Saturday, December 5, 2009

The New Menu and Chef at Smith

When a restaurant you have come to love changes chefs, the conflicting emotions are unavoidable. On the one hand, you want the new chef and his menu to reveal all new sensations and creative approaches and techniques. On the other, you miss what was. I'm so pleased to be able to share that new head chef Chris Howell (late of Tom Douglas's Lola) and owner Linda have done exactly the right thing: introduced some (amazing) new menu items, while retaining tried and true favorites from the days of former wunderkind chef Eliot Guthrie (as they should, because they are deservedly classic and perfect for Smith).

This is further a great sign because it shows that Chris's ego -- and all chefs have them -- is not so large as to preclude acknowledging what already works and, instead of trying to build an entirely new menu on an all new foundation, he is constructing his legacy on proven, sturdy bedrock.

A quick word on what remains: the Smith burger (still only $10); marrow bones; sweet potato fries; poutine; Cuban sandwich; gruyere and onion jam sandwich; salt cod fritters; cured meat plate; beet salad with watercress, pecans and bleu cheese; and some other bits and bobs.

Now...the thrill of the new! How about rabbit stew braised with tomato, dark ale and root vegetables? Pork loin with sunchoke puree, kale and chanterelle relish? Hanger steak with goat cheese cauliflower and winter greens? Going in, I met two friends on their way out.

"How was it?" I asked.

"Fantastic," they replied. And, at the same time, two strangers walked by and said, "You have to try the hanger steak!"

This, folks, is what's known as buzz, and to see it developing on the street, before one even sits down to table, on the first night of the new menu is one hell of a good sign.

I elected to enjoy the Brussels sprouts with bacon and sultanas as my starter and the stuffed quail with chestnuts and mushroom orzo as my main.

The Brussels sprouts (misspelled on the menu, by the way) arrive beautifully roasted bright green while also char-grilled black in places. I love it when chefs are not afraid to really char a green vegetable. I guess it's carcinogenic, but so what -- a truly roasted vegetable is a thing of beauty. The sprouts are served in a low, ceramic oval dish, lightly awash in what must be just a splash of stock and chunks of thick bacon, baked apples, streamers of greens and the promised sultanas. They are amazing. I should only hope to create sprouts like this in my life. The good news is I do not need to because Chris has it handled.

I was only halfway through these little green ball of goodness when my quail arrived. Too soon, I thought, but I was already filling up on sprouts so asked to have them boxed. Also, the room was heaving and it's very difficult for a kitchen to time everything correctly. Still, I did point out to Britt and Michael that it seemed a bit early, much to their delight I am sure...

One orders quail at their peril -- a tiny bird, it can quickly go dry in the oven and toughen. Not so the quail at Smith. The bird itself is delicious and identical in flavor to a roast chicken -- none of the watery sweetness one sometimes gets in a Cornish Game Hen nor the gamey flavors of pheasant and other game birds. The quail is pull apart tender and the little charrings at the tip of the bones are a delicious crunch of skin and juices.

The orzo bed upon which it is served, however, was the knockout of the evening. In fact, it's one of the finest things I have ever had at Smith. The orzo itself, perfectly cooked, not as melty as a risotto but chewy and substantial in the mouth. And not just blessed with butter and mushrooms, but something more like the essential soul of butter and mushrooms. I could have eaten an entire other bowl of the stuff. It's that good. You must order it. You must.

I passed on dessert (which was just as well as, unbeknownst to me I was about to get kidnapped to another table of friends for another hour or two of drinking), but noted the addition of hard cider apple fritters with vanilla ice cream. You can be assured I will enjoying those soon!

I enjoyed a 2007 Mencia from Viña Reboreda in Spain with my meal. It has raisins and cherries with very light tannins so worked wonders with the sultanas in the sprouts and the hearty orzo.

Nothing will replace Eliot at Smith; I simply enjoyed too many gloriously mind- and tongue-altering moments under his reign. But you can move on, to new things, to other moments in a life of food. And I'm so pleased to announce that it looks as if that is exactly the promise Smith holds out to me now with Chris in the kitchen. I stopped back by the pass window on my way out and greeted him -- he was very kind and said he looked forward to feeding me many more things.

Well I can assure you, chef, you'll have no trouble convincing me to keep coming back to try all your new offerings!

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