I’m going to split some hairs now. I say that because I’m going to draw distinctions about something that already annoys most people. My pointlessly-bold statement du jour is that there are two kinds of foodies: those who value the presence of something on a menu, and those who value the execution of something on a menu.
A pointlessly-bold statement, no doubt, because to the average American diner, both sub-species of foodie come off as snobbish and annoying where eating is concerned. But we’ll set that aside for the purposes of my little post here.
I’m not sure whether its implicit in my wording or in my simply drawing the distinction, but I feel a little bit of discomfort around the first type of foodie, and place myself in the second camp. You can include all the rare, peculiar, or local ingredients on your menu that you can find. That will, admittedly, catch my attention. But when push comes to shove, I actually plan to eat something at a restaurant. So your pastured rare-breed such-and-such had better taste good. Give me instead a fine loaf of bread, expertly smoked pork shoulder, or a perfect “Perfect” Manhattan. You can’t get me to shut up about good pizza crust, but I grow cold from a complex dish crafted poorly.
I say all of this to set a baseline for those who don’t know me well enough to understand my approach to cooking and dining. I don’t mean to denigrate menus with fancier fare – on the contrary, my love of exploration and creativity predisposes me to try restaurants and dining experiences that include peculiar ingredients or preparations. I just happen to enjoy restaurants – clever or otherwise – that get some of the basics right: balance in the meal from start to finish; proper salting; ingredients that work together harmoniously. I believe I experienced an extraordinarily clever menu last night that worked so well because the chefs totally nailed the basics.
Meddle is the long-in-the-works pop-up restaurant from Tim Bereika and Collin Wagner. Tim’s been cooking at Secco since its opening in 2010 and Collin has been cooking and working all over the place since leaving his job as Tim’s original sous chef. Their kitchen reunion for the purpose of this pop-up was a brilliant one. Together they conceived of and delivered a series of delicious, focused courses that built in richness and complexity of flavor as the meal advanced. Each course, from the amuse-bouche to the dessert, lingered on the palate just long enough to remind you that a) you wanted more, and b) you could never have it again.
The meal started with an amuse-bouche of sea urchin and blood orange-infused tapioca suspended in a cava gelée. Enough for a single spoonful, and served in the emptied test of a sea urchin, itself resting in a miniature cast iron vessel. It was an initially strange bite of food, but it woke up my sense of taste as the flavors mingled, and the tapioca added a pleasant textural element. Ocean flavors continued with the first formal course, and those ocean flavors were oyster all around: poached oysters with oyster leaf, oyster root (salsify), and oyster emulsion. These components made up a cool and light salad with sea beans and seaweed, and left behind a pleasing, faintly salty flavor of the ocean.
Course two was warm and introduced a variety of textures to the meal. It had a playful title, “Chicken or Egg”, and it was a playful presentation/construction as well. The dish consisted most prominently of a “nest” made from crispy-fried parsnip shavings, dried mustard greens, and crispy chicken skin. Sitting on top of some granny smith apple sticks was a soft egg with a wonderful custard-like texture, pickled mustard seeds, and a few drops of chicken glacé. This was one of my favorite courses because of the interplay of textures, and I couldn’t resist simply stirring up the whole thing into a mash in order to get a bit of everything in each bite.
The next warm course included some of the best goat I’ve yet eaten: goat sausage, goat tenderloin, carrot, goat curd, juniper berries, some micro greens, baharat spices, and what I think may have been honey? Whatever the case, it was deeply flavorful and savory. A fitting course for the apex of the meal.
And finally, dessert. And this, while reigning in the otherwise-escalating intensity of flavors, still held its own following the goat course. Here was a beet root ice cream (or sorbet?) with malted barley, coffee, dark chocolate, and sorrel. Each little bit of the frozen treat a perfect bite size, like little jewels found beneath the sugar-dusted sorrel leaves, resting in earth. Man, that’s some really trite-sounding prose, but I can’t dumb it down. It looked superb with flavor to match.
And then? I returned home. I can’t go back and experience these dishes again because they were designed to be ephemeral – more so than everything else that we consume already. Here were four (five, counting the amuse-bouche) courses proffered by two chefs Richmond is lucky to have, firing on all cylinders, crafting special items that perhaps would not survive the general public of our local dining scene. But for these two nights of Meddle’s existence Tim and Collin, with their collective grasp on the craft of cooking, were free to create food the likes of which I’ve not seen or tasted in Richmond before.
I sure hope it’s not too long before I can taste such food again.
Oh yes, and in case you’re interested, here’s whate all of the food looks like: