By Nevin Martell
This Rogue Session falls on Leap Day, which is an auspicious omen. There’s another good sign when I walk in: chef-owner R.J. Cooper is back in action at the center stage kitchen. How does it feel to be back? “Like I never left,” he tells me with a half-grin. Standing alongside him, unmistakable with her luminous blonde hair is chef Jennifer Carroll: Top Chef finalist, Top Chef All-Stars talking point, a student of Eric Ripert, and a longtime fixture at the Frenchman’s Philadelphia favorite, 10 Arts. Now she’s in the midst of prepping to open her own restaurant in City of Brotherly Love, so tonight would be a chance to get a sneak peek of her menu-in-progress.
Little Rap oysters/verjus/Pedro Ximénez mignonette
A petite Rappahannock oyster sits at the crest of a salt hillock. Simply dressed with sherry vinegar, fish sauce and a little black pepper, it goes down in one swift slurp. Refreshing and breezy, it’s a great kickoff. To complement it, there’s Evergreen Punch from cheftender Bryan Tetorakis. A small bottle of dark red cranberry-pine elixir is presented alongside a large shot glass half-filled with dry vermouth foam and pickled cucumber cubes. The results are festive – almost Christmas-y. Despite the rain and the near-absence of winter this season, it suddenly feels like the holidays are here again.
Tree & leaf beets/zatar/dilled yogurt/steelhead roe
This beet labneh is perked with flashes of lemon and dill, then tarted up with sprigs of micro arugula and tiny golden spheres of caviar. Light and bright, it showcases Carroll’s tutelage under Ripert, though I find that overall her dishes are much more flavor forward that those I’ve eaten at Le Bernardin. It’s paired with the Beet Shrub cocktail, which features the earthy root vegetable mixed with blood orange juice, champagne vinegar and soda water. Though it finds some complementary flavors in the current dish, it’s too bracing and sweetly sharp to work with the lighter dishes that follow.
Tuna/heirloom radish/bonito/passion fruit
Picture perfect and spot on, this is the first of several out-of-the-park home runs tonight. Three types of radish are highlighted, including one with a light green rim and pinkish starbursts spreading out from its center. The flash-seared tuna is perfectly cooked and well balanced with the sweet tang of the passion fruit sauce. They’ll need a mop to clean the exposed brick wall behind me when I leave, because my mind was blown.
Chef Carroll introduces this dish and stays to chat about her forthcoming restaurant, Concrete Blonde by Jennifer Carroll. The “by Jennifer Carroll” is tacked on there so that the band Concrete Blonde (Remember “Joey?”) doesn’t sue. The dish has an interesting mélange of textures: the cephalopod has a tender meatiness, the fried chickpeas have a crusty crunch and the quick-fried eggplant is crispy on the outside, but soft and buttery on the inside.
Black cod/lime vierge/carrot/shrimp-sambal
A flame stripe runs down the center of the plate, which turns out is a signal that both orange and carrot are at play here. The fish comes apart perfectly; the sweet white meat is the perfect foil for the fruity and root-y accompaniment. Another high point. A glass of homemade agave soda with a little lemon goes down well in between bites.
Mackerel/heirloom radish/potato/black currant mustard
This fish has been cured for 30 minutes, then pickled for half an hour. “To get rid of that fishy taste that a lot of people don’t like,” Carroll explains. “I like it though.” Served on a bed of roughly mashed, vinegar-laced spuds, this is chef’s play on potato salad. This is definitely not your grandmother’s picnic staple though.
Poulet rouge/truffle/chestnut cream/Brussels sprouts
A dumpling? Wasn’t Scott Drewno last week? Turns out this one couldn’t be less Asian. The French heritage breed chicken is spiced with rosemary, thyme and garlic then finely shredded before making its way into its pasta casing. Slender matchsticks of Perigord truffle are scattered on top. This plump ravioli sits in a pool of chestnut sauce punctuated by pickled cross sections of Brussels sprouts. There’s an undertone of richness to the whole dish, but it never overwhelms. Given the luxe ingredients, Carroll has shown deft restraint here. A future Concrete Blonde by Jennifer Carroll classic.
Speckled trout/hard egg/rye
This modernist take on egg salad comes across like a deconstructed Jewish deli favorite. It takes all those wonderful flavors – the smokiness of the fish, the maltiness of the rye and the creaminess of the egg – and packs them into a single bite.
Escolar/samphire/black olive/blood orange
Only an hour has passed, but I’m pretty stoned on fine food by the time chef Carroll brings over this course. There is a hint of mint to brighten the flavors of the shattered blood orange, both of which go well with the buttery fish. Another example of how Carroll has taken what’s she learned with Ripert and boosted it up to the next level.
R.J. marks his return with a colorful new creation topped with an orange coral tangle, which turns out to be dehydrated spaghetti squash. Underneath, a light, frothy mousseline of rabbit belly half hides a generous chunk of rabbit loin. This perfectly pureed protein gives new meaning to the phrase Velveteen Rabbit. Chef Cooper also brings over a new iteration of a blue cheese dish I tried a couple weeks earlier. Now he rolls out a small square of Italian blue pecorino (he used Spanish Valdeon before), tops it with another small square of rolled out Medjool dates and then crowns that with candied black walnuts before dotting the plate with some viscous Noble XO vinegar. Funky and sharp, the cheese bites the back of my tongue and finishes with a swirl of black pepper.
Olive oil sponge/kumquats/black pepper/honeycomb
The porous bits of honeycomb candy that litter the plate mimic the inside of a Crunchie bar. Sopping up the flavors of the XVOO and the fruit, the cake is moist, but still very light. The course is paired with my first alcoholic beverage of the evening, which has been dubbed the Old Havana. “This is what would happen if a Cuba Libre and an Old Fashioned had a baby,” explains Tetorakis. Cigar foam on top and the 12-year-old El Dorado rum make this creation worthy of Papa Hemingway’s memory.
Rice pudding/chocolate sponge/peanut/cocoa nib
Cooking this porridge in coconut milk gives it a silky creaminess that elevates this oftentimes dull and lifeless grain. A speckling of cocoa nibs and candied peanuts add a crunchy counterpoint. A round of flourless chocolate cake balances on top, while another hides below the mound of pudding. Micro cilantro sprigs dot this array, which causes some initial confusion. Cilantro? On a dessert? Then I take a bite and I’m instantly sold. The freshness of the herb is unexpected this late in the dinner game – especially alongside coconut and chocolate – but it works well with the other components.
Happy endings/little things/small bites
This tiny treats finale includes the root beer float meringue that I love so much, a white chocolate bonbon with shredded coconut inside and a perky lime topping, and a fudgey dark chocolate truffle with coffee and hazelnut. An excellent ending to a memorable meal.
Sitting in the salon after dinner chatting with R.J., we run into Metrocurean’s Amanda McClements (aka Gilt City DC’s Insider), Nycci Nellis from The List Are You On It? and the Columbia Room’s Derek Brown, who I had the pleasure of dining with for Bryan Voltaggio’s Rogue Session. When I tell them that they’re in for a real treat, I’m not exaggerating. The stars aligned tonight in a big way. Let’s hope that Concrete Blonde by Jennifer Carroll is successful enough that one day she opens an outpost here in the District of Confusion.
To get live updates about my Rogue Sessions tastings, please follow me on Twitter @nevinmartell.