15 May 2008

Dining at Home – Home Restaurant, that is…

In another departure for my blogging, I’m switching back to a foodie discussion. This is a review of my recent dinner at Home Restaurant (the link actually goes to the restaurant group that runs Home, and it’s an annoying website, but I figured I’d toss it in anyway), the newest workplace of Richard Blais. Aside from being a quirky pioneer in the realm of what’s popularly known as “molecular gastronomy” (think “mad chef with a chemistry set”), he’s also a contestant on this season’s Top Chef on the Bravo Network. But enough background – on to the food!
Home’s menu is much more traditional in its appearance than many of Chef Blais’ other creations. You might call it a nouveau take on Southern or “down home” cooking. And that may be all you think of it, until you notice little quirks like buttermilk pancakes with “foie gras butter”, or pork short rib with “coffee BBQ sauce”. Suffice it to say that even the innocuous “oyster with hot sauce” is more intriguing than it sounds.

I dined at Home with two companions on Tuesday of this week, one being my spouse and one a friend from out of town. Spouse and friend began the evening with cocktails, a ginger margarita and a basil “mint julep” respectively. The margarita was tart and mostly traditional with the ginger being subtle but present. The basil drink (called "The Dastardly Deed") was intriguing – very fragrant basil permeating a sweet vodka-based drink, although it was a little sweet for my personal tastes (that didn’t prevent me from sampling it several times, though).

We opted for the chef’s tasting menu (with wine pairings), which had only been available since the prior day. Another caveat is that Chef Blais himself was not in the kitchen the night we were there, and our server was very up front with this information when we inquired about the tasting menu, so kudos for truth in advertising there. In fact, kudos all around to our server, Melissa, who was attentive and graciously responsive to our numerous inquiries. The tasting menu was technically a four-course affair, but as Melissa explained the first taste was really just an amuse-bouche, and they didn’t really count dessert as a course, so we wound up with six plates when all was said and done. We began with some excellent small biscuits, served with butter, pepper jelly, and sweet pickled okra.

Amuse-bouche – a single Kumomoto oyster on a bed of ice, with Tabasco pearls (get it - oysters and pearls?), served with a glass of Gruet (a sparkling wine from New Mexico). The oyster was topped with Tabasco dots that were like frozen ice cream droplets (made with the help of liquid nitrogen, no doubt), and white. The flavor of the sauce/pearls was not too hot, but it definitely lingered in a good way, popping right out of the pearls. I was a little disappointed to learn later that the Manager had intended that we be served a Laurent-Perriér Rosé sparkling, which probably would have been even better, but the Gruet sufficed.

First course (with the Gruet): Fluke sashimi topped with crispy bits of duck skin and micro cilantro with chili oil, and smoked mayonnaise on the side. All of the flavors were very distinct and pronounced except for the rather mild fish, which tasted a bit like yellowtail to me. In essence, the mild fish served as an admirable backdrop for the other great flavors. I particularly enjoyed the combination of the smoky mayo and crispy duck skin; our table decided that someone ought to start making “duck rinds” as a snack food alternative to pork rinds.

Second course: Shrimp and grits, two shrimp on top of creamy yellow grits, served with a bit of seared foie gras on the side, and topped with thin slices of pickled radish and mini cubes of freeze-dried pineapple (more fun with liquid nitrogen). All of the individual flavors exploded on the tongue, and yet again managed to remain balanced. I did notice what some other reviewers had said about the saltiness of this dish, but I didn’t think it was too much (this is Southern cooking, after all!). Further investigation (thanks, Melissa) revealed what I suspect is the source of what some palates called over-saltiness, as the grits contained parmigiano and cheddar cheeses (and no small amount of butter, naturally). The dish had a dash of pepper vinegar, which was very subtle in flavor. Our table’s only real complaint was that the seared foie gras was a little bitter (then again, we don’t eat much foie gras), but my spouse noted that combining the foie gras with the pineapple removed the bitterness. The wine for this course was a Brandal Albarino from the Rias Baixas region of Spain, an excellent white.

Third course: Here I should note that the wines were generally brought out first, leaving us to play the fun guessing game of what would be paired with the wine. Our wine here was a Syrah with a name I apparently didn’t quite catch – Halsted or something like that – and I believe it was from California’s Central Coast. It tasted of bacon fat and dark fruit. Had I been thinking more clearly, I would have been able to guess our arriving food – a piece of pork belly. This was glazed with a coffee BBQ sauce and served on a five-bean salad. The pork belly was not at all greasy or chewy, and it had a lightly crisp exterior with an almost creamy interior. The sauce was light and complemented the pork without intruding on it. As our friend commented, this was “like a really upscale cassoulet”.

Fourth course: The wine was Stella Maris, a Washington state meritage of predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It showed a dark cherry nose, with some eucalyptus and spicy hints of white or black pepper; solid fruit flavors without being so damned overbearing on the alcohol content like many big American reds can be (am I sufficiently revealing my biases yet?). The food was a small Kobe beef short rib, served on a puree of corn and topped with Point Reyes blue cheese and micro cilantro, with a celery-Makers Mark jus and a side of horseradish foam (think horseradish sauce fluffed up). I should also note that the manager later described the beef as Wagu, or “domestic Kobe”. No matter the name; the beef was outstanding. Just to prove that I could, I eschewed the steak knife and cut my first bite with my fork. This was another riotous combination of flavors – savory from the beef, a little salty from the cheese, sweetness from the jus and the corn puree, spiciness from the horseradish foam, and yet all the flavors managed to be both prominent and balanced.

Dessert: We had a sour cream pecan cake with whipped cream, a poached blueberry (that’s right, just one), and a quenelle of sweet tea ice cream. The wine pairing was a Pend d’Orielle (I hope I have that right), presumably their Riesling. The cake was good, the whipped cream was quite nice, and the sweet tea ice cream was just insane. Imagine some Thai iced tea in terms of the creaminess, but with the distinct flavor of Southern sweet tea.

Overall thoughts - Almost without exception, the dishes were well balanced with pronounced flavors that all stood out individually and yet were harmonious together. The execution was also pretty much spot on, which is a nice feat for a kitchen from which the Executive Chef is absent that evening. The price seemed fair - $60 for the tasting menu with a $35 supplement for the wine pairings.

We had a nice chat with the General Manager, Chet Huntley, on the way out (I didn’t ask him where David Brinkley was – figured he heard that often enough). He said that they were trying to have the food be interesting without having Chef Blais go completely overboard (my words, not his) in terms of the molecular gastronomy stuff. As I was dining, I thought that the tasting menu perhaps should have had more crazy whiz-bang elements to it. Looking back now I see that in fact it did have several Blais-ian elements, but that they weren’t the main point of the meal. The main point was the food. I think this is the mark of a mature chef – one who knows how to utilize techniques (even some crazy ones) and isn’t afraid to push the envelope, but who doesn’t force the technique to be front and center and instead allows the food to be the star.

Sorry this went on so long, and thanks for bearing with me. I did take pictures, but they turned out pretty lousy – I need to just go ahead and be willing to use the flash in restaurants, or figure out a better low light setting on my digital camera.

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