Friday, March 14, 2008

a seat at the kitchen table (1)


There are birthday dinners. And then there are birthday dinners.

A friend who I regularly dine out with decided that for her birthday this year, she wanted to have an evening that mixed good food and entertainment. Her choice was Colborne Lane, a downtown restaurant known for dabbling in molecular gastronomy. Anything with a term like that applied to it is enough to pique my curiousity, so I quickly accepted the invite. It may also have marked the first time I would ever eat at a spot reviewed by the New York Times.

We ordered the Kitchen Table tasting menu, a 15-course sampler of the kitchen's wizardry. Among the seating options is a small room in the basement next to the kitchen, which we reserved to be close to the action.

A Window to the Kitchen
A window allowed us to see into the prep area, with half-a-dozen or so chefs carefully constructing dishes. The dessert chef was directly in front of us and we occasionally made faces or mimed questions for her. The room itself consisted a table for six (there were four in our group) with a wall of spices in the back. We assured they were labelled, but we kept pulling out the wrong ones.

After finishing off our cocktails, the parade of courses began. Note that course descriptions are not 100% accurate, as we lost track of all of the ingredients placed in front of us.

Dish 1
Dish 1: At first glance, it looked like a cherry tomato with bubbles. We looked at each other in slight disbelief, our eyes asking "this is it?" Turned out to be the first curveball of the evening, a carrot gel with ginger foam. This played havoc with our minds, as our brains wanted to believe we were dealing with a tiny red salad garnish.

Dish 2, On Ice
Dish 2: Next came a block of ice with a small crater carved into the top. Inside was tuna sashimi, ginger caviar, frozen soy sauce powder, radish, yuzu, crispy garlic and shiso. We oohhhed, we ahhhed, we dug in. I found the frozen soy interesting in a sweet/salty vein. All the ingredients were delicate and extremely tasty.

Two dishes in and we knew it was going to be a fun meal.

Dish 3 Dish 4
Dish 3 (left): Cheddar soup with peeled grapes and seasoned pear was light and flavourful, managing to avoid going down like a heavy weight. Jokes ensued about the job description of anyone hired specifically to peel grapes.

Dish 4 (right): The first of the evening's seafood dishes, a tender, perfectly-cooked scallop accompanied by crunchy fried shallots (French's fried onions they weren't) and frozen pearls of creme fraiche.

Dish 5
Dish 5: Squid with 40 seasonings, accompanied by caramelized peanut, asian pear, chinese sausage and mango sauce. We all agreed it was the least rubbery squid we had ever tasted.

Dish 6
Dish 6: Beets, beets and more beets. I have never been a fan of beets and this plate, while elegantly constructed, did nothing to change my opinion. The beet sponge was universally regarded as the lowlight of the meal, a noble experiment that didn't quite work - think beet-flavoured Nerf tennis ball. For my tastebuds, the saving grace was a goat cheese fritter. The chef later explained it was an experiment that he didn't expect to be a smashing success but was fun to create. I will give marks for the presentation, especially the thin strip of beet cellophane (maybe other veggies would be more agreeable done Fruit Roll-Up style).

Dish 7
Dish 7: The next course made up for the beets. Back on track with each course tasting better than the one before it, this plate consisted of black cod with a miso glaze, crispy tapioca, greens and a sesame panna cotta.

We all took a bite of the cod. Orgasmic sounds followed.

To use the immortal words of Linda Richman, "it was like buttah." The fish quickly melted in my mouth, an extremely pleasurable experience. Comments like "best fish I've ever tasted" were not uncommon around the table.

Dish 8, Intermezzo
Dish 8: At the halfway point we were presented the intermezzo, a glass containing sorbet, lemon curd, vanilla pearls, pomelo (which we debated the proper pronunciation of) and a "surprise". We figured the latter referred to the pink flecks in the glasses, which we soon discovered fizzed in our mouths.

The waiter revealed the surprise was cherry and watermelon Pop Rocks.

We tested the urban legend about the result of combining Pop Rocks, fizzy drinks (champagne in our case) and human tissue. I am pleased to report than none of us exploded.

The remaining courses will be served in Part 2. - JB

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