Claim to fame: Taking diners on a pilgrimage to a private plantation
Reason to go: Chef Menes can make a die-hard vegetable worshipper out of the staunchest carnivore
To look out for: Artful drip coffee to be ordered at the beginning of the meal; single origin beans, Japanese cloth filters, served like fine wine
It’s like a ritual, we’re told to wait in the Normadie Hotel’s jazzy lobby before we’re led through a corridor to a diminutive room with a high counter (comptoir in French) that seats nine and faces a sleek, tiny kitchen. Our anticipation is swallowed by the room’s plush dimness, the sliver of sidewalk ennui that slips through a window at the far end enhances our feeling of being privileged guests at a not-for-just-anyone-soirée. It’s a secret society for vegetable nerds, a very small sanctum where “dead animal products”, as the online menu reads, become mere choirboys while Chef Gary Menes sings the praises of heirloom greens that he grows in his mother’s garden.
Following a short and decidedly non-preachy sermon about the menu, Chef Menes turns his back and gets to work, begging his guests to please not speak with him as he’s cooking. The amicable staff is there to answer all questions. And to plate things right in front of us, making for mesmerizing entertainment; will that piece of roasted lacinito kale actually balance on the side of the ceramic dish, did that one plate get more artichoke than the other?
Menes, who has worked with Cali-culinary greats such as Joachim Splichal and Thomas Keller, is not a vegetarian, nor is he doctrinaire about his eight course, plant-based menu, there are substitutes such as velvety scallops seared in cultured butter and crispy pork belly, cooked into divine submission for 72 hours, but the meal’s main focus lies on what comes out of the ground. It’s humble, yet as punchy as the pope’s pellegrina.
Seven different types of beans are gently braised and dressed with an unctuous, sweet-sour sauce; a reduction of the braising liquid, red wine, honey and vinegar, monté au beurre. The legumes are topped with gastrique-cooked peaches and a crunch of soaked, raw almonds, and spooned straight out of the pot, for deceptively, country-rustic effect. If this doesn’t make you see the light, Menes’ potato, scallion and gravy-gospel will. It’s a Sunday roast without the beef, presented in Lutheran simplicity; spuds both mashed and roasted, accompanied by a curl of scallions and a proselytizing smear of glossy sauce, made from 20 lbs of red onions that have been caramelized for hours, pressure cooked, strained and finally reduced to heavenly richness.
The vegetable worship is capped by a hearty dessert, a donut hole made with the chef’s 21 year old sourdough starter and preserved berries form the garden. Or, for those who prefer a savory amen, a selection of cave aged, meticulously sourced cheeses.
Menes does the wine pairing himself and you might as well go with his smart selection of (mostly) classics from old world regions, they’re a steal at $46. Or bring your own and pay a corkage fee.