The Audacity of Enso
"Enso is an evolutionary solutions workshop which creates the scientific study of deliciousness." So begins the insanely inventive, thoroughly audacious menu at this new sushi/hibachi/Mediterranean deconstructionist establishment on Lincoln Road. I don't mean to suggest the public isn't ready for this, but when I told my wife we would be dining at an evolutionary solutions workshop, she suggested I "find another guinea pig" to go with.
The long, lofty rectangular space has a full wooden bar on one wall, an Escher-like pattern on the other, and a dark bamboo floor. But just about everyone opts for dining outdoors in plush patio chairs that are arguably the most comfortable of any on the mall.
Let's see if I can't decipher the "gastronomy map" (menu) better than our waiter, who seemed as baffled as we. Truth is, once you get past the 49 random arrows, clock faces, charts, bios, photographs, and da Vinci pencil sketches, it's not difficult to figure out. There are four sections: "Nigiri, Rolls & Sashimi," "Dinner Sets," "Entrées," and "Desserts." One challenge is to differentiate between dinner sets and entrées; the second is trying to guess which categorization of main course will taste better: a "study," "analysis," or "inspiration."
Dinner sets, as it turns out, are entrée-size courses fragmented into four parts. "Study in surf and turf" brings fried shrimp and chicken noisette; tobiko scallops on crisp chicken skin; sous-vide veal tongue with octopus chimichurri; roast beef, vegetables, and seaweed powder. Then there's a study in yellowtail featuring a "terrine" of raw hamachi slices layered with diced apple and capped with a sheath of pine-nut crisp; raw slices of hamachi "ravioli" wrapped around diced fruit, glazed with sweet soy, and foamed with basil; hamachi meatballs, minced and pooled in pleasingly potent garlic-anchovy sauce; and pliable "chips" of semidried herbed fillets accompanied by a mini martini glass apparently filled with water — but actually containing "clarified gazpacho." That the clear gazpacho tasted just like gazpacho was the second biggest surprise; more shocking was that each yellowtail component was truly delectable.
Entrées are composed more conventionally. This portion of the menu is splashed with biographical paragraphs concerning Dali, Picasso, and Toulouse-Lautrec, each of which ties into a particular meal inspired by the artist. The Dali analysis notes that among his favorite foods was "liver-stuffed chicken"; the corresponding dish is prosciutto wrapped around chicken stuffed with foie gras (taken from Dali's Les Diners de Gala, "analyzed and recreated by Enzo," or, more specifically, head chef Jacob Durham). We wanted to sample the analysis of lobster and herbs, from The Art of Cuisine by Toulouse-Lautrec, but Enzo, operating for six weeks, offers only about half of the 12 main courses on any given night.
Art dealers, take note: Picasso fetches the highest price ($35); Dali draws $30, Lautrec $28, and van Gogh, exhibited solo in the dinner sets gallery, commands just $19 (for aged gouda, gouda caviar, gouda sauté, bread chips, fruit panacotta, and a glass of absinthe with sugar and water).
"Hibachi skewers inspiration" represents the best deal for the dollar. Diners choose either five ($19) or 10 ($36) items from a list of 14 meats, fish, and vegetables, and then get to prepare them on a tableside grill (though whenever I have to do my own cooking at a restaurant, I'm wary they'll ask me to wash the dishes as well). Lamb and pork were both tasty, if similarly marinated in paprika-potent spice mix. Likewise pleasing were shrimp and baby octopus, the latter providing little pops of soy-seafood flavor. Avoid the mushroom kebab — five teeny caps, one dry mouthful. Aji amarillo and chimichurri sauces sided the skewers, as did beef-bolstered rice; two large, warm flour tortillas; a vinaigrette-dressed salad with curlicues of carrot; and two spherical potato croquettes.
Some things are still off-kilter. Our waiter, for example, explained the hibachi course comes from the downstairs kitchen and the other entrées from upstairs. Consequently the odds of all arriving together were slim. A better system would be to bring the skewers out five minutes beforehand so they could be cooked and ready to eat with the rest. And if there were ever a menu that needed to be clearly articulated to diners, this is it — but the waiters were woefully uninformed. Otherwise, service was cordial and competent.
The sushi category encompasses sashimi, rolls, specialty rolls, ceviches, tiraditos, tartares, a tempura, a carpaccio, two salads, and a clock face set to sushi serving times: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Cut sushi rolls are prettily presented and well executed, the best we tried being a flash-fried panko-crusted toro roll crunchy with petite bits of apple and pickled ginger.
Four dessert offerings "study" apple, fruits, cream, and chocolate. The last was luscious: a moist disk of chocolate cake with a "caviar" of soft chocolate spheres; a housemade Kit Kat bar; a glass of chocolate liqueur topped with strawberry "air" (light foam); and buñuelos bursting with warm chocolate and sided by a vibrantly flavored scoop of banana-passion fruit sorbet. Selections are sized and priced for two to share ($15).
The first of Enso's culinary objectives — "to produce traditional and nontraditional dishes in nontraditional forms, textures, and flavor combinations" — sounds like wording for Dr. Bronner's soap labels. I believe Enso has accomplished its objectives: The food sure is nontraditional, much of it quite delicious. I was inspired. And the guinea pig was downright ecstatic.
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