Our Joel Gott ($40) Sauvignon Blanc was a bit sweet, a potentially nice complement to lobster and scallops, if only the latter hadn’t been swamped in plum sauce; a dry Chardonnay might have been a better option for our food choices.
The previous week, Chef Grant had featured a “white truffle celebration” with the precious garlic-scented autumn fungi from Italy. The truffle menu was still enclosed in our menu booklet, every dish exceeding the Sanity Clause financially — except one, a $30 truffled “Banana Split.” That turned out to be the sole remaining white truffle dish that hadn’t sold out.
We shared the very last one. Served in an exquisite glass cornet vase, it was over the top: chopped bananas, firm house-made marshmallows, caramel syrup, whipped cream, and bits of, yes, white truffle — too much going on to remember every ingredient, only to delight at this combination of childish indulgence and sophisticated culinary mirth.
When Chef Ryan, age 30-going-on-17, came out from the kitchen, he literally bounced around the room with his shoulders jiggling and his head bobbing under his signature white Kangol hat, shaped like a bouffant shower cap. He volunteered that he suffers from ADD, which is believable, given his hyperactive food and his body language, and he says he doesn’t like to taste his dishes in the kitchen before they go out to the diners because then he always wants to play with them some more. He said he expected to stay at El Biz a long while. I hoped so because his exuberant food seemed a good fit for El Biz’s combination of golf duffers and metropolitan foodies.
Service, ambience, etc, constitute a separate chapter titled “Why I’d Rather Eat at El Biz than Addison.” Yeah, when we arrived ten minutes early, we had to wait in the bar for our “table to be ready,” even though half the tables were fully dressed but empty. (That’s $34 extra profit on drinks to them — although I really loved my pure, classic Margarita made without icky bar mix.) And, yeah, you have the management’s moronic Victorian dress rules, as though they’re still terrified of a ravenous horde in ragged jeans and dirty tees invading on the Night of the Living Hippies. Metrosexual Samurai Jim dressed by all the rules, but Michelle violated the no-denim dictate with a spangly black top over clean jeans — while after suffering in new patent leather at Addison, I’d reverted to my favorite martial-arts Mary Janes. Not exactly tennies, so no prob. But here, unlike Addison’s zombie-stiff servers, our waiter, Emerson, was cheerful and relaxed, his warmth and gusto reflecting the chef’s playfulness. The room is pretty, and the Spanish-style chairs are comfortable with those stick-up wooden tips at the shoulders where you can hang your hat and/or purse.
I’ve always enjoyed eating at El Biz, but I’m not sure I’ll ever do it again, at least for review. Most four-star restaurants hold on to talented chefs for years. Chef turnover like this tells me that the management at El Biz must be doing something wrong, and until they figure out how to correct that, the kitchen will suffer a whirlwind revolving door. (If you’re a kitchen escapee from El Biz and willing to talk about why you left, please email me. I’d love to hear from those who know, for a future report.)