The sleet and rain gave me a hankering to get out of the house and let someone else take care of me last night, so I decided to give Marigold Kitchen a call. Luckily, they had an opening so we trekked through the muck to the warm confines of Marigold's Victorian home. I was glad to see Brett Meier-Tomkins was still at the helm when I arrived (Brett will be joining the Zahav team with former Marigold chef Michael Solomonov, which will allow his impressive oenological skills to shine in its full-service environment). We checked our coats and were quickly seated.
For the point of full disclosure, several years ago the Marigold crew allowed me to work for a few weeks as a runner as I was researching Philadelphian restaurants for journalistic reasons--and despite the fact that I was quite possibly the worst runner in culinary history, they were nothing but magnanimous when it came time to subtly tell me not to return in such a capacity. That said, I have not had a chance to return to Marigold for the last few years and have had no communication with them in that time.
We decided to put ourselves in the hands of former sous and now executive chef Erin O'Shea for the evening and chose the tasting menu. Accompanying the meal was a 1998 Aigle Blanc Vouvray from Prince Poniatowski, which was a bit thin considering what lay ahead of us. I'd like to note that every item we had is available ala carte on the regular menu.
First course: Chicken liver toast with apricot and pickled celery. What a start! The chicken liver was of the consistency of a good foie terrine. Rich, creamy, delicious. The apricot added the proper acidity and sweetness necessary to cut through the richness inherent in poultry liver. The celery added a tiny bit of tartness. My companion who generally turns her nose up at liver of any kind loved every bite, which may be the ultimate compliment to this dish. As an aside, I've been more than skeptical of the idea of faux gras ala Gourmet magazine's Ruth Reichl. This dish was enough to make me start saving the livers from my roasters.
Second course: Turnip Soup with Virginia Ham and Apple Biscuit. Creamy turnip soup poured tableside over a tiny biscuit covered with a dollop of apple puree and a scattering of Virginia country ham. Turnips? Who likes turnips? Well, it turns out that we do. The soup was dense and creamy with more of an undercurrent of turnip and potato (?) that worked wonderfully with the apple puree. Best of all were the tiny bits of ham that exploded in our mouths like salty, porky pop rocks. The biscuit was a nice focal point and helped to tie all the other elements together.
Third course: Buttermilk-Chive Cornbread with Creamy Collards, Wigwam Ham and Sunny-Side Egg. A southern riff on eggs benedict? My companion thought so. A delicious cornbread round topped with somewhat mild Wigwam ham, slow-cooked collards, and a perfectly cooked sunnyside egg. I wasn't as thrilled with this dish as she was. She felt it was perfectly balanced, while I thought it was a bit heavy. The cornbread is dense and for me, the wigwam ham didn't cut through as much as I had hoped. In retrospect, I think I was looking for the saltiness of the Virginian ham from the turnip soup, and instead got the funky, smokier elements of the wigwam (wigwam is an artisanal Virginian ham). For me, this was as close to a miss as we had, but as I mentioned earlier my companion loved it.
Fourth course: Jumbo Scallops with Tapioca Pearls, Mussels and Butternut Squash. "I thought I cooked scallops well until I ate this," she said, eyes mooning. In her defense, the quality of the scallops was something I've rarely encountering at my locals. The butternut squash brunoise added a wonderful earthiness and textural contrast to the soft tapioca, scallops, and mussels. Speaking of mussels, well, I thought I cooked mussels well until I ate this. They were soft and yeilding, unlike the gritty pencil erasers you get all too often in this city. A bit of lemon zest in the tapica/squash sauce was just enough to offset the richness of the rest of the dish.
Fifth course: Chicken Breast with Cornbread and Pear Stuffing and Braised Cippolinis. Ok, now I'm getting full. More meat? Yes, more delicious meat. Slices of skin-on chicken breast rolled around a deliciously light yet bright stuffing (a roulade if you will). Accompanied by a meltingly soft cippolini onion on one side and a few halved pan-fried brussels sprouts with a smoky sausage (Surrey?) Wonderful. The chicken was meltingly tender and juicy. The stuffing was a mix of moist cornbread and tart pear. But the sausage was the knock-out savory punch that really tied things together. I don't usually care chicken breast, which I find bland and dry even when brined and cooked properly, but this dish could change my mind.
Sixth course: Cheese plate with accompaniment. Three cheeses. Now please bear with me as I was rapidly approaching food coma by this point. The first cheese was a Washington state hard cow's milk with ummm...a tangerine or apricot preserve of sorts. I need to find more of this cheese: mild, and yet amazingly complex. I could eat this all day. The second was a quenelle of soft Pennsylvania goat cheese served with a brunoise of roasted red beets. A classic combination, and what it lacked in originality, it made up for in flavor. Finally, my favorite combinations: a slice of Bleu D'Auvergne with carob. Bleu D'Auvergne is a fairly standard french blue...straightforward and uncomplicated. But the addition of the treacly-sweet carob syrup rounded out the flavors perfectly by muting the classic blue "heat" in the front and yet allowing the cheese's finish to remain.
Finally, it's time for dessert. Two desserts--
Banana Bread Pudding with Coffee Ice Cream and Apple Tart with Almond Praline and Sour Cream Ice Cream. I have no comment on the bread pudding as I don't care for bananas, but my partner enjoyed what she could still manage to eat. I enjoyed the unexpected praline crunch of the apple tart, but it was the sour cream ice cream that really stood out. Possibly not to everyone's taste, but I enjoyed it very much mostly for it's unexpected sourness. La Colombe coffee rounded out this course.
The front of house staff were gracious, polite, and most importantly invisible unless necessary. Unlike I was a few years ago.
Needless to say, I'm happy that the very capable Ms. O'Shea has stepped into Michael Solomonov's impressive shoes so admirably. The idea of "new southern" cuisine is not one that immediately whet's my appetite, but the proof was in the tasting of that wonderful meal. I'm already looking forward to returning.