Thursday, April 23, 2009

Palatability Revisited - a dinner at Taste

infamous cheesecake?
On Saturday, April 11th, the evening before my last hurrah at Fire (Sunday Brunch), I went to dinner at Taste. This lively spot graces Lee Rd just two blocks from my home. It opened last autumn, yet it has taken me this long to get there. And for shame: I know the chef. Anthony Vicente, a Parisian transplant, interviewed with me for a position in my kitchen several years ago. I would have hired him in a heartbeat, but our hourly rate did not satisfy his requirements for compensation. We ended up working side-by-side for a short spell. I actually trained him for all of one (maybe two?) nights on the pantry station at Fire, before I switched to my favored Sundays only schedule. He patiently tolerated my extremely rusty French and endured some razzing as the new guy with a funny accent from the line cooks and sous chefs. For about half a year now (I believe) he’s been the chef at this new establishment.

I turns out that we have some food ideas in common. Ideas about small portions and flavor combinations that push our preconceived, socially constructed palates. Most of the food is innocuous enough in this regard. I opted for the prix fixe menu, and let Anthony send out whatever he wanted. What I ate was flavorful, well seasoned and presented nicely, if simply.
He started me off with Red Mullet. It was topped with black olive tapenade, set on a quenelle of sweet potato and surrounded by yellow curry, lightly foamed, a great combination. The fish was fine, properly cooked. The sweet potato-yellow curry combination (not a stretch by any means) was really delightful. My main criticism here (likely unshared by locals) is: too big! Cut back to less than two ounces of sweet potato. Also, I would have enjoyed an herbaceous counterpoint. Bring on the lemon balm or anise hyssop, brother! This was one of my favorite courses, which is why I have included it in this post.
What peaked my interest, gastronomically speaking, came in the form of dessert. Anthony sent out a cheesecake made with red bell pepper puree. The server who brought the dessert to the table referred to it as “the infamous cheesecake”. Uh, training anyone? Now, I’m a mellow kind of guy when I’m not in a kitchen, so the irksomeness of this declaration faded quickly. But, come on people, support your chef! Don’t make suggestive critique of the food (or leading commentary) in this form. Anyway, server’s blunder aside, I liked it. It’s actually pretty simple, two dimensional at best. Still, it satisfied my palates desire for savory flavors in dessert. Why are we so wary of using traditionally savory flavors in this way? I won’t revisit that discussion so much as to say, do try it. You might like it. After the meal, since I’m interested in these things, I asked the host (and Anthony) about sales and the future of the cheesecake (or others similar) on the menu. It remains undecided. Public reception of the dessert seems to fall into a love it or hate it dichotomy. Oh well. I’m in the middle ground again with decided leaning toward the love-it camp. I strongly encourage the powers at Taste to let Anthony free reign for a minimum of another six months. At the very least, it will allow me to eat some more food that challenges the status quo. My specific suggestions for this dessert: ditch the fried basil leaf. Basil might make a great garnish in another form. Fried, it has little flavor. Also, trim the portion size. I once overheard Trotter direct his pastry chef, Della, to make smaller portions. He said "put what you think would be the right amount...then cut it in half!"