Two chefs pay tribute to the quicklime girl
In the fall when plants return
By harvest time she knows the score
Ripe and ready to the eye
Yet rotten somehow to the core
And they call her
Quicklime girl…Behind her back
Quicklime girl…Behind the bush
She’s the mistress of the salmon salt
“Mistress of the Salmon Salt”
from Tyranny and Mutation
by Blue Oyster Cult (1973)
At one restaurant, a menu with a photo of Christopher Walken in a leather jacket and shades greets me; the words “I got a fever, and the only prescription is…” appear below. The other restaurant ends my meal with a dessert that depicts the death of the Quicklime Girl. Intrigued? In this month’s Dish-Off, two chefs try to make meals—and sense—out of Blue Oyster Cult’s song “Mistress of the Salmon Salt.”
Executive Chef Jonathan Hunt of Boom Noodle may not be Christopher Walken, but he’s an interesting character in his own right. In a ramen-sampling race against time, Hunt traveled to Japan to build skills in cooking that cuisine. He is intense, eager both to learn and to please. For the Dish-Off, I ask chefs to prepare four dishes; Hunt serves seven, including two trios. I’ll focus on the salmon foursome.
A starter trio shows off salmon in various forms: salmon tartare with moromi miso (chunky, slightly salty miso that’s used as a condiment), crispy salmon chips that scoop up Boom’s popular edamame puree, and a buckwheat noodle roll punctuated with bubbly bursts of ikura (salmon eggs). All are solid. Following that is my favorite dish of the evening. “Quicklime girl” is the song’s main character; she is the mistress of the salmon salt who makes the plants “grow strong and tall.” Hunt’s quicklime tataki hits the nose as well as the mouth with its smokiness. The toro (from the belly and prized for its fattiness) is seared with lots of…fat. No wonder it wows me. I also enjoy the ribbony salad of microgreens, shaved bonito, and kabosu (a citrus fruit, like yuzu) ponzu. Sprinkled atop is salmon salt, made in house with dried salmon skin and Hawaiian sea salt.
Next is miso-broiled salmon that’s also moist and flavorful. Most intriguing is the white corn and pine nut kakiage—perhaps the closest thing imaginable to popcorn tempura, while a shishito pepper adds a little sweet/hot pop to the dish. Last is ochazuke, a typical meal-ender in Japan. Hunt joins us at the table and we talk about the history of the dish. Ocha means tea; the dish was originally made as tea poured over rice and pickles—an inexpensive way to fill up. As the quality of life increased, so did the quality of ochazuke ingredients. Boom’s is high quality. Hunt pours some delicious dashi (secret of success: the best possible konbu, or kelp) over my bowl of rice and salmon. Plum-like ume and slightly minty shiso further elevate the dish. While a dessert trio will follow, the ochozuke would be a fulfilling final course, as it’s a connection to the past, comfort food, and, in this case, one last taste of salmon and salt from Boom Noodle.
When I sit down at ART, the first thing I notice are scissors joining the silverware on the table. Chef Kerry Sear soon comes out with a wry smile, commenting that my song choice was rather morbid, with its harvest of life and harvest and death lyrics. “We juxtapose life and death in the dishes we serve you tonight,” he says, pointing to the scissors and adding, “In fact, during this meal, you’ll need to kill some things to eat them.” I’m almost wishing that my virgin green bloody Mary with salmon salt-rimmed glass is non-virgin, as murder wasn’t an anticipated part of my meal.
In homage to the band, Sear starts with Blue Point Oyster “Cultivation.” The raw (live) Blue Point has coconut lime granite, while the poached (dead) oyster is skewered on lemongrass and spiked with coconut cream—making it sweet like dessert. A basil plant breathes herbal life into the pair; snipping its leaves presents no problem to me. Same is true for the second course, though now I’m using my bare hands to tear apart the kaiware (baby radish). The dish, another “quicklime salmon,” lives up to the restaurant’s name, as it’s a gorgeous canvas with cured salmon, kaiware, ikura (included my night of dining, but replaced by slices of chicken egg for the photo), and she-crab vinaigrette. And more salmon salt; made in-house from air-dried, candied salmon skin and Murray River pink salt from Australia.
Playing off the “knees that jerk” lyrics, next up is jerk-spiced tenderloin. There’s also a lot of ocean action, a nod to the “Coast Guard” mention in the song. Spot prawns and geoduck were alive until killed in the kitchen; their simple preparations highlight their freshness. Crawfish and littleneck clams are atop the beef, reaching upward as if to reference the closing lyrics: “and necks like swans that seem to turn as if inclined to gasp or pray.” Garlic scapes and saffron potato purée are the harvest from the garden for this course.
Sear introduces Pastry Chef Ryan Witcher, who serves up the aforementioned deathly dessert, a true piece of art. Witcher made a tuile of the bottom half of a woman’s body, inserting it legs up in chocolate mousse cake surrounded by quicklime sauce. She’s sinking to her death; indeed, a white chocolate tombstone reads “R.I.P. Quicklime Girl.” Cocoa nibs surround the tombstone, acting as dirt at this “ripe and ready grave,” the dessert name borrowed from the lyrics. Alas, though, there’s again life accompanying death, as a salad of ripe fruit is the bed for a sprig of fresh mint. As BOC sang, “fertile graves it seems exist.” Never has death been so delectable—throughout the entire meal at ART.
- Trio Starter: Salmon tartare with kyuri and moromi miso, buckwheat noodle roll with ikura and dashi shoyu dipping sauce, and crispy salmon chips with ume yukari and edamame puree
- Salad: Quicklime salmon tataki with microgreens, shaved bonito, kabosu ponzu and smoked salmon salt
- Noodles: Hot and sour somen with black cod, heirloom tomatoes, Tokyo negi, mitsuba and dill
- Fish: Miso-broiled King salmon with white corn and pine nut kikiage, and shishito peppers
- Meat: Wagyu beef cutlet sandwich with wasabi fingerling potato salad
- Ochazuke: Wild sake, ume and shiso
- Dessert trio: Sake sorbet with Asian pear, chocolate passion fruit torte, raspberry mousse with honey caramel, and black sesame tuile
- Virgin green bloody Mary: in a salmon salt-rimmed glass
- Blue Point oyster “cultivation”: raw with coconut lime granite; poached with coconut cream and lemongrass – with living basil
- Quicklime cured salmon: baby radish, salmon roe, she-crab vinaigrette, salmon salt – with living radish sprouts
- Jerk spiced beef tenderloin: with crawfish, little neck clam, spot prawn, geoduck, garlic shoots, and saffron potato puree
- “Ripe and ready grave”: salad of ripe fruit, chocolate mousse cake, cocoa nibs, quicklime sauce
All photos in the post by Rina Jordan. (Click to enlarge them.)
Here are photos of the other dishes from this Dish-Off.
Note: Dish-Off reviews are based on announced visits. Restaurants get guidelines and choose what to serve according to the month’s theme.