A Great Chef Returns – For a Moment

October 23, 2015

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The first time I ate Laurent Gras’ food, I was hooked.  It was at Peacock Alley in the Waldorf Astoria- a ridiculous restaurant which, in those days (the mid-nineties), still had a harp player plucking away at the strings.  But despite the old fashioned setting, I can still remember the precision of the cooking and how fascinated I was by the flavors. I was dazzled.

Not surprising.  Gras was young, but he’d already been Chef de Cuisine at Alain Ducasse’s flagship 3-star restaurant.  He soon left Peacock Alley for Fifth Floor in San Francisco, and then went on to L2O in Chicago, gathering stars as he went.  And then, to everyone’s surprise and disappointment, he left the kitchen and devoted himself to…. riding his bicycle.  Really.

He’s back in the kitchen for a few days at Chef’s Club by Food and Wine, and although I was only in New York for a single night, I made a beeline for the restaurant.  I’m so glad I did.  Gras is still great.

It’s an a la carte menu, and we chose to start our meal in a fairly straightforward manner. You can see it at the top, a delicate clump of freshly made cheese, crowned with a tangle of seaweed.  After that, the flavors became increasingly more complex.

 

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This is Gras’ version of brandade de morue – salt cod that’s traditionally whipped with potatoes to make a kind of wonderful mush.  Gras separates the flavors – and textures – so you have a symphony of sensations that go crashing into each other with startling intensity. The caviar on top frames the character of the humble salted fish in much the same way those elegant smoked gelee ribbons remind you that salt cod is a preserved food, one that’s meant to last.  I couldn’t stop eating, greedily wiping the bowl to scrape up every last bit.

 

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Matsutake mushrooms with green papaya?  Is he crazy?  Not at all. This is a little essay on the nature of the mushroom.  On the right the matsutake have been thinly sliced, dotted with bottarga and interlaced with slivers of green papaya which shows off the  slick, fresh, slightly astringent side of the mushroom’s character.  But the baby mushrooms on the left are left whole and tossed with sliced okra, which brings out the soft cozy side of their personality.  It’s a sly presentation; the basil seeds in the back have been dropped into water, which makes them exude a wonderful protective goo.  Eating it is a reminder that those raw slices of okra are totally lacking in slime.

 

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This sad shot does not do justice to the single finest piece of octopus I’ve ever eaten. Tender. Tasty. And totally enhanced by the scattering of sea beans on the top, the coconut curd on the right and that heap of crisp black olive crumbs. The home-fermented chile paste adds a lovely touch. I don’t think I’ll ever eat another slice of octopus without remembering that coconut.

 

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Chicken.  Just chicken.  But it’s been rubbed with honey and sumac, and cooked until the skin is so crisp it crackles, while the flesh beneath is juicy, tender, filled with flavor.  A chicken that startles you with its sheer deliciousness. And proof, if you need it, that this chef can make even the simplest dish seem utterly new.

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