Last night, a couple friends and I decided to try the Rooster Cafe. We called to get directions, and I talked to the chef (though I didn't know that at the time). He gave terse but very accurate directions, then asked if we had reservations. I said no, and asked if reservations were required. He replied they are not, but noted that the cafe closes at 9:30. In retrospect, I can see how he would not have made the assumption that we would be coming the same night.
Fast forward an hour or so (about 8:30). My friends an I had driven from their bookstore in Glenwood, MD. When we arrive, the server/host asks if we have reservations. We say no, and he says that the chef is running low on food, because they usually order based on the number of reservations (presumably with a certain adjustment factor based on experience of how many of which types of dishes normally sell in an evening, and allowance for walk-ins).
The plus side is that it seems he's serious about "fresh"". The minus side is that the host/server says he'll have to have the chef talk to us about what (if anything) is possible, or if we will have to go elsewhere. He disappears into the kitchen, and we see the chef shoo him away. It's apparent that the chef is concentrating on the final steps of preparing and plating the meals for other guests. He doesn't look angry, just very focused.
Eventually, Chef Mark Schek emerges. He's looks about ready to drop, but he quickly grasps the situation. My friends apologize, saying that perhaps we had miscommunicated our intentions on the phone. He quickly and very politely says no, that we communicated wonderfully, and it's clear he is dismayed as to how to do something for us. He grabs the menu, and begins crossing items off that he is out of for the evening. Not much is left. He looks up, even more dismayed.
Then he asks "You like rockfish?" We say yes, and agree to put ourselves in his hands. He's clearly doing his best to come up with something for us after our drive, and given the late hour, and we respond by trying to be as adaptable as possible. He asks a few more questions, such as "you like mushrooms?", then looks like he's got some ideas. It's probably as close as I'll ever get to a real-life "Iron Chef" situation - he knows what he's got left to work with (presumably not much), he wants to impress, and he's winging it.
Chef Schek asks us to be seated, and we chat for a few moments. He emerges and chats for a moment about wine. I know little about wine, but my friends lived in France for a couple years, and one of my friends shares a brief chat with the chef about the wine he has to offer. Judging by my friend's reaction, he was surprised by the quality being offered, and by the value of the per-glass price. The chef goes back to the kitchen, and we hear a bottle being uncorked. I begin to suspect that they are pulling out the stops to please us.
What follows is a sublime meal. The appetizer is a savory custard topped with a wild mushroom and garlic ragout. I think I also detected capers, and very tiny cubes of some sort (crouton? cracklings?) that add a nice crunchy texture.
The entree is a simple (but divine) preparation of rockfish, with an accompaniment of small stacks of sliced zucchini, eggplant, and plantain - each cooked as perfectly as one could ask for, with what seemed to be a very simple sauce to unite all the elements - possibly just the pan juices from the rockfish deglazed with wine with a touch of butter to finish.
The bread was slices of a wonderful warm and crusty baguette (good crusty, not stale crusty), with butter that tasted far better than the average stuff one gets at the local supermarket.
The desserts were fruit-based - one was a tapioca custard mound, surrounded by cubes of mango and slices of apple, while the other two were strawberry, mango and pineapple slices with a sweet cream sauce draped over them - kind of like if one let really good vanilla ice cream melt to sauce consistency.
And the wine was also quite nice - even I could tell this was good stuff, and my friend was very pleased.
In all, it was exactly the sort of simple preparation that highlights fresh ingredients. It was the kind of cooking that is so "easy" that it takes on many years to be able to do it well enough that one does not need to hide behind more complicated concotions and elaborate sauces. Good food, cooked well, by somebody who clearly knows and cares about what he's doing.
Afterwards, Chef Schek (now visibly exhausted) came out to sit with us and chat for a while - about abstract math, food, France, and the love of books. He's an interesting fellow, and one who clearly loves what he's doing, and who takes food very seriously. While not being obvious about it, it certainly seems that he has gone "above and beyond" to make the best out of what could have been an unfortunate situation.
Yes, we'll be going back!
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