A Literal Recipe for Beef Cake?
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Saturday, September 08, 2007
I spent most of this last week in Atlanta for work, and had the opportunity to eat at some great spots. The highlight had to be Element, a "Gastro Lounge + Food Lab" from Chef Richard Blais. My dinner companion is a vegetarian, and although they never got my email about requesting a special menu for her, the kitchen agreed to improvise a tasting menu for the two of us on the spot. But vegetarians take note - they've got a vegan working in the kitchen, so if you gave them the 24-48 hours notice they prefer for vegetarians, I bet you'd get a really amazing meal.
We started off with a couple of cocktails - the LN2 (liquid Nitrogen) Margarita and the Anti-Oxidant-Tini. At first we kind of blew off the idea of the margarita - it's just a frozen margarita with a different freezing method, right? But our (excellent) waiter pointed out that the LN2 allows them to freeze the margarita without adding water in the form of ice - so you get the straight up alcoholic goodness without the watery finish. The Anti-Oxidant-Tini was rather fruit punch-ish (but in a good way), with citrus vodka, pomegranate juice and green tea.
Then we were off to the races with Bread and Butter - a thin crisp of bread topped with butter powder. Pretty standard molecular gastronomy stuff.
Next in the series of our many, many amuse bouches and "gifts from the chef" was a chorizo chip topped with chorizo powder, chocolate and cilantro. I loved the combination of the really excellent quality dark chocolate and the spicy salty chorizo. The veggie alternative for this was a taro chip with olive oil powder with the same chocolate and cilantro. Not quite as good, I was told, since it lacked the salty counterpoint. But we were really willing to give them quite a bit of leeway on the veggie menu, since we knew they were having to improvise.
Watermelon caviar with smoked salt. And some little bits of something herbal and green that we were never able to recognize. While fun, and not unpleasant, this was probably the least interesting thing we ate, and didn't actually taste much like watermelon. Fortunately, things went way up hill from there.
I wish I could show you the tomato ravioli, but alas, all you get is an empty bowl with the remnants of a glorious vinaigrette (olive oil and yuzu, i'm guessing). This was simple, but oh-so-delicious - a thin sheet of jicama around a cherry tomato, topped with the aforementioned glorious vinaigrette and fresh coriander. I assume this is a variation of the summer tomato "lasagna" listed on the a la carte menu. Have I mentioned that it was delicious?
Another "gift from the chef." As you can see, someone's having fun with the anti-griddle! A tangy and creamy frozen yogurt blini topped with a perfectly julienned slice each of black cherry and green olive, and a cilantro leaf. Yum. And since my friend was new to the whole "food science" universe, this and the watermelon caviar were good from the perspective of showing her some of the common tricks of the trade.
Oysters + Pearls. A raw kumamoto oyster topped with cantaloupe dipping dots. I thought the dots were a little too firmly frozen - I didn't like the icy crunch in my teeth. But once the warmed up a bit in my mouth, the combination of flavors was good. I don't much like cantaloupe as a fruit, but I've appreciated it in most of the savory applications I've had the opportunity to try. My friend just got a bowl of canteloupe dipping dots, but she felt they stood quite well on their own and appreciated that they were slightly salty as well as sweet.
A New Caprese Salad + Mozzarella Ravioli + Freeze Dried Pesto - red and yellow heirloom tomatoes, with spheres of soft melty mozzarella on top, balsamic drizzle and a nice freeze dried pesto. All the flavor of a good caprese salad, with a few food science twists. Tasty.
California Roll. This was one of my favorites. The roll was wrapped in soy paper, filled with blue crab in a mayonnaise sauce, crunchy tempura flakes and rich avocado and filled with an extraordinary honey mustard sauce. Delicious. Mmmm.
Bluefin Toro. A rich piece of fatty tuna, topped with some thinly sliced cucumber and microgreens, and dressed with a Thai influenced sauce with that balance of sour sweet salt and heat. The little red bits you see in the picture are tiny chili slices and packed a powerful (but not overpowering). The sauce was a creamy wasabi sauce of some sort. My friend got a watermelon steak in place of the fish and thought that was a great combination, as it emphasized that sweet source hot salt balance really well.
Grilled Octopus + Tandoori Spices + Egg Salad. Yum, yum, yum. The flavor of that grilled octopus (served atop a cube of cucumber) was great. As was the cherry chipotle dipping sauce. The egg (and potato salad) was good for mouth cooling purposes, but not especially interesting on its own. My friend had a piece of similarly seasoned tofu in place of the octopus, and was raving over it for the next couple of courses. She's always impressed by places that can season and cook tofu directly, and i expect this is what pushed her over to definitely wanting to come back to see what Element can do with advance notice.
Fresh Linguine + Sous Vide Egg Yolk + Smoked Bacon. I had been hoping we'd get this item off the regular menu, so I was pleased to see it come out of the kitchen. The portion was really too big for course number 11, but it was so tasty that I finished it all anyway. Perfectly cooked pasta, lovely lardons of bacon, bits of tomato, and of course, the perfectly cooked creamy runny egg yolk to make a tasty sauce.
And then we had our only serious gaffe of the night, which was a really unusually long wait between the linguine and our next course. At least a 20 minute wait. Now, given the heaviness of the linguine, this kind of worked to our benefit, but up until then the pacing had been perfect, so we had to wonder what had happened in the kitchen. But eventually our next course arrived.
And Aged Beef + Corn Puree + Lobster Mushroom + Blue Cheese Foam was well worth the wait. The dark line is a red wine reduction, and next to that, the intensely flavorful and quite substantial blue cheese foam. The corn puree was the highlight of this course - sweet and creamy and rich and delicious. We weren't quite sure it went with the rest of the flavors, but it was so damn good on its own, we weren't complaining. We especially appreciated the whimsy of the baby food jar and tiny spoon. My friend got two big pieces of lobster mushroom with hers instead of the meat.
Finally, onto dessert. We got a single plate of two different desserts, with sharing expected. (Perfectly fine with us.) First up, the Yuzu Tart + Sweet Tea Ice Cream + Mint Flavor. I love, love, love yuzu. So I was all over this dessert. All the flavors and textures played perfectly well together.
Chocolate Sorbet + Banana Guacamole was also lovely. Another liquid nitrogen trick, the chocolate sorbet had a hard frozen shell but a soft liquidy mousse inside. You can't go wrong with caramelized banana in my book, so that was a nice addition to the plate. The banana guacamole was finely diced slightly under ripe banana, so it had a nice sour tang and then quite a bit of heat from some other ingredient. It was a great combination on its own, and only improved when mixed with the chocolate sorbet. A very unique dessert, but a big winner.
Stuffed at this point, we paid the bill and started thinking about rolling ourselves out the door. When this glorious cheese plate comes out of the kitchen and is delivered to the table behind us, compliments of the chef. (They were friends of his.) "We can't eat this!" they exclaimed - he didn't like cheese, she was too full. Being the food geeks that we are, we were ogling this beautiful cheese selection, so they invited us to come and join them in nibbling at it. And even as full as we were, this was clearly an offer that could not be refused. So thanks again, Mike and Heather!
From bottom to top: fresh mozzarella + mango sauce (mango puree, dulce de leche and white truffle), Vallo Nostra + bagel chip and pine oile, Salted Ricotta + green olives + dried capers + parsley sauce, Queso de Mano + microgrees + cherry tomato + cherry chipotle sauce , Tennerone sprinkled with Ras el Nanut + coffee chocolate sauce, Matias + lingonberry preserves, and Valdeon sprinkled with Thai peppercorn + figs + red wine reduction.
This is by far the most beautiful cheese plate I've seen in my life. The menu has the words "ubiquitous cheese plate" scribbled in the margin beside it, but if only all cheese plates were like this one! If i lived in Atlanta, I'd be visiting Element often for a cocktail and cheese with friends. It will certainly be a must-do on my next trip, for dinner and cheese if I can manage it.
Prices are really reasonable - the tasting menu was only $65, and the a la carte menu has small plates starting at $7, and entrees are mostly in the high teens. That beautiful cheese course was only $17. The atmosphere is funky - dark lighting, hip music, waiters with piercings and cooks with blue hair and tattoos. We didn't check out the lounge upstairs, but I bet it's a good time too. Everybody went out of their way to make sure we had a good time - when I took a picture of the LN2 tank on our way out the door, our waiter insisted on making it a little more exciting for us.
1051 West Peachtree Street
Atlanta, GA 30309