Monday, August 30, 2010
The Kitchen at Brooklyn Un-Fare
This past June, it was reported that The Kitchen at Brooklyn Fare would soon expand its dining room and increase seating for these highly coveted dinner reservations. Ever since its inception, this partnership between chef César Ramirez and the Brooklyn Fare grocery store has thrived, often, being fully booked several months ahead. A glowing review by food critic, Alan Richman, and loyal followers of chef Ramirez's cooking has only contributed to comparisons from previous diners proclaiming The Kitchen Brooklyn Fare as "the Per Se of Brooklyn," quite a stretch in my opinion. Sadly, you can count me officially off the César Ramirez bandwagon (note I said chef Ramirez and not The Kitchen at Brooklyn Fare) as my meal there last January was anything but fair. Before writing this, I struggled long and hard about how to approach this post. In the name of objectivity, I felt it prudent to table any writing about the experience, hoping to avoid any knee jerk reactions that I would later regret. But after half a year, nothing has changed the fact that this was unequivocally, the worst meal I have ever experienced.
posts describing in detail, the incredible meals being produced by a Bouley alum in the intimacy of a open kitchen seating only ten. But the secret was out, well before Richman's review, which almost teased readers how difficult obtaining reservations are. To my initial disappointment, Heidi, the wife of the Brooklyn Fare's owner, informed me there was a three month waiting list. Much to my surprise, Heidi called me a mere two weeks later asking if I'd be interested in a meal that Friday as a result of a cancellation, which I immediately accepted. Given the relatively sparse information listed on Brooklyn Fare's website, I turned to blogs and Chowhound reports to get a feel for the experience. At that time, Brooklyn Fare was BYOB, so MW and I picked up a bottle of crisp riesling after being told that the menu would be seafood heavy. The meal would begin with a series of small canapés before chef Ramirez would proceed on to five courses and finish with a dessert.
It was cold that evening and we arrived early with our bottle of wine in hand. Located only a few feet from the grocery store on Schermerhorn Street, large windows yielded a spectacular view into the pristine stainless steel kitchen where we would soon be eating. As an employee opened the doors, along with a few other couples, we entered and exchanged awkward small talk as we hung our coats and prepared beverages. Ten stools lined the periphery of a large square table along with copies of the night's tasting menu. At the head of the table, just in front of the kitchen, sat chef Ramirez, silently sizing up the couples as they shuffled in and seated themselves. The four other couples comprised of a random cross-section of New Yorkers: there were two couples from Brooklyn, one of which lived directly above the grocery store, a pair of Manhattanites that can only be described as the most annoying couple ever, endlessly recounting all of their "favorite meals," and last but certainly not least, there was food critic, Alan Richman and writer Gabriella Gershsenson rounding out our dinner party.
After a quick introduction, chef Ramirez immediately began preparing, plating and serving a series of canapés that began our meal. Aided only by his sous chef, Juan Leon, and a dishwasher, chef Ramirez endlessly bemoaned his culinary philosophy of how he never compromises on the quality of his ingredients. While I agree with him, after about the 20th time repeating himself, I eventually wished chef Ramirez would stick to cooking rather than preaching. Ok, I get it, you like fresh ingredients but you don't have to tell me a million times. Dan Barber never came out to lecture us during our meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and any chef would be hard-pressed to have fresher ingredients than him.
Moving on to the food, we started with a soup of Orange, Carrot and Ginger with a Greek Yogurt Foam served in a shot glass. The soup was complex, sweet from the carrot and orange, yet spicy from the ginger and tangy from the Greek yogurt, a nice starter.
Then we each received a savory Chicken Liver and Black Truffle Macaron. A playful take on the classic French cookie, the prominent flavor of chicken liver was a wonderful treat for those who like them.
This was followed by a Fresh Sardine and Sage Leaf woven into a Fried Potato Crisp. Amazingly not "fishy," the fried sage leaf and crunchy potato crisp helped temper any undesired flavor from the sardine.
Next was a piece of Fried Jumbo Lump Crab that had been coated in Kataifi (shredded Phyllo Dough) and topped with a Dill and Cucumber Yogurt Sauce. An interesting twist on classic Greek flavors, the kataifi coating on the crab provided a stunning presentation which contained a very nice juxtaposition between the sweet crab meat and the tangy yogurt sauce.
Arriving on a spoon was a piece of Bluefin Tuna Toro with Fried Baby Leeks in a Mustard Soy Sauce. The fattiness of the toro was cut with a pungent mustard soy sauce and the fried baby leeks added a nice textural contrast.
A Kumamoto Oyster with Shallots and Créme Fraîche topped with a Grapefruit Gelée was bright and briny as the flavors of the oyster and grapefruit combined for a refreshing bite.
King Crab topped with a Hollandaise Sauce and Caviar was a favorite of mine. Sweet king crab, luscious hollandaise and salty caviar combined for one of the highlights from our meal.
This was followed by a Fried Langoustine with Saffron and Espazote (a Mexican Herb). Sadly, one of the weaker dishes of the evening. The natural sweetness of the langoustine failed to come through and was very oily.
Next was Foie Gras coated in a Black Onion Powder. The black onion powder added an interesting flavor to the cooked foie gras.
A mysteriously fried item which chef Ramirez eventually revealed was a Fried Calf's Brain Ball in a Smoked Paprika Sauce arrived on a spoon. Novelty aside, the brain was creamy and nicely paired with the smokey paprika sauce.
Finally, a Spuma of Bacalao with Cod Roe which was topped with freshly grated Black Truffle from a microplane. We all watched in awe as chef Ramirez furiously grate a large black truffle over a microplane he later used to top each dish. The spuma was rich and smooth, tasting strongly of cod from the addition of the roe, and finished with the earthy flavor of black truffles. Hands down, the highlight of the pre-meal canapés.
Moving on the the main courses, we began with a Japanese Yellowtail with Elf Mushrooms and Mustard Seeds. The yellowtail was good but it was the accent of mustard seeds that livened up the dish.
This was followed by a giant Mayan Prawn in a Pomegranate Reduction with Mustard Oil. We were served the prawn with the head still attached before chef Ramirez instructed us to remove it and suck out the shrimpy goodness that lied within. The actual prawn was good but the head was far superior.
Next was a Hama Hama Oyster with Elf Mushrooms and Cream Sauce topped with Salmon Roe and Toasted Black Rice. Sadly, this dish seemed overly complicated. The texture of the toasted rice, briny oyster, meaty mushroom, oceanic roe and creamy sauce ended up competing with one another as everything tasted muddled.
In stark contrast, the Black Sea Bass with Line Caught Squid and large Greek Beans in a Razor Clam Broth and topped with Pea Tendrils was spectacular. The highlight of the dish to me was the squid and sweet pea tendrils in the razor clam broth. The fish was very moist, however, it came at the expense of the crispy fish skin which I covet as as chef Ramirez kept the scales on to prevent the fish from overcooking.
Our final savory course was thinly piece of Veal which has been sous vide over a Vidalia Onion Purée and Parmesan Reduction with a Black Truffle Sauce. The veal was incredibly tender, but lacked much taste compared to the sweet onion purée and parmesan reduction.
Finally, our dessert was a Banana Parfait with a Pineapple Cream and Rum. Just alright, the parfait was drowned with a little too much rum, which unfortunately, was the prevailing flavor of the dish.
I regretfully don't have any additional pictures past a certain point-- as I was explicitly instructed by chef Ramirez to refrain from taking any more pictures, instructions I unhappily obeyed. Apparently, mortally offended by my picture taking, chef Ramirez directed us into the back room whereupon he began yelling at us both, telling us how he couldn't, "work under these conditions." I tried to explain to chef Ramirez that I thought photography was allowed after seeing pictures from several blogs and being told by Heidi that there was no policy against photography. Furthermore, I apologized to the chef and reassured him that no additional pictures would be taken. We shook hands and I thought, this unfortunate incident was behind us both. But evidently, chef Ramirez had other ideas and before moving to the next course, he publicly asked whether MW and I worked in the industry, as if to implicate we would attempt to steal his ideas, as oppose to simply taking notes of our meal which we always do. Embarrassed, we replied "no," as we felt all eyes on us at that point. Even Mr. Richman attempted to lighten the tension by asking the chef a question about our food, but later asked MW for details about some of the previous dishes. Irrespective whether we were in the food industry or not, by this point I was angry. There was no need for chef Ramirez to publicly single us out after we had talked things over and shook hands.
But the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back came at the very end of service. Rather than subjective rating systems, we at Law & Food attempt to tell narratives of our dining experiences. For someone who loves food as much as I do, chefs are my celebrities, and as such, I'd regret offending any of them. So you only imagine my disappointment in César Ramirez, not as a chef, but as a person when he refused to even speak with us after the meal.
In his review, Richman described The Kitchen at Brooklyn Fare as, "the most outrageously wonderful, unfathomably, underpriced, and virtually unattainable meal in New York." Only time will tell whether Richman's bold statement will ring true. While there is little doubt that chef Ramirez is a wonderfully gifted and talented chef, evidenced by the food he served that evening, this noteworthy meal is forever remembered for chef Ramirez's lack respect and class towards us.
In retrospect maybe it was I who never got the memo proclaiming The Kitchen at Brooklyn Fare as the flag bearer of nuevo Brooklyn cuisine, that is, exceptional food served with a heaping portion of in-your-face, take-it-or-leave-it attitude, more often found in Williamsburg. Seemingly playing to the crowd, chef Ramirez brashly lamented in great length about his annoyance with the stale food scene in Manhattan and how he doesn't welcome business from from those who don't share his food philosophy. Though I'm sure this post will come off as a rant from a self-absorbed food blogger who requires each chef to kowtow to his every whim, apparently I'm not the only one who grew weary of chef Ramirez's incessant masturbatory ego-stroking. Evidently, it was obnoxiously apparent enough to warrant Time Out New York's food critic, Tom Cheshes, to call out the chef in his recent review of The Kitchen at Brooklyn Fare, unlike others in the media who have chosen to ignore this fact.
Is it fair to call my dinner at The Kitchen at Brooklyn Fare the absolute worst I've ever experienced? The food was very good, there's no debating that, but all good food has its price. Chef Ramirez has repeatedly stated that at the current price of $95/person* he's practically losing money on each meal, which routinely includes luxury ingredients such as caviar, foie gras and black truffles. But chef Ramirez's utter lack of humility, hypocrisy and refusal to make amends wouldn't justify this meal at any price point. Unfortunately, it was chef Ramirez himself, and not his food that made our dinner at The Kitchen at Brooklyn Fare into a most unfair experience, and ultimately cemented a place as my worst meal ever.
* $95/person reflects the price of dinner in January consisting of 17 courses. Currently, the price for dinner is $130/person and consists of 20 courses.
The Kitchen at Brooklyn Fare
200 Schermerhorn Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
To see all our pics please click the flickr link.