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The Tasting Room at Lola, Round 2 (LONG)

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The Tasting Room at Lola, Round 2 (LONG)

Doc | Jun 27, 2003 02:53 AM

It has always been a fantasy of mine to fly into a city just to have dinner. I've finally done it, and for once in my life I can truly say the reality lived up to the fantasy.

Chris says I get too emotionally involved with restaurants. I don't know if that's true, but I must admit that the restaurants I have felt most intensely about do sound like a trio of international ball-busters: Lilette, Marisol, Lola. So far, my relationships with them have tended toward the stereotypical. Lilette seduced me, then broke my heart as French coquettes have been said to do since time immemorial. Marisol still loves me, but her fiery Latin temperament causes me to drink too much and get into all sorts of dangerous situations. I don't yet know Lola's nationality or what pleasures and heartbreaks she may have in store for me, but I do know we are doomed to a long-distance affair, and those are always painful. Since my second meal at the Tasting Room, an old Tom Waits song has been running through my head: "I'll get me a room at the Squire/The filling station's hiring/And I can eat here every night, what the hell have I got to lose?" The only problem is that my food budget would have to be about $21,000 a year, not even counting drinks -- rather more than I imagine Tom was spending at that diner.

Of course we ordered the 15-course tasting menu rather than the 10. We actually ended up with 17 courses, as David added two. Be warned that I am going to cover every single one of them here: this menu deserves no less. I believe we were there on its first night, but if David has kinks to work out of his menus, he apparently does it before the dishes make their public debuts. (A nice change from new restaurants that seem to feel they needn't be on top of their games for the first six months or so.) First course was a New Zealand prawn with salsa verte. The salsa was fresh and lovely. The prawn was fine, but while I usually love Pacific seafood, I must have been spoiled by the incredible beauty and sweetness of the Gulf shrimp this year. Mr. Kiwi seemed a little mushy by comparison. Not to worry: here came raw slices of fluke whose topping of chili, finely julienned mint, and tiny dear avocado balls somehow took me back to a spring day in my great-aunt's garden when I was about 3 and marigolds were blooming. There seems to me some affinity between marigolds and really fresh mint, very apparent here.

Next was a warm corn soup with argan oil. I like it when a chef can come up with something I've never even heard of. Argan turns out to be a kind of tree whose flavor is somewhere between cinnamon and nutmeg. It added fragrance and richness to the sweet summer corn. After that was one of our extra courses, the glass eels from the last menu that David had promised to save for us if we came back soon. I've only ever seen them on one American restaurant menu (Marisol). They were exquisitely garlicky and oily, and I took so long to eat them that there was a certain amount of waiter-glancing, though Seth and Willy are never obtrusive when checking to see if you're ready for the next course.

The second "round" of courses (they are divided by the wine pairings) began with a perfect crisp-skinned piece of pink snapper with caramelized fennel and pollen emulsion. When I tasted the caramelized fennel, I think I said "OH MY GOD" for the first of many times that night. Some tastes are not just wonderful, but aggressively wonderful: this fennel with its hints of honey and smoke is among them. After that came a salad of cured, shaved foie gras over tiny baby watercress with a surprisingly assertive mustardy vinaigrette. Many chefs wouldn't dare pair foie gras with a flavor as strong as mustard, and many more would screw it up, but this worked. I love the way David uses foie gras almost as a palate cleanser or (as later) a transition between savory courses and dessert. It has always seemed dessertlike to me, so I this use makes more sense to me than always using it as an appetizer or garnish. This round was finished off by a pure white sliver of turbot with braised lettuce and a velvety green sauce of lettuce and almonds, a nod to romesco perhaps. The sauce's robust cruciferous flavor worked well with the delicate fish, another gutsy pairing that wouldn't occur to many chefs.

Next round began with a rich brandade with yellow tomatoes and black olive oil. We were fooled by the brandade's creaminess into wondering whether David had made it with butter instead of the traditional olive oil, but the secret turned out to be a touch of cream. This round of "soft" courses continued with a trio of rillettes, which I'd particularly looked forward to because I have always believed one of my favorite chefs (Gerard Maras) makes the best rillettes in the world and I wanted to see how David's measured up. The duck equaled the quality of Gerard's. The pork was more like Gerard's hogshead cheese, which I also love. The rabbit was good for rabbit, a meat I always find rather insipid. Chris said this was a case in which the serving was a little *too* tiny, but I think we are just fools for rillettes. The round concluded with an intense, savory, meaty-tasting porcini risotto as good as any I had in Italy (and better than all but one, which unexpectedly enough came from a TV station cafeteria whose chef learned he had fanatical eaters in the house and whipped up something special).

We began the last savory round with a vol-au-vent of sweetbreads and mushrooms. Chris accuses me of not liking sweetbreads. I respond by quoting Elizabeth David: "I have eaten too many ambitiously conceived but ill-executed dishes of sweetbreads ever again to order them of my own accord." In this case I had to finish the quote: "...so I was grateful to [the chef] for showing me how good they can be when properly done." Then came perhaps the most audacious and amazing (yet solidly founded on very old culinary tradition) course so far: stewed veal cheeks with artichokes, fines herbes, and raisins. I could spend hours shredding a single incredibly tender, slightly gelatinous veal cheek, and David's are probably the best I've ever had. No, strike that "probably"; the only potential rivals were not quite as good, and I am just being sentimental about them because they were my first. Last in the round was a flavorful pork filet (usually an oxymoron) with morcilla sausage, eggplant, and confit of peppers. It was fun to experience these slightly coarser flavors in such a finely prepared dish, rather like having a tea party in a leather bar ... no, strike that too. I must be getting tired.

(Later) The next course was not, I think, part of any round; it was a phenomenon unto itself, one of the very best things I've ever tasted and as far as I can recall the only food that has simultaneously reduced me and Chris to tears. Perhaps we are a little psychotic about our foie gras, but if someone were to coat a perfect piece in gingersnap crumbs, then sautee it and serve it with roasted dates like some exquisite rich cookie, you might cry too. Whether it was the memory of a departed friend who fed us foie gras, the recollection of an almost savory ginger pastry consumed during an idyllic trip to Amsterdam, or just the knowledge that we would never again be able to taste this for the first time, I don't know or much care. I wasn't going to post about the crying -- it was just a trickle, not a melodramatic boo-hooing or anything -- but what the hell.

We eased into the last round with a cheese course that constituted my only real quibble with the meal. The Parmigiano-Reggiano was delicious, as were the dates and balsamic that accompanied it, but I question the wisdom of shredding the cheese rather than serving a slice or chunk. Part of the joy of really good Parmigiano is its granular texture, which I felt was a little compromised by this presentation. My reservations vanished with the toasted hazelnut ice cream and poached cherries, a contrast of delicate nut aroma/flavor and huge, succulent, sluttish fruit. We were sad to end the meal, but were comforted by the chocolate mousse with caramelized bananas and rum-soaked genoise (a nod to bananas Foster, or do we New Orleanians assume we influence every such thing)? I'm not a chocolate person the way some are, but I like what this kitchen does with it. As we lingered over the fruit gelees that concluded the evening, Van sent over an intense raspberry liqueur that deepened their flavor.

I should mention that while I am usually a liquor drinker, I decided to try the wine pairings with this meal. I knew they must be intelligently done here if anywhere, and decided I would try to learn something about the pairing of wine and food. Alas, while all the wines tasted nice and I could see how some of them complemented the food, I just don't care for the buzz. I suppose it will always be a deficiency of mine. Ah, well, there are worse things to be than a Wild Turkey-swilling Philistine.

Altogether, the food at the Tasting Room is probably the most perfect I've ever had, Van is the model of a gracious host, Seth and Willy provide exquisite service, and I can scarcely imagine any way to improve this brave and excellent restaurant. I only hope I can start getting to Dallas more often. I hear the filling station's hiring ...

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