Is Fine Dining dead?
If you read the number of newspaper and magazine articles, blogs and books that I do — and I sincerely hope you don’t — you know the question itself at least has life. The usual conclusion is not really, but …
So savvy chefs all over the country — and even in Paris, the once and former citadel of culinary chic — are hedging their bets. Here, Andrew Weissman has bailed on Le Rêve in favor of Il Sogno (and he’s thinking even more casually for future projects), Jason Dady is doing barbecue at Two Bros., and Bruce Auden, the godfather of them all, has just gone all homey on us with Auden’s Kitchen. We sense a trend.
And it would seem that Auden is onto something at his Sonterra location. “People have got to be clamoring for just this kind of food — and they don’t have time to make it for themselves,” observed one food-obsessed friend. And yet my first impressions, all at various lunches, were decidedly mixed. Yes, the already much-mentioned buttermilk fried chicken is very good indeed — though it was a little hard to identify some of the parts; its soft green beans were pretty enough but didn’t trade taste for texture; and the mashers did not incite ecstasy. Nor did the cream gravy, black pepper notwithstanding.
Another lunch started with the chicken-liver mousse topped with duck rillette, and though the balance was decidedly tipped in favor of the chicken, the combination was great and the serving almost overly generous. (The tomato-orange chutney, on the other hand, was a nice counterpoint but difficult to manage due to orange pieces that were too large and unwieldy.) Yet I can’t say enough good things about the beets with herbs, feta, and pistachio; they’re fabulous.
Maybe that comment will balance these: The pappardelle plate with braised lamb leg, green peas and pearl onions was diminished, one midday, by chewy pasta and the impression that none of the ingredients seemed to want to friend one another. A serving of gnocchi with pulled pork and greens that had sounded right up my alley was equally undone by stodgy gnocchi and a preparation more clunky than rustic.
How things can change. At a recent wine lunch, we were served the greens and pulled pork without gnocchi, and raves were warranted. The braised short ribs were extremely good on their own, but even better with a Stonestreet Christopher Cabernet Sauvignon. And Bruce’s Chocolate Addiction, created especially to go with the lush Freemark Abbey Bosche Cabernet Sauvignon, convinced me that chocolate and cabernet can actually work together if paired by a true professional.
Which brings us to dinner. True professionals are in the Auden’s Kitchen kitchen at all times, of course, but you expect them to be at the top of their game during evening hours, when most people aren’t in a hurry and would like either to unwind after a long day, or celebrate some special occasion. Prices are typically higher as well. We began our evening under the trees, with high expectations and two couldn’t-be-more-different appetizers.
First, while it still may be cool enough, let me recommend eating outside. Though the interior, with its collections of culinary bric-a-brac, is pleasant enough, it can get loud. The patio dining, which, with a little imagination, can seem like somewhere hard to define in Europe, may be lighting-deficient but is much more pleasant acoustically. Second, let me recommend both starters.
You may never have had tempura-fried shrimp as good as the ones that grace the tempura shrimp bowl, an odd but utterly compelling dish of said shrimp over cold Asian noodles with cubes of cool watermelon, cilantro, mint, and toasted peanuts. The noodles are slurpy and pesky to eat, but the combination, hot and crunchy against cool and minty, is unexpectedly effective.
In a fit of nostalgia for Bruce’s wood-burning oven at Polo’s in the Fairmount, the city’s first, we also ordered a pizza with “a variety of mushrooms” (apparently not of the “expensive” variety made famous by Biga), fontina, and truffle-citrus dressed arugula. It needed salt, but salt was at hand, and all was well with the world — including a beautiful, thin crust, just the right amount of cheese, and a light hand with easy-to-overdo truffle oil.
A long pause ensued.
Mind you, we were having a great time, and the Charles & Charles blend of Washington state cabernet sauvignon and syrah from the three-tier wine list was developing nicely. But the interval between appetizers and main plates was long enough for me to make note of it. I don’t think it was delayed gratification that gave the Duck Duck its yes-yes, however.
Auden’s menus have always been cleverly couched — though there is less tongue-in-cheek here than on past documents. The double duck consists of a roasted, “crispy skin” leg-thigh joint and a pan-fried breast, sliced. The leg’s skin, almost carbonized looking in the dim light, turned out to have got some of its color from a coating that surely included cinnamon. “Crispy” it was not, but good it surely was. The succulent breast was better, however, and some of that was equally as good cold as the pizza. The cherry-zinfandel barbecue sauce was pure genius. What I didn’t much like was the chewy roasted corn with even chewier bits of cured pork belly and not enough wilted arugula.
Can’t think of a thing to quibble about on my companion’s plate, however — and it was a dish I would never think to order. I guess my feeling is that the chef just doesn’t have to do enough work with roast trout stuffed with a few twigs of thyme and some slices of lemon. I may have to revise my thinking. The fish was perfect in every way, the seasonings sublime, the accompaniment of rosemary potatoes and garlicky kale without peer … and it was easy to eat the whole thing without feeling stuffed.
Thus leaving room for dessert — the Guadalupe Peak lemon pie with brown-sugar meringue, of course. In the by now even more diminished light it was hard to tell that the meringue was anything but of the standard, white-sugar sort, but no matter: the crust was perfect, the filling joyously tart-sweet, and the meringue a cloud of delight. I had been disappointed by an un-crisp crisp of rhubarb and apple at one lunch (the flavor was great, the topping deficient), but this more than made up for it. Biga’s sticky toffee pudding is also available in an homage to the home cooking of Britain. We wonder how the Brits take to buttermilk fried chicken?
Knowledgeable friends take to AK’s brunch like ducks on a June bug, though; that we can say. •