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R.J. Cooper’s foie gras parfait, part of his “24” menu at Vidalia
Twice R.J. Cooper found himself at Bryan Voltaggio‘s Table 21 at Volt, and twice the Vidalia chef found himself impressed. “Bryan crushed me a couple of times,” says Cooper, his choice of words providing a brief glimpse into his old college jock persona. Cooper sounds like a ballplayer who just watched some lefty no-hit his team.
But like any competitive athlete — or chef — Cooper viewed Voltaggio’s meals as sources of inspiration, not desperation. “I owe them payback,” Cooper tells me by way of explanation. “Let’s do three more [courses than Voltaggio’s 21] and see how it goes!”
And just like that, Cooper consulted with Vidalia owner Jeffrey Buben and launched his “24” tasting table.
Don’t get the wrong impression about this downtown dining experience, though. Cooper swears it’s not some mad rush to see which chef can put out the most courses or display the most imagination. (Which, after all, will almost always pale in comparison to the 30-plus-course minibar experience.)
“We”re not doing it out of ego,” says the Beard Award-winning Cooper, who plates and finishes each dish in full view of his tasting-table diners. “It wasn’t out of saying, ‘I want to do more just because I want to do more’…It kind of fits into the theme of the menu [and] it’s kind of a great working and thinking process between myself and the kitchen staff.”
I recently had a chance to sit down at Cooper’s six-seat table in the Vidalia bar (which can be expanded to seat eight) and take in these 24 courses. Actually, it was only 23. In the heat of service, Cooper forgot one. “I counted really badly that day,” the chef says, joking about his 41-year-old eyes. “I owe you a course. That sucks.”
I’d be hard-pressed to say that Cooper “owes” me one. I didn’t walk away from his table feeling in need of anything, except perhaps a flatbed truck to haul my bloated ass home. This was a 23-course feast that covered the waterfront, from high-end to low-end, including caviar, lobster, Wagyu beef, sturgeon, foie gras, blood sausage, pork rinds, bresaola, bacon, and eel. Thank God they were all small, jewel-box like portions. Well, except for the pork rinds, which Cooper and team scattered all over the table for us to devour.
Cooper and I spent three separate interviews dissecting each of the 23 courses on his tasting menu, which includes wine and cocktail pairings by sommelier Ed Jenks. I’ll publish a more detailed breakdown of the “24” menu later on the Young & Hungry blog, but for now, let me point out two important elements of the meal.
The first is its progression, which does not follow the standard order of light-to-heavy plates and white-to-red wines. You might start your evening with a flute of Schramsberg champagne and then move to a cocktail, followed by a Gamay and a shift back to Grüner Veltliner. The small plates have a similar sort of seemingly random progression: courses of house-made ricotta and “peas and carrots” may follow sous-vide Wagyu beef or a quenelle of bacon-infused ice cream may be inserted into the middle of the menu, right after a plate of sous-vide lamb tenderloin from Elysian Fields.
“If you go with the progression of white wine, white wine, reds…your palate gets really overwhelmed,” Cooper says. “We kind of want to tease the palate along the way…not totally blow your palate away.”
The second element to note about “24” is Cooper’s clever and technically complicated riffs on familiar dishes — or even not-so-familiar dishes. It might be his first course of sterling caviar served on a ribbon of egg-and-cream “pappardelle” with a dollop of caper-lemon emulsion and a crunchy strip of house-made brioche, which is Cooper’s take on the classic opener of caviar served with chopped hardboiled eggs, capers, and toast points. Or it might be his version of “carpetbagger’s steak,” in which Cooper takes a cap of dry-aged rib-eye and injects it with an oyster-leeks-and-champagne ragu.
“It’s a lot of work to do food like this,” Cooper 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.”
Unlike Star Wars, however, the “24” experience changes with each meal. The only thing that Cooper will carryover, he says, is the opening course of caviar and pappardelle; everything else will be different, whether it’s a small change to an existing course or a new course altogether. The price, though, is fixed at $150 per person, which includes alcohol pairings. To make a reservation, call Vidalia at (202) 659-1990.
The “24” experience reminded me, of course, of some of my favorite tasting menus over the years, whether Johnny Monis‘ degustation at Komi or Enzo Fargione‘s old chef’s table at Teatro Goldoni, which is now just a memory.
So Y&H Nation, what’s your favorite tasting menu or chef’s table in the city? E-mail me and let me know.