A Cyan from Above
"Welcome to chaos," the hostess said, though she grinned beautifully as if she had never experienced a day of it in her life, or as if she were accustomed to action whirling around her like the Tasmanian Devil. Our table was just then being clothed A cloaked in water glasses and stainless flatware. Would we care to wait in the bar? We would. We ordered...oh! the table's ready. Would we care to follow the hostess again?
But what's this? Two busy busboys, denuding our pressed and pampered partner for the evening. The hostess offered us a practiced look of embarrassment, squared and unsquared her shoulders. Would we care to return to the bar? We assured her we didn't mind being temporarily wineless, and watched as she threw herself into the silverware fray. No less effective for her cheery giggles, she marshaled the table into dining correctness and finally seated us, with her apologies.
Of course, we weren't sorry. Our time at the hostess stand had afforded us a first glimpse of Kerry Simon, superchef of Blue Star, an appropriate name for the Raleigh Hotel's new celeb-spot restaurant, considering that celestial stars are broiling masses of exploding gas A brilliant chaos. And also if you consider that in this town, restaurateuring can lead to stardom. Especially if the chef cultivates, like our hostess, a look worth photographing, a library of cool.
In other words, we didn't recognize chef Simon because of his whites or because of his inquiries at our table about our meal (he didn't inquire). No, we remembered him from the gossip columns, the local rags that publish his picture repeatedly. South Beach club crawlers revere those who feed them (and feed on them). Instantaneous A list fame. Chefdom.
Since the advent of television and subsequent cooking shows, chefs have become nationally recognized on sight: from Julia Child to the frugal Jeff Smith. One of South Florida's own rising stars, Norman Van Aken, has also hosted a television show (sometime around the holidays) and may soon join their elite ranks. Van Aken's face is familiar to us because he's been creating his expressive cuisine for years in South Florida. So how did Kerry Simon, who only this past year relocated from NYC, bull's-eye himself as the paparazzi's newest darling?
Well, he has an agent. Which is not as excessive as it may seem. Many restaurants and chefs hire publicists or marketing firms to promote them. These companies prepare press releases and chef biographies, mail menus, place advertising A anything to attract the public palate. But it could be a problem when the chef becomes involved with his own publicity, spending more time on the floor posing for pictures than he does in the kitchen preparing plates. On our recent evening at Blue Star, cameras flashed so often in Simon's (and others') direction the restaurant resembled a nightclub, cast in a robotic strobe. Fortunately for Blue Star, Kerry Simon is not just a professional poser; he's also a professional chef, and a talented one.
Simon learned to cook at the Culinary Institute of America, which helps explain his kitchen skill. As for his talent in front of a camera lens, he could have mastered the pose by watching Ivana Trump, who hired him almost four years ago to handle the Edwardian Room at the Plaza, his most recent assignment. There he also gleaned a gimmick, which he has repeated at Blue Star: the dining table in the kitchen trick.
A New York tradition, the table in the kitchen allows the elite A or those who can afford to feel that way A to dine amid the subtle din of an expert operation. (A general curiosity about this process, I believe, is what led to the development of open kitchens.) And it is a wonderful opportunity to absorb the essence of the work that goes into creation. Under the guidance of the chef, it's also a pampered meal throughout. Such occasions often demand a hefty surcharge and/or a celebrated name to secure the privilege. At Blue Star, however, the charge is minimal in comparison to Big Apple prices.
Perhaps because of his hip, boyish presence, locals regard Simon as a wunderkind. But the fact is he cooked in New York for more than two decades. He deserves a more serious appellation. On a good night, uundergod is the word.
French-apprenticed Simon brought his classical talents back to cowboy America, and beneficiary Blue Star serves the result: upscale Old World cuisine with spicy Asian and Southwestern flavors A wood-grilled salmon with curry and citrus, for example, or grilled loin of lamb on a pile of shredded blue corn tortillas accompanied by a smoked corn salad. These are creations that bear the distinctive mark of a personality, as my brother-in-law learned when he began to order the lamb cooked to his specifications. He was interrupted by the waiter: "The chef makes it medium rare." Yes, sir! The delectably rosy slices tenderly adorned the plate, but not for long. I've never seen my brother-in-law eat so fast and with so much visible satisfaction.
We began with a game-bird appetizer, the white corn chowder with barbecued quail. Our waiter described this dish as "the only thing that might have a little bit of cream." He would have been more accurate describing it as an unhealthy but thoroughly delicious amount of cream. The silky chowder encompassed both ingredients, the jalapeno-redolent quail a terrific complement to the nutty vegetable base.
But in a general way, he was absolutely correct. Margarine is served with the bread, skim milk with the coffee, and most of the menu items lack the fats of heavy butter and cream, relying upon the meats for flavor. For instance, a rotisserie chicken entree captured the flavor of the flame as well as the bird, and was beautifully brushed with fresh herbs. A melange of wild mushrooms on greens and a tangle of pommes frites, however, testified to Simon's heavy spice hand. Salted like a Keys fisherman, the mushrooms might as well have been fruit of the sea rather than the earth. And the strawlike potatoes, slightly soggy, had been scented rather potently with cumin, an Eastern variation that did not quite work.
Dishes that fail sublimely are the risks that any hard-working, imaginative chef encounters in his or her career. Kerry Simon is no exception. In a kitchen as good as his, failures aren't dramatic -- no burned bottoms, no fallen souffles. Rather they're mistakes of judgment, easily made and just as simply rectified.
In addition to a lack of heavy creams, Simon's menu shuns thick sauces, compensating with relishes, salads, and spices. This results in some intense flavors, heightened by the fact that he doesn't seem to enjoy the subtler spices at all. In some instances -- the Thai seafood salad with papayas and cashews, for instance -- this approach succeeded. The curry dressing could have easily overwhelmed the entire affair. But the generous, sweet portion of shrimp, the buttery cashews, and the plump papaya provided balance, resulting in a fine variety of textures and tastes.
The same potentially dangerous situation existed with the steamed yellowtail snapper in a savory roasted vegetable dressing. In this case, roasted garlic was used for emphasis. Once again the signature flavor of the spice was remarkable in its intensity. But the delicious, breath-stealing outcome was of a mild fish granted the favor of flavor. Be warned, however: This entree may not be a wise choice for someone self-conscious about the lingering scent of garlic. (The same might be said for the heavily spiced garlic mashed potatoes. Both smooth and rough with lumps, this outstanding side dish figured irresistibly on our table and our waistlines. I already long for it.)
The only main course in which Simon's penchant for the piquant proved overwhelming was the barbequed lobster with corn truffle sauce. Chili powder shellacked both the rim of the plate as garnish and the delicate Maine crustacean, a misguided pairing. The size of the lobster, scarcely a one-pounder, didn't help; the thin flesh was too frail for the robust energy of the pepper.
Though the spices at times seem as loud as the cabaret-style music, Blue Star mainly delivers what it promises: an excess of high-brow comfort food, up-graded for an excessive crowd by a chef who is one with them. My brother-in-law, lover of the lamb and also my sister, had only one complaint. The round table at which we were seated was too big, he said. He had plenty of room for his long legs, but how was he supposed to play footsie with his wife? It's true I had to shout to be heard, but I enjoyed the spaciousness as much as the meal. Besides, Kerry Simon can't be blamed for a little chaos beneath the table.
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