review: pioneer… (notion)
You know what I like about Dave Racicot? He’s passionate. He’s generous. He’s fearless. And, he’s just a bit crazy.
There’s little glory, if any, in slim margins, empty seats, and twenty-hour days.
But chefs across the world run the restaurant gauntlet again and again. Why? They love to cook. They were made to cook. They need to cook. And so, to borrow a phrase, they put their lives on the line, risking it all to pursue their purpose.
If you read Dave’s tweets, you’ll discover a man who’s painfully honest about his daily struggles as the chef and owner of a fledgling restaurant named “notion” in Oakmont, a quiet township on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, PA. Some of his short missives are encouraging, funny.
But as one who sits on the sidelines marveling at the dedication of those in the kitchen, I find many of them heartbreaking and immensely humbling. Because Dave is one of a handful I know who is stepping up to the plate and building it, a field of dreams in uncharted and, sometimes, unreceptive territory.
I admire that.
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I first met Dave in 2006. He emailed me, a stranger out of the blue, asking me to eat at his restaurant, Aqueous at the Nemacolin Woods Resort in a far-flung corner of Pennsylvania near the West Virginia border. If I’d get myself there, he’d take care of the lodging and meals. In a rare exception to my fairly strict policy against freebies, I accepted.
In two meals, he sufficiently impressed me with his technical abilities. The kid (he is the same age as I) could cook. And the kid had style – his plates were gorgeous (his version of ajo blanco served as the banner of this blog for quite some time).
Some of his food seemed derivative, a bit too fixated on the “molecular” set (a cocoa butter and caviar duo comes to mind). Some of it was a bit whacky (I had to cup a frozen shot of yuzu and hibiscus tea with my hands for about ten minutes to warm it up enough to get it out of the glass, only to discover a nearly unpalatably tart granita). But a lot of it was tremendously delicious, especially his simpler compositions, like a round of calotte with broccoli puree topped with shaved Idiazabal, and candied plums and fennel topped with a tangy turn of sour cream ice cream.
Convinced of his talent, I wasn’t surprised to hear that Dave was named executive chef of Nemacolin’s flagship restaurant, Lautrec, shortly thereafter. I also wasn’t surprised that he earned that restaurant five stars from Forbes and five diamonds from AAA, top honors from both guides.
But, I was surprised to hear of Dave’s sudden and unannounced departure from Lautrec. Somewhere in late 2009, he disappeared off the grid for months.
So I sent out a query on this blog. Thanks to a reader, Dave and I were reconnected.
As I suspected, Dave was preparing to open his own restaurant. The space had been secured, and he hoped to open by the end of 2010. Over the subsequent months, I received an intermittent stream of updates from him by email and phone, supplemented by photos of the restaurant’s build-out uploaded to the restaurant’s Facebook account.
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When Dave offers to cook for you, you had better be prepared to eat. My first meal at Aqueous was eleven courses. The second one was ten courses.
This time, at notion, Dave rolled out twenty courses, most of which he created just for this dinner.
From his tweets, I know that preparations for this meal began at least a couple of weeks before my arrival. Small staff, small kitchen, small means: I was truly humbled that he’d go to such great lengths to welcome me to Pittsburgh. Yet, throughout our dialogue, and even after my meal, all he could do was thank me, and thank me again for giving him the opportunity to create, to dream, to cook.
Some people just need to cook.
Alan Uchrinscko, the restaurant’s wine director, presented a wine pairing for most of the courses. His wines took me on a tour of the world: Japan to Greece, Mallorca to Germany.
The menu was presented as a prep list, with all of the ingredients for each course listed beneath the course title. For a pedant like me, it was a great shortcut to understanding each dish. It’s also a great reminder of just how much thought and preparation goes into all of the food that seems to magically appear – effortlessly – on the table. I’ve simplified the menu for the sake of brevity, but if you want to see the prep list for each dish, click on the course titles below.
Passion Fruit Soda
Moscofilero 2010, George Skouras, The Peloponnese
Cremant de Bourgogne, Jean-Luc Joillot, Burgundy
Arabako Txakolina 2009, Xarmant, Pais Vasco
Gruner Veltliner 2009, Martin Hugl, Niederösterreich
Gassan No Yuki, Junmai Gingyo, Gassan Brewery, Yamagata
Rielsing Trocken 2009, Heitlinger, Baden
Blanc Selleccio 2007, Cellar can Feixes Penedes
Capoeira 2009, Casal Branco, Tejo
“AN/2″ 2008, Anima Negra, Mallorca
Petelos del Bierzo 2008, Desc. J. J. Pelacios, Mencia
Vina Cubillo Crianza 2004, R. Lopez de Heridia, La Rioja Alta
PX 1982, Toro Albala, Motilla-Moriles
Junmai “Hou Hou Shu,” Morumoto Brewery, Okayama
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal.
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Whereas Dave seemed preoccupied with molecular gastronomy when I first met him, now, his focus seems to have shifted to ingredient quality. Spoiled by a generous exchequer at Nemacolin, Dave has become quite finicky about his produce.
Everything set down before me was extremely fresh, pristine.
And, for the most part, everything was well-executed (an undercooked lubina was the only notable misstep).
Dave has a lot of ideas. And most of them are great, like serving chicken livers and morels in a Dijon sauce on crisp, chicken skin “crackers.” Or spicing rabbit up with boozy rum raisins, orange, coriander, and vanilla, and mellowing it all out with the milkiness of almonds. It was fragrant and slightly sweet, and the rabbit was extremely tender. I liked it a lot.
My favorite dish of the night married the flavors of Asia with steak tartare: peanuts, soy sauce, candied cilantro, bulgogi sauce, pickled vegetables, black garlic, basil seeds, charred scallions, and jalapeno gel. Mixed together and spooned into crisp iceberg lettuce cups, it was tartare ssam. And it was delicious.
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The tartare aside, Dave’s best dishes were his simplest ones. There was a silky flake of cod and sea urchin with a creamy, chowder soup. There were fingers of toasted brioche served with a warm eggy custard, enriched with heavy cream, butter, and cream cheese and threaded with ramps. He knows I like crust, so he gave me strips off the toasted edges of the bun. He called this one “chef’s snack.”
And there were beautifully filleted sardines, fried alongside their skeletons, a presentation seemingly inspired by an amuse bouche I had at El Cellar de Can Roca earlier this year. Dave’s sardines and crispy bones came dusted with malt vinegar powder, and a milky saffron aioli on the side. These were great.
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Sometimes, Dave’s ideas seemed a bit too big for the plate though. As beautiful as they were, his compositions tended to be busy with ingredients, some of which I thought could have been edited out.
The duck consomme was wonderful on its own, clear as a bell, with nothing more than a few cubes of fatty foie gras to give it some body. But the gizzards and octopus seemed like interlopers, misplaced and distracting.
Radishes came with cheese, “meat butter,” a forest of herbs, and a smear of “textured olive oil,” one of the first four courses eaten with my hands. It sounds simple enough, but it seemed a bit too complicated at the time. A plethora of freshness, a lack of cohesion.
And, as much as I loved the duck course, a duo of hot and cold, there really were two different ideas on the plate, each of which might have been more effectively communicated on their own. The breast meat came sliced atop licorice custard and sided by sweet red onion marmalade and elderflower gel, a rich and fragrant combination. The terrine of duck had a brighter and fruitier feel, veiled in a ruby sheet of blueberry and garnished with pickled blueberries, pickled lemon zest, and pink peppercorns.
Jumping between the two proved too challenging, especially with the licorice, which has such a volatile effect on other flavors. So, I focused on the duck breast first, since it was warm and had a bigger flavor, and then finished with the lighter, cooler duck terrine.
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I loved all of Dave’s desserts, even the “floating” sheet of rosewater ice that arrived, unfortunately, thicker than intended. Dave told me afterward that he had gone through multiple test runs successfully, which gave him the confidence to put it on my menu. Yet, he still made twelve of them for my dinner, just to be sure he’d get a good one to serve.
This dessert was made by freezing a bowl of water slightly perfumed with rosewater just until the surface hardened. A small hole was drilled in the surface through which the unfrozen liquid underneath was drained out, leaving a sheet of ice “floating” above a hollow chamber. Ideally, that sheet of ice is thin enough to crack with a slight tap of a spoon. Mine took a bit of mining.
Even if the execution needed to be refined, the idea was great. The rosewater had been left unsweetened. Instead, the sheet of ice had been dusted with menthol powder, strawberry powder, and muscavado sugar. It was like an icy Fun Dip.
My favorite dessert was, surprisingly, a bowl of nutella cake with chocolate pudding, bitter orange puree, salted banana chips, and shards of dehydrated chocolate mousse. It was dark, it was toasty, it was rich, it was crunchy. I loved it. Alan paired this dish with a pour of Pedro Ximenes and I think he nailed it.
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Dave is still refining and discovering himself as a young chef. He hasn’t quite stripped away all of the noise yet to find his own place, his own voice. I know he knows this, because we’ve talked about it quite a few times since my dinner at notion.
But, I’m not so worried about him. I know he’ll find his way. He’s talented, he’s driven, and he’s endlessly passionate.
In the meantime, I’m thrilled to have had an opportunity to personally witness and mark another milestone in his arc as a chef, five years after we first met. He’s off to a brave start, a pioneer trying to plant and grow something new and unfamiliar in the culinary terrain of his area – there simple aren’t any other restaurants within a hundred miles of notion that are operating at the same level and producing such refined and creative food. And he’s doing it all with a handful of realism bolstered by a truckload of optimism, and an increasing sense of humility.
Dave really cooked his heart out for me, and I was immensely humbled by the care he and his staff put into this meal. They fed and treated me like a king – this entire production for one man, one meal. On top of all of that, I was refused a bill at the end of the night, a proposition I flatly rejected. Dave may be stubborn, but this is one battle I did end up winning.
Look up, Pittsburgh, there’s tremendous talent and potential in your front yard. Support it, or else it might go away.
Thank you Dave, for building it. What you’re doing represents the best of the American culinary spirit. Push forward. Keep building it. Adventure, ho!
314 Allegheny River Boulevard
Oakmont, Pennyslvania 15139
~ by ulterior epicure on August 23, 2011.