I almost didn’t go. When I did finally accept an invitation to join my friend Michael Talalaev along with my wife and his friend, Leigh, I went with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. I enjoy photographing my food. While I know others who are better at it than I, I think I do a decent job of it and I find that it really does enhance my experience of a meal both during and after. It makes me really look at what is on the plate and to appreciate the visual part of what the chef has created. It also really helps me after the fact when I try to recollect the meal and put the pieces together in my mind. A meal is a transient moment and while I appreciate it then in a very zen way, I also enjoy being able to reflect upon it later and to share my experience with others – thus this website. So when a restaurant makes a big point of not allowing photography and goes even further by not even allowing note-taking such as is is the stated policy at Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, I have a tendency to become a little perturbed. With this policy, I can only partially experience the meal and at $185 a pop plus gratuity and wines, I want to get as much value out of the evening as I can.
Clearly we did go and the photo above is the only one I took all evening. I resigned myself to the likelihood that I wasn’t going to photograph the meal. Not so for my friend, Michael, though. He brought his whole rig, hoping to convince Chef Cesar Ramirez to allow him (us) to be able to take some photos. Michael does happen to be quite a skilled photographer of food (one of those I was referring to who I feel does a better job than I do) as well as quite a skilled cook (or so I have heard). He also happens to have a lens that would have done a very nice job even in the challenging lighting of Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. The situation as we entered then was therefore somewhat intimidating. We had all read the story on Eater.com of Joshua David Stein’s note taking brouhaha at the restaurant (actually, my wife hadn’t), so Michael made one attempt as we sat down to ask for permission, which was firmly, but politely declined., An explanation was offered, though. It seems that photography had been allowed until one night when two patrons wound up in a fight over it. Since then, Ramirez decided that in such an intimate restaurant, the best policy would be to disallow all photography and be consistent with that policy. He took that two steps further by disallowing other perceived distractions such as note-taking and cell phone use in the restaurant Neither Michael nor I were happy with the photography ban, but we complied.
There are 18 seats at the sleek stainless steel u-shaped bar overlooking the kitchen at Brooklyn Fare. Nestled in a buffer zone between the diners and the cooks is a cozy D-shaped nook for Michelle Smith, who acts as a sort of liaison between the diners and the kitchen, and an assistant, who both helps with the plating and the clearing of the plates. On the far side of the nook from the diners is the stage, I mean kitchen, where the bulk of the action takes place. This not quite unintentional slip on my part was made to illustrate that this meal perhaps more than any other I’ve ever had, was truly theatrical performance art. The kitchen was, indeed a stage, the cooks the actors and the cookery the play. It was even framed with a proscenium arch-like array of gleaming copper pots and pans hanging over the main plating area on the diners’ side of the kitchen. Once I realized this, my grudge against Chef Ramirez for his policies started to melt away. After all, what theatrical production allows photography or cell phone use? Taking notes? While that may not be explicitly forbidden in most theaters, it is quite difficult to do and still actually focus on what is happening onstage. I recently saw an unusual and fascinating theatrical production, Sleep No More, during which I would have loved to have taken photos, but whose policy forbade it. I survived.
Like at Sleep No More, the audience is admitted in stages. At Chefs Table there are three seatings per evening. The first, for ten people, is at 6:30PM. The second, our seating of 8 diners, was at 7:15PM and the third, replacing the first seating, seems to have occurred somewhere around 9:45PM. When we entered, the first seating’s dinner was in full swing. We placed our chillable wine bottles (the restaurant, without a liquor license, tolerates byob) off to the side in an ice-filled bin and selected the appropriate glassware for our wines. The extent of the wine service at the restaurant is to provide the chilling station, corkscrews and a bounty of glassware. Advice on wine-pairing can be had by emailing the restaurant ahead of time, but there is no actual wine service at the restaurant. The guests open and pour their own bottles of wine, a function that was admirably performed throughout the evening by Michael.
At our places when we sat down was a program with a list of the principal courses that would be coming much like a brief synopsis of the Acts of the play that would be unfolding before us. In the same way that theatrical programs tend not to give much away about the upcoming drama, Brooklyn Fare’s menu also only provided the bare basics of what was to come. In addition, the menu totally omitted any mention or discussion of the extensive overture that was to be performed before the main elements of the show were to commence.
We began our meal by opening and tasting a lovely Basque Txacolina (Txomin Etxaniz – Getaria- 2010) brought by Michael’s friend, Leigh. It was crisp, clean and was a perfect starter to accompany the multi-faceted, citrus rich, seafood-centric openers of the meal. An essential element that was readily apparent right from the start was the quality and variety of the silverware and china used throughout the meal with brand new pieces of china used at various points for the very first time.
Once we were seated we enviously watched our fellow diners on the other side of the bar receive and eat a couple of dishes while we waited for a final pair of stragglers to arrive. Once they did, the amuses started coming in rapid succession. The pace was such, that even I started to understand that fussing with a camera while hoping for a worthwhile photo with the kind of light available would have likely broken the flow of the pace of the meal. It is not that the courses were rushed or even felt that way. Rather, it was more that the small, single-bite amuses did not require, nor were they granted, much time until the arrival of the next. The meal started with a frozen shot glass of a two-layered palate cleanser of bright, lime green, translucent granny smith apple juice topped with a darker and thicker, celery emulsion. The flavors were pure and meshed together beautifully. We were off to a very refreshing start. As with a musical overture of an opera or a play, it started to set a theme. In this case the theme was brightness of flavor. We would see this over and over again throughout the overture and into the main acts, however, this was no mere repetition. Chef Ramirez made it plain early on that he is a master of citrus and can wield its notes the way Puccini could finesse the notes of his arias. The theme was clear, but the following bites showed many variations on it.
A slew of bright, one bite appetizers followed the shot glass, each on a plate or serving piece more beautiful and interesting than the last. With Ramirez’ sensational collection of china and utensils, our desires to photograph the meal intensified that much more, but we refrained and simply admired the pieces and the food which lay atop or within them. Daikon pickled in yuzu continued the bright path being forged by Chef Ramirez and was followed quickly after by madai with ponzu, olive oil dressing and crispy scales. The scales put an already delicious bite over the top. They were delicate and crunchy, resembling toasted bread crumbs, but only a little. With this bite, I really started to get into the rhythm of the meal, and I and my dining partners really began to relax and take in what was clearly going to be a very special performance.
A bright and lively tasting Kumamoto oyster with creme fraiche, shallots, lime and a gelee of oyster juice came next served on a small sombrero like plate from J.L. Coquet, the company behind many of Ramirez’s other plates and bowls. This was , in turn followed by more delights including Tasmanian trout, trout roe and cilantro oil with a surprise burst of grapefruit; soymilk yuba with fresh mozzarella; Alaskan king crab with a yuzu-rich citrus marmalade; kampachi with pesto and lemon served on a spoon; sashimi of lobster with jicama and mustard; a delicately balanced, wonderful San Diego sea urchin with truffles and brioche toast; and buratta with roasted red pepper, capers and Italian anchovy. At this point, Leigh opened a beautiful 2008 Morgon, redolent of strawberries. This delightful, light red wine was a perfect match for the remainder of the canapes and into the main courses.
The march of canapes continued with a sardine with sage and potato. The house made chip combined with the fish and the understated herb may have been the bite of the evening, no small compliment in a meal of many outstanding tastes. This was something we all could have eaten many more of, but alas, unlike with Lays, we were limited to but the one. The parade didn’t stop there, though. Our disappointment with being limited there was assuaged by the lasting flavor of Japanese shimaji with crispy ginger and jalapeño. The next dish, jumbo lump crab fried in shredded phyllo with tztatziki reminded me of David Bouley’s shrimp, also fried in shredded phyllo, even though the accompaniments and the main protein differed considerably. Tempura fried langoustine with saffron sauce followed and was delicate and delicious.
The next dish, a noteworthy take on a classic Galician octopus was an amazingly tender octopus tentacle with paprika and fresh hearts of palm in lieu of potato. The pace was relentless, like the action of a good drama. Throughout the meal so far we had only enough time between courses to breathe and briefly compare notes before another canape arrived, but we now had a chance to really observe the making of the next one. Scrambled eggs served in an egg-shell like cup with potato cream, crunchy ultra-thin potato strips and caviar proved a superb variation on the Arpege egg.
Sea urchin, truffle, foie gras, crab and mushroom dashi was a little bite of umami heaven. The sea urchin held its own in this small chawan mushi-like preparation, while the foie gras remained firmly in the background lending its richness more than flavor. With this last canape, the rapid-fire progression of small plates came to a close, leaving us more time to concentrate on the dance taking place in the kitchen. We enjoyed a true tour de force of dish after dish.
With the time coming for the progression of the larger plates, we were also presented with the first and really only significant mis-step of the meal. Michelle offered a selection of sliced breads, none of which were better than mediocre. The question is why bother? Bread was hardly necessary with this meal, but it is a convention and here it felt as such, the only part of the meal that did. Bread was hardly necessary at many of the incredible meals I recently enjoyed in Spain, but when it was offered, it wasn’t an afterthought. It was always good enough for me to not only eat, but to crave more even knowing what was in store for me with my meal. It was always difficult to refrain. That bread enhanced the overall dining experience of those meals by being up to par with the rest of the meal. While I wouldn’t say the bread here ruined the meal, it certainly didn’t do anything to enhance it.
Now with 18 wonderful bites behind us, it was time for our first course, Hiramasa with tonnato, chive vinaigrette and crispy burdock root.The difference between this course and those that preceded it was a matter of proportion, this coming on a larger plate (ever gorgeous) and in a portion requiring several bites rather than the one bite of the canapes. These courses also took more time to prepare and assemble. Here, we had opened one of the bottles that my wife and I brought – a 1990 Trimbach Cuvee Frederick Emile Reisling. Of note, with the meal in full swing, it was good to see Chef Ramirez noticeably relax, becoming more talkative, engaging and smiling. While we had already begun to relax ourselves, this made the atmosphere that much more enjoyable.
King salmon was lightly cooked and came paired with a very sweet preserved cherry tomato, a sheet of pasta, white wine sauce and vanilla oil. What made this dish interesting was the boundary that it was crossing. The translation of savory elements into dessert courses has become common-place in recent years. What is less so, is the reverse commute. This dish did just that, however. While it was quite sweet with the heavily concentrated tomato and vanilla oil, it was a very well balanced dish that worked as a savory even as it could have worked equally as well as a dessert course. The inclusion of the rich salmon, though, made it fit more comfortably on the savory side of things.
The turbot course was another delight. Chef Ramirez told us that he uses farmed turbot from Peru, liking the quality even more than the turbot available to him from Europe. After tasting the perfectly cooked fish pan-roasted in garlic oil, I was not one to argue. The quality was superb. Prepared with Japanese rice, lobster, sea urchin, Parmigiano and bouillabaisse, it was another dish that shone. With the arrival of this course, the other half of the kitchen counter diners had finished their meal and were leaving the restaurant, each one thanked personally by Chef Ramirez.
The scallop dish was next. This was a dish that we had watched being prepared for our earlier counterparts with fascination and anticipation. Now being prepared for us, we watched with even greater attention, not distracted by other dishes placed in front of us. Chef Ramirez used a Smoking Gun from Polyscience to infuse the dish with hickory smoke, holding it under a cloche. The dish did not disappoint. The smoke had just enough time to lightly infuse the dish which included pork belly, pork jus, garbanzo cream, fresh garbanzos and pea shoot tendrils. The pork belly was layered atop the scallop with the pea shoot tendrils layered atop that. A superb dish all around, this was most notable for being the first time I could ever recall eating fresh garbanzos, an enjoyable experience quite different from eating their dried cousins.
With one more fully savory course to go, we opened the last of our savory bottles, a 1996 Kistler Camp Meeting Ridge Pinot Noir brought by my wife and I. Like the Riesling before it, this wine had aged quite well, providing a nice acidity and richness to go with the Duck, which came with corn puree, liquid mushrooms, mustard greens and pea leaves. This was again perfectly cooked and consummately delicious. The duck was clearly center stage with every other element working to enhance its flavor and texture. This was a beautifully balanced dish, not too heavy. It was a perfect way to end the savory portion of the meal.
Although billed in the program as Cheese, the next course was really more of a salad with cheese. The cheese in question was Etorki, a sheep’s milk cheese from the French Basque country. Along with the salad and the cheese, there was honeycomb, which to my palate made the course sweeter than I generally prefer. Though still a tasty course, I found the cheese to be lost amongst everything else and lacking in the relative balance of the bulk of the rest of the meal. This was perhaps my least favorite course of the evening.
To go with the desserts I opened a bottle of Chambers Rosewood Vineyard Rutherglen Special Muscat. It was thick and viscous, sweet but well balanced with great acidity. Mango sorbet with champagne gelee, moscato d’asti “cloud” and blueberries was the first dessert- refreshing. The final course, simply titled “Dessert” was almond cake with strawberries, lemon and brown butter ice cream – a lovely way to finish. With that the meal was finished and the curtain came down as we left the restaurant.
I came to Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare with more than one set of reservations, but in the end, I only needed one. The dinner proved to be a wonderful experience in every respect with drama, laughter, intrigue, great food and drink and new friends. I understood Chef Ramirez’ issues with photography, note-taking and cell-phone usage, but I still wish I was able to photograph and document for myself his beautiful food. Nevertheless, it would have been a big mistake for me to have passed up Michael’s kind invitation. I would have missed an altogether outstanding experience.