Salt, sugar, and fat: They’re the one-two-three punch of 21st-century food. In coming up with a menu for Insignia in the Fairmount, his new globally influenced American restaurant, Jason Dady unabashedly makes use of all three — especially the knockout triple-threat. Chicken and waffles are a case in point.
I’ve never understood the appeal, but, no news here, I’m apparently in the minority. Dining on another reviewer’s dime when sampling the fried chicken, I wasn’t taking notes out of professional courtesy — but I recall that the chicken was well-executed, if salty, the waffles sweet and a little soggy. But of course there was the appealing fat of the chicken skin.
Early on, I was also unimpressed by the Wagyu meatballs in a mild-mannered mole. They improved on a second tasting, but were still unexciting. Less-tony beef might actually have worked better in the equation. The San Antonio pizza, issuing from the now-legendary oven Bruce Auden inaugurated at his seminal Polo’s, on the other hand, was over-the-top, with nothing to bring the too-rich barbacoa into focus. I desperately wanted not the avocado that came with it, but a zingy salsa verde. And I was similarly unimpressed by the eagerly anticipated bone-marrow pudding, a super-lush quenelle sitting alongside a mound of unctuous barbacoa cleverly called “tongue & cheek marmalade.” Rich, rich, rich. Bitch, bitch, bitch.
But, you’ve got to give Dady credit: From barbecue to bone marrow, he’s always out there inventing, pushing the envelope. And when he succeeds, as he most often does, he does so brilliantly; one flawless meal at Tré Trattoria was among the highlights of 2009. And when he doesn’t hit the mark, there’s always something to suggest a kernel of truth. Take the duck-confit croquettes, for example. I’m not sure duck cooked in its own fat needs to be fried, too, and the toasty-crusty boules made with the confit and corn kernels are served with a thick and cheesy parmesan cream sauce. Each part is good in its own right — just not together.
But barbacoa might finally have found its soul mate in one of the prettiest dishes I’ve seen in a long time — the pan-seared scallops “surf & turf,” in which the classic San Antonio weekend specialty serves as the “turf.” The deftly seared scallops sit atop a round of brioche, a lemon beurre blanc streaked with Pollock-like threads of basil and paprika oils can be added at will, and the barbacoa provides a touch of low-down luxe without overpowering the plate.
Equally handsome is the pan-seared crab cake with red Thai curry and a superlative avocado, fennel, and red-pepper slaw. Ordered at the suggestion of our enthusiastic (and quite knowledgeable) waiter, this proved to be the hit of the evening — the rich crab having a worthy opponent in the crunchy-punchy slaw. I’d like to be able to make the same kind of equals-but-opposites attract comment about the shrimp ceviche topped with chicharron; the contrast sounded great on paper, but the pork rind tasted rancid.
So far, almost everything I’ve mentioned, including the palate cleanser — a superb and refreshingly restrained salad composed of mixed greens, peeled cherry tomatoes, goat cheese, and pistachios — is from the top two-thirds of the menu. There’s a reason for this: The entrées just don’t sound that interesting in comparison. Nevertheless, we dutifully zeroed in on a fish dish: the striped bass.
And we were thrilled. Generously split in the kitchen (it’s hard to imagine a single serving being twice that size), its skin exquisitely crusted, the fillet was served with a piquant green-peppercorn jus and accents of bacon, artichoke hearts, and picholines. Couldn’t ask for anything more.
Except maybe more white wines by the glass. We settled on the albariño from northwestern Spain, and then ordered a flight of three reds just for fun. It being the wine list for an American restaurant, I wondered where the wines from Washington are. The state is the country’s second-biggest producer and was second only to California in the number of Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines for 2009.
Now we come to dessert, wherein all caution is thrown to the wind. Our waiter once again weighed in with a suggestion — the key-lime parfait (it’s good, but needs more lime), but we simply couldn’t resist the applewood-smoked-bacon praline with salted-caramel mousse — despite the all-too-real risk of a TKO. Two of us couldn’t finish the plate, in fact, but I’m nonetheless still thinking about it. There may have been just a little bit too much bacon, but the praline was revelatory, and the caramel mousse played right along — no startling contrasts (except in texture) to be found or desired. •