Sound‘s Search for the Year’s Top Chef
The World Series, an amazing election, and now time to crown a “top chef.” The three best “Dish-Off” winners of the year were willing participants in a playoff, but what about a theme? I wanted something abstract, and with Sound a music magazine…how about “Rock ‘n’ Roll”? When the competing chefs asked what that meant, I simply said: “You show me.”
I laugh aloud upon entering Joule and seeing a jewel case (get it?) containing the evening’s menu, with track numbers as courses. Very clever! “Presenting Artists” Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi serve up a play on words, starting with “Rock-a-fella” oysters (with pork belly adding crispiness and tantalizing fattiness) and sardines a-“Spring Rollin’” (dippable in Romesco sauce with currants and raisins)—illustrating why Joule won July’s “East Meets West” Dish-Off with, as I wrote, “innovation and spark.”
I see that spark even more in the “Rock Fish & Chips.” This ain’t pre-fab fish sticks, but instead the whole fish, from head to tail, with skin clinging to meat clinging to bone—and all worth picking at. I’m enjoying this and the wonderful sides as I glance again at the jewel case, which explains that rock is a metaphor meaning to shake up or disturb, and that food at Joule “pushes the boundaries and your comfort zone” with “unusual ingredients and huge flavors.” Yes, indeed.
And rock they do with “Bim! Boom! Bap!” I’ve had bibimbap many times, but this dolsot and overall dish are literally and figuratively hot. What a difference high-end ingredients make. The Kobe-style steak’s marbling is fantastic; mix in the great rice, mushrooms, salt, and cooked-in-the-bowl cured yolk (bibimbap means “stirred rice” in Korean), and this course is a winner that rocks my world—though rice repetition makes it overshadow the black rice pudding dessert (creamy and smooth, with a “Forbidden Treasure” of hidden pepper) that follows.
Next up is Inn at Langley, winner of August’s “Escape from Seattle” Dish-Off for offering “an idyllic island experience…[where] course after course has imagination.” Chef Matt Costello, a self-proclaimed “music geek,” tells me he doesn’t want to do Elvis’ fried peanut butter and banana sandwich (especially since his whole dining room is eating the very same menu!), so he paired personally meaningful songs with related food, making for a thought-provoking meal.
As always, there’s a big emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients, from the “End of the Season” tomatoes to the “Now You’re Gone” pears. Oh, these tomatoes: bruschetta with a deep tomato (anchovy-boosted) flavor, sorbet with toasted seaweed, a shot of tomato wine both sweet and tangy, and an heirloom cherry tomato salad with gorgeous colors. The multi-course meal has many highlights, including a pair of foie preparations with huckleberries that are gustatory guilty pleasures. And while I’m usually “ho-hum” about halibut, Costello cooks it just right, plated with his always perfect, local Penn Cove mussels, and baby limas and Brussels sprouts that are both adorable and flavorful.
In many ways, the cinnamon quail epitomizes Costello’s approach. The bird is gamey in a good way, but the clove and honey marinade adds sweetness, while the chanterelle mushroom stuffing adds heartiness. Costello manages to put a thoughtful and sometimes unexpected touch of nature into each dish; in this case, a little bit of leeks below and candied roses atop it all (hence, the “Rose Parade”). Delicate and decadent.
Crush won May’s “Pork Belly and Beyond” Dish-Off, and Chef Jason Wilson explained he also wanted to go beyond Elvis’ sandwiches to get at the essence of rock ‘n’ roll. I had described his restaurant as “a house of wit and whimsy”; would he rock the house with this performance? Yes, starting immediately with a trio of oyster, kampachi tartare and hamachi crudo playing the parts of “Live, Raw & Uncut.”
Then, as the next course arrives, I almost expect to hear: “Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones.” These veal sweetbreads in chicken skin are sauced to show movement on the platter. True artistry. But also scrumptious: the skin adding crispiness (while still retaining gelatinous goodness) contrasting with the sweetbreads’ softness. And oh how I love often-underappreciated skin and organs! (This may be why my cholesterol doubled during this year of reviews.)
“Pearl Jam” is Wilson’s tribute to the band that went from local grunge-clubber to national arena-filler. Slow-poached in butter that softens it while maximizing an ocean taste, this is the best lobster of my life—and the pearl pasta is wonderfully bubbly. The decadence continues with “Paint It Black,” a dark dessert with chocolate sauce paint-brushed across the plate. And then the grand finale: “After the Show” has two powders running up the long sides of a plate, with apple “razors” and a pastry “straw” in the middle. At the other end of the plate, earl grey tea chocolates and Assam black tea salted caramels. The ultimate dilemma, Wilson says, for those “tottering between sobriety and not.”
I loved the encore performances—all playful and fun—at these three restaurants, and remain a fervent fan of all. Joule’s as sweet as smooth jazz, while Inn at Langley swings from classic to contemporary; both places hit all the high notes. But it was Crush that really interpreted rock ‘n’ roll best, with each course conveying a musical message. I would have liked more vegetables to round out the meal, but even that seemed to capture the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, and is part of what I like about Crush. Sure, they serve great soups and salads, but for this challenge, it was headbangingly thoughtful food that screamed “rock and roll all night, and party everyday.” A kiss to Crush, where Jason Wilson’s rockin’ performance earns him accolades as our top chef of the year.
Note: Dish-Off reviews are based on announced visits. Restaurants get guidelines and choose what to serve according to the month’s theme.
Rock-a-fella Oysters, Crispy Pork Belly, Oyster Cream, Watercress
Spring Rollin’: Marinated Sardine, Spicy Romesco, Caramelized Fennel
Rock Fish & Chips, Gribiche, Malt Vinegar Shallot, Fingerling Potato
Bim! Boom! Bap! Kobe Flat Iron, Cured Yolk, Sweet Chili Sauce
Forbidden Treasure: Black Rice Pudding, Coconut Cream, Chili in Syrup
Inn at Langley
Salad (The Kinks, End of the Season):
Tomatoes Many Ways
Appetizer (Velvet Underground, Sweet Jane):
Free-fed Foie Gras with Huckleberries
Shellfish (X, Burning House of Love):
Scallop with Apple Parsnip Chutney and Burnt Butter
Seafood (Rites of Spring, Deeper Than Inside):
Halibut with Mussels, Baby Limas and Brussels Sprouts
Poultry (Elliott Smith, Rose Parade):
Cinnamon Quail with Mushroom Stuffing and Candied Roses
Entrée (Holly Golightly, Wherever You Were):
Venison with Juniper Crust and Red Wine Chocolate Sauce
Cheese (The Fiery Furnaces, Tropical Iceland):
Whipped Camembert with Avocado and Guava
Dessert (Detroit Cobras, Now You’re Gone):
Three Tastes of Pear
Live, Raw & Uncut:
Kushi Oyster and Melon Foam, Kampachi Tartare, & Hamachi Crudo with Shiso Vinegar and Fines Herbs
The Rolling Stones:
Chicken-Fried Veal Sweetbreads and 7-Grain Mustard Aioli
Lobster Pearl Pasta, Butter-Poached Lobster, Cucumber Jam
Paint It Black:
Salted Caramel Banana Mousse Chocolate Cake
After the Show for the Hardcore and the Tea Totters:
Apple, Prosciutto & Champagne or Black Tea & Milk Caramels