Nuts for Forbidden Fruits (Sound/City Arts 10/09)

Song on this Month’s Menu:

“Fruit Nut”
from Apple Venus Volume 1
by XTC (1999)

Some people say
That I am out of my tree
Or just a strawberry fool
Someday they’ll see
‘Til then I’ll blow you a raspberry
‘Cos apples and pears are me

So I’m tending my fruit
And I don’t give a hoot
‘Cos it keeps me sane, it keeps me sane

Dish-Off challenges chefs in Seattle-area restaurants to create multi-course menus, a la Iron Chef, based on a given theme. This year, I’ve dealt the chefs songs with two food items in the title, enabling them to use those ingredients or, better yet, to interpret the songs’ lyrics artistically. The results have been fascinating, the meals sometimes mind-boggling. Harvest Vine and Café Juanita put organ meats in all courses for the “Gizzards, Scrapple and Tripe” (by The New Duncan Imperials) Dish-Off. At Toscano, I enjoyed their rendition of Liz Phair’s “White Chocolate Space Egg.” And just last month, ART dished up a ghoulish graveyard scene based on Blue Oyster Cult’s “Mistress of the Salmon Salt.”

This month’s participants are an interesting pairing. It’s a battle in Belltown, if you will. Ashley Merriman of Branzino is a contestant on this season’s Top Chef: Las Vegas (along with Robin Leventhal, who cooked up creative comfort food at now-closed Crave for one of last year’s themes) and is transitioning in a move to New York. Spur’s Dana Tough and Brian McCracken are garnering rave reviews in local and national publications for their gastropub and, the week I visited, were opening the speakeasy-style Tavern Law in Capitol Hill.

Need more accolades? This is a challenge featuring protégés of Maria Hines—the most recent recipient of the highly coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest—the restaurant world’s equivalent of the Oscars.

The song for this month’s Dish-Off is XTC’s “Fruit Nut.” It’s a dorky ditty that borders on novelty, a faux-orchestral effort from the album Apple Venus Volume 1, which celebrates fruits and flowers throughout its tracks. The Spur chefs call the song nutty, while Branzino’s says its sound and lyrics are self-indulgent.

That’s an interesting choice of words. While “Fruit Nut” appears to be an ode to an English gardener, the sex educator (my other profession) in me can’t help but wonder if “tending my fruit” might have another meaning—especially when followed by phrases like “spraying my buds,” and “blow you a raspberry,” “keeping me sane,” and “the wife can’t complain.”

It’s with that whimsical mindset that Merriman’s simply named “Spaghetti” course intrigues me at Branzino. I applaud her self-described “liberal interpretation of fruit,” dressing her homemade pasta with tomatoes, capers and olives to expand the definition beyond fruit we normally consider. It’s a sensual dish, with perfectly crisped garlic chips spicing up the brininess and, indeed, the fruitiness of the sauce. And that’s when I’m struck that, as Merriman eventually says, this is a broken-down spaghetti alla puttanesca.

“Puttanesca” means “of the whores.” History indicates that prostitutes in Italy were known for making this spicy, tangy, somewhat salty pasta dish. Some say it’s because it could be quickly prepared between clients, others say it was made for the waiting clients, while yet others say that the intense aroma would lure men into the brothels from the street. On top of that, black olives are said to have an aphrodisiacal quality, increasing the female libido. And perhaps the male’s as well? I find myself whorishly devouring this simply delectable dish. Consider me lured.

Speaking of sex, I admire Merriman for her rights advocacy. Pigeonholed by pointed editing, she comes across in Top Chef as the political activist when she discusses her discomfort as a lesbian cooking for a bachelor and bachelorette who are privileged to enter the marriage institution that’s closed to her. Still, she wants to celebrate the couple and the love between them, performing professionally while poignantly demonstrating the unfairness that she and same-sex couples can’t (yet) legally validate their lives in the same way.

Merriman incorporates fruit and nuts into the other courses, and her dishes are solid. Peaches, in season, complement the natural sweetness of scallop (crudo) for a doubly sweet sensation that’s divine. The basil and arugula are a bit nutty, while the hazelnuts are truly nutty. Lost to me are the ground almonds accompanying roasted garlic, herbs, and slight nutty cocoa nibs in the duck confit, but the just-arrived huckleberries make a fine substitution for the previously planned raspberries.

Going from light to heavy, Merriman offers an intermezzo of blueberry sorbet. In the context of Seattle’s ice cream boom, hers is a highlight. The blueberry flavor is vivid and wonderfully tart, and while I’m not usually a fan of foam (really, do we need Sriracha foam that has no bite to it?), the preserved lemon foam is bright, and a complement to both the ice cream and the lemon shortbread. Referencing the song, Merriman tells me she was tempted to make a strawberry fool, but anticipating fall publication, instead found a fine pear to pair with a walnut tart which ends the meal in a most nutty fashion.

“Nutty” is the operative word at Spur. I first met Tough and McCracken at a Rising Stars event where they struck me as mad scientists deviously dishing out beef carpaccio with deep-fried béarnaise. Deep-fried béarnaise? Like little kids with chemistry kits, they’ve developed quite a reputation for their culinary concoctions, which can quickly disappear from the restaurant’s blackboard menu.

The chefs explain their goal for the “Fruit Nut” challenge. Reading the lyrics and listening to the song, they found it “nutty” and tried to capture that on two levels: using foods—not necessarily nuts—with a nutty taste, and making dishes “nutty” in texture and flavor combinations.

For example, foie gras, the starter, has a nutty flavor, as does the accompanying basil. I don’t usually enjoy a mousse-like preparation (I find it typically dilutes the flavor), as I prefer a seared lobe, but this retains a strong foie gras taste. They serve the foie with cherries, the delight of Washington state; I love the choice of lesser-known Lamberts, with tartness that adds an interesting element to the dish.

Spur: Braised pork bellyThe combination of fruit and protein continues with pork belly. Fat left on (it’s blasphemy to trim it off), the belly is beautifully braised and paired with Globe peaches. I especially like the plating on a bed of creamy corn pudding that’s kissed with a touch of brown butter which, yes, is nutty. Tough and McCracken follow this with frozen chocolate mousse that has the only “real” nut of the night: some almonds, as well as compressed blackberry and blackberry gel tucked in the middle of the tantalizingly textured mousse.

But the standout dish at Spur is “Local King Figs.” This arrives between the foie and pork courses, but can very well be dessert. The Kings are the last of the season (we compete with birds, which get to them quickly), and feature the nuttiness of arugula and speck (porky goodness that alternates between tantalizingly sweet and salty, as well as soft and brittle), the tang of chevre, and the sparkly pop of champagne vinegar.

Figs are a seductive fruit, long associated with fertility, sex and love (come to think of it, Venus of the album’s title is a goddess associated with love, beauty and fertility)—some would say since Adam and Eve adorned themselves with fig leaves after eating the forbidden fruit. Whole figs have a phallic connotation in Japan and some Arabic countries, while open figs remind many of female sex organs; the act of a man breaking open a fig and eating it in front of his lover has been considered deeply erotic. Fig trees are revered. In fact, in some southern European countries, guests throw figs instead of rice at newlyweds, as a sign of fertility. Many have claimed that figs are a powerful sexual stimulant.

I know I’m turned on by the creamy consistency of Spur’s figs. They’re oozing sticky sweetness. Like the mousse of foie and chocolate, the fat of the pork belly, and the pudding of corn, the figs are meltingly amazing. I polish off the ones on my plate, and feel gluttonous in my desire for more.

Have the sins of sex and food gotten to me? Perhaps I’m nutty for sensing sensuality and sexuality in the “Fruit Nut” song, and in my meals at Branzino and Spur. It might not have been the chefs’ intent, but it was surely the outcome. Like the song says, you might think “I’m out of my tree or just a strawberry fool.” With meals like this that make me happy, “I don’t give a hoot.”

The menus

Branzino

Scallop Crudo
Yellow peach, hazelnut, arugula, basil

Spaghetti
Sweet 100 tomatoes, capers, olives

Duck Confit
Local huckleberries, treviso, cocoa nib

Blueberry Sorbet
Lemon shortbread, preserved lemon foam

Walnut Tart
Molasses, pear, crème fraiche espuma

Spur

Hudson Valley Foie Gras
Lambert cherry, feuilletine, basil

Local King Figs
Speck, chevre, champagne vinegar

Braised Pork Belly
Washington corn, brown butter, Globe peach

Frozen Chocolate Mousse
Blackberry, almond, honey tuile

Branzino photos in the post by Rina Jordan. Spur photos in the post by Keith Cottrill. (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.

Further note: October marked the merger of Sound magazine with City Arts magazine. As a result of the merger, Dish-Off was edited down to one dish per restaurant (the future format), with a winner designated without my consent. I have chosen to share the write-up, above, as originally intended – though in unedited format. Also, note that Ashley Merriman is no longer affiliated with Branzino.

Branzino on Urbanspoon

Spur Gastropub on Urbanspoon

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