City Paper is not for tourists
Tasting table. Chef’s table. Degustation menu. Whatever you call it. this multi-course meal is considered the turbo-charged luxury car of fine-dining. It’s the place at the table where you can dig deep into a chef’s philosophy: You can learn about his suppliers, his cooking techniques, his sources of inspiration, and the very mechanics behind each and every one of the (typically) 20-something dishes on his menu.
You’ll have to excuse my excessive use of the masculine pronoun in that previous paragraph, but the truth is that most (if not all) of these marathon meals are produced by men, whether Bryan Voltaggio at Volt or Johnny Monis at Komi or José Andrés at minibar. I’m not here to dissect the reasons behind that gender divide—schoolyard bravado transferred to the kitchen?—but to add another name to the list: R.J. Cooper, who recently rolled out his own “24” menu at Vidalia, where (you guessed it) he serves up two dozen courses of Southern and mid-Atlantic-inspired cooking.
Wait, I take that back. After asking Cooper to dissect the dishes I sampled from his “24” menu—actually 23 on my visit since the chef forgot one (“I owe you a course,” he says. “That sucks.”)—I’d like to propose at least one reason why female chefs tend to avoid these palate challenges: they’re smarter than men.
OK, I’m joking, but it does require a certain creative masochism to plan, prep, cook, and plate the kind of dishes that grace Cooper’s “24” menu. “It’s a lot of work to do food like this,” the chef says. “I want to take [diners] to a different universe of cooking, a different theater of cooking. It’s like going to a B-rated movie compared to Star Wars.”
Cooper, in other words, wants to do with his cooking what George Lucas did with his initial trilogy: create wonder. He even wants to generate expectation between courses, sort of like the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Except with “24” you don’t have to wait three years for your next installment, which is good. I could barely wait three minutes for my next course.
1. Sterling caviar with “pappardelle”
Cooper believes in starting with something big in flavor but elegant on the plate. His opening course of Sterling caviar with “pappardelle” is his take on the classic combination of sturgeon roe, chopped hard-boiled eggs, capers, and toast points. His pasta is, essentially, an omelet of duck eggs, cream, and butter, which he spreads thin onto a sheet and allows to solidify in a low oven. The kitchen then cuts and rolls the egg omelet into pappardelle-like strips and serves them with American sturgeon caviar, a caper-lemon emulsion, a crunchy strip of house-made brioche, and a slender chive leaf. It’s tasty and attractive, if a little hard to put together a balanced bite.
2. Smoked conger eel with seaweed gelee and grapefruit aioli
The beauty of this course is both its place in the meal and its paring partner. The eel follows Cooper’s solidified piña colada—a palate cleanser that he drops into liquid nitrogen—and is paired with sommelier Ed Jenks’ “Green Oaxacan” cocktail of mescal, simple syrup, and compressed honeydew melon. The conger eel is cleaned, deboned, de-skinned, and sous vided for about 12 minutes at 142 degrees Fahrenheit, then seared with a torch and brushed with a kind of Japanese-style barbecue sauce. What’s fascinating here is the eel’s interaction with the cocktail. When you take a sip of Jenks’ drink after a bite of the fatty eel, the extreme peaty smokiness of the cocktail fades into the background, revealing its sweet, melon flavors.
3. Lamb loin with peanut panna cotta, lamb/potato torte, and peanut foam
This course takes Cooper back to his youth in Detroit, where there was a restaurant just north of town called the Lark. The European country inn serves this rack of lamb with a peanut sauce, which “just works beautifully together,” the chef recalls. It works beautifully together in Cooper’s version, too, mostly because of the lamb tenderloin he buys from Elysian Fields. The meat has a distinctly nutty flavor, which Cooper emphasizes by pairing it not only with peanut foam but also peanut panna cotta. It’s a course in which Cooper modernizes Continental cuisine and injects it with a little mid-Atlantic earthiness: Virginia peanuts.
4. “Bread and bacon”
Cooper is a pig freak. Pork belly, trotters, chops, ribs, shoulder, and rinds, there’s probably not a part of the pig Cooper hasn’t used at Vidalia. For this course, he “wanted to do a pork dish without doing a lot of pork.” The dish includes bacon-flavored ice cream, in which Cooper takes a house-made custard and infuses it overnight with caramelized onions and rendered bacon. The next morning, he’ll strain the custard and emulsify bacon fat into it before spinning the mixture into ice cream. The quenelle of ice cream is served with a small strip of brioche French toast and candied Benton’s bacon. Sprinkled around it is startlingly intense “bacon powder.” The pork flavors are simultaneously pronounced and sweetly muted. And just as interesting: The course comes right after the lamb and peanut foam. Cooper calls it a “sweet savory intermezzo dessert.”
5. Cracklings and wild cherry paper
This course, which arrives late in the meal, is the mold-breaker. It’s the one in which Cooper briefly turns his tasting table into an indoor picnic. His kitchen team came up with the idea to spread out parchment paper and simply toss the pork rinds willy-nilly all over the table, the purple translucent cherry paper providing both color and sweetness to the hard crunch of the cracklings. The course does two things: It takes the stuffy air of formality out of the dinner and gives you a chance to eat pork rinds at a fine-dining restaurant.
Vidalia, 1990 M St. NW, (202) 659-1900.
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