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Tomato season is when the freaks come out. The farmers markets are filled with them: bloated, blood-red specimens that look as if someone over-inflated a kidney with a tire pump; small, almost mathematically symmetrical orbs that radiate light like pocket-size stars; lumpy, misshapen beasts that, when you cut into them, appear as if they have their own convoluted intestinal tracts.
These are the heirloom tomatoes of summer, in all their glorious, gangly genetic variation. They are the prime reason many of us wander the markets in August and September, looking for paper plates piled with slices of Red Brandywines, Green Zebras, Cherokee Purples, Yellow Peaches, Black Krims, and Big Bens. For me, eating freshly picked tomatoes, sliced and generously salted, is as much a ritual of summer as squeezing deli mustard onto a dirty water dog at the ballpark or pressing camp-fire marshmallows and a thick hunk of dark chocolate between two squares of graham cracker.
The tomato is the ultimate chameleon, adaptable to many situations, which is probably why we love it so. I cannot think of a single fruit or vegetable as versatile as the tomato—from the little acidic bursts of the Gold Nugget cherry to the Brix-busting sweetness of the Brandywine beefsteak. These are fruits that can smell of vegetables, like a sexier, red-lipstick cousin of the Mexican papaya; they’re also fruits packed with pectin and seeds, which you can, as José Andrés famously showed us, remove from an individual locule as if scooping out nature’s own jelly. Tomatoes can brighten up a salad, add a slice of umami juiciness to a sandwich, smother our pastas in sweet reduced goodness, and even tart up our cocktails.
Chefs, I imagine, look forward to tomato season the same way cabbies look forward to convention season: The riches are short-lived but sweet. And yet every year, despite this bounty of color and flavor, chefs serve up the same old plates of sliced heirloom salads, starter bowls of chilled gazpacho, and polite dollops of tomato jams, as if the fruit were too fragile to assume more arduous tasks. Now, I understand that cooks don’t want to tamper excessively with such a magnificent ingredient, but sometimes I’d like someone to take a brickbat to the tomato (metaphorically speaking, of course), just to see exactly how much this precious globe can take before it loses all identity and individuality.
With the latest version of his 20 Bites menu at Poste Moderne Brasserie, in which every one of the bite-size plates features some form of the tomato, chef Robert Weland sort of splits the difference: He both exalts the fruit in its pure, God-given form, and searches for ways to doctor it to serve the greater good of—God forbid!—another ingredient, all without losing its essential tomato-ness.
“We don’t want to manipulate them too much,” Weland says. “We don’t want to change them too much.”
Weland’s a purist with an experimenter’s heart. Of all the chefs toeing the local/seasonal line, Weland may be the most dedicated, part cook and part garden geek. He’s turned the back patio at Poste, with the surprising blessing of the Kimpton hotel chain, into a jungle of potted plants and herbs. During this season, his fifth to plant tomatoes, he seeded more than a dozen different heirlooms, including Old Virginia reds, Persimmons, Hawaiian Pineapples, White Currants, Egg Yolks, Furry Yellow Hogs, and Great Whites. He has come to understand a lot about these finicky plants, such as the humbling fact that their fruits won’t set if temperatures refuse to dip below 70 degrees Fahrenheit during D.C.’s infernal summers. One day, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that Kimpton has purchased several acres of downtown real estate so that Weland can plant his own tomato farm; diners could pay an extra $100 to ride in the tractor to harvest the evening’s crop.
In all frankness, Weland really could use more gardening space. Between plants that didn’t set properly and those with limited yields, the chef has had to supplement his patio harvests with tomatoes from Tuscarora Organic Growers in Pennsylvania and the Farm at Sunnyside in Virginia’s Rappahannock County. Only a quarter of the dishes I recently sampled at Poste featured tomatoes from the restaurant’s garden, which tells you something about the current 20 Bites tasting menu: This feast has a junkie-like appetite for tomatoes, even though Weland purposely limits seating at the kitchen bar to four customers a night, and even though every diner must reserve a space well in advance to ensure that the kitchen can prep for this smorgasbord of summer fruit.
I’m not about to bore you with the details of all 20 courses. My reluctance has nothing to do with the fact that I ordered the optional rosé wine pairings, as selected by sommelier/manager Daniel Lobsenz, and may have fuzzy recall of every plate. Even if I could regurgitate all the necessary facts, I wouldn’t want to deconstruct the entire menu, which strikes me as both pedantic and punishing. (How many folks, after all, will actually plunk down $85 for this tomato revue, let alone care to hear about someone else’s meal?)
But I do want to highlight a few dishes to emphasize some of the ways Weland uses heirlooms on his menu—or at least the ways I experienced his use of the tomatoes. The first was artful and simple: It was a small tomato garden brought right to our table. Allow me to explain. The waitress set a translucent brick on our table embedded with a row of thin, erect wires. The kitchen impaled a half moon of Peach tomato, two halves of a Red Currant, a string of vine-ripened Yellow Currants, and even a miniature Brandywine onto those wires, each positioned at different heights, so the overall effect was of tomatoes floating in space. The ticklish presentation served a straight-forward purpose —to give us a small sampling of the heirloom’s great variety, from the firm, mild Yellow Currant to the soft, sweet pleasures of the Peach. You could choose to season each fruit with one of three provided salts or some olive oil, but that was the extent of Weland’s manipulations.
Compare that to the chef’s approach to a “garden heirloom tomato salad,” which was barely a salad at all. He laid four heirloom slices, including a wedge each of Green Zebra and Brandywine, on an almost invisible layer of tomato gelee and promptly crowded them with a runny mound of creamy Burrata, scoops of tomato and olive oil sorbets, a small pile of olive crumbs, and garnishes of Thai basil and asparagus fronds. It was an altogether heady experience as these warring ingredients negotiated a peace right on my tongue, the acids and salts searching for common ground with the sugars, the chilled sorbets warming up to the room-temperature tomatoes.
Pairing tomatoes with watermelon is far more common, of course—though it’s just as tough to explain why the two are such superb partners. Weland paired the fruits twice during the course of my dinner. My favorite was his deceptively plain skewer of watermelon and a single red currant. The deliciousness was in the details: The watermelon was actually a compressed, flavor-packed square of the watery fruit; the skewered ingredients were collectively drizzled with a simple syrup infused with lime and sprinkled with a dusting of Espelette. All told, it made for a refreshing kick of sweetness, dominated neither by the watermelon nor by the tomato, but somehow a balanced hybrid, the sum of which was blasted to the back of my throat by the French pepper. “When things ripen at the same time,” Weland says about the seamless melding of the two summer fruits, “there’s something that’s keeping them together.”
Of Weland’s meatier courses, the one that stood out was the pork belly BLT, which sounds painfully obvious until you consider the wider view—namely, that two other courses were marred by either a lack of acid (the king salmon with tomato tartar and chive sauce) or a poor protein (the soft shell crab had started to harden into leather). But even if the BLT were competing on a level playing field, it would have blown back the competition; its pork belly was sous-vided for 48 hours and placed atop a thick slice of juicy Brandywine, which itself sat on a nutty hunk of house-made sunflower bread slathered with a spicy aioli and decorated with a small leaf. This was more than a gourmet take on classic comfort food; this was the culinary equivalent of playing “This Land Is Your Land” through AC/DC’s stack of Marshalls.
The final course, in its own way, returned the meal back home, where it belonged. Weland created a goat-cheese cheesecake, in which he substituted one form of “cherry topping” for another. His soft, almost liquidy cheesecake was served in a preserve jar and decorated with small currants, as if the chef were daring you to think about the tomatoes as fruits, and not some bastard vegetable masquerading as fruit. It’s a good challenge. I mean, if Weland’s mother, the inspiration for this dessert, could dump canned syrupy cherries on top of her cheesecake without reproach, why can’t her son do the same with freshly picked garden tomatoes? The former, I’d argue, is far more freakish than the latter.
Poste Moderne Brasserie, 555 8th St. NW, (202) 783-6060
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