Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
Molecular Gastronomy at... Harney Sushi?
When I signed up for a seat at Harney Sushi's new, monthly Nook Dining event, I was expecting an evening of sushi. Despite knowing about the small sushi spot in Old Town for years, I'd never before been inside.
The "nook," which seats six, is a private booth (made private only when you draw the curtains closed which, for the purposes of nook dining — which includes the chef appearing to describe each course — would be silly to do). The evening is intended to be a "social dining experience," but is also a way for chef Anthony to flex his molecular gastronomy muscles and play outside the sushi bar. (Side note: Chef Anthony only learned how to roll sushi a few months ago. His expertise is in the fancy food, some of which I got to try.)
Here's the deal: $125 per person, including tax and gratuity. You can expect around seven labor-intensive courses, each paired with a different libation (sometimes beer, sometimes cocktails, whatever fits the food). For the month of September, the theme was "Tailgate Party," with each course representing a different football region.
West Coast was a fish taco paired with Ballast Point Yellowtail Pale Ale. The "shell" was more like frozen dough. It was actually a pureed corn tortilla formed into a shell by dipping the bottom of ladle that had been chilled with liquid nitrogen into the batter. It was a little too cold and not crispy enough to contrast in that pleasant taco-y way, but once you got past the weird cold outside, every flavor — citrus, creamy (from the avocado and crema), spicy (sliced serrano pepper), fresh fish — could be discerned, and was appreciated.
Next was New England, a clam chowder, also paired with beer. You know what? All the pairings were beer, and here I'm more interested in the food, so I'm going to stop telling you there was beer. Just know now that all of the pairings were great (some from Coronado and Stone Brewery) except the dessert one, because Julian Hard Cider doesn't go with anything, especially sweet apple pie. So back to the chowder.
It was SALTY. This is likely because of all the "bacon powder" on the dish, but even the broth was like a salt lick. I'm not one for clams, so I passed those bits to David, but I did enjoy the potato puff, a pleasant potato dough that cut the salt. Oh, and the flowers were pretty.
On to New Orleans, the jambalaya with uni, oyster, and lobster. It was agreed by oyster lovers that this oyster was not great. But the uni was very fresh, and the lobster was perfectly poached, and the jambalaya itself was nice and tomato-y.
Ah, South. Buttermilk fried chicken and white corn grits, the latter of which was too salty to eat. The fried chicken, however, was exquisite. Chef took buttermilk and boiled it down so that the protein solids would coagulate, then he skimmed those off, leaving a buttermilk broth behind. He then took the chicken and vacuum-sealed it in a plastic bag with the broth for the sous vide process. This allowed him to cook the chicken slowly at a low temperature, so that the chicken gets cooked all the way through but doesn't dry out (and still remains pink, but don't worry, no bacteria was left alive). Then he coated the cooked, deboned chicken thighs with corn starch and a very fine pasta flour and fried it.
Kansas City was pretty rad. BBQ ribs and these fried baked bean balls. This dish was served family style, which was a good thing, because I was going in for seconds. The entire dish, served on a mirror, was presented under a dome. It was enveloped in hickory smoke, which was released with a flourish when the chef removed the dome at the table. The baked bean balls were stupid good. And the BBQ sauce was the right balance of sweet and spicy.
Oh my God, there's more? Yup. Green Bay was "Brats and Cheddar," or tender slices of lamb in a cheddar consomme with a "sauerkraut meringue." I know, right? Like, whaaa?? Basically, it was dehydrated sauerkraut, which was a pity, because I think the wetter stuff would have been better. But that didn't matter, because we couldn't get past how awesome the lamb was. The lamb was sous vide in all of the spices of bratwurst, which made it taste just like a brat. It caught us by surprise, but it was a "Oh, you got me a present!" kind of surprise, not a "What's that on the bottom of my shoe?" surprise. Between me and David, it was the best bite of the night.
It was SO good that I wished that had been my last bite. The dessert — region USA, "Mom's Apple Pie" — was served with a "hot" cinnamon ice cream. The crust over the apple slices was great, but the ice cream, which was flambeed, was boozier than Everclear. I felt like I was licking gasoline.
Overall, Nook Dining can be a lot of fun, and you will certainly taste some original and mind-expanding meals. I don't think the $125 a person is unreasonable, considering the work that goes into creating the menu and the fact that you are given just as much booze as food, AND it includes tax and gratuity. If you do check out what Chef Anthony (a really nice guy, by the way) wants to dish up next month, or the month after, I advise you to layer — not to stay warm, but so that you can remove as much clothing as possible — the nook gets hot, and several of us diners ended up using the menu to fan ourselves, and half-jokingly asked the waitstaff to please leave the door to the cooler (located across from the table) open so that we could catch a refrigerated breeze. So when I say it was a cool experience, I don't mean that literally. Next time I go there, I'll have to try the sushi.
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