Sunday, October 17, 2010

Test Kitchen: Results are Positive

The much buzzed about Test Kitchen is the brainchild of people I don't know, but I wish I did because they are clearly clever, interesting and love to drink cocktails.   Besides promoting great chefs and excellent food, this is a genius way to pack a room in an economy where significantly less transient eateries are dropping like flies.  In a nutshell, it's a place where chefs can come and give prospective menus a "test run" with a live, paying, enthusiastic audience of foodies.  And serve them really good alcohol to go with it.  The price, for the dining experience you get, is a total steal. 

The arrival of friends from up North, and the menu I saw on the website for Saturday night, gave me the kick in the butt that I needed to stop reading about this place and actually go.    Wouldn't you have done the same?

OCTOBER 16th Menu by Ricardo Zarate

7 course individually plated menu, fifty five dollars/ Bar bites/cocktails $12/wine pairing for $35, or by the glass or $20 corkage
  1. Abreboca| Purple corn bread, foie gras, aji amarillo marmalade, figs compote
  2. Sopa de Rocoto| Peruvian red pepper soup, queso fresco sauce, croutons
  3. Causa de Salmon Ahumado| Smoked salmon causa, aji amarillo yogurt, crispy quinoa
  4. Tiradito de Pejerrey| Peruvian King Fish Carpaccio , garlic, ginger lemon sauce
  5. Anticucho de Pulpo|Grilled Octopus, roasted potatoes, tofu jalapeno chili sauce
  6. Asado de Costilla| Lamb ribs, huancaina sauce, peruvian risotto
  7. Picarones| Sweet potato and pumpkin donuts with chancaca sauce and vanilla ice cream
  1. Santa Barbara Spot Prawns with Yuzu Kosho $12
  2. Chicharron. Crispy Pork Belly, Feta Cheese Sauce, Sarsa $7
  3. Anticucho de Corazon, Rocotto sauce $6
  4. Ceviche Shot. Uni, Scallop, Pisco, Leche de Tigre $4
The place was dark, not yet packed, and before we could even consider the food we got kind of mesmerized by the cocktail menu.

The night's mixologists, Julian Cox of Rivera, and Dave Fernie, of Library Bar, were having a lot fun.  One of everything was not advisable, considering three of us were going with the seven wine pairings.  After stumping our earnest server* with a question about the exact nature of the cachaca in the Banana Reviver , we ordered one of those anyway, along with something featuring "apple air" and two "tester cocktails", where we named our spirit (my husband and I both chose gin) and our flavor profile (me citrus and mint, him aromatics), and the barkeeps worked their magic.

Bar bites?  But of course.  Two chicharrons, two ceviche shots.   And the works for dinner.  After being assured that our cocktails and bar snacks would be out first, we settled back to catch up with our friends.

About 2 minutes later, a beautiful plate of dark purple cornbread balls shows up, along with our first wine pairing.   Hmm.  How about that cocktail hour?  Or that cocktail 10 minutes?

"Oh, sorry about that.  Once we have you seated, the kitchen starts.   We'll bring your bar items as they're ready."

Alrighty then.  We'll go with the flow.   I bite into the piping hot cornbread, and am less than ecstatic.  It's dry as a bone, to the point of being unpleasant.  I smear it with the foie gras, plated to resemble a pat of butter, and dab on some of the fig compote "jam".   I get it, but I don't like it.   Anyone else loving this?

"The fig stuff is good", says Bob, putting his down.


Another waiter appears, bearing bowls of soup.  We have barely touched the first course.   More wine follows promptly.  We each now have soup bowls, two wine glasses, and a big plate of dark purple balls each.   I glare, just a little, at our server.

He flinches.

"The soup is meant to be enjoyed with the bread.  We're really not trying to rush you, I promise."

If this is not rushing us, it sure feels like it, as we are now chugging both white wines to catch up.  Which is a shame, because they are delicious.

As is the soup!  Somehow it's both fresh and rich at the same time, with a nice zing of heat from the peppers and a crisp chorizo crostini, salty and smoky, floating in the middle.   It does not need to be eaten with the cornbread at all.  Forget the cornbread!  Go soup!

Things really start to look up as cocktail hour finally arrives.  The drinks are nothing short of spectacular.   The Banana Reviver is about as far away from a cloying Caribbean colada as you can get.  My husband takes one sip of my concoction and declares, "That is your perfect drink."  His martini is smooth, crisp, fragrant, and a delight to sip.   And that apple thing is beyond tasty.  We have gone from put out to blissed out in the space of mere moments.

The bar bites seal the deal.   The ceviche "shot" is a plump fresh scallop and a bit of uni on curly stick, immersed in a cool and complex spicy lime and coconut broth.  The presentation is gorgeous.

The chicharron, on the other hand, is rustic and hearty and messy.  It is also an incredible dish.  A slab of crusty bread holds a meltingly tender-crisp hunk of pork belly, smothered in a tangy salsa of red onions, tomatoes, cilantro and lime juice, with a creamy smooth sauce of feta cheese in there somehow balancing the whole thing perfectly.

"If I died right now, I would be a happy girl," says Betsy.
"Mmph.  Me oo!" I agree.  I then unfairly guilt my husband into giving me part of his half.   If I died now, I would definitely go to hell.

We seem to be back on track, timing-wise, as we actually finish this round before the next arrives.  It is the smoked salmon, lovely to look at, and nicely done, particularly the melt-in-your mouth smoked fish and crunchy bits of crisp quinoa.  But that chicharron was a tough act to follow.  I'm also not a huge fan of cold mashed potatoes, although these are silky, seasoned well, and set off the real stars of the dish.

The advertised kingfish for course #4 became ahi on the printed menu, and then Spanish mackerel by the time the plates arrived at the table, but who cares?  Not us.  This was another out-of-the-park winner, right up there with the top sushi places in town, but with a definite Peruvian spin.  The fish went down literally like butter, with crispy garlic chips, a ginger sauce and some kind of cream drizzle combining with the fresh herb salad on top to have me closing my eyes as I ate, the better to savor every bite.

I didn't know how things could get much better, until the octopus proved me wrong.  It must have been grilled over some of the most aromatic wood on the planet to get the deep smoky flavor so entrenched into the meat.   It was cooked just enough so all traces of chewiness vanished, and the feel was almost like a tender fish or steak.    The rustic smashed roasted potatoes underneath added just the right hint of salt and earthiness, and both were transformed by the bright green jalapeno tofu sauce running down over the top.   Genius!

The lamb suffered much the same fate as the smoked salmon, paling by comparison to the dish that came before.  It was top notch comfort food, but none of us were blown away.

You would think we would be bursting at the seams, but the portions are just right, and we definitely have room for the dessert we've all been waiting for.   DONUTS! 

That's right. Donuts.  Rich, spicy, hot from the fryer, sweet potato donuts, dusted with cinnamon sugar (Wake up, Winchells!!), served with a scoop of delicious creamy vanilla ice cream that rivals even my dear friend Darryl's.  Yes there was a dusting of cocoa powder on the plate and some cunningly piled up pomegranate seeds, but...c'mon.  It's the donuts we cared about.  And licked our fingers clean after.

Dinner done, the staff indulged me and my camera with access to take these pictures as the food was coming out of the kitchen***.    Alex Reznik (of Top Chef and Cafe Was fame), was lending a hand that night.

But the man behind this incredible meal was Ricardo Zarate, owner of Mo-chica****, and soon to be proprietor of a permanent restaurant upstairs from Test Kitchen.

Pictured here in the red baseball hat, if he's turning out food like this, we will be regulars there from day one.  After all, he passed this test with flying colors!

To see some truly stunning photos of this meal, and the cocktails I drank to fast to take pictures of, visit the Kevin Eats blog.  He's also way better than I was at getting all the ingredients just right.

* "Well, that's a good one.  I don't know what that is.  They just told us everything about the food and wine for tonight, but I know nothing about the cocktails."
** I have subsequently discovered it is a fermented sugar cane liquor from Brazil.
*** Our table was far too dark for photos, and I'm just not ready to be one of those people taking flash photos at the dinner table, or anywhere else in a restaurant at night.
**** An official "on the list" selection of the Foodie Girls, by the way.

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