Friday, March 21, 2008

An Appreciation of Taste

I not long ago finally had a chance to dine at one outpost - Degustation - of the curious Lamb empire. In addition to Degustation, Jack and Grace Lamb own Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar and Jewel Bako (which neighbors Degustation and shares a corridor with it). The space that Degustation now occupies has gone through several incarnations over the past few years, finally settling on its current identity - a tiny, stylish tapas bar. By tiny, we are talking about 15 seats and no more, situated in an intimate half-rectangle around the "kitchen". Dining here is not just about the food, but about the experience of eating as well (one best shared in pairs or as three at most).

On this particular night we were the first to arrive and were seated right in the center, where we could observe all the action from one end to the other. Though small, it was hard to keep up with all that was going on behind the counter -between the three cooks and the waitress there was a lot going on! The other seats quickly filled in soon after we sat down.

We each started with a nice glass of white wine - their glasses are quite reasonably priced with several around $7 or $8. The evening's meal can be done a la carte or as a chef's tasting menu - either in five courses or ten. The five-course tasting menu is just a selection of dishes that are already on the menu, while the ten-course menu consists of dishes that the chef has chosen to create for that night. A couple beside us went with the ten-course tasting menu and while we didn't keep track of everything they got, the dishes for the most part looked inventive and interesting and included ingredients not seen elsewhere on the printed menu.

We decided to choose our own courses. By the end of our meal we had ordered seven dishes. Because the food comes fairly quickly, it is easy enough to start off with a few dishes and order more as you go along, though catching the one waitress as she shuffles up and down the line may be a bit tough.(There are also two other people on the outside edge helping to clear dishes and bring new silverware - which comes fresh after each dish, perhaps a little too formal and unnecessary.) One of the dishes we had (the croquettas) was a later addition, because we had seen several orders of it go out and they looked too good to pass up.

But back to the beginning.

We started with the slowly poached egg with jamon serrano, chorizo, smoked cheese and rice cracker crusted asparagus. Yes, that is foam, but dubious you should not be, for this was quite delicious, though a tad hard to share and it was difficult to get a little bit of everything into each bite. But the egg mixed in underneath the foam was smooth and creamy and the jamon and cheese added a salty tone, while the crusted asparagus provided a cruncy contrasting texture.

Next came the Spanish "tortilla" with quail egg and shallot confit topped with a sliver of pepper. The tortilla was in quotation marks on the menu, with good reason, for this little packet of goodness had no resemblance to a traditional tortilla. Nonetheless, it gets credit for being inventive and delightfully surprising. It is a one-bite deal and when you pop it in your mouth and dig your teeth in, the quail egg explodes with flavor.

Our third course was a warm mushroom salad with crispy lamb bacon, raclette fondue and fresh dill. The dish had an assortment of mushrooms - being no expert, I can't tell you all the kinds that were included in the dish, but I believe there were hen of the wood mushrooms and enoki mushrooms in there. Again some slivers of hot pepper scattered on the plate. The mushrooms paired well with the fondue because their flavor was strong enough to shine through the cheese. The lamb bacon had the distinct deep musky flavor of lamb, yet was beautifully light despite being fried (and I suppose in spite of being bacon!).

We followed that with a crudo of seasonal fish, which that night I think was a gently seared hamachi with green apple and scallions. This time, slivers of a green pepper appeared - almost as if the peppers were the chef's signature on each dish! As you might be able to see in the picture, the fish was seared just enough to give the fish some browned edges. The green apple went with the hamachi really well - the fruitiness was a nice contrast and lifted up the flavor of the fish.

Our next two dishes were a little more substantial, though each dish really is a small plate. A sign that we were really enjoying the food - each dish was enough to make you enjoy it and leave you wanting a little more. I find that is the pleasure in small plates and why I often find myself more excited and satisfied by appetizers than by main courses in many restaurants.

We had the lamb loin with greenmarket vegetables and laphroaig whiskey next. The lamb was rarer than I have ever seen lamb served. It comes with a definitive pink hue, yet the texture is that of a well-cooked tender lamb. The chunks were juicy and moist and heartwarming.

Then we came to the mix of the plancha items: grilled head-on shrimp; cigalas; and African red shrimp. Though the simplest, this may have been our favorite dish of the night. One might wonder how that could be in a place that goes for more creatively composed dishes. I'd say that I have had few, if any, experiences of 1. - seeing very simply grilled fresh shrimp on many menus and 2. - of eating fresher pieces of shrimp than these. It was a surprise to find that something so seemingly plain could pack so much flavor. The shrimp were extremely sweet and tender with the underlying flavor of the grill. We were left licking our fingers!

At this point we had finished all the dishes we had ordered in the beginning. But having seen so many plates of croquettas come out, we impulsively ordered a set and were glad we did. This may have been the best deal on the menu - four croquettas for $4. (We had assumed that the simply listed croquettas on the menu meant $4 for each!). These were each a bite of heaven! They were incredibly light and sat atop a generous dollop of some kind of delectable red pepper mayonnaise sauce. While they might more traditionally be considered a starter for a meal, these were the perfect ending to ours!

The dessert menu here is far from tempting and makes it easy to leave without any or to head elsewhere for a sweet ending. All in all we left content - not gut-bustingly full, but very happily satiated and had room to comfortably eat dessert. It's not a cheap dinner, but it is a wonderful place to go for great interesting and well-done food, for a special occasion and/or for a different dining experience. I might also consider it a good place to start off an evening of food hopping - a few appetizers here to whet the appetite would certainly be a nice start to an evening.

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