A suited staffer circled the room, his tray laden with warm slices of olive, rosemary and raisin breads, crusty and fragrant. He bestowed each of our plates with a different variety, and placed between us a ramekin of butter so pristine and smooth it looked like you could ice skate on it.
We surveyed the scene from our small round table, perched on cushy chenille chairs. We were the youngest ones in the room by roughly 20 years; a couple seated next to us celebrated a milestone of some sort. The décor was the epitome of tastefully neutral -- a massive crystal chandelier hung overhead, illuminating white tablecloth-covered tables set with fine crystal glassware and more silverware than my household goes through in a week. Brocade curtains with tassels the size of my head draped the floor-to-ceiling windows.
We were there to satisfy our Meatless Monday requirements by indulging in the seven-course vegetarian tasting menu, but Bijoux is certainly not a vegetarian restaurant. The regular chef's tasting menu reads like a carnivorous gastronome's fantasized last meal: sweetbreads, escargot, veal, rabbit, skate. Having spent an average of ten bucks on my previous Meatless Monday meals, I was intrigued to see how vegetarian cuisine could be elevated at the hands of a four-star chef, but also wondered if it would be worth the price of admission. Would we leave satisfied or wishing we'd gone out for steak instead?
To start, the amuse: a tiny clamshell of a profiterole concealing its pearl, a tiny scoop of chamomile ice cream, and garnished with perfectly precious microgreens.
The first course arrived next: a salad of roasted golden beets, sweet and tender, assorted baby greens, creamy crumbles of local goat cheese and the sweetest, crunchiest "crystallized" pecans. A vivid magenta quenelle of hibiscus-beet sorbet occupied the upper right corner of the plate, garnished with a translucent beet chip so wafer-thin it disappeared on the tongue. So far so good. I'd had (simpler, less well-executed) versions of this salad before that never included animal proteins, and with the variety of complementary flavors and textures, this one certainly didn't need it either.
Our empty plates were whisked away, and like magic shallow soup bowls with tiny quenelles of black truffle sorbet were placed before us. Suddenly a sauciere (I couldn't bring myself to use the word "gravy boat" in this context) appeared, pouring a stream of creamy liquid around the sorbet -- parsnip and sunchoke soup, so light and airy it practically floated off our spoons. Its ethereal texture had us puzzling: Whipped egg whites? Immersion blender? (When asked, Chef Scott Gottlich revealed that it's simply passed through a chinois and whisked.) Light in texture but deep and rich in flavor, the earthy aroma of fresh truffles wafting up from the bowl would haunt me for days. I'd pick that soup over foie gras any day.
The third course of tarragon gnocchi with creamy carrot purée and a tiny mountain of microplaned Parm Reggiano was the best thing I've eaten all year. A deep, crispy sear in brown butter that gave way to pillowy insides, and the addition of shaved black truffles gave the dish a mega dose of umami, a meaty punch that almost had me searching for chunks of bacon or marrow.
Next was mascarpone quinoa with adorably miniature roasted root veggies -- the most impressive looking plate yet, like a priceless abstract painting. The nutty quinoa popped in my mouth like caviar, but the plate seemed like it was missing a major flavor component and a heavy pinch of salt. I imagined a seared medium-rare duck breast with perfectly crisped skin, its meaty juices soaked up by the grains and veg. Mmm, duck. (Am I allowed to say that in a story about Meatless Monday? Shit, I hope PETA isn't reading this.)
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Then, kohlrabi gratin. The bulbous turnip cousin with a flavor reminiscent of cauliflower was sliced paper thin, layered with a creamy, cheesy sauce, and cut into a neat rectangle. It was surrounded by a deep emerald green arugula purée, so viscous and opaque it looked like oil paint squeezed onto the plate. An earthy, almost dirty-tasting (in a good way) mushroom foam left a gorgeous deep golden punctuation mark on the plate. A sort of upscaled vegetable lasagna, it would seem a suitable headliner for a vegetarian but a meat-eater would likely view it as more of a side dish.
The cheese course brought a decadently creamy hunk of funky Camembert, the center so ripe it was practically liquid, a perfectly piquant pink peppercorn gastrique (try saying that five times fast), and a mini biscotti with strawberry jam.
After a brief palate cleanser of kiwi sorbet, the final dessert course brought a square of creamy kaffir lime custard atop a crumb crust, flanked by berries and topped off with a quenelle of effervescent champagne-grapefruit sorbet and a beautifully decorative grapefruit chip. The celebration of winter citrus had a distinctly bitter edge that was welcome after the rich meal.
Several of the tasting courses would be savored by meat-eaters and vegetarians alike (the herbed gnocchi and the truffled sunchoke soup in particular), but a committed carnivore would likely be disappointed with seven courses of vegetables, no matter how lavish the preparation. Those already prone to veggie love, though, will find Bijoux's tasting menu an exciting and satisfying experience. We left satiated but not stuffed, and were still talking about details of the meal days later. Chef Gottlich's deft touch with produce has inspired me to get cooking in my own kitchen, to see what flavors I can coax out of lowly root vegetables in particular. (Anybody have some fresh black truffles they wanna share?) It'll be hard to go back to veggie burgers after this, but next week it's back to eating with the rest of the plebeians.