By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
"We just let it all fly," Brown boasts. "I like to play with anything I can get my hands on."
Brown's flights of fancy are illustrated by his treatment of foie gras. He wraps Hudson Valley bird liver in a sheath of smoked buffalo meat, then lays it on a pad of cauliflower pudding in a pool of deep red roasted-beet sauce. His creation resembles an enormous tongue resting on a jewelry pillow and a scarlet bordello hankie. To add a little humor, Brown tops it with a fried quail egg, sunny side up.
Bizarre as it sounds, all of this worked brilliantly. The pudding was as delicate as savory mist, while the roasted-beet sauce harbored a foie gras ghost within its sharp, earthy essence.
And even though the moist, pan-seared black striped sea bass worked fine on its own, Brown saw fit to decorate its well-seasoned, soulful sea flavors with extraordinarily tender green fava beans and a porcini reduction sharply focused and uplifted with the tangy sweetness of Champagne grapes.
But these kitchen ambitions don't stop with simple high-minded food play. Brown has also implemented a daily seven-course chef's tasting menu consisting of smaller portions "so the dining guest can experience multiple food items and flavors within one dinner," as the press release states.
Tasting menus are notoriously dicey affairs. In the first place, it's hard to find one that sustains high notes from start to finish. Second, unless you are familiar with the chef's work, it can be risky to plunk down generous sums ($65 per person, $85 paired with wines here) on a potentially ruthless culinary ride with no emergency brake.
Brown's tasting excursion isn't a blind plunge: The menu offers ample descriptions of each course. But there's still the issue of relinquishing control to a chef's whims.
My first stab at a major-league tasting menu was at Pierre Gagnaire in Paris. Gagnaire is the chef notable for owning the first three-star restaurant (the highest rating from the vaunted Michelin Guide, a designation only 20 or so restaurants in all of France have earned) ever to declare bankruptcy.
This is odd, because traditionally, a three-star designation has been the equivalent of a license to print money. No more; a crisis appears to have developed in three-star territory. High standards such as constantly evolving menus, luxurious fixtures in elegant surroundings, and the insistence on maintaining a ratio of one waiter for every diner have resulted in crushing costs for the operator.
Add to that a predilection for cheaper tables at local bistros among many who once displayed an insatiable lust for three-star opulence, as well as the dulled palates of a new French generation (among the most popular restaurants in all of Europe is the McDonald's on the Champs Elysees), and you have the makings of gastro-genocide. (Don't get too weepy over Pierre. After losing his restaurant just outside of Lyon, he went on to pay off his debts by giving cooking classes in Japan for $5,000 a day.)
Incidentally, some say Gagnaire was the victim of the "play with anything I can get my hands on" sensibilities Brown currently espouses. That ethos made Gagnaire the target of relentless criticism from chefs lamenting the shrinkage of traditional French gastro-turf. This was all before he opened another restaurant in Paris, where he quickly won back his three stars. And it's where I first came into contact with his cuisine through an endless tasting menu. (This excursion was truly blind, since my French is extremely limited.)
This culinary assault probably lasted some four hours--though I don't exactly recall. After the third appetizer and the fifth splash of Grand Cru Burgundy, time had as much significance to me as the hologram on the credit card absorbing the bill.
I can't even catalog what I ate. I vaguely remember Asian influences, a fishy thing swimming in musky broth, a tiny vegetable dish dotted with caviar, and foie gras that made similar stuff served here seem little better than a fried liver sausage Pop Tart (Brown's version excepted).
But I do recall how I felt. My body went from a kind of gentle, sanguine ecstasy to sheer trembling terror. I broke out in the feverish sweat of sensory overload, the fear of not knowing from which orifice my body would voice its protest. My hands shook, my mouth twitched. I leaned back and allowed a waiter to dab my brow. And this is the odd thing about three-star dining: You're so well-served, you're hardly aware of the comings and goings of people and food. Courses appear and dishes vanish without any disruption of your personal space. Every scrap of flatware is removed and replaced with a fresh set after each dish. (It's a wretched, inexcusable practice to remove dirty flatware from a plate during the clearing process, then return it to the place setting. Yet all too often, this is what happens in Dallas' version of fine dining.)