Smith – a Jeremy Fox pop-up
How many times have you tasted perfection? Sprouting peas, tender and delicately sweet, welcome Spring to the Bay Area when they pop up on menus everywhere. It was no different at Ubuntu except that Jeremy Fox created a masterpiece out of these tiny harbingers, showcasing them in a Michelin 3-star-worthy dish. Seductive, with a crisp burst of minty punctuation, his peas and white chocolate dish is one of the great Spring-time signatures. Smith popped up at the end of Spring – would Fox prepare the peas too?
Maps of the food past or frameworks for what might be; the signature dish helps position a chef’s cuisine. Its steady presence says “this is who we are” and helps tether experiments that might cross normal boundaries and expectations. Consider Adria’s olives1, Kinch’s Into the Garden, or Redzepi’s Beef Tartar – each encapsulates the chef, and the entire meal to be, on one plate. Yes, those peas appeared, and they demonstrated yet again that Fox still thinks best in terms of shades of green – a triumph of ideas and techniques over the scarcity of luxurious products.
“I think I prefer cooking without meat. I think it’s just the way my brain has been trained over the last few years. I can see the vegetable dishes so clearly, but with proteins, it’s siphoning the creative process for me. It feels like cheating or a crutch. I’m liking the dishes without the proteins.”
- Jeremy Fox in an Inside Scoop SF interview
Smith was the latest Fox pop-up at Saison, his home away from home where he’s hosted a few events over the past year. He was also joined by Kim Alter (a Manresa/Ubuntu alumni) and former Top Chef contestant Eli Kirshtein. Fox, of course, was the chef at Ubuntu where he arguably created one of the country’s most influential and innovative restaurants – food that even the guys in Belgium and Denmark were paying attention to.2 He cooked a series of brilliant vegetable meals that were chronicled in this string of blog posts – a star that burned bright. Smith, a reference to everyman and craft, changed daily over its three-day run and this was the first of three meals (see Winter Jade’s later meal here.)
Radish Pods with parmesan shavings
Radish pods and parmesan were a great re-introduction to the world of Fox – it had been too long. Radishes have come to symbolize “garden restaurant” 3 but this was Fox re-thinking the convention. The daikon pod is just as spicy and flavorful as the full radish, with a touch more fragrance, and it was paired with parmesan for its saltiness. It reinforced a theme with the new vegetable cuisine developing – unused pieces of plant often carry as much flavor as the typical part – but offer variability. These pods could be incorporated into dishes in a natural form that is light but impactful, where the normal root may not work.
The peas & white chocolate followed – a masterpiece and automatic entrant into my personal Hall of Fame. The sweetness and textural pop are enhanced by white chocolate and macadamia while still balancing everything in the bowl. The pea broth, cool, contemplative, and so subtle in flavor, carries the dish with each bite. The white chocolate melts as you chew, adding a creamy sweetness to the broth. With each bite into macadamia, a burst of salt escapes; and, near the end, the chocolate mint flourishes – inspired.
Peas, White Chocolate, Macadamia, Chocolate Mint, Pea Broth
Ocean, Creatures, & Weeds
Vegetables, Roasted & Raw, Juices, & Succulents
Fox’s plating style has always taken inspiration from nature – greens strung across the plate like vines or roots propped up in surreal manicured gardenscapes. The bounty of the land, with its range of shapes and colors, made for plating as exciting, and wild, as the food. The platings at Smith were more intentional than in the past – a garden manicured. This was most evident in Oceans, Creatures, & Weeds and Vegetables, Roasted & Raw, Juices, & Succulents. (And, yes, both were very good; particularly the variety of the Vegetables dish where the succulents were so much more than leaves on the plate.)
Salmon & Corned Heart, Wasabi Root, Deli Flavors
Morels & Poultry, Offal Soffrito, Lovage
Layers of Carrot, Nasturtium, Apricot, Curry
Layers of Carrot, like Fox’s other carrot dishes, ran the gamut of possibilities – roasted, dehydrated, grilled, raw, thick, thin, and pureed. Each cut and technique revealed a new dimension of the versatile vegetable. “That dish is revelatory”, proclaimed the women sitting next to me when it arrived. And I can understand that. The apricot was a touch too sweet but its slight tartness married so well with the carrots. The curry, barely there, rounded out the flavor and gave the dish a nice warm depth.
Before seed to stalk, Fox was head to tail, cooking the final meat courses at Manresa as well as the short-lived salumi program. “He’s hard to please” was his usual response when reading those old Manresa reviews, where even then I complained about big red meat knock out punches. Despite morcilla being among my favorite sausages, I fully expected the same reaction when I saw it printed on the menu. “You what?!?!” was Fox’s shocked response when I said I loved the dish! The pictures are not convincing but it was a nice finish to the savory portion of the meal.
DocSconz had type-casted me as “the vegetable guy” on a recent trip to Germany for Chef-Sache 2011.4 And, true to my role, I could go an entire tasting menu sans meat without issue.5 There is plenty of material to cover but one issue is the complete lack of imagination when it comes to meat dishes 6 – place it on a bed of vegetables cooked in butter. If that is the final course meat strategy, I would prefer to opt out – unless the meat is truly special. 7
The morcilla was thoughtful because the usual monotony of the meat was balanced by cereal grains (barley, wheatberry, and farro) and fennels (bronze and orion) inside of the sauage, the grains it sat on, and the puffed rice that added much-needed texture and toasty notes. There was variety in the dish that was incorporated, instead of separate meat and accompaniment. The portion could be decreased, presentation could be improved, but I’m convinced, or hopeful, that the power of the grain will be the new vegetable.8 Of course, with each passing day, Smith probably got more refined – and the version Winter Jade ate, with squid, looks even better.
Morcilla, Cereal, Bings, Anise
Desserts were more Saison than Smith, made by Matt Tinder (now working at Coi.) The preserved lemon dish is stunning – textures and tastes of lemon – just assertive enough. Fraise Blanche with white strawberries, not the trendy green ones, had a nice expected aroma with a medley of tastes and textures. And you’re not allowed to leave the Saison premises without popcorn ice cream.
Preserved Lemon 1.7
Popcorn Ice Cream
At Ubuntu, Jeremy Fox reached a pinnacle that he won’t be able to conjure at a pop-up. The introduction of meat also makes direct comparisons more difficult; but it was clear his mind is still, fortunately, programmed for the vegetable. His best vegetable dishes are not just organic vegetables from a local garden thrown on a plate; instead, they attempt to re-imagine and re-interpret form and possibilities. Using seed to stalk as a philosophy, it is but a peek into one future of fine dining.9
1 – Those olives are now ubiquitous, and even annoying, but they clearly speak to the essence of El Bulli-era Adria – a playful surreal take on expectations. Eating the olives out of context just doesn’t work.
2 – Yes, this is true.
3 – My first exposure was Manresa but they seem to be everywhere these days. They are a great palate cleanser.
4 – You will read much more on this if you haven’t been following me on Twitter; or Ulterior Epicure, A Life Worth Eating, DocSconz, Gastros on Tour, High End Food, Very Good Food, Cook Cooning, & Fulgurances
5 – My favorite meal at Coi in San Francisco, in a review that was lost long ago, ended simply with an egg. The previous dish had been a small piece of abalone – there was no other meat on that menu. This was probably too extreme for most as it appears a final meat course is the norm again.
6 – What is a creative meat dish? John Shields’s “Beef Cheek – Cow’s milk infused with roasted hay & farro… Pastoral” or Manresa’s “Suckling kid goat, curds and whey” would get my votes for those I would want to try again tomorrow. At La Vie in Germany, Chef Thomas Bühner prepared an amazing venison dish where he cooked venison sous-vide in intense pure venison stock – venison-squared? (Yes, you will read about this in the near-future but you can see a video of the meal by Fulgurances here.)
7 – Did you read the tale of Roberta’s dry-aged meat extravaganza in January? Did you catch my tweets two weeks ago about 7-day dry-aged fish, 23-day vs 50-day pigeon, 120-day beef, and 60-day lamb at Saison? Yes, that post will come soon too. Or, perhaps, you’ve heard tales of the Secret Beef place in Los Angeles?
8 – Will grains be the next frontier in fine dining? Sean Brock has done an admirable job saving, and serving, near-lost heirloom varieties and practices; such as benne seeds and samp grits – see TomoStyle’s review of our crazy meal. Josh Skenes’s Brassicas owes its excellence to the grains. And a recent puffed rice dish served with a farm egg was my favorite, if not the entire table’s favorite, at the recent Royal Mail / Manresa collaboration dinner (see a picture of the same dish on A Spoiled Cochon’s blog post on Royal Mail here.) There is much unexplored territory.
9 – We’re not there yet. Michel Bras walked into a field, Passard planted a garden, and noma has captured the imagination of chefs worldwide. Japan and China? Their secrets surely have much to offer. And the dining public still has to buy into it all. If we get there, and he so chooses, Jeremy Fox will be a major influence.