By the end of the year, it probably will be standard: the new fad food of 2009 (this year’s seared ahi) is shaping up to be bacon, often coated with something sweet. It could become even bigger than sea-salt caramels. Those damned TV pet-food ads (“BACON!”) have brainwashed us into craving BACON like a pack of hounds. Just a few days before this dinner, I randomly opened one of the slick cooking magazines to a recipe for sugared bacon. (And a week later, I found myself eating bacon chocolate cake at Cafe Riviera.) The maple syrup–glazed bacon here is crisp, sweet-salty, sprinkled with chives and garnished with frisée curls to eat or ignore. You have to love it, unless you’re halal, kosher, or vegan, you poor thing.
The “Crispy Lump Crab Cakes” were wonderful, distinguished by their utter lack of perceptible filler material. We couldn’t spot mayo or béchamel or a starch binding — just pure, sweet crab in a crunchy crumb coating, plated over a zippy tarragon remoulade with green apple shreds. Sorry, Oceanaire and Tin Fish, you’re now fighting it out for second place. This is the new number-one crab cake.
But a lobster bisque was a surprisingly thin broth, rather than the expected thick, creamy soup. It certainly wasn’t as filling or fattening as the standard version and also seemed tenuous in lobster flavor.
Kobe beef carpaccio proved pleasant but problematic. It’s the world’s tenderest beef, but the question remains: does its loin cut actually have any flavor? (The braising cuts are spectacular, but here, we’re probably looking at the tenderloin, e.g., filet mignon.) Nearly transparent slices of melting raw meat scattered with pickled scallions and model-slim Reggiano Parmesan slices were arranged with a few lithe lengths of lightly toasted ciabatta bread. But any garnish seems to overwhelm this beef, while with no garnish, it’s less interesting than hoped for, merely lush and fatty — like eating butter. This particular garnish didn’t quite satisfy any of us — we liked the flavors, but either they bolstered the beef too much (particularly the Parmesan) or not quite enough.
Entrées are divided between “Ocean,” “Land,” “Suite and Tender” (surf ’n’ turf), and various sizes and cuts of steak, including Japanese Kobe at market price by the ounce, available in whatever size portion you want and can afford. We chose all three “Suite and Tender” combos and a duck confit.
The surf ’n’ turf dishes were beautifully plated, little works of art that looked dainty but provided ample protein portions. In the lobster and braised short rib combo, the short rib was fall-apart tender, braised in some fine flavor-instilling liquid, and plated over garlic potato purée. Steve, who often works in restaurants, guessed it had been cooked at 250 degrees for about eight hours in a red wine sauce to produce that texture. It made the lobster — a modest-sized tail section — play second fiddle. The crustacean seemed to be sulking atop the buttered corn garnish, offering only a hint of its normally sunny, sensual personality. Maybe it needed a buttery sauce to bring it out. Or it may have been frozen, which eviscerates the lobster flavor. (That might also account for the pallid bisque.)
Braised pork belly was paired with diver scallops and served with hedgehog mushrooms, cauliflower purée, and sweet kumquats. The belly was tender but, dare I say it, seemed to call for a bit of distinctive sauce in addition to the sweet kumquat to set it off. The scallops were perfectly tender, translucent. I liked the way the fat of the belly pork and the softness of the scallops held a mirror to each other — same texture, by sea and by land. “I really prefer scallops with a crisped surface,” said Steve, “for more textural contrast.” He could be right, since this was one of those great intellectual constructs that somehow didn’t make it over the edge into a taste thrill.
Our final pairing married Alaskan king crab with veal tenderloin, accompanied by brussels sprouts, butternut squash, and blood orange. The crab was buttery and charming, the red-carpet celebrity on the plate. The veal was overcooked and dry and, like most modern veal, nearly bereft of flavor. (This was the dish that several Yelpers loved the best. Well, one man’s meat...)
Ordering duck confit is an acid test. Making confit (duck legs slow-cooked in rendered duck fat, then crisped just at serving) is a patient process until the dramatic climax of the reheating, when suddenly everything can go wrong. The aim is to achieve a crackly, crisp skin over tender flesh, and it’s surprisingly difficult to obtain. Here, tasting the desiccated quacker, Steve guessed they’d reheated by deep-frying rather than pan-searing, as he does when he cooks it. Whatever technique they used wasn’t the answer. While some of the skin was indeed as crisp as well-cooked bacon, most was merely shriveled. The meat underneath was as sere as an octogenarian sunbather’s face. It came with nice garnishes — baby root veggies, cranberries, et al. — but no point to putting rouge on the old crone’s withered cheeks. This was dry, dry duck.
Dessert is another acid test after a big meal. I was curious about the chocolate cheesecake set over a passionfruit coulis, a blogger favorite. The chocolate proved, however, to be milk chocolate, which I plain don’t like. (This dessert was not counted in determining the star rating.)
Baked Alaska has become a lot easier to carry off now that it no longer actually requires baking — every restaurant kitchen is equipped with a little blowtorch for crisping the tops of the inevitable crème brûlées, and they can do double-duty on meringues. Still, it was quite a presentation, the meringue shaped into a royal crown. Inside was a seductive coconut sorbet that really tasted of coconut, with the shreds to prove it. This crowd-pleasing extravaganza was plated over guava sauce. My espresso was decent and thirstily welcomed with such sweet sweets as Suite provides.