Via Verdi Cucina Rustica – Miami, FL

Authenticity as it pertains to food, has become an increasingly important quality to bloggers, and even critics over the years. After all, as people become more adventurous in their taste, their quest becomes all about finding the “most authentic” version of the cuisine in question. This is in stark contrast to how we thought about ethnic cuisine 50 or 60 years ago, when immigrants had to tailor their dishes to suit our timid taste buds. The clearest example of this phenomenon is Chinese food, a cuisine that historically exudes bold flavor, vibrant color and generous use of spices. Sadly, here in America, our inexperienced palates have transformed it into a bland parody of itself.

No cuisine is immune to the changes that inevitably take place when a dish reaches our shores for the first time. Chef Ed Lee, in a recent “Mind of a Chef” episode, explained that this isn’t always a bad thing, and that we shouldn’t necessarily be chasing authenticity, but embracing the new cuisines that spawn from this metamorphosis. These are, after all, what make up “American food”, not only burgers, fries and apple pies.

While I agree with Chef Lee, I also feel that it’s possible to find truly authentic food here in the States if you care to look. It may use local ingredients, but that doesn’t make it any less genuine, as all the best food cultures adapt to new surroundings. The search for such food however, is important, as those who can’t afford to travel regularly, shouldn’t be deprived of the wonderful flavors from faraway lands. Even if you can pony up for a trip, you shouldn’t have to jump on a plane to get a taste of your favorite dish.

Via Verdi spread

Thankfully there are others who share my crazy Utopian ideals, and luckily for me, they’re Italian. A couple of years ago, the exuberant Carro brothers, Fabrizio and Nicola, along with mixologist wizard Cristiano Vezzoli, opened Via Verdi, with the simple goal of serving authentic Italian dishes, with quality ingredients and an exacting eye for quality. It’s a recipe touted by many, but executed by few. This trio however, succeeded, and has created a restaurant with the rare ability to transport its diners with a single bite.

I hesitated to write about Via Verdi after my first two visits, not because they were undeserving, quite the opposite in fact. The meals impressed me so much, that I feared this shining star would quickly burn itself out. So many times after having a great meal, I’ll return, only to find out the chef has left for greener pastures, or the owners, smelling success, have grown too quickly, leaving the quality lacking. This hasn’t been the case at Via Verdi. The team, experienced from their time at Miami mainstays, Quattro and Segafredo, have kept themselves focused on the original mission.

The menu is simple, no need for a paragraph when a handful of words will do, the ingredients speak for themselves. The polenta with truffle Parmesan sauce, in its tiny cup, commands attention as the wonderful aroma of truffles fills the air. Other fried dishes like the beautifully crisp arancini, or the sumptuous veal polpettine highlight Via Verdi’s mastery of tomato sauce. Take note other Italian restaurants, this is how you make tomato sauce. You can tell just by smelling that sauce is on point. Whether it’s their classic marinara, or fiery arrabiatta, the distinctive tang of San Marzano tomatoes is present and complemented with the perfect touch of sugar and spices.

Tonnato di vitello, a dish easily ruined by low quality ingredients and overpowering sauce, is a must. Via Verdi’s is a graceful rendition of the classic Northern Italian dish, light and refreshing, with hints of citrus and a briny pop from the capers.

Via Verdi pasta

Pasta of course, displays the same rigorous attention to detail as the rest of the menu. From herbaceous spinach gnudi covered in that wonderful sauce, to strozzapretti in rich and gamey braised osso buco, quality reigns. Even the vegetarian choices like a pecorino and beet ravioli in a zucchini sauce, are excellent. Naturally, all the pasta is made in house.

But it wouldn’t be a true Northern Italian restaurant without Piedmont truffles, the knobby little nodules that bring grown men to tears as they empty their wallets in the hope of just one fleeting taste.  People like to throw the word truffle on the menu, but few actually show you the goods, fewer still trust their diners enough to leave said goods on the table unattended. I was fortunate to pay a visit to Via Verdi on a night when white truffles were indeed on the menu. A delicious but simple risotto dutifully served to deliver the tasty tubers, as you wouldn’t want anything to overtake the delicate yet assertive flavors that every great truffle bestows.

White truffle spread

While dessert , sadly doesn’t come with white Alba truffles (although I didn’t ask), it’s absolutely worth saving room for. Panna cotta with passion fruit and strawberries should be on the table if it’s available. Another fantastic option is the Bunet, a chocolate amaretti flan with caramel sauce that doesn’t kill you with sweetness, but leaves you feeling cozy and warm.

Via Verdi dolce

Is Via Verdi authentic? Absolutely. Does it matter? Heck yes it matters! That’s not to say that every restaurant serving ethnic cuisine needs to stick hard and fast to the rules of the homeland, but for those that do, and do it well, I applaud you. As I’ve said time and again, a meal, when done right, has the ability to transport you, and the boys at Via Verdi are offering flavor trips to Alba with every  dish.

Via Verdi Cucina Rustica Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Haven – Tampa, FL

I don’t care how well curated your whiskey cellar is, or that you’ve got a list of pre-prohibition inspired cocktails on draught. I cringe upon finding my cloth napkin folded up like the Sydney Opera House as I return to the table from the restroom. Now don’t get me wrong, yeah I think it’s alright, but a 2,500 bottle wine cellar won’t keep me warm in the middle of the night. This isn’t the opening rant of a one star Yelp review, I just don’t care for that stuff. I just want to eat well. I’m not low-class and I’m not wealthy, and it’s great to be a discerning eater, but you don’t need a thesaurus to communicate your magnificent dining experience.

At Eat a Duck, the food is the single most important part our reviews. The entire system of stars, spoons, plates or whatever gold plated flatware you choose, is inherently flawed, as it’s too broad a brush to paint an accurate picture. We do it by writing words of jubilation, while disappointment bears silence in our approach. So the fact that I’ve already typed 228 words before even mentioning the restaurant in question means that I love Haven, the successor to the much-loved and sorely missed SideBerns. Back when I dined there for the first time almost a decade ago, I was impressed to see such a modern and experimental approach to cuisine in my area. Until then, I felt that this kind of attention to detail was only available in the big cities. I remember lusting over their happy hour menu, featuring delicious pork terrines and fantastic moules frites. On a good day you could get a nice pre-dinner snack with a glass of wine and get out of there for no more than $20. To this day, the best dessert I’ve ever had, came out of the Sideburns kitchen. A domed lemon cheesecake with an amoretti and candied pine nut crust, drizzled with basil simple syrup. Little did I know, our 13th wedding anniversary dinner, last April, would be our last chance to dine at SideBerns.

Haven logo

One of the reasons the community was in shock, was because they aren’t used to successful restaurants closing without facing some sort of tragedy. When a building owner or majority investor says they’re taking things in a “different direction”, the public reads that as failure. Yet, this kind of thing happens all the time, just not here. My all-around favorite place to eat, Abattoir in Atlanta, just closed after nearly a decade of consistently being one of the most popular places in town. The owner simply felt that the concept had run its course and wanted to try something new with their available resources. Of course it hurt to see both of these places go as I obviously have fond memories of each. I’ll never forget that Korean bulgogi poutine Anne Quatrano.

Haven though, is a chance to make some new memories, and it’s a really great concept for the neighborhood that it’s in. Whoever planned the build out pretty much measured every detail to a tee. Each department head seems to have designed their area of responsibility with precision. The problem is, I don’t care about anything but the food. I’m the guy who walks up to the bar and asks for the food menu before the cocktail menu. I don’t even care if Pappy Van Winkle himself was reincarnated in holographic form to be my master mixologist for the evening. I’m still just going to order an unsweet tea with lemon almost every time.

Haven spread 1

My first visit to Haven was shared with nine other people; an ideal number when you want to explore the full breadth of a menu. It was obvious to all in attendance that the large cured and encased meat sampler platter, as well as a cheese board boasting eighteen different selections, were automatic orders. As far as criticisms on their meat and cheese selections, there really is nothing to discuss. They’ve simply put to shame any cheesemonger or charcuterist in the area. Haven is now the gold standard on both fronts, as was to be expected since the two are the main vein of the food menu. A couple of my meaty favorites, both made in-house of course, were the foie gras and beef tongue terrine, which balanced between subtle and brash by putting together something so luxurious (foie) next to what some still deem to be food waste (tongue). I also really fancied the duck summer sausage which gave a humble nod to the traditional Polish kielbasa. Nice snappy casing served with sauerkraut, grain mustard, horseradish and some crusty bread. If you don’t have any friends who want to sample, I suggest you start with those and maybe an order of wild boar and cherry country paté, oh and a small ration of lardo. Fortunately, the wait staff padded their tip by placing all the meat right in front of me. Unfortunately, that meant my cheese intake took a hit as my table mates hoarded that board at the other end of the table. Sure, they passed me a couple of pity slivers of something aged and nutty, but I wasn’t privy to what I was actually consuming.

Haven spread 2

As far as appetizers and mains, there really aren’t any except an exorbitantly priced cold smoked Delmonico steak. I fear many, including myself will pass, never giving a second thought to ordering it. I’m not wealthy and I’m not low-class. I’m a discerning eater that likes variety. The entire menu is wide open, which means that for around $40-$50, you can order 2-3 meats and/or cheeses and a couple of their “nontreé” sized, yet adequately proportioned for sharing offerings, ranging from $7-$24. My favorites included the cobia carbonara, veal loin with salami puttanesca, and General Tso’s duck tongues which quenched my ongoing desire for kitschy food done by expert hands.

Haven spread 3

Please, when you go, don’t forget the vegetables. One thing that has been passed seamlessly between SideBurns and Haven is the way they treat vegetables. For a place that is admittedly meat-centric, a few of the more memorable menu items were the whole roasted cauliflower, a study of corn prepared about ten different ways on a single plate, and the wild roasted mushrooms which swam in a buttery wading pool of Worcestershire, thyme and okra pickle juice. Once the mushrooms exited the bowl, we placed crostini in said bowl to soak up the liquid. They floated for a moment like Jack Dawson, struggling to hang on for dear life after the sinking of Titanic. Only, this time I play the role of Rose DeWitt Bukater in the scenario, and I actually had the strength to save my love (the mushroom juice logged crostini) from drowning if only to eat them up once the life boat arrived.

Haven spread 4

Truthfully, I didn’t want to like this place when I walked in. I’m not really looking for such tender care when I’m chomping down on fried gouda fritters. The menu is fantastic, actually it’s close to perfect for my needs. The service is too good for the gastropub fare, but honestly I don’t care. I don’t care about that my iced tea was refilled every time I took a sip. I don’t care that the simple syrup that goes into their cocktails is barrel aged behind the bar. If you want really, really good service, probably the most efficient in town and need pampering to positively impact your dining experience, you’ll have an even better time than me. All I want is great food. My arms were crossed, ready to pick apart every detail that didn’t work, because the emptiness of losing SideBurns still hurts. I mean no disrespect to the Haven people, I simply have a different view of what’s important in a restaurant and you have what I need, magnificent food. Nonetheless, they softened the blow and did justice to the space that once was a favorite of mine. The hurt will never go away but the soothing sensation of multiple choices involving foie gras always helps!

Still wondering if Haven is for you? See if you fall into these demographics. Even if only one falls into your wheelhouse I think you need to go.

Haven is for:
A. Those who appreciate sleek design and attention to detail.
B. The serious drinker (There’s a broad highway between a fan of spirits and an alcoholic.)
C. People who like being pampered to excess.
D. Food lovers of all sorts.

Haven delivers top-notch service, and even though I’ve said I don’t care over and over, I also say, more power to them! As long as it doesn’t impede Haven’s wonderful food from reaching the starting point of my digestive system!

Haven on Urbanspoon

Eat a Duck’s Top Meals of 2014: Part II

I finally had the opportunity to travel a good amount in 2014 after years of being grounded. Naturally this led to of amazing meals. Apart from the food which, let’s face it, I wouldn’t be talking about if it weren’t unbelievable, the company with which I shared these dishes is really what bring these dishes to the forefront of my mind. While these five dishes run the gamut of price from nearly free to exorbitant, each one delivered something new and special. I chose my list based on how badly I want to go back and have them again. It was a difficult task, but here are my entries for the best of 2014!

  1. Spicy Chive and Pork Dumplings at Shanghai Dumpling King – San Francisco, CA

spicy-chive-pork-dumplings

Very few dishes bring a smile to my face as easily as steaming hot dumplings. Shanghai Dumpling King served up this beautiful bowl of tender, savory and spicy pork and chive dumplings, swimming in a sea of sesame and chili oil and it was a wonder to behold. They’ve got their mixture down perfect and it’s habit forming as all great Chinese food should be. Logan may not believe in umami, but that’s exactly what we experienced that night in San Francisco.

  1. Thresher Shark Nugget at é – Las Vegas, NV

Thresher Shark Nugget

Have you had thresher shark? Have you had any shark? Yeah neither had I. I’m usually one to question the ethics of killing such a beautiful animal, sadly however, my moral compass went haywire when this thresher shark nugget, fried in a sherry vinegar tinged batter was presented to me. Think pork belly, but just the fat. That’s what this was like, gelatinous but tender with a depth of flavor rarely seen in most seafood.

  1. Veal Sweetbreads with Gnocchi Parisienne at Rooster and the Till – Tampa, FL

Sweetbreads

I feel like we talk about the “Anton Ego” moment around here a lot. How that one bite of food can instantly transport you through time. This veal sweetbread dish from Rooster and the Till did just that. As it touched my tongue I was somehow taken back to my mothers turkey dinner, albeit with much more finely composed flavors. Very few dishes can match the balance of flavors and textures that this one achieved.

  1. Basil Pesto Ravioli at Beauty & Essex – New York, NY

Basil Pesto Ravioli from Beauty & Essex

Speaking of flavor, these precious little pockets of pesto contained a flavor so intense you’d be forgiven for thinking you were eating basil straight out of the garden. Aside from the freshness, who puts tomato sauce and pesto together? Chris Santos, that’s who, and it works so shut it. Too bad it’s not on the menu anymore!

  1. Sea Cucumber Roe at NAOE – Miami, FL

Sea Cucumber Roe from NAOE

Sea cucumber gonads…are you listening? The reproductive system…of a sea cucumber. Just so you understand how incredibly delicious this delicacy is, I’m going to completely ignore the beautiful tongue of uni sitting just to its right. This tiny morsel gave me an experience that I haven’t felt since my first taste of foie gras. A completely new and luxurious flavor like nothing I’ve ever eaten, silky, sweet, melt in your mouth, like if foie and crème brulée had a baby. I seriously considered a move to Hokkaido so I could hoard these little guys for myself, as if they aren’t rare enough as it is.

Beauty & Essex – New York City, NY

There’s something special about flying into New York City late in the evening, watching the skyline shimmer as you prepare to touch down, knowing that at the end of the journey lies a dinner reservation with tasty implications. You crane your neck to catch a glimpse of the neighborhood where, in minutes, you’ll be sharing a tartare or bone marrow of some sort with a loved one.

I miss New York, it felt like coming home, and one of my favorite things about returning to one of my old towns, is checking out all the new eats that have popped up in my absence. Beauty & Essex happens to be one of those, having opened mere months after I had flown south. After a delayed flight caused me to miss my much-anticipated table at Alder, I made some last-minute adjustments to my itinerary and somehow managed to land a table at  Beauty & Essex for 11:00 pm. “That’s a safe time”, I said to myself, “the crowds should be dying down by then.” I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Beauty & Essex spread photo: Jason Michael Lang

I met my little sister outside an unusually busy pawn shop storefront, complete with bouncer. We were pointed past the glass cases containing antique wristwatches, and through a door way surrounded by vintage guitars. The next room exploded with sound and energy as if the threshold we had just crossed was a time warp to Studio 54 circa 1977, only with more dubstep.

We were escorted through room after room like a Flintstones panning shot until we arrived at the dining area, plush and filled to the brim with hyper-hungry diners.  The noise level is substantial, it takes a mild scream to get anything across the table or even your server. This might be a negative to some, I found it energizing. The contrast of high energy dance club atmosphere in a decidedly high-end dining setting was an experience, but could the food sustain the same level of controlled chaos and still deliver the impeccable quality we’ve come to expect from this city?

Though we sampled eight dishes, it only took a couple to answer that question.

A soothing amuse bouche of warm pumpkin and mushroom soup arrived just in time to distract us from the adjacent table of posers doing their best Pauly D and Snookie impressions. The incredible din all but disappeared as we snacked on luxurious, bite sized toast with Hudson Valley foie gras terrine with smoked peach jam and homemade corn nuts. Steak tartare on chive and sticky rice cakes and crispy mustard was a refreshing take on an old classic.

Beauty & Essex apps

The tasty canapés ramped up our appetite for a succulent roasted bone marrow with a punchy rioja braised shallot marmalade. Six spoons filled to the brim with tangy tomato soup presented a floating dumpling of gooey cheese and smoked bacon. A creative presentation with flavors that were instantly familiar.

Beauty & Essex bone marrow and grilled cheese dumplings

Naturally I had to sample two of the pasta dishes. Basil pesto ravioli with blistered heirloom cherry tomato were outstanding. The tart broth and perfectly cooked pasta created the perfect foundation for a pesto which was clearly made that day with fresh picked basil as the grassy, citrus notes were front and center. I’ve sampled enough pestos to know how quickly the flavor can deteriorate. Equally impressive with a completely different personality was the garganelli with spicy veal bolognese and a mountain of whipped ricotta from Little Italy. The veal and cheese played good cop, bad cop with my taste buds, at once decadent and delicate. A subtle drizzle of balsamic balanced the dish with a touch of sweetness.

Beauty & Essex pasta

You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to dessert. For the PSL crowd, there’s a pumpkin pie bread pudding with cranberry compote. Chocolate fiends can sample the devil’s food layer cake with dark chocolate glaze and concord grape sauce. Haven’t had enough booze? Try the fireball hot chocolate shot with cinnamon whisky and vanilla marshmallow. For me, there was only one option, the box of doughnuts. Dueling trios of vanilla beignets stuffed with chocolate hazelnut creme and raspberry jam fought for my affection. It was like picking your favorite child, it just couldn’t be done.

Beauty & Essex box of doughnuts

I left Beauty & Essex in an even better mood than when I arrived. Some purists might rag on Chris Santos for appearing on Food Network shows from time to time, but my experience at his joint in the Lower East Side solidified my opinion. It was top shelf food in a city known for top shelf food. Eat here, now.

Beauty & Essex on Urbanspoon

Sette Luna – Easton, PA

The joy of feasting with family is one of the many mantras we preach here at Eat a Duck. This humble food writer recently had the even greater honor of taking his lovely and spry, octogenarian grandmother out on a dinner date. She goes by many names, but I call her Baba.

An unfortunate truth in life is that many of us don’t get to spend as much time with our grandparents as we may like to. Thankfully, I haven’t had that problem as she lovingly opened her home for me and my wife to stay when I landed my first job in Manhattan. In those months, she brought me to one of her favorite little Italian eateries just one town away in Easton, PA, Sette Luna. It quickly became “our place”, and whenever I visit, I can be fairly certain we’ll end up there on any given night.

Sette Luna Exterior

This visit felt special though. My trip had been unexpected, so when I found out I would be heading to Bethlehem, I got my taste buds ready for some rib-sticking Italian cuisine. We arrived without reservations but were seated promptly. Unlike most restaurants I’ve patronized, no prior menu research was required. While many of the items here are tantalizing, like the wild boar agnolotti with wild mushrooms and pancetta, or the “lovingly braised” osso bucco, I was here for one thing, Bud’s bolognese speciale. Judge me all you want for going with the “safe” choice, this dish is straight up comfort food and I never pass up a favorite.

Bud's Bolognese Special

This is out of order but I don’t care. I love this bowl of pasta, it puts a stupid grin on my face the second I spot it heading for my table. Tender fettuccine, coated in a meat sauce so luxurious it’s almost a gravy. Nothing cute, nothing fancy, just the way I like. The menu doesn’t lie when it states, “ain’t nothin’ like the real thing baby!”. Bud, I’ve never met you in person, but I feel we’ve made a connection through these noodles you’ve graciously shared with me on so many occasions.

Now that I’ve blown the climax of this post wide open, I’ll keep it rolling with a couple heavy hitting appetizers. Baba doesn’t mess around when it comes to dinner time. Sure she’ll order a nice light arugula salad…but it’s going to be covered with fresh slices of prosciutto di parma and roasted figs stuffed with goat cheese!

Goat Cheese Stuffed Figs, Arugula & Proscuitto

We matched that with a trio of veal meatballs relaxing in generous amounts of Sette Luna’s tangy tomato sauce and a cozy jackets of melted mozz. A sprinkle of freshly grated parm finished it off and we dug in. The meat was succulent and savory, with just enough spice to keep your tongue on its toes. The sauce and cheese intermingle with the juicy meat to form a single entity in your mouth. I enjoyed the addition of a couple of lemon peels that added a spring of citrus to the high voltage marinara. There are few things in this world better than a meatball done right, and Sette Luna has got them on lock.

Veal Meatballs

To round out the fantastic meal, Baba went all out on one of their specials of the night, the rabbit lasagna. I had nearly been tempted away from my go to dish when I heard this one get announced. Delicate shreds of rabbit with spinach and melted cheese all coated in a cream sauce and a drizzle of balsamic. Sounds heavy no? It was surprisingly light and easy to down in large bites, a dangerous combination. Rabbit always sounds enticing, but many places overcook it ’til it turns to leather. Not here, your tongue is plenty strong to tackle this bunny, and the distinct flavor still shone through in spite of the cream and cheese. Too bad we may never have the pleasure of tasting this one again, the nightly special giveth and taketh away.

Rabbit Lasagna

Happily, I chalked up another wonderful dinner with just me and my Baba. Sette Luna makes it all possible with its homegrown owners supplying the town of Easton and the surrounding area with fantastic Italian cuisine and the perfect venue to make memories with loved ones. Thanks to Josh, Terry and Bud for all the great meals over the years, I can’t wait for my next visit!

Sette Luna on Urbanspoon

da Campo Osteria – Ft. Lauderdale, FL

The first time I met chef Steven Acosta, we were in the bowels of a glorified furniture store. Naturally this is where most people go to see chefs demonstrating the process of mozzarella making. Strange setting aside, I was captivated by the pearly white cheese, stretching ever so gently between Steven’s hands. Looking around, I got the feeling that most of the people in the room didn’t really appreciate what they were seeing, an observation that would explain a lot…but I’ll get to that.

After the demo, I introduced myself to Steven and told him how much I enjoyed the delicious morsels. We chatted a bit about food. I mentioned my recent visit to Scarpetta, a restaurant that Steven says he uses as a measuring stick, a lofty aspiration to be sure, but I could tell he wasn’t kidding. I ended up leaving with a card and an invitation to drop by and sample da Campo’s full repertoire. Fast forward a couple of months, and I finally had the perfect opportunity to visit. My newly minted food friend Todd Sturtz was back in town, so I gave Steven a call, and we made our way to da Campo Osteria.

da Campo Osteria logo

I had never heard of da Campo before this, it used to be one of the many eateries by star chef, Todd English before Steven took the helm. As usual I had studied the menu beforehand and was excited by the offerings. We took our seats and our host arrived table-side to welcome us. We were given a choice, pick our meal a la carte, or leave ourselves in his capable hands. Only a fool would choose the former. With the game plan in hand, he disappeared into the kitchen to get us started.

First to arrive was the bread and sauce. A simple balsamic/olive oil, a sweet tomato marmalade and garlic spread. Naturally my favorite combo, and the first to disappear, was the focaccia with a slathering of the garlic sauce. For me, tomato option was a little sweet to be served so early in the meal when your taste buds are gearing up for savory.

Bread n' Spread

A small plate with a lone bacon-wrapped date with a shmear of aioli arrived to our delight. The bacon was gently glazed and wonderfully smokey, the sweet date and salty pork was a natural match and was a table-wide winner.

 da Campo Osteria wrapped date & chef Steven Acosta

Shortly afterwards, things got serious. Chef rolled out a table, and I knew what was coming. It was mozz time, and I was ready. Before Chef Acosta began, he asked if we knew what burrata was. We all immediately answered in the affirmative, slightly taken aback that he needed to ask. I later found out that many of the diners in the Ft. Lauderdale area are not the most adventurous eaters. Let me just say to anyone reading, if you like mozzarella, you’re gonna like burrata, trust me on this.

With our love for cream filled mozz expressed, Steven got to work, and I got a front row seat. He starts with fresh curds and adds hot salted water, slightly below the boiling point, to get the curds to melt. After much stirring, stretching, filling and tucking, a bright white orb was presented atop a mountain of local heirloom tomatoes and house made croutons.

Fresh burrata & heirloom tomatoes

In my lifetime, I’ve probably consumed over 100 lbs of burrata and mozzarella. If I were to rank them all, this would break the top five no problem. The exterior is firmer than the mozzarella you can buy in water and it’s also served just above room temperature. This caprese, panzanella salad whatever you want to call it, had some of the boldest flavors. The best part of the dish? The ridiculous slurry that formed at the bottom of the bowl from the cream, balsamic, tomato caviar and garlic infused oil from the croutons, so addictive I’m almost getting withdrawal.

We were obviously smack dab in the “delicious giant sphere” part of the meal, because two softball sized “jumbo” meatballs arrived. Chef assured us that these meatballs were practically newborns, they’re rolling up the fresh ground mixture of veal, beef and pork, and browning them one at a time. I hate those dense, flavorless, overcooked meatballs you get at many a mediocre Italian joint. These were on the other end of the scale, moist, tender, and packed with flavor, something you’d imagine that ideal Italian grandmother would make. The zippy tomato sauce offset the heft of the meat, with copious amounts of parm and basil to finish out the rustic theme. In my bachelor days, I would’ve ordered two of these to go and made a night of it.

da Campo's jumbo meatball

Things slowed down a touch with a couple of small plates. Crispy eggplant with apricot-chili agrodolce and veal cheeks braised in a barolo reduction with purple cauliflower and an artichoke chip. Normally I like my eggplant sliced thin and pan-fried in olive oil ’til crispy. This was a new preparation for me, cut into cubes and deep-fried. The eggplant retained its moisture beneath the seasoned crust, which saved the veg from the blandness that often results from too thick a cut. As for the cheeks, so tender they hardly required silverware, the natural flavor of the veal was the star, accented by the subtle barolo reduction. A bite of artichoke chip (which Steven needs to put in bags and sell they’re so good) added some salt that highlighted the veal even more.

Crispy eggplant & braised veal cheeks

At this point in our Italian feast, we were all ready for a pasta dish. Chef did not disappoint with three, hockey puck sized short rib ravioli topped with his signature tomato sauce. This was another favorite dish of the table, although anything with short ribs is bound to excite. The photo speaks for itself, this was Italian comfort food at its best.

Braise short rib ravioli

The last of the savory dishes was something of an experiment for the boys on the line. It was da Campo’s take on a “surf n’ turf”, with crispy pork belly and seared ahi tuna. It was served with roasted fingerling potatoes and brussels sprouts. Let me just say, the concept of this dish is fantastic, pair two moan inducing proteins on one dish and let the food do the talking. That being said, I think it still needs some tweaks. While the flavor of the pork belly was great, it was a little tough, and the skin was more chewy than crispy, not the usual wobbly, unctuous piece of fat I look for.

** UPDATE ** I had a chance to visit da Campo and Chef Steven again recently. I’m excited to report that the “surf n’ turf” has indeed been tinkered with, if not reworked completely. Steven killed it with this iteration, scrapping the seared ahi in favor of sweet jumbo scallops. The textures work perfectly now, the pork belly was cooked just right this time, achieving the fatty jiggle that was missing before, and the plump scallops are the perfect partner. The fingerling potatoes and sprouts have also been tossed, with chanterelle mushrooms, a few schmears of black garlic mascarpone and light dabs of tomato agrodolce in their place. I managed to pull the chef off the line for a moment to make sure he never changes this dish! Get to da Campo NOW and try this, though I doubt it’ll be leaving the menu anytime soon.

"Surf n' Turf" Pork belly & Tuna

The second suggestion might just be my opinion, but I’ve never been a fan of searing a wonderful piece of tuna, give it to me raw with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and I’m good. I think there’s a lot of potential here with a little reworking.

For the finale, we were given a choice for dessert, but my ears turned off after I heard tiramisu soufflé, which just begs to be combined into tiramisoufflé. It arrived all puffed up with eggy braggadocio with a crown of powdered sugar and accompaniments of mocha ice cream and mascarpone. A quick poke with a spoon paved the way for the ice cream and mascarpone to mingle at the molten core. We were all beyond full at this point but as is always the case, the dessert stomach allowed multiple mouthfuls of the sweet soufflé. The bottom layer of lady fingers and a smattering of chocolate chips pushed this dish over the edge. A word of warning, don’t attack this bad boy without friends, this is serious business.

Tirami-soufflé

We had a chance to chat with Chef Acosta after the sumptuous siege came had ended. He is truly passionate about his food, with the creativity and drive to deliver some top-notch cuisine. When he rattled off a few of the more adventurous dishes he’s come up with, we all perked up, only to find out that he hesitates to put them on the menu since earlier experiments didn’t sell. Unfortunately, as I feared at the mozzarella demo, the demographic of Ft. Lauderdale just doesn’t seem to be receptive to the new and exciting. The menu at da Campo already sports dishes like squid ink tortellini stuffed with king crab, or suckling pig confit with chanterelle mushrooms and sheep’s milk ricotta, that will impress if you’re willing to give them a shot. To all locals out there, I implore you, widen your horizons beyond mozzarella and ravioli, try something you’ve never heard of, give the guys free rein to flex their culinary muscles and I guarantee you’ll roll home with a silly grin.

As for the comparison to Scarpetta, I’ll say this, I had two completely different experiences at each restaurant. At Scarpetta, while the food was absolutely amazing, I got the feeling that there was a little laurel leaning going, and rightly so. They’ve figured out their recipes and they can crank them out night after night, but somehow the soul of the restaurant gets lost.

At da Campo, you can feel the creative energy, the attitude, resulting in food that is rustic, bold, and top shelf delicious. The menu is a constant work in progress, with unbelievable items that I hope never leave, and others that are diamonds in the rough waiting to be refined. So to the crew at da Campo, I beg you to hold on to that hunger to create, don’t let the timid eaters discourage you, because there are other true food lovers like me looking for places that can surprise and delight our jaded palates, and da Campo Osteria is that place.

Garde Manger – Montreal, QC

Montreal has only been on my culinary radar for a handful of years now. Ever since I heard about Au Pied de Cochon on No Reservations, the beautiful city just north of our border has been a fascinating curiosity for me. What other gems might be hidden among the art galleries and cafés of old town, or around the corner from indie clothing shops on Rue St. Denis? Well my question was answered during my latest trip to Vermont. Fortunately for me, my parents are also food lovers who relish in discovering an interesting eatery as much as I do.

They had been talking up Garde Manger (literally “keeper of the food”) for a few months, so by now I was chomping at the bit to visit. After landing at Trudeau International, we set a course for old town. The great thing about the new Montreal food scene, at least in my opinion, is its understatedness. These places have no interest in presenting a boisterous image to the public, instead they tend to keep their heads down and create some of the best food in North America. This was made clear when we arrived, had we not already known where it was, we would’ve walked right past it, no sign, no nothing. Upon entering, you realize that they obviously don’t need one, it was packed. Word of mouth is enough to support a deserving restaurant around here.

Garde Manger Exterior

photo: www.crownsalts.com

Garde Manger Entry

The ambiance was cozy to say the least, it was warm and inviting, the perfect place to grab a bite after a cold walk around the city. We were seated in a little niche at the edge of the dining room so we had a great view of the restaurant. They left the kitchen open so you can see the boys hard at work. Another great thing about some of these new Montreal joints, is the informality they bring to fine dining. The servers are all in jeans and flannel shirts, they have classic rock softly playing in the background and even they place the menus on the wall for all to see. It’s a fantastic mix of high-end dining and family get together.

Garde Manger Menu

After perusing the menu for a couple of minutes, we all decided to tag team a mixed bag of dishes. We started with an order of Accra de Morue (salt cod fritters) with creme fraiche and salmon caviar. If you don’t like salt, cod, creme fraiche or salmon roe…get this. Fritters are so often ruined by incorrect frying and lack of seasoning. Not here, the salt is front and center, accentuating rather than clouding the pillowy cod. Each fritter received a dollop of creme fraiche to give lightness and a small pile of salmon roe to bring it all back to the sea with a briny burst of flavor. It was a strong start.

Accras de Morue a Creme Fraiche & Caviar Oysters & clams on the half shell

No sooner had we finished the first pile of succulent seafood, we were presented with a spread of oysters and fresh scallops on the half shell. Small tubs of cocktail sauce with horseradish, and a classic mignonette were stuffed alongside hot sauce and lemon slices. If there are still any oyster haters out there, I implore you to visit Garde Manger, the shellfish here is otherwordly; sweet, smooth and incredibly fresh. On a previous visit, my parents ordered the platter as an appetizer and a second one for dessert, they’re that good.

If appetizers were boxers, our third choice would be the heavyweight champion of the world. Gaufre a Joues de Veau & Foie Gras (waffle with veal cheeks & foie gras). It’s dishes like this that invoke a “are you freaking kidding me?!”, of course I’m going to order this. When you see a dish like this on a menu, you order it, you hear me? As expected it was ridiculous (with me that’s always a compliment). The waffle, despite being surrounded by veal and foie drippings was fluffy and moist without being soggy. A bite containing a cut of waffle, chunks of joue de veau and a slab of foie, is the physical embodiment of happiness. Having that combination of ingredients in my mouth brought a smile to my face and warmth to my heart, no joke. If such an insane world existed where one could enjoy this for breakfast, I would happily live there.

Gaufre a Joues de Veau & Foie Gras

This was only the halfway point folks, we rolled with five entrées (for four people I’m not sure how we finished):

  • Côte de Porc a Crème de Mais a Sauce aux Poivrons
  • Shortrib a Spätzle & Cambozola
  • Risotto de Homard
  • Filet Mignon a Oeuf Frit
  • Dorade a Chili de Fruits de Mer

Cote de Porc a Creme de Mais & Sauce aux Poivrons

Shortrib a Spatzle & Cambozola

The short ribs were a great example of that classic cold weather, soul warming cuisine the Quebecois do so well. The deep crimson reduction soaked into the spätzle creating little juicy puffs of dough that paired perfectly with the fork tender short rib. If that wasn’t decadent enough, the whole slab of meat was blanketed with a thick slice of Cambozola, which is a combination of a French soft-ripened triple cream and Italian Gorgonzola. A few slices of crispy shallots on top rounded it all out, a great dish.

The lobster risotto kept the rib-sticking theme going. The generous portion of rice had a giant claw draped over it like a hunting trophy. I had never seen a risotto with such a dark red coloring. When I took a bite, I was struck by the strength of flavor. There was a hint of sherry and spices that lead me to wonder if they had used lobster bisque instead of stock to simmer the rice. Thankfully, my parents purchased the Garde Manger cookbook beforehand, so I’ll definitely be sharing it with you all soon.

Risotto de Homard

Not to be out done was the filet. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it may be the best filet I’ve ever had. First of all, I’ve never had a filet cooked like this. I believe they take the entire tenderloin, or a least a good portion of it, and sear it on its side. Then they slice each portion leaving the sides totally untouched by the pan leaving them pink and gleaming. Most restaurants pan sear the steak on all sides which is fine, but this preparation seemed much more refined. It was wobbly to the touch, as it should be, perfectly cooked. The fried egg sat alongside what I believe were fried cheese curds. Are you beginning to see a theme here with all these dishes? We broke the egg to unleash the flood of yolk that coated the filet like a golden blanket. Like the foie dish, the perfect bite here consisted of a healthy slab of filet, slice of egg, a bit of cheese curd and a slathering of the dark gravy at the bottom.

Filet Mignon a Oeuf Frit

Dorade a Chili de Fruits de Mer

We decided to finish with a second platter of oysters for good measure. When the opportunity presents itself to indulge in world-class oysters, you take it, no questions asked. We left Garde Manger satisfied and smiling. Montreal should be proud to have them in town, another feather in their culinary cap. As always, and I can’t stress enough, if you’re anywhere near this city, make a point of stopping in at Garde Manger, it’ll be a memory you won’t soon forget.

Garde Manger on Urbanspoon

Sardinia Ristorante – Miami Beach, FL

Ah, the anniversary dinner. The one time of year I can be sure of having an amazing meal, since my wife always manages to sniff out something tasty as a present for me. This year, while a bit belated, was no different. It seems we’re in a different city for every anniversary, which increases the level of suspense, because I have no frame of reference to even make a guess at where we’ll be going. I’m a known addict of Italian food, so Ashley figured she’d scratch that itch this year and take me to Sardinia Ristorante on Miami Beach.

Now I won’t try to wax poetic about how Sardinia Ristorante captures the essence of the local cuisine from the island just south of Corsica, because frankly, I haven’t been there. Not even watching No Reservations Sardinia will help. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, all that matters, is that Sardinia Ristorante is pumping out some damn tasty Italian food. So let’s get to what everyone wants to see, the food.

We started out with a bevy of antipasti which arrived all at once, just the way I like it. Sfoglia di burrata hit the table first, accompanied by prosciutto di Parma and fresh asparagus. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe this may have been the best asparagus I have ever had. Bet you thought I was going to say something about the cheese. Well that was good too, but I have to say, the two sides may have overshadowed the main event. While the cheese was extremely fresh, I probably should’ve ordered the straight burrata and done without the cured meat rolled up with it. Next was a classic carpaccio of filet mignon, arugula, shaved parm, olive oil and lemon juice. The steak was pounded so thin that we didn’t even have to cut it, just place your fork down and pull. Perfectly executed, fresh and delicious.

A cheese trio of my choosing followed. My selections were: 18 month Grana Padano, Pecorino Tartufato del Mugello and Taleggio d.o.p. from Valtaleggio paired with a bowl of what we assumed was preserved persimmon as a palate cleanser. My wife and I are cheese hounds, and these three are some of our favorites. The gooey Taleggio will always be a staple on my top cheese board of my mind and anything containing truffles is on the list as well. The 18 month Grana Padano was also a must have because you just don’t find genuine aged Grana Padano in the States outside of specialty food purveyors and high-end Italian joints.

The fourth dish was cipolline al forno con funghi trifolati. The “al forno” part lead me to believe we’d be enjoying some piping hot, caramelized onions with a trio of mushrooms simmering in their own juices. So I was surprised when I bit into one to find it was actually on the chilly side. Not a bad thing though. They were sweet and refreshing and probably the best partner for the heavy, tongue engulfing cheeses. A bite of cipollini, a bite of cheese, heaven!

The fifth and final antipasto was a heavyweight. Animelle, veal sweetbreads with brown butter, aged pancetta, sage and brussels sprouts. Not the prettiest of plates I’ll admit, but dear lord did it pack in the flavor. I was a little worried that the mellow flavor of the sweetbreads might be overpowered by the ultra-salty pancetta, but it held up nicely. The sweetbreads were tender and juicy thanks to the nice glaze of brown butter. The big surprise of the dish, for me at least were the brussels sprouts. Never in my life have I tasted sprouts like these. No bitterness to speak of, savory and salty, almost meaty. They joined the other proteins and matched them note for note. There’s nothing I love more than having one of my preconceptions turned on its head. If all brussels sprouts could taste like this, you could call me a fan.

Honestly, that could’ve been a meal in itself, but this was an anniversary dinner, so we had to do it right. So we placed our entreé order, Colorado lamb shanks with porcini and Cannonau wine reduction for Ashley, and two half orders of pasta for me. The first, malloreddos, Sardinian teardrop pasta with ragu of braised Colorado baby lamb, followed by the orecchiette, with wild boar sausage, rapini pesto and roasted pinenuts.

The meat dish was akin to an osso buco, except with lamb. There was even a tiny morsel of buttery marrow at the end of the bone. It was more than fork tender, if you looked at it hard enough it would fall off the bone. The tender meat was flanked with just enough succulent fat to really drive home the flavor. Luckily my wife isn’t a big fan of straight animal fat, so I stepped in to take care of it for her. She was a little disappointed in the accompanying veg, as it seemed like an afterthought with very little seasoning, a little surprising given the amazing asparagus and sprouts we enjoyed earlier.

Now that I think back, these pastas are very similar to what I ordered at Perla up in New York City a few months ago. The malloreddos, which looked like little maggots, was tossed with the same Colorado lamb that Ashley was enjoying. They might have even just stripped the meat off the bone with some of the tomato sauce they used for her dish and mixed it in with the pasta. In any case, it was delicious, perfectly al dente and very comforting.
 The orecchiette with wild boar sausage, rapini pesto and pinenuts was also a winner. I’m really digging this pairing of pesto and gamey sausage. Maybe I’m late to the party, but I’ve just started to notice this combination appearing on Italian menus. In any case, the duo of sausage and bitter rapini is a great one. The bitterness isn’t overwhelming, but it’s just enough to counter the fat of the sausage, although boar is naturally pretty lean. I had to hold off and save the rest of this dish for lunch the next day.

For dessert, a chocolate almond cake with chocolate sauce and strawberries. The cake was a bit dry and fluffy for my taste. The frosting was delicious, but it made me feel like a dog who just got fed peanut butter.

It was another successful anniversary meal and while it’s going to be hard to ever beat our meal at Uni, it definitely made an impression. So if you’ve got a hankering for some serious Italian cuisine, Sardinia Ristorante is the real deal.

On a side note, there was a small negative that I want to address. I brought a bottle of 2011 Conundrum white table wine to have with dinner. Now I’m accustomed to restaurants adding a corkage fee, usually around $15 or so. Here’s what happened, I had my bottle put on ice to chill, a few minutes later, the manager comes to our table to let us know that they usually don’t allow people to bring bottles in that are already on their wine list, but that this one time would be alright. That was the key phrase for me, “this one time will be alright”. No mention of a corkage fee, nothing. We had mentioned prior to making our reservation that we were celebrating our 6th anniversary, so I figured she was waiving it for that reason. As the bill arrived at the end of the meal, I come to find she had a $30 corkage fee added to my bill. Now I’m not an unreasonable person, had I been made aware of this when she came to the table, at least I could’ve prepared. I would’ve been able to tailor the meal to cover that added cost, but no. It wasn’t like I cheaped out on dinner either, I went all out, the least she could do was waive a silly corkage fee. It was the one breakdown in service for the night, as the rest of the staff was very friendly, attentive and polite.

If you’re reading this ma’am, I want you to know that on my way home I actually considered never returning to Sardinia based on your performance, it came off as rude and sneaky. A customer should never be made to feel swindled, especially from the manager, and when a restaurant serves such amazing food, one would expect the service to be just as palatable.

Sardinia Enoteca Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Prato – Winter Park, FL

Returning to ones old stomping grounds is often accompanied with a certain nostalgia. However the most fun part of visiting your old town, is discovering everything that’s changed since you’ve been gone (sorry Kelly, no royalties for that one). I recently had the chance to visit the town I most think of when people ask me where I’m from, Winter Park, FL. Mr. Crumpton, being the great friend that he is, brought me back there to show me one of the latest additions to Park Avenue, Prato.

Prato splash

I left Winter Park in 2003, back then, the only Italian restaurant in the area worth mentioning was Enzo’s on the Lake, which to this day stands as one of the best Italian eateries I’ve ever visited. Needless to say, Prato has brought a much needed culinary vibrance to an area which, apart from a few examples like The Ravenous Pig, has been somewhat bland in the restaurant department.

The restaurant decor and design is top-notch, with much attention paid to detail. They nail a sort of hipster rustic feel that may cause some eyes to roll, but I thought it felt sincere and I thought it was fantastic. The sincerity was proven when our waiter, Zach, informed us that all the ingredients were locally and sustainably sourced as much as possible. If the sourcing wasn’t impressive, he then told us that the menu changed EVERY day, at least in some shape or form. Now that is no small task, even for the finest restaurants.

After our group looked over the menu, it was agreed that we’d gladly order every single item, a rarity to be sure. Sadly none of us were born with the last name Hilton or Trump, so we had to make our choices. For me, the soft shell crab app caught my eye immediately. Logan and our wives added more apps with a couple of Caesar salads, the veal breast pancetta and the soft fried farm egg with pork belly. All were excellent choices, the crabs didn’t impress anyone but myself, so I happily consumed them. The veal breast came with this awesome tonnato sauce and slices of some of the freshest beets you’ve ever seen. I’m not a beet man, but this dish was delicious through and through. The soft fried egg and pork belly came with a watermelon rind mostardo. This is the kind of dish I’d have every day for breakfast if I were born into those families mentioned earlier, it was luxurious and decadent, but tapped into that familiar eggs and bacon memory that your brain seems to remember so well. The winner of the app competition in my opinion, were the Caesar salads. Seriously. I know it’s just a simple salad in most eateries, usually an afterthought. This Caesar however, was so fresh and so crisp with one of the best dressings I’ve ever tasted. It had to have been homemade to order because you could taste every ingredient, the Parmigiano, egg, lemon juice, and the anchovies!

Prato dishes

Caesar salad holds a special place in my heart. Allow me to tell a small tale before we move on to entreés. Back in 1994, when I was just beginning to explore the world of food, I was on a family vacation in the Bahamas. We were staying at the Ocean Club in Nassau (the hotel where Casino Royale was filmed) and were eating dinner at the hotel restaurant. Up until this point, I had never ordered a salad, but something in my brain made me think they were delicious whenever I saw my parents eating them. So I mustered up the courage and ordered a Caesar salad and a steak Diane. The waiter returned minutes later with a finely appointed hand cart with a large wooden bowl and all the Caesar fixin’s. He proceeded to assemble the dressing right before my eyes, smearing the fresh white anchovies against the bowl with a spoon, squeezing the lemons and even letting me whisk as he created the emulsion. When I took my first bite, I was hooked. It was one of those moments that changes your life forever, and with that simple dish, I became a full-fledged food lover.

Now where was I, ah yes the entreés. Thankfully, Prato has the foresight to know that people like Logan and myself like to try as much of the menu as possible without filling up the point of discomfort. That’s why they provide the option to order half portions of all their pastas. I took full advantage of this and chose the bolognese tagliatelle with duck ragu and foie gras butter (sound familiar?) and the special sweetbread-rabbit fagottini with pistachio and sage. Both were absurdly delicious, the bolognese was fantastic, a little spicy a little sweet with a hint of nutmeg. Unfortunately with these types of pastas, the foie gras flavor tends to stay in the background, but it was memorable nonetheless.

The fagottini, despite its strange name, was amazing! Even more amazing was that a pasta-holic such as myself, had never heard of this type of noodle before. Fagottini are shaped like little pyramids and are filled with whatever you desire, in this case, sweetbreads and rabbit. The noodles were cooked perfectly, which can be difficult with filled pastas. The sweetbreads and rabbit combo created a wonderfully savory flavor with a nutty finish. This was naturally accented by the crunchy pistachios and finished with the sage and butter sauce.

 

Around the table the entreés were as follows: Mediterranean branzino with heirloom tomatos, fennel and a vegetable medley, veal scaloppine with the traditional accompaniments of crispy capers, meyer lemon and polenta and to round it all out, the Salsiccia pizza with Calabrian sausage, broccoli rabe and provolone picante.

I was fortunate enough to sample all of this before it was devoured by my family. The branzino was a beauty to behold. Bright white fish swimming in an heirloom tomato broth, topped with fresh beans, corn, onions and garlic. The flavor matched the appearance, the pearly fish flaked away and melted in your mouth accompanied with the electric zing of the tomato broth. The veal was another winner, pan seared to a golden brown and perched atop a mound of creamy polenta. The meat was tender and juicy, and was definitely the star of the dish with all the other ingredients playing perfect supporting roles. The pizza finished up the savory dishes in fine fashion. Whenever you bring the freshest ingredients together and pile them on top of kneaded dough to be baked, it’s going to impress. The salsiccia was no exception. The bitter broccoli rabe was a great counterpoint to the unctuous flavors from the sausage and provolone.

Zach returned with the offer of dessert. It’s always easy to spring for the sweets when the meal so far has been so fantastic. Instead of choosing between their delectable options, we came to a consensus, “all three!”, I proclaimed. This added to Zach’s already beaming smile, who was having just as much fun watching us enjoy the meal as we were having eating it (well maybe not AS much but almost, he was definitely a welcome addition to our table whenever he stopped by to check on us).

The small platter arrived with our sugary treats, first was a light tiramisu, creamy, sweet and slightly bitter from the espresso, next was an espresso budino with chocolate mousse (the actual description was much fancier but sadly I’ve forgotten it) and lastly a mascarpone cake topped with peach, plum and nectarine with crème fraîche and streusel. None of the desserts survived the onslaught.

Prato dessert

Prato had done it. It had served this boy a homecoming meal to remember and added its name to my pantheon of Italian eateries. How could it not? There were no failures, no missteps and no mistakes, at least none that I saw. Zach’s service was outstanding, very friendly and most importantly knowledgeable. Prato is the real deal folks, they’ve single-handedly raised the bar for restaurants in Orlando and possibly the whole southeast. Hopefully they can keep this performance up in the long term, as both Logan and I intend on returning many times in the future.

Prato on Urbanspoon

WD-50 – New York City, NY

There are restaurants in this world that surpass the simple goal of serving a meal in order to sate the customers hunger. The Joel Robuchons, the Eleven Madison Parks. They transform the banal ritual of eating into an often world changing experience. The absolutely greatest of the great though, manage to simultaneously trick your brain into thinking it’s enjoying something familiar, while your eyes and tongue are experiencing something completely new.

WD-50 exterior & Wylie Dufresnephoto: cookingblogs.tomotiki.com

A recent visit to WD-50, Wylie Dufresne’s private food lab, further showcased this phenomenon. The restaurant, situated inconspicuously on Clinton St., is warm and welcoming with a refreshingly informal atmosphere, especially considering the level of food they produce. We arrived without reservations, but there happened to be room at the bar, so we jumped at the opportunity. Our bartender/waiter got us started with some cocktails and allowed us to look over the two tasting menus.

*Pro tip* If you find yourself at an establishment like this, don’t shy away from the large tasting menu because of the daunting price. You’ll likely never get the chance to eat there again, so spring for the big’un (along with wine pairings). I guarantee you’ll never look back in 20 years regretting your decision. Memories >Money.

Taking our own advice, my father and I went with the 13 course tasting menu with wine pairings. Let the anticipation begin! The first dish to arrive was the nigiri with salsify “rice”, seaweed and sesame. It was immediately apparent that the menu only told part of the story for each dish. As a certain Autobot will tell you, there was more than met the eye. So began our journey of familiarity wrapped in enigma. Half of the fun of the meal was discussing how they accomplished what was on the plate with our waiter, and when the staff still looks impressed after seeing this food day in and day out, you know something special is afoot.

The second dish arrived to another round of excited and quizzical looks (notice a pattern?). Lobster roe “pasta”, charred lemon, green grape with a coriander brown butter sauce. This was easily one of the top three dishes we had that night. How in the world do you make pasta out of lobster roe? My dad and I have been discussing this at length since that night, to no avail.

WD-50 course 1-3

Third, Pho Gras. Yes, that’s Pho and Foie Gras, Wylie…you’re the man. Why hasn’t anyone thought of this? Seeing as how Vietnam is so heavily influenced by France, you’d think someone would have combined a traditional foie gras terrine with a cozy bowl of pho by now. It was spot on, a little spicy with a tang of citrus which blended so well with the foie gras. I shall add a dollop of hoisin with my foie from now on, genius.

Next was amaro yolk, chicken confit and peas ‘n’ carrots. This dish snuck in there under the guise that it was simply chicken, peas and carrots with an amaro yolk (amaro is a digestif). It looked simple enough, thin ribbons of carrot, surrounded by a few peas, a pleasant lump of chicken confit at the center and the yolk serving as a subtle sauce. The “peas”, we come to find out, are actually sphered carrots in pea dust. I enjoyed this because you get all the pea flavor without the mushy texture. This felt like an old farmers dish, fresh bright veg, tender chicken confit, bursting with flavor, it hit all the right spots.

Veal brisket with za’atar, plum and mustard followed. This was most definitely tasty, but a little plain compared to what we’d already had and what was to come, so I’ll let this one slide…

To make room for the peeky-toe crab toast with saffron, kaffir-yogurt and arare. I love going to a restaurant and not knowing what 75% of the ingredients are. Arare, I’ve found, are small pellets of glutinous rice. I found it to be similar to Israeli couscous. This dish was amazing, the plump chunks of crabmeat, gingerly removed fresh from their shells as it wasn’t shredded like some cheapo lump crab cake, were tender and sweet as could be. The saffron lent an exotic aroma and the kaffir hit it with a nice sour note.

WD-50 course 4-8

As I was following along with the menu, my heart stopped when I saw the next dish (not in a good way). Sole with black licorice pil-pil, fried green tomato and fennel. Wow, two of my least favorite ingredients on one plate. Despite my initial reaction, I calmly reminded myself that I wasn’t in some shady dive, I was in the capable hands of one of the finest chefs this country has ever spawned. Low and behold, it was licorice and fennel with sole, and it tasted like licorice and fennel and I actually liked it! Once again, my “if it’s prepared correctly, anything tastes good” mantra held up, and Wylie didn’t let me down. The sole was perfect, sweet and tender, each piece flaked away perfectly. A small shmear of licorice pil-pil and a slice of the tomato and I was in business. My mind was running in circles trying to figure out why my tongue had betrayed it’s long standing hatred of licorice and fennel, “not now brain” said the tongue, “I’m savoring”.

Phew, the scary part of the ride was over, it was nothing but pleasure from here on out, lamb sweetbreads with nasturtium buttermilk, zucchini and pistachio was on deck. There are few things better than perfectly cooked sweetbreads, tender, juicy, slightly sweet and the tiniest bit gamey. Paired with the pistachio zucchini crumble and the grassy nasturtium buttermilk, these sweetbreads gave us a whole new experience, like getting your head dragged through a grassy meadow in the early morning.

WD-50 course 9 & 10

Root beer ribs with rye spaetzle and apricot. Once again, awesome. The succulent meat was cut with the apricot spread and smoothed over with the cushy spaetzle. The sauce on the plate was worthy of drinking…but I know there’s a time and place for that.

Alright, only four more dishes, and they’re all dessert! Hang in there folks it’s worth it!

Jasmine, cucumber, honeydew and chartreuse. That’s what the menu said, but it gave absolutely no clue as to what would show up. What DID show up was a bowl containing some neon green concoction. I went to get a spoonful and was rejected. What sorcery is this! It was a nitro frozen chartreuse cucumber honeydew shell which covered over a chilled fragrant soup that was so refreshing I wish I had some next to my bed each morning. Another “first time” flavor experience.

Yuzu milk ice, hazelnut, rhubarb and basil. We just laughed while we ate this one. The yuzu milk ice immediately evaporated when it hit my tongue, leaving me with a creamy coating of concentrated yuzu flavor, it was like David Copperfield transported everything but the flavor out of my mouth. How the heck do they do this stuff? Nevermind, I don’t want to peek behind the curtain, it’s too fun to go into these meals blind!

WD-50 course 11 & 12

This next one was the doom-bringer of all desserts. S’mores. Obviously they aren’t just any s’mores. These included bitter cocoa, meringue and black currant. The meringue was disguised as a marshmallow, with the real marshmallow wisped around the plate with some dark chocolate sauce. Even the stick that held the “mallow” was edible. Decadent, just like I like it.

Lastly, white chocolate and gjetost. There is no such word that starts with G, J, E, T. Maybe Wylie fell asleep on the keyboard when he was writing up the menu late one night. Apparently it’s a type of cheese (pronouned yay-toast). That’s roughly what I said when I ate this thing, delicious. Little droplets of sweet cheese and chocolate rolled around in raspberry dust or something.

WD-50 course 13 & 14

I think it goes without saying, this place is crazy, I couldn’t even pay attention to WHAT, exactly I was eating, I was in a food trance, enjoying every second, sharing smiles and hearty back pats with my dad. Who could ask for a better night.

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