Monday, July 25, 2011

Castagna [ one ]

If you haven't heard already, Castagna's relatively new head chef, Matt Lightner, is moving on. After going to culinary school in Oregon and racking up a prestigious pile of serious résumé-builders, Matt Lightner received recognition from Food & Wine as a "Best New Chef" of 2010 for his work at Castagna. But not to worry; you still have a good four days this Wednesday through Saturday before he cooks his last night at Castagna on July 30th and heads to New York. Wait, four days?? Maybe you should worry.

In true Northwestern fashion, the menu changes with each season and day. Though there was an all-out tasting menu when I went a few months ago, my friend and I decided to go with two sets of four-course meals. Each course had three choices, so effectively, we got to try eight rockin' dishes, kicked off with a solid set of small starters.

First up was a Purple Carrot Leather with Violet Crème and Hibiscus served on a bed of pebbles. The earthy leather was firm, but tender, and the smooth violet crème and hibiscus brought some literal floral flavors to the playful styling of the purple carrot leather. By the time I swallowed my last bit of leather, my entire mouth was encased with an earthy and floral aroma. The bite was a great way to wake up the senses and started what would be a consistently playful meal. No, I didn't eat the rocks. Yes, I tried.

The next starter was a Dehydrated Buttermilk Puff with Herbed Aioli and Trout Roe. This dish was entirely unassuming, and I had no idea how amazing this bite would be.

When I picked up the puff, I was surprised to find out that the puff wasn't meant to be entirely enclosed. Instead, the puff revealed a questionable pile of green goop. I hesitantly dipped the puff into the aioli and was shocked by the interesting mix of textures and flavors. The delicate puff was similar to an airy Japanese rice cracker and dissolved into the cool and creamy aioli, which had the consistency of a puréed guacamole. The aioli had bits of trout roe that bursted with flavor. The briny roe, sweet puff, and aromatic aioli worked some serious magic in my mouth.

When the next plate came out, I was excited to see something similar to bacon. The waiter described the dish as Pork Dried with Molasses. Imagine your favorite slab of bacon, with plenty of fat to spare, drizzled with a healthy glob of your favorite maple syrup. Now imagine all that dehydrated to have the texture and crispiness of an overcooked piece of bacon. Now imagine that the flavor wasn't sacrificed at all to get that ridiculously overcooked crispy texture. Yup. It was awesome. I don't know why I thought the rocks would be edible the second time around. They weren't.

Next up was the Bread Plate. Though the server described the bread as sourdough rolls, the bread tasted like it was stuffed with cheese, baked with caramel, deep fried, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with black sesame. The texture was like any other sourdough roll, but with a crispier and more oily exterior. I could've eaten a huge basket of this bread, especially with the two condiments that came with the bread.

The first accompaniment was Smoked Pork Fat with Sunflower Seeds and Herbs. I love pork fat, but I wasn't sure how the seeds, herbs, and smokiness would all come together. Not surprisingly, it was amazing. The texture was similar to a room-temperature homemade butter, and the deep fattiness of the lard was accented by hints of smokiness that were bolstered by the sunflower seeds. The herbs helped to lighten everything up. Eating this lard on top of the bread was a little bit of a headshot, but the combination was intoxicating.

House-Churned Butter and Brown Sugar. The butter was incredibly creamy and the brown sugar added a nice, crumbly touch. Eating this with the bread was also a surefire death wish, but I couldn't stop myself. I definitely went for several scoops of the butter and lard without the bread. Was I ashamed? Maybe. Was it worth it? Definitely.

After all that, out came the first courses. What a great deal.

The Black Cod (smoked with a variety of radishes in different shapes and textures) took me a second to realize it was the black cod dish. The folded sheets of radish and cod were so thinly sliced, the only way to tell them apart at first glance was by their textures. The sheets were topped with a black cod and horseradish powder and a nitro horseradish cream. The effect was a cool, creamy, and frosty combination of fresh seafood with a kind, horse kick from the radish. The powders melted on my tongue, the fish added a slight chew, the radish sheet interlaced each bite with a little bit of crunch, and the greens added some necessary color to the dish.

The Scallops (cured in sake lees with juice of herbs and apples) was just as refreshing. The fresh scallops sat next to a delicate mound of crushed ice topped with apple sauce, seaweed, and dill. I expected something citric to come through, but instead, I got a cool breeze of sweet, salty, and oceanic air. This dish was one of my favorites.

On to the second courses.

The Sweet Potato (slow baked, hot and cold, hazelnut butter and spicy greens) was simply incredible. The menu description of the dish seemed strange, but the second I took a bite, it all made sense. A creamy mash of baked sweet potato sat on top of a sweet, hazelnut butter sauce, which, when eaten together, hinted at a high-end holiday dinner. On top of the mash sat a dollop of sweet potato ice cream, which added a welcome coolness to the dish. The ice cream was addictive, mastering a balance between sweet and savory. The spicy greens added a pleasant kick to break up the creaminess and sweetness of each bite. So good.

The Celery Root (with cured beef tongue, mustard seed and beef bouillon) was perfect, straightforward, and refreshing. The huge chunks of celery root were bright, the beef tongue was thin and delicate, the mustard seeds were refreshingly potent, and the beef bouillon tied everything together. A bite of this felt like eating a more flavor-focused and lighter version of a traditional steak entrée. Beautiful and intensely delicious.

The third courses were just as amazing.

The Sturgeon (with lard, buttermilk, apple, sorrel and oyster emulsion) was insane. The apple and oyster foam with the buttermilk tapioca was absurdly addictive. I could've just had a plate of foam and tapioca and called it a day. Instead, this duo came with a perfectly cooked piece of sturgeon, topped with a citric stem of sorrel. The sturgeon was delicious and moist, but if I were against eating fish for some reason, I would've been perfectly happy eating a plate of sour sorrel slathered in that sweet, tart, and briny combination of foam and tapioca.

The last of the savory courses was Lamb (with smoked cheese curd, toasted hay and salsify). The lamb came out like a brick of steak next to a creamy mash of smoky cheese, topped with salsify, rapine, and toasted hay. Toasted hay? Yes. Toasted hay. It tasted surprisingly sweet, but in the end, it tasted exactly like what you would expect toasted hay to taste like. This was probably the relative weak point of the night, but I still distinctly remember how the combination of the smoky cheese, earthy greens, and flavorful hay accompanied the simple preparation of lamb extremely well.

The lamb was beautifully cooked, and the first cut opened the meat up to a satisfyingly bloody center. The sprinkle of salt on top ended up bringing the entire dish together for me.

After ending the meal with the heaviest item on the menu, we quickly moved on to the fourth and last course: desserts.

Towards the end of the meal, at a place that had already done so well with all the savory courses, I was naturally doubtful of how the chef would do with desserts. The two desserts that made their way to our table backhanded that doubt out of my head.

The Chamomile (ice cream with crystallized honey and sweet and sour citrus) was the perfect way to follow up a heavy lamb dish. The ice cream was subtle and pleasantly floral, and the bed of honey crystals brought a pop of sweetness to the ice cream. The pair of Meyer lemon and sorrel was intensely citric and sweet, which were both mellowed out by the creaminess of the ice cream. This dessert was so refreshing and uplifting that I felt like I could eat a whole other meal.

The Sunchokes (with poached apples, caramel ice cream and sunflower seed praline) was simply beautiful. The caramel quenelle pointed the diner to a forest of seeds, greens, and delicate sweets. The candied sunchoke was mild and pleasant, the apple discs with chocolate were crispy and barely sweet, the apple gels were nostalgic and flavorful, and the sprinkle of coriander and fennel seeds helped to relate the caramel ice cream to a seemingly random collection of snacks. While the other dessert was a great way to feel like you weren't really eating a dessert, this dish was a great way to remind you that you were eating a dessert without going overboard. Smart, simple, and amazing.

After our two sets of four-course meals, the waiter brought out a pair of Hazelnut Pralines Rolled in Chocolate, as if to satisfy the diners out there who were looking for a straightforwardly sweet end to their meal. The treat was creamy and delicious, and there was really no way I was going to say no to one last bite from Castagna.

At the end of the night, my friend and I were perfectly satisfied. As I thought back on all the crazy things I just put in my mouth, I couldn't help but recognize how vegetable-centric the meal was. Sure, there were globs of lard and slabs of lamb, but the components that really popped on each dish were the vegetables. How incredible is that? Pretty darn incredible.

Before taking off, my friend and I noticed the owner waving her patrons goodbye. Because we had just eaten such an amazing meal, we made it a point to thank her for the great experience. Without a second's hesitation, she invited us to meet the chef. After suppressing my inner school girl, I followed the owner to the kitchen, which was beautiful, but entirely modest.

We walked in on the chefs finishing up the last few dishes of the night's service, and Matt Lightner smiling and cleaning the kitchen floor. Matt Lightner, recipient of a ridiculous number of awards over the past year, cleaning the kitchen floor. With a smile. That's him at the bottom right corner of that picture right there. Cleaning the floor. Once he noticed us, he walked over and introduced himself with the utmost humility. My inner school girl broke loose and I blabbered on about how much we enjoyed his and his team's food.

The conversation was short and came to its inevitable end, but the congeniality and warmness of the head chef, owner, kitchen staff, and service staff was notable, especially at a restaurant that could easily get away with being as high-brow and detached as it wants. The frequency of instances like this are what I love about the Northwest food scene.

How this will all fare in the midst of New York City's infamously competitive restaurant world should be interesting, to say the least. Though I'm sad that Matt Lightner will no longer be a three-hour drive away, I'm excited to see what more he will become in the next few years. I'm also excited to see what the current sous chef, Justin Woodward, will bring to the table as Castagna's new head chef starting next week.

But before all that, I'm mostly excited to see what Matt Lightner will serve this Saturday to close his chapter at Castagna. 9:00pm reservations? Check.


1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd

Portland, OR 97214

(503) 231-7373

GET: Multiple sets of the four-course dinner.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Emeril Lagasse's Perfect Roast Chicken (10/24)

When I ran across Emeril Lagasse's Perfect Roast Chicken recipe, I couldn't help but hesitate. First, I kind of have a pet peeve against recipes that claim the self-aggrandizing adjective. Second, I was ready to kick my chicken up a notch, but found that the recipe seemed more traditional than not. Come on, where's the New Orleans spice? Third, I was getting a bit tired of herb-infused butter. But Emeril Lagasse is pretty darn famous, and if he can't whip up a chicken worth roasting, then, at the very least, I'd like to know.

So here we go. This here's the rosemary and garlic butter.

I have to say, the chunks of garlic got me pretty excited. And who am I kidding? Rosemary, butter, and chicken are always delicious together.

Next up was a spread of classic French ingredients.

After the typical pat-down, I seasoned the bird, inside and out, with salt and pepper. I squeezed some lemons over the chicken and put the rinds into the cavity.

Two small bay leaves made their way into the cavity before I went on to perform the inevitable herb butter rub-down. I like to think the bird gave me a headless, wink of approval as it bathed in shiny jewels of buttery garlic.

The end product smelled great. The untied legs and the dark pieces of rosemary worried me a bit, but the smell made me look past those worries.

The skin was beautifully crisp with little chunks of garlic and rosemary. The skin had more crack than some of the other chickens I've done, and the meat was more juicy than I thought it would be. The inner-most meat was a little bit dry at parts, but the pan juices worked its magic to moisten those pieces up. The flavor was predictable with little to no effect from the bay leaves. The lemon did make its way through occasionally, but more than anything, this chicken tasted like your run-of-the-mill rosemary and garlic chicken. The vegetables were bland, but were there more to flavor the dippings.

I don't know why, but I'm not a huge fan of pan drippings mixed with a ton of wine. I'd rather use more chicken stock or not even pursue the gravy at all. With almost every chicken I've made, the drippings are flavorful enough on their own.

This wasn't the most mind-blowing chicken I've made, but for what it is, I can see this being a very consistent family staple. As far as a cajun rendition of roast chicken goes, I'm still looking.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Bazaar

The Bazaar is home to one of the most exciting, innovative, and playful eating experiences in L.A. Its menu is jam-packed with José Andrés' clever concoctions and challenging dishes. Even the so-called traditional tapas take you for a loop. The Bazaar is also one of the best places in L.A. to get a concentrated sampling of L.A. pretention. If you think you know L.A.'s collection of ritzy real housewives, cologne-drenched clubbers, super sweet sixteens, temperamental teen moms, and gaming Jersey Shore bros, think again. This collection is so absurdly ridiculous that I can't help but love the motley crew The SLS Hotel tends to serve. Let's hope I'm not any of those things...

To be honest, it's taken me a while to write a post on The Bazaar. What can I say about The Bazaar that hasn't already been said before? Also, who wants to sit through over 40 lengthy descriptions of a growing pile of pictures of food from The Bazaar? In the interest of, well, keeping your interest, I've decided to keep commentary short and savory. If anything, this post will just be another contribution to the Internet's humungous pile of nomography.

The Golden Boy. Amontillado sherry, cava, lemon, simple syrup, orange bitters, and little bit of that thing called gold. A soft, sweet, and refreshing way to start the meal.

Lotus Root Chips. Crispy, thin, slices of lotus root dusted with star anise and Maldon salt. These can't be any harder to mass produce than greasy potato chips, Frito Lay.

Olive Oil Bonbons. Beautiful, delicate teardrops of crunchy, candied olive oil with a vinaigrette burst in the center. Really fun and clever.

Bagel & Lox Steam Bun. Unreal smoked salmon roe and an addictive dill cream cheese. Unfortunately, the steam bun was like a brick of flour.

Tuna Handroll 2009. One of the best things I ate that night. A treasure trove of tuna jewels, a thick nori purée, and a delicate and crispy filo cone. Imagine the best tuna handroll you've ever had. Now sprinkle some crack.

Black Olives Ferran Adrià. Table-side service.

Black Olives Ferran Adrià. Just as fun of a texture as I remember, but I like the ones I had at Jaleo better. These were a lot saltier.

José's Combination. Deliciously fatty serrano ibérico and rich caviar de Riofrío. Both were fantastic individually. Eaten together, they drowned each other out a little. A little more caviar on anything never hurt anybody.

Pastrami Saul. Veal breast pastrami draped around a buttery, crispy potato soufflé, filled with oozy egg yolk. Absurdly delicious.

Pastrami Saul. I could have used about one thousand more drags of this stuff.

Allagash White. Green food coloring for the occasion.

Buffalo Wing. A ridiculously moist piece of chicken wing, bleu cheese mousse, braised celery, and Frank's hot sauce. Imagine the best buffalo wing you've ever had. Now sprinkle some crack.

Not Your Everyday Caprese. Just as awesome as I remember. A beautiful, skinless tomato, flavorful tomato pulp, superior versions of oyster crackers, a delicious pesto and balsamic, and creamy orbs of liquified mozzarella.

Crispy Nigiri. Shimaaji, pickled turnip, celery root purée, yuzu zest, and puffed rice. A noticeable contrast in textures, but this probably would have done better as a crudo, without the celery root purée and without the crispy rice. Voted off the island in week two.

Chipirones en su Tinta. A whole lot saltier than last time. The octopus still had a beautiful char and great texture, but the salty squid ink sauce was a little much.

Boozy sangria fruit.

Hot & Cold Foie Soup with Corn. An amazing play on textures and temperatures. The first time I had this dish, it was way too salty. This time, I wanted to bathe in an vat of this stuff. Creamy corn purée, frothy floating foie, and bits of crispy corn nuts.

Banh Mi. So. Freaking. Good. A buttery and crumbly brioche filled with wagyu beef with dashi, fried tofu, Kewpie mayo, mirin, and pickled vegetables. I mean, really, look at that beef. Imagine the best banh mi you've ever had. Now sprinkle some crack.

Linguini and Clams. My least favorite dish of the night. Dashi glass noodles, quinoa, geoduck, garlic, and a yuzu dressing. The flavors were unexpectedly bland and the floppy, gelatinous texture of everything left me a little bit confused. Voted off the island in week one.

Kurobuta Pork Belly. A surprisingly straightforward preparation of a sous vide piece of pork belly with a citric honey sauce with a side of potato purée and pickled vegetables. Imagine the best Christmas dinner you've ever had. Now sprinkle some crack.

Philly Cheesesteak. Not as good as the first time I had this. The bread was noticeably dry this time. Stale, even. The meat was also a little bit drier than I remembered. I still have fond memories of this dish though.

Japanese Baby Peaches. Holy freaking smokes. This was by far one of my favorites of the night. Pleasantly light Japanese baby peaches, silky burrata, crunchy hazelnuts, and buttery croutons. The peach flavor bombs balanced really well with the creamy burrata and the hazelnuts and croutons struck a perfect balance of nuttiness and texture.

Dragon's Breath Popcorn. More table-side service with liquid nitrogen.

Dragon's Breath Popcorn. More gimmicky than anything. Tastes like any other piece of popcorn, but was a fun way to enter the realm of dessert. I mean, what can be more fun than breathing smoke out of your nose in the middle of a fancy restaurant? Nothing.

Saam-buca. Oh man, this is one of the best desserts I've ever had. Sambuca fennel gelée with compressed strawberries, strawberry sorbet, and sweet cream. Beautifully dense strawberry flavors, refreshing sorbet, and addictively subtle gelée.

Chocolate Eucalyptus. Not as mind-blowing as the Saam-buca, but delicious. Eucalyptus ice cream, milk chocolate ganache, chocolate dust, peppermint meringue, and a chocolate tuille. The best part was the intensely refreshing eucalyptus ice cream. Imagine Molly Moon Ice Cream's thin mint ice cream times a thousand.

Sexy Little Sweets. Gumdrops: passion fruit, guava, berry, and saffron. Chocolates: Maldon dark, green tea, Maldon dark again, and white chocolate red peppercorn. Truffles: saffron, lemon ginger white chocolate, caramel, and saffron. The saffron gumdrop, green tea chocolate, and lemon ginger white chocolate truffle were my favorites.

Twenty-two courses and three-and-a-half hours later, the night ended with a certificate of gluttony. Okay, it was just a copy of the tasting menu.

There are tons of things on the regular menu that you won't find in the SAAM dining room. Here are a few of my favorites.

Jicama-Wrapped Guacamole. Creamy and flavorful guacamole wrapped up in a super-thin slice of refreshing jicama. Don't even think about trying to eat a piece in two bites. Just stick the whole thing in there.

Tortilla de Patatas "New Way". Awesome. Caramelized onions, a 63-degree egg, and potato foam. Creamy, savory, dense, and insanely delicious. I wish I could bathe in a vat of this stuff after I bathe in a vat of the Hot & Cold Foie Soup with Corn.

Cotton Candy Foie Gras. This seems a little too gimmicky for its own good, but you'll be surprised by how well two extremes of the culinary ladder go together. The cool, dense foie is a beautiful contrast in temperature and texture with the wispy and light cotton candy.

Maldon Dark Chocolate, a Financier, and a Passionfruit Marshmallow. Get the marshmallow. It's fluffy and flavorful. I'd love to buy some of these and toast them over a fire. I'd probably inadvertently set them on fire, though.

Nitro Coconut Floating Island. Looks like the light side of the Death Star.

Nitro Coconut Floating Island. The shell sits on top of caramelized bananas and a passionfruit cream and cracks open to creamy, coconut innards. Light, refreshing, and delicious.

Apples "Carlota". Apple bread pudding, vanilla ice cream, and saffron. So delicious. The warm bread has a great sponginess, cooled down by the creamy vanilla ice cream. Surprisingly simple, straightforward, and addictive.

LN2 Caipirinha. More table-side service.

LN2 Caipirinha. In the end, this tastes just like a regular caipirinha, jazzed up with edible flowers and liquid nitrogen. The texture is amazing, though. A really bright way to finish off a round of desserts.

And finally, a few more pictures of food I've already talked about.

Not Your Everyday Caprese. The normal menu size. So many mozzarella orbs and skinless tomatoes.

Not Your Everyday Caprese. Demolished.

Philly Cheesesteak. The not-so-stale-and-dry version. Look at how awesome those pieces of beef look. Imagine the best Philly cheesesteak you've ever had. Now sprinkle some crack.

Philly Cheesesteak. Innards.

Chipirones en su Tinta. The not-so-salty version. Delicious.

In the end, I have nothing bad to say about The Bazaar. Everything here starts at the very high benchmark of mind-blowing. Each dish is simply more or less mind-blowing than the last dish or the next dish. If I really had to choose a few dishes to avoid, I would probably pass on the Sea Urchin Pipirrana (way too citric), the Linguini and Clams, the Chocolate-Covered Pop Rocks (they don't pop), and the Crispy Nigiri. More often than not, however, dishes at The Bazaar push the limits of texture, flavor, comfort, and perfection. Most importantly, beyond the deliciousness of everything, if you found yourself smiling at the playful creativity of the food at The Bazaar, then I'm pretty sure José Andrés feels like he's done his job.

The Bazaar
SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills
465 S La Cienega Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(310) 246-5567

GET: Sangria; Not Your Everyday Caprese; Jicama-Wrapped Guacamole; Banh Mi; Pastrami Saul; Buffalo Wing; Tuna Handroll 2009; Chipirones en su Tinta; Hot & Cold Foie Soup with Corn; Tortilla de Patatas "New Way"; Kurobuta Pork Belly; Philly Cheesesteak; Cotton Candy Foie Gras; Japanese Baby Peaches; Saam-buca; Passionfruit Marshmallow; Green Tea Chocolate; Lemon Ginger White Chocolate Truffle; Saffron Gumdrop; Nitro Coconut Floating Island; Apples Carlota; LN2 Caipirinha.

Note: Some of these dishes are only available on the SAAM tasting menu, but if you're not in the SAAM tasting room, try ordering them off-menu. It's worth a shot!
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...