Alone at the Top (Sound/City Arts 12/09)

Over the course of this year, “Dish-Off” challenged chefs at 28 restaurants to create dishes inspired by songs with ingredients in their titles. The results were spectacular, from Olivar’s Weezer-inspired Pork and Beans, to Il Fornaio’s White Chocolate Space Eggs—delivered to the table as the Liz Phair song played in the background.

For this year-end playoff, we invited the three top performers back. They each had to choose a song that had some personal meaning and then create a dish inspired by it. Surprisingly, detachment turned out to be a theme of all three songs—though with delightful dishes attached to them. To which would I attach myself most?

Cafe Juanita
Song: “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” by Joanna Newsom
Dish: Alaskan King crab with tart green apple sorbetto and crab butter powder

Chef Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita participated in April’s “Gizzards, Scrapple and Tripe” Dish-Off, in which her love of organ meats made her shine—especially in the meal-ending apple and gizzard tarte Tatin. She went a bit obscure for the year-end challenge, choosing an intriguing song yielding an intriguing dish. Smith calls Newsom a genius, explaining, “At first she sounds pretty and childlike, but ultimately she and her music are elegant and sophisticated.” Like the song, the dish is one of contrasts: sweet and sour in the sorbetto (Newsom sings of being “celebrated sourly”), with textural and temperature differences (playing on the lyric “I am cold”) and a gutsy pairing of entrée and dessert elements. With just three components, the dish is exactly as Smith describes Newsom: simple, executed to technical perfection. Both performers display wit and whimsy. And the crab, of course, strikes a nautical theme. While life on the sea is isolating, and Newsom hints at separation, dishes like Smith’s show me why she has such a great following.

Boat Street Cafe
Song: “Autumn Leaves” by Edith Piaf
Dish: Braised pork shank with potato pave, sauteed porcini mushrooms, and Comice pears

Chef Renee Erickson’s song choice is shot through with a sense of separation as well: Piaf’s “Autumn Leaves” is a romantic, bilingual song fitting for the French-meets-Pacific Northwest Boat Street Café. Piaf croons, “I miss you most of all / My darling, when autumn leaves start to fall.” Fallen leaves are the perfect metaphor for lost love; for Erickson, the song “mostly has me thinking about the change of seasons and how it makes me think of romantic, rich, rustic foods that I long for this time of the year.” Erickson won me over in the May Dish-Off with her play off of The Rutles’ “Cheese and Onions,” which featured a beyond-juicy pork chop served with leek gratin. She does it again here with a pork shank with meat, like the leaves in the song, simply falls—here falling off the bone and onto the brick-patterned potatoes. The mushrooms and pears are perfect fall ingredients, and the brown hues of the dish add to a sense of beauty, just like the beauty of Piaf’s voice and song. Erickson’s cooking, to put it briefly: lovely and lyrical.

ART Restaurant
Song: “Don’t Leave Me Now” by Pink Floyd
Dish: Loin of lamb, herb foam, balsamic beets, pearl root vegetables, vanilla yams, caviar cake, lamb jus

Chef Kerry Sear of ART demonstrated his artfullness when tackled Blue Oyster Cult’s “Mistress of the Salmon Salt” for the September Dish-Off. He does so again with his dish interpreting Pink Floyd’s eerie “Don’t Leave Me Know.” The song is from the album The Wall, which is about a character named Pink Floyd who has lots of loss in his life: he lost his father to World War II, his wife to another lover, and his soul to materialism. “In this song, Pink’s a rock star,” Sear explains, presenting me the dish. “So on the left side of the plate, showing the extravagance of fame and fortune, there are rock star ingredients beautifully prepared and plated: gorgeous cuts of fine lamb, caviar cake, herb foam, perfect pieces of vegetables, and so on.” In the middle of the plate is layered bread, reflecting the wall of isolation that Pink is building, brick-by-brick. The right side, says Sear, “is a garbage dump…the leftover scraps of food that look like they were ‘put through a shredder’ and simply thrown on the plate without care of looks—representing Pink’s spiral into insanity.” The song’s instrumentals contribute to a hauntingly hollow feeling, and the lyrics (“Why are you running away?”) provide powerful insight into Pink’s depressed and detached state. Sear’s dish captures the song visually and emotionally, leaving me with a haunting restaurant experience—one worthy of clinching the Dish-Off title.

Here is the article as it appeared in City Arts.

Here is more about Chef Kerry Sear, and additional dishes he created, inspired by The Wall.

All photos in the post by Rina Jordan. (Click to enlarge them.)

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



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