January 24, 2014
Curtis Stone loves to cook. He loves puttering around in the kitchen, loves playing with ingredients, loves watching people as they eat his creations.
Unlike so many chefs, cooking’s not a job to him. It’s a joy. And you feel that every time he slips behind a stove.
During the entire time Curtis and I worked together at Top Chefs Masters he’s talked about wanting to open a restaurant. He was always going out to look for the perfect space, always thinking about the menu he might serve.
Now he’s finally done it.
A caveat: I’m not a disinterested observer. I went to a family and friends preview, and like just about everyone who’s ever met Curtis, I wish him well. He’s a genuinely lovely person with deep intelligence and a real feeling for food. Still, I arrived at Maude (named for his granny, who taught him to cook), with serious trepidation; I was afraid I’d hate the place. I’d gone to the website and winced when I saw the pedigree of the people working there: The French Laundry, El Bulli, Robuchon, Alinea. It sounded pretentious.
I shouldn’t have worried. Is Curtis not Australian? The room is small and casual; it’s correct, but you’d still feel comfortable in a tee shirt. And the food? Seasonal, elegant in its simplicity, and completely flavor-forward.
The first course was a a quintet of tiny bites, beginning with a delicate little pile of orange sections topped with lime sorbet and ending with a single crisp mussel on an orange aioli.
Next there was a salad so small and gorgeous I wanted to wear it like broach.
The carrot soup – just a few little spoonfuls, was topped with a tiny sword of smoked parsnip, a crisped slice of serrano ham – and little green dots that swirled in the earthy flavor of carrot tops, the tang of chervil. It was a stunning expression of carrot, proof that a vegetable can have serious power.
Lobster crudo was another little jewel, another minuscule arrangement of color, flavor and texture, another balancing act that that managed to satisfy in just a couple of bites. Then a sliver of chicken terrine that looked like moss agate, snuggled up against a ferocious mustard ice cream. Three contrasts: temperature, texture, taste.
A fat raviolo of duck and smoked goose fat appeared, laced with lovely little red stripes of pickled chard stem. The final touch here was a dusting of grated duck egg yolk, a little miracle of molecular gastronomy.
Curtis clearly thinks in dramatic terms, and the menu was building, each course becoming larger than the one before in both size and flavor. We were exchanging subtlety for boldness, and as the flavors grew bigger, the presentation went in the opposite direction. We began with food for the eye and ended with food for the mouth: a slab of beautiful beef, a cube of beef cheek, broccoli, potatoes. Just a few bites, but they were big.
Cheese. Dessert. Wine. It’s all of a piece. What you sense is that this is a chef who knows exactly what he’s reaching for, a chef whose ultimate goal is simply to make you happy. And this is just the beginning: I can’t wait to see what Maude will be like once they all settle into the kitchen.
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