Todd English, Chile Olive Oil and the World's Best Polenta
With a Todd English-inspired menu, copious amounts of extra virgin olive oil and a SoHo Beach House backdrop -- it's hard to feel anything but blessed. So despite some surprising service flaws, Chile Olive Oil's intimate dinner last week was a rousing treat for the taste buds.
Designed to showcase the charms of Chilean Extra Virgin Olive Oil in a wide variety of guises, the unique seven course journey was created by celebrity chef Todd English. English, of Olives fame, kicked off the courses by praising his love for the fatty liquid, before vanishing into the kitchen to work wonders with a bottle of EVOO.
Dining at the SoHo Beach House is like stepping into a sweet, hazy memory of Miami past. Thick wooden fixtures, cozy spaces and dimly lit corridors are intimate, romantic.
As a group of 30 or so, we so sat on delicate metal chairs at a long table, topped with flickering candles and charming metal bread bowls. As an aperitif, we were plied with a sweet, dainty olive oil, Cointreau and basil-infused martini. Mixologists have a new muse, it seems.
As a first course, we were treated to an expansive platter of ceviches. Tuna, shrimp, uni, all delicate and fine, soaked just enough to heighten their natural flavors. They were paired with a unique, fluffy avocado olive oil panna cotta, and the surprising gazpacho sopa, a clear, cool soup of various vegetable juices.
Next, we were served the Hudson Valley foie gras potage with duck confit pastrami and fig tapenade (listed on the menu as an "amuse" - first bite). Slightly surprised, as this didn't appear to be the next item on the menu (next up was the "intermezzo," a minted olive oil slushy), I asked the waiter what it was. He assured me, it was the slushy. It was not the slushy.
Next up, the actual slushy. Extremely sweet and slightly syrupy, one sip of the icy treat was more than enough, but it served to cleanse palates for the main dish.
As an entree, the menu listed a vegetarian option -- a double carrot risotto with feta and honey infused olive oil. The alternative main course was olive oil poached veal "Oscar" with lobster schnitzel and fennel salad.
My dining companion and I flagged a waiter down. As non-veal eaters, we chose to request the menu's vegetarian option. The waiter left and returned, asking us if the lobster alone would be OK, as the other dish (risotto) would take 35 minutes to cook. We agreed. (Turn down lobster? Never!).
A waiter then returned with a plate of what appeared to be a heavy soup or grits of some kind, put one before each of us, and told us it was the main vegetarian course. It didn't look much like lobster. But we dived in anyway, and it was one of the most delightful dishes I've ever had the pleasure of consuming. When asked, they told us it was polenta. And polenta it was, infused with an obscene amount of cheese, bubbling over with rich, creamy goodness. Spoonful after spoonful, I couldn't stop myself. My fellow diners seemed afflicted by the same compulsion. Then, the waiters returned with the lobster ... our main course. Followed by a dish of the risotto. Huh?
Not one to complain about lavish amounts of mouth-watering food, we tasted all of them. The lobster schnitzel was sweet and tender, the light breading, infused with nutmeg, was a sweet addition to the dish. The carrot risotto, flavorful and moist, was masterful.
The polenta, it seems, was actually a side dish to share. But this foodie is thrilled she didn't have to do so. I have since dubbed this dish, the World's Best Polenta.
On a side note, a diner to the left of me asked the waiter if she could take home her rather large remainder of veal. After all, it's a shame to throw away such a superb piece of meat -- and her dog loves leftovers. The waiter told her "it would be difficult." What's difficult about a piece of tinfoil, I'm not entirely sure.
The sweet finale was a moist, delicate tres leche cake topped with strawberries.
While the waiters seemed ill-prepared (more than once I heard them respond with a shoulder shrug when asked a question about the meal) and rather unaccommodating -- nothing could spoil the remarkable nature of the meal itself. Like an Iron Chef battle, ingredient olive oil: the lovely liquid was seamlessly infused into each and every dish.
All in all, the experience was exceptional. Graceful surroundings and pampered palates.
And the polenta. Oh, the polenta. It stands out as one of the most superbly perfect items I've ever encountered. Mr. English's magnificent maize will haunt my dreams until I can recreate the recipe. (He mentioned parmesan as the sole cheese, though we could have sworn white cheddar was a participant. A delicious mystery.)
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