review: resta solo il canto…
Aitch and C-Dawg are getting married!
I’ve longed to go to frasca food & wine for years and Aitch and C-Dawg provided the perfect excuse for me to scoot out to Boulder, Colorado for a short weekend eat-away.
Besides being the two smartest people I’ll ever meet, Aitch and C-Dawg are my two best friends from my post-graduate years. In our halcyon days, the three of us were a fine dining force to be reckoned with. Together, we conquered epic meals: alinea, moto, the kitchen table at TRU, The French Laundry, and Chez Panisse – just to name a few.
Unfortunately, the happy couple couldn’t join me at frasca food & wine.
But, coincidentally, I had another friend in Boulder that I needed to say hello to.
Fuji was my first professional soul mate. Kids just out of college, we suffered through a loveless job together in Hollywood for a couple of years. I hadn’t seen her in – gosh – six years. Since, she’s moved to Boulder and taken up one of those jobs most people dream about.
2008 was turning out to be the year of fulfilling long-awaited restaurant visits and reunions, so it seemed almost too fitting that Fuji and I met up at frasca food & wine. The fact that I saw Chef Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson win the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest in New York earlier that year was just another happy turn in this perfect circle of events.
I love it when life wraps itself in neat packages.
I called ahead to see if the kitchen would be willing and able to assemble a tasting menu for us. They were very kind in accommodating the request. Additionally, being notified that they would probably have fresh truffles at their disposal, I told them that we would like to be given that option if possible. Below is our menu, a progression of dishes from the restaurant’s regular menu.
La Quercia Acorn Edition prosciutto served with “rafano” and “grissini.”
Warm Salad of Young Lettuces
Applewood-smoked bacon, figs, Montegrappa, and oregano vinaigrette.
Rabbit “Conserva” and Root Vegetable Brodo
Cipollini onions and thyme.
Grilled Mississippi Quail Breast
Farro, turnip, pancetta, and shaved Alba white truffle.
“La Tur” and Soft Ricotta Tortelloni
Brown butter and shaved Alba white truffles.
Maine Lobster “Crespella“
Mortadella, root vegetables, egg and Braeburn apple.
Butter Roasted Wild Atlantic Striped Bass
Green beans, cauliflower, pine nuts, and cranberry brown butter.
Grilled River Ranches Beef Ribeye Cap
Braised leek, carrots, parsnip, and pickled horseradish.
Alta Langhe Brunet
White truffle honey and grilled filone.
Crème fraîche and house-made frozen yogurt.
House-made Manjari 64% bittersweet chocolate.
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CLICK HERE to see photos of the entire meal, or click on the hyperlinked courses for the individual photos.
I’m sure I’d have no clue where Friuli Venezia Giulia is if it weren’t for Lidia Bastianich, the doyenne and ambassador of Friuli Venezia Giulia cookery in the U.S. Her restaurant, Lidia’s, in Kansas City, introduced me to this northeastern region of Italy when it opened about ten years ago.
I’ve shared a couple of meals with Ms. Bastianich; visited three of her restaurants (admittedly, two of which, Felidia and Del Posto, don’t have much to do with Friuli Venezia Giulia); own and have skimmed through all of her cookbooks a dozen times each; and have even recreated some of her dishes at home. Yet, I remain largely clueless about the food and culture of Friuli Venezia Giulia.
The region’s close proximity to the former Austro-Hungarian Empire is apparent from the cuisine. Perhaps, this is why I take to it especially well. Sausages, beans, and whole grains, like the faro served with our quail, are popular. There’s stuffed cabbage and strudel-like pastries. Acid is put to good use – as the pickled horseradish was on our beef course – cutting a sharp, thin line through the richness of it all. And soups – brodo (or broths) - like ours, which came with soft strips of rabbit “conserva,” are stunningly simple and immensely soulful. The onions in the hot soup all but melted away, the root vegetables were soft but sturdy, and the greens (baby spinach?) had become dark green ribbons of silk.
Frico is a word I know. Besides prosciutto di San Daniele, it’s probably the most popularized food item from the region.
I’ve made it at home. It’s a sandwich of sorts: two crepe-like discs of melted Montasio cheese stuffed with a warm, comforting mix of potatoes, onions, and, often, some other inspiring ingredient – I’ve witnessed sausage, crab and scallions, and even sautéed apples.
If you’re bad at making frico, like I am, the cheese discs turn out thick and clunky. They’re greasy and the edges can be hard, if not burnt. It’s a ploughman’s tuck.
Bastianich’s frico – the dozens of times I’ve had them – are thin and soft. They’re a shade between gold and bronze. Or, maybe, gold with bronze highlights? They’re terrific – rustic, but accomplished and presented with class.
MacKinnon-Patterson’s version is even more refined. He achieves a thinner layer of melted cheese – impossibly thin – which dissolves on contact, leaving only its full, rich flavor behind. This one was simply filled with sautéed potatoes and perfumed with herbs and spices. Instead of being served as a round, or a wedge of a round, it was neatly folded into a rectangular packet.
Like the frico caldo, all of MacKinnon-Patterson’s food is simply done and elegantly presented. It’s not haute and it’s not complex. But it is a departure from its peasant origins. It’s recognizably authentic without being entirely so.
The cooking at frasca food and wine is confident and refreshingly understated. It’s spartan (the food looked almost naked on the plate), yet immensely flavorful. For the most part, it was flawless.
Ingredients were top-shelf (including the white truffles, which we had shaved over three of our courses). Proteins were cooked perfectly, which preserved moisture. Saucing, therefore, is minimal.
The bone-in “Grilled Mississippi Quail Breast” and pasture-fed River Ranches beef, alike, were juicy, tender, and kissed with grill smoke. Flakes of “Butter-Roasted Wild Atlantic Sea Bass” unseamed at the drop of a fork. Stained scarlet with a just a touch of cranberry-brown butter sauce and garnished with pine nuts, the almost gelatinous fish was spectacular.
And the pasta, too, was a highlight.
Between the house-made pasta – which had an exciting bounce to it – and the smooth ricotta and La Tur filling, I’m not sure which was the more compelling part of the tortelloni. Either way, the plump buttons were such powerhouses – in flavor and texture – that I wonder whether the white truffle was wasted on this dish. Though these white truffles were surprisingly pungent, the aroma took a backseat to the pasta, in my opinion. And white truffles, to me, are a jealous ingredient that are happiest when given the title role. Or, maybe my sensory bandwidth wasn’t large enough to accommodate all that traffic at once.
The same might be said of the white truffles and quail pairing. The grill smoke and juicy meat in that dish was sufficient to carry that plate through successfully without more. But truth be told, the shaving of white truffles was rather stingy on this course – two landed on my plate – so the truffles didn’t make much of a difference anyway. In fact, the smokiness from the meat overwhelmed what little truffle aroma there was.
Where the white truffles did shine – and shine magnificently – was on the cheese course. This was simply a wedge of Alta Langhe Brunet (Formaggio) topped with freshly shaved white truffles and accompanied by white truffle honey. The pairing was spectacular. The truffle honey wasn’t that slightly greasy, emulsified honey with truffle oil you find in jars at the more fashionable markets. This milky white honey flecked with chopped white truffles shavings, which seemed to shimmer like bits of gold leaf, was heady and, by itself, could have been a wonderful dessert.
The prosciutto that kicked off our meal along with the frico (both under the banner of “antipasti“) wasn’t the prosciutto di San Daniele mentioned about. Instead, it was domestic La Quercia (Acorn Edition) prosciutto. The ham came with matchstick-thin grissini that, unfortunately, were too dainty to hold up under the weight of the prosciutto. That was a little annoying and senseless. Wrapping the prosciutto around the grissini proving impossible, Fuji and I just went at it with our forks and knives, using the creamy horseradish sauce made from crème fraîche (garnished with chives and red onions) as a glue with which to adhere the shards of grissini to the ham.
Despite its name, the “Warm Salad of Young Lettuces” was much more about the bacon and the figs than it was about the lettuces, though the lettuces made an excellent canvas on which to paint the flavors involved. The Montegrappa (Cow Girl Creamery), a slightly sharp and salty cheese, contrasted the sweet dried figs wonderfully. I feared that the bacon and cheese, together, would be too salty. They weren’t. The salad was incredibly balanced and served slightly warm, which helped intensify the flavors.
The “crespella” for the “Maine Lobster “Crespella,” a supplement which Fuji and I split, was more like a cold wrap. The crepe was thick, a bit spongy, and slightly eggy.
The filling was akin to lobster salad: hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise, a touch of crème fraîche and dices of mortadella. But it picked up a palpable sweetness from the mortadella and tiny dices of Braeburn apple, which also added crunch and tang. Where this fell on the authenticity spectrum, I have no clue. But it wasn’t what I expected.
It reminded Fuji of “bad Chinese food.” I wouldn’t have described it that way, but I knew exactly what she was talking about. There was something about the way the egg and mayonnaise interacted with the sweet mortadella that made me think of Cantonese char sui sausages.
It wasn’t bad. But it was the least compelling of all the dishes we tried (which further reinforces my belief that if you let the chef choose, you’ll usually get his/her best dishes).
The “Huckleberry Brioche,” a pillowy, soft pastry (actually, it was like very fine focaccia) paved with crème fraîche and warmed blueberries (which bled their berry goodness into the creamy spread), was a stunning and simple end. It was accompanied by a dip of house-made yogurt ice cream on a bed of white chocolate shavings. Tart, with a mellow, sweet middle note, this dessert was balanced and tidy and one of the ten best desserts I had in 2008.
The kitchen has a keen sense of portioning. I’m not just talking about the overall portion sizes of the courses, which, at nine plus a supplement, were perfect. More so, I’m referring to the proportions of the ingredients on the plate. At high-end restaurants, the last few bites of a dish leave me wanting far more often than they should – the best ingredient or an essential component having disappeared with the initial or second bite.
At frasca food and wine, there always seemed to be just the right amount of condiment or just the right amount of accompaniments so that every dish started and ended on the same foot. Without having to ration, the pickled horseradish lasted all the way until my last bite of beef. There was just enough extra yogurt ice cream to account for the attrition due to melting – the scoop promised and delivered one last spoonful to accompanying my last bite of the huckleberry brioche. This level of thoughtfulness (or luck) is rare.
So is the service here. It’s spectacular. I’m sure that phoning in a request for a large tasting menu might have raised a flag on our reservation. But I paused between courses and noticed everyone else getting similar treatment around us. But I can only speak of my experience. Our service ranked up there with Jean Georges and le Cinq for one of the three best restaurant services I experienced in 2008. Not since my meal at Charlie Trotter in 1994 have I witnessed such ballet-like movement among the staff. Graceful, efficient, and elegant, we were greeted and treated graciously from head to toe. The servers and service here are sharp and snappy.
I will admit that I was a bit unnerved by the fact that the staff assumed that we would want the white truffle supplement without asking or clarifying the issue at the table(the menus were pre-printed), or telling us how much the supplement would be. But, we didn’t ask and, ultimately, felt that the outcome was fair. The total bill came to $120 for the tasting, plus $60 for the truffles. Together with the wine, supplemented Maine Lobster “Crespella,” tax, and tip, we were staring at a total somewhere in the neighborhood of $240 per person. It wasn’t cheap. But it was certainly a solid meal.
Wine service here is also very good. Complimentary flutes of prosecco were presented at the beginning. I asked for two half pours, specifying a red to go with my beef. Both selections were wonderful, especially the Sottimano Langhe Nebbiolo (2006), which was juicy and dark in the best of ways. It was perfect for the beef – especially in concert with the pickled horseradish – and even better with the white truffles and cheese that followed.
Watching one of the servers slice bread at a side station was like having a front row seat at the Olympics. Like a lumberjack cutting a stick of butter, he buzzed through a crusty loaf with a bread knife in a matter of seconds, leaving a row of uniformly sized slices. Beyond him, I caught glimpses of the kitchen between door swings. It was like watching a French Michelin-starred kitchen – a row of mute toques working calmly and orderly.
The dining room room was much smaller than I expected. A wall of wine anchors the back wall of the dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows running the length of one side, looking out onto the busy, commercial Pearl Street.
The restaurant was abuzz all night. There was a steady flow into the small bar at the front of the restaurant. Not once did I see a seat or table empty for more than enough time to turn it over.
Given the level at which frasca food and wine performs, the restaurant’s and Chef MacKinnon-Patterson’s success comes as no surprise. The quality of the food – everything from the butter to the house-made chocolates that came with the bill (Manjari 64% bittersweet, to be pedantic) that Fuji and I experienced – and service earns this enterprise every bit of acclaim that it has received, including this enthusiastic post from my corner of cyberspace. frasca food and wine deserved a spot on my list of the ten best meals of 2008.
frasca food & wine
Executive Chef Patron Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson
1738 Pearl Street
Boulder, Colorado 80302