Phair Game (Sound 2/09)

Sound eggs on chefs with a white chocolate theme

One restaurant replicated the old “Space Eggs” video game. Another served a white chocolate Space Needle. And a third put white chocolate in everything, including cauliflower soup and a scallop dish.

And so it was when Sound challenged three restaurants to create a menu based on Liz Phair’s song, White Chocolate Space Egg. While last month’s participants in the Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie Dish-Off predictably focused on the ingredients in the song title, I had no idea where this month’s competition would go. And given that I don’t really dig white chocolate, would this be a disaster? Surprisingly not, as all three restaurants surpassed my expectations, with the winner digging deep into the lyrics.

I knew little about Toscano when it won the dessert competition at Guest Chef on the Waterfront, which I helped judge last summer. It turns out that this Mediterranean restaurant is tucked away on the bottom floor of a Bellevue retirement community. Not the kind of place you’d expect to hear Liz Phair or anyone else rocking the sound system. When I “early-bird” the dinner, some of the elderly residents look on with curiosity as Chef Darin Leonardson and the extremely friendly staff explain how the dishes that come out of the kitchen are part of a competition.

Eggs play a prominent role in two of them. A beautiful, coddled egg highlights and dresses an apple, spinach and bacon salad. And a poached quail egg and caviar top wild Lummi Island salmon ceviche—a colorful affair as Leonardson plays off some lyrics, going beyond the white in the song title—and beyond the usual blandness of senior citizen cuisine.

The kitchen continues with color in a trio of soups, including pumpkin with cinnamon, and Peruvian purple potato. The quality impresses, and it crescendoes with pan-seared chicken breast atop macaroni-and-cheese corn cake, served with Swiss chard, caramelized tomato puree, and basil oil. “Wow, what a wonderful place to retire,” I’m thinking. Often-boring chicken breast is a great test of a kitchen’s skills, and they’ve gotten it right. I tear into well-crisped skin and succulent white meat, but unless white is the connection, I don’t see how the dish fits the theme. An odd-looking dessert, though, brings back the theme. Inspired by an old Apple II game, the plate of white chocolate eggnog tiramisu features a tuile cookie gun and a splattering of enemy “space eggs”—hence the game’s name. Fun. And it is made more fun while sipping some Aztecan fire cocoa.

Artemis is a cozy and charming Capitol Hill eatery. Chef Zach Millican takes a white chocolatey approach to the challenge while inventively incorporating “eggs” into each dish. I’m impressed with his risk-taking in what will turn out to be a very white meal that’s far from vanilla.

Celery root panna cotta is the dish that wows me most of anything I eat during this entire Dish-Off. I adore the creaminess of panna cotta, though this one has extras that elevate it to ecstasy. Steelhead roe brings bursts of the salty sea and pickled celery is a revelation, complementing the celery in the cream while adding crispiness and vinegary goodness. A sprinkling of white chocolate adds enjoyable sweetness. Put all this above a crunchy brioche crouton, and I’m experiencing taste and texture explosions.

I’m still celebrating when Millican brings a bowl containing a poached farm egg, hedgehog mushrooms, and cocoa nibs, and then pours in sweet nectar: cauliflower soup. The sweetness of the roasted cauliflower combines well with the white chocolate, and the cocoa nibs contribute slight bitterness. There’s similar synergy and potential for seared sea scallops with white chocolate, but here the chocolate seems like overkill, masking the inherent sweetness of the scallops. The dish’s sunchoke espuma and enoki mushrooms help round out the dish, but I wish the caviar was the real thing, as its saltiness would have been a welcomed counterpoint to the sweetness. Millican instead uses seaweed and squid ink to blacken tapioca to look like caviar, and at least earns points in striving toward sustainability. Still, it’s a fine dish, as is the meal-ending white chocolate rice pudding, served with Concord grape sorbet and black pepper tuile. For the theme, I can withstand a bigger hit of white chocolate in my dessert, though I love the sorbet.

I felt trepidation about inviting Il Fornaio to the competition, as I try to avoid chain restaurants—especially in mall settings. But I’m trying to expand my culinary horizons this year, especially since the theme requires chefs to go off-menu. Chef Franz Junga rises to the challenge, dissecting the song and coursing it out accordingly. The first two courses showcase the colors in the first two verses. For “orange and blue, green and pink,” I get a pair of soups: butternut squash with Danish blue cheese crouton, and winter green soup with fresh mozzarella that’s dyed pink—a payoff from a previous kitchen mistake when beet juice leaked into some mozzarella. Next, purple and gold beets (with spiced walnuts, arugula and gorgonzola the supporting cast) provide brilliant color as carpaccio for the second course and “purple, yellow, reddish-brown” verse.

This is just the start of the playfulness. Four different tastes of white truffled risotto—including one topped by a fried quail egg—pay tribute to the song’s final verse, “every corner has its favorite clown.” Playing with the recurring “every hollow” in the chorus, the entrée is osso buco; osso meaning bone and buco meaning hole, this veal shank derives its name from the bone marrow (the hole in the bone) in the cut. As a bone marrow lover, you can bet I hollowed it out—an unctuously primordial experience.

But the pièce de résistance comes last: the white chocolate space egg. Junga sets down a boom box so Liz Phair can serenade me during dessert of three white chocolate eggs filled with chocolate mousse, a white chocolate Space Needle towering above them, and a side of spiced white hot chocolate that’s delightful. It’s a triumphant end to a terrific meal.

All three restaurants impress me with their innovation and interpretation of the theme. On the heels of Seastar’s victory last month, Leonardson and his team at Toscano prove that quality Eastside dining is no fluke. This one’s a hidden gem well worth seeking out. The same is true for Artemis. Millican is the new chef there and one I’ll be watching and cheering, as his dishes were most intriguing—with two of the tastiest in the competition. But Dish-Off is about overall taste, plating and creativity/originality, and this tilts the decision to Il Fornaio. Junga offers good reason for mall and chain skeptics like me to take another look. Job well done, and to all the chefs, in appreciation of the effort, I echo the closing words of White Chocolate Space Egg: “I’ll see you around.”

Note: Dish-Off reviews are based on announced visits. Restaurants get guidelines and choose what to serve according to the month’s theme.

The menus

Toscano

Wild Lummi Island ceviche

Wild Lummi Island ceviche with poached quail egg, caviar, and pepper coulis

Soup trio (pumpkin, wild mushroom, Peruvian purple potato)

Soup Trio (pumpkin, wild mushroom, Peruvian purple potato)

Apple, spinach and bacon salad with red onion, candied walnut, coddled egg, and saffron cracker

Pan-seared chicken breast with mac & cheese corn cake, Swiss chard, and caramelized tomato puree

White chocolate eggnog tiramisu with satsuma orange, cranberry, and tuile cookie

Toscano on Urbanspoon

Artemis

Celery root panna cotta with steelhead roe, pickled celery and white chocolate

White chocolate cauliflower soup with poached farm egg, hedgehog mushrooms, and cocoa nibs

Seared sea scallops with sunchoke espuma, enoki mushrooms, and squid ink caviar

Rice pudding with Concord grape sorbet, white chocolate, and black pepper tuile

Note: Sadly, Artemis is temporarily closed, and working on reinventing itself.

Artemis Café & Bar on Urbanspoon

Il Fornaio

First verse: “Orange and blue, green and pink”

Butternut squash soup with Danish blue cheese crouton; winter green soup with fresh mozzarella crouton

Second verse: “Purple, yellow, reddish-brown”

Beet carpaccio with spiced walnuts, arugula, and gorgonzola

Final verse: “Every corner has its favorite clown”

White truffled risotto with four garnishes

Chorus: “Every hollow…”

Osso buco with gremolata

Finale: The White Chocolate Space Egg

Chocolate mousse in white chocolate eggs; served with spiced white hot chocolate

Il Fornaio on Urbanspoon

Tags:

#Artemis
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#IlFornaio
,
#Toscano

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