Thursday, June 14, 2007

Shola's Guest Chef Series: M

Wednesday, June 13 marked the second junket of Shola Olunloyo’s recent flirtation with life and work in the traditional brick and mortar restaurant business. The setting was M Restaurant, an intimate and relatively formal little dining room in Philadelphia’s boutique Morris House Hotel (231 S. 8th Street). With a full sized kitchen and a professional team in support, the meal promised to give a glimpse into the full spectrum of culinary nuances in Shola’s StudioKitchen arsenal, a change in pace from the more rustic approach taken at Apamate. [See the archives for Shola's Guest Chef Series: Apamate.]

Situated across the courtyard gardens from the colonial era Morris House, M benefits greatly from its association with the hotel. The courtyard garden seating area may just be the loveliest, most pacific dining spot in the entire city. On a practical scale, the hotel also provides a much needed foundation for the restaurant, as M would probably struggle to survive on its own. Its bar and dining room, when the patio is not in season, border on being too small for self-sufficiency.

Egress to M is made via a side entrance, just through the gates separating the courtyard from the traffic on 8th Street. The door opens into the cozy bar area, dominated by a an imposing hardwood bar, which seats about eight, and accented by a row of cocktail tables along the window lined front wall. Overseeing the bar is local mix-mistress Katie Loeb, who is doing a grand job of reviving some worthy retro cocktails. While waiting for my dining companions to arrive, I enjoyed her drink of the night, a Floradora Cooler – gin, Chambord, lime juice and ginger ale, shaken and served on the rocks with a lime wedge garnish. Its flavors fit the season without dulling the palate prior to the main event.

The barroom leads straight past the hostess stand and restrooms into M’s petite, softly lit dining room. Arranged along two walls, most tables are setup as two- and four-tops, with a couple of round tables providing seating for slightly larger parties. Both long walls are decorated with neutral artwork and accented by antiqued mirrors; a large floral arrangement stands watch at the end of the room nearest to the kitchen. The whole feel of the room is one of comfortable elegance. Once seated, we were given a few moments to peruse the wine list and to consider the possibility of opting for the selected wine pairings (which we chose). Thereafter, the precision and style of Shola’s menu design and approach in the kitchen quickly manifested themselves.

Spring Garlic Soup
roasted parsley-garlic purée, chicken wings, toasted almonds
Garlic, sweet garlic…. This dish was finished tableside by Shola, who poured the liquid component around the composed elements of the plate. A nutty depth of flavor from slow roasted garlic was complemented by the lighter vanillin nuttiness of toasted almonds then brightened by a stroke of pureed parsley. Top it off with Shola’s signature boneless chicken wings and, in spite of the few skeletal shards I found in mine, you’ve got a bowl of goodness. In my experience, Shola has few peers when it comes to masterfully coaxing the maximum of flavor into his soups without making them at all cumbersome. I can still savor the tastes and aromas of the corn chowder he served at my first meal at StudioKitchen many moons ago.

Wine pairing: Vouvray “Les Argiles,” Prince Poniatowski/Francois Chidaine 2004
The most thoughtful match of the night. I’ve long felt there’s an almost supernatural affinity between Loire Chenin Blancs, Vouvray in particular, and creamy, garlic influenced dishes. Vouvray is also a wine – thanks to its vibrant acidity and frequent touch of residual sugar – that can handle the difficult task of pairing with hot soups. The 2004 “Les Argiles” is a fully dry style but had enough ripeness and flesh to take the soup in stride.

Sweet Corn - Parmesan Custard
black truffle caramel, toasted brioche
I have to admit I didn’t understand this dish. The components, separately, were all quite delicious and the conceptualization is one of the more edgy things I’ve experienced even from the StudioKitchen cadre. I’m just not sure everything came together in harmony. Perhaps it’s just me being persnickety but, in spite of the custard description/component, it also struck me very much as a second soup course. Of course, I did happily clean my plate….

Wine pairing: Bourgogne Aligoté, Patrice Rion 2004
I liked the wine, I found the dish interesting, they did not clash yet they did each other no favors. It was not a bad pairing, just not one that found anything extra in the marriage. From a service perspective, it became clear that there is a need for some additional wine training among the staff at M. Our waiter described the wine as Chardonnay. Though it is permissible to include a small amount of Chardonnay in wines labeled as Bourgogne Aligoté, it is not a typical practice. As for Patrice’s wine, it is an uncommonly rich selection of 100% Aligoté from a plot of very old vines in the commune of Nuits-St.-Georges. Was the staff member’s error the end of the world? No, but diners who might otherwise be unfamiliar with the wine would be likely to take the (mis)information as fact.

Roasted Suzuki
caramelized eggplant-pistachio caponata, sultanas, lovage, yuzu brown butter
It’s hard not to enjoy perfectly cooked striped bass, its crispy skin accenting tender, flavorful flesh. Set atop the most multi-culturally diverse mixture of ingredients of the evening, it came alive. The earthy and spicy eggplant-pistachio caponata (Mediterranean) combined with the sweetness of sultanas (North African) and the zip of yuzu (Japanese) to provide a dizzying array of flavors. I think the dish may have been more discretely delicious without the sour tang of the yuzu but the range of flavors still worked.

Wine pairing: Tocai Friulano, Roncús 2003
This was the clear poor pairing of the night. Tocai’s usual floral and spicy aromatics, medium body and crispness were cooked away by the hot, dry growing season of 2003, resulting in an out of balance wine showing fat textures, high alcohol and flavors more of diesel fuel than of fruit. It’s hard enough to enjoy an awkward wine on its own; it’s even more difficult to match it with food, especially something as wildly flavorful as Shola’s Suzuki dish. A medium bodied Provençal rosé, particularly given the summer season, would have been a better call.

Boneless Rack of Australian Lamb
chick pea purée, braised lamb croquette, fennel marmalade
Sous-vide roasting resulted in perfectly medium-rare lamb with a rich, melt in your mouth texture. The lamb croquette, though a touch dry, brought a more intensely animal and hearty accent to the plate. Finally, pureed chick peas and fennel marmalade delivered earth and lift to balance the meatiness and density of the dish. An overly enthusiastic hand with finishing sea salt – and lamb can handle fairly aggressive seasoning – was the only thing that kept this dish from reaching the sublime.

Wine pairing: Sonoma County “Three Valleys,” Ridge Vineyards 2005
This was the first of two consecutive no-brainer pairings and, oddly, the first of two consecutive Zinfandel-based wines. The regional purist in me would have preferred to see a Chianti Classico, perhaps even a Riserva, paired with this dish. That said, the lush, forward fruit, simple approach and ripe textures of the wine worked comfortably with the lamb. This is the basic, entry-level red in the Ridge Vineyards portfolio, their only wine sourced, as the name implies, from multiple sites around Sonoma County. I’m splitting hairs to point out that it was inappropriately identified on the menu as Zinfandel; at 74% Zin, the wine falls just short of the 75% requirement for varietal labeling in California. Inexplicably, the pour was about half the amount established as the earlier pattern, making it difficult to stretch the wine through the course.

Chocolate Cherry Ganache
smoked chocolate soil, coffee fluid gel, pistachio ice cream
The sublime realized. Upon tasting Shola’s dessert course, my first thought – one that I heard echoed around the room – was “mmmmm, bacon.” Intensely smoked cocoa, in the form of “chocolate soil,” gave this otherwise classic combination of ingredients a kick up to the level of crazy good. Lovely presentation and some damn good pistachio gelato – creamy and flavorful but not heavy handed – didn’t hurt a bit.

Wine pairing: Russian River Valley Late Harvest Zinfandel, Rosenblum Cellars 2003
Rosenblum’s Late Harvest Zin made for a simple, sweet and easy complement to dessert, presenting nothing complicated or expansive, just a pleasing match. More wine service gripes…. It was served at far too low a temperature. While a slight chill may have helped mask the wine’s high alcohol and give it a refreshing edge, serving it stone cold only muted its flavors. Presenting the wine in a tall, skinny glass with a minute aperture only doubled the muffling of the wine’s character, particularly from an aromatic perspective. Form follows function, y’all.

All in all, it was a lovely evening, showcasing flavors and culinary techniques that were true to the StudioKitchen experience. As this was my first visit to M, I’m unable to comment on the regular menu or the typical workings of Chef David Katz and his kitchen staff. It was clear though, from what emerged from the kitchen, that they understood Shola’s thought processes and recipes and were able to deliver at a high level. What I missed more than the extra bit of deliciousness that Shola produces when cooking solo was the personal experience and relaxed pace of dinners at SK. With Shola’s fastidious preparation and organization backed up by a full cook and wait staff, the courses flew out of the kitchen at a dizzying pace. The time from our seating to paying the bill was barely over an hour, not so much the fault of intentionally rushed service as the result of too much precision. I left sated from an eating perspective but feeling like the evening had been cut short in the context of dining. If the talented Mr. Olunloyo does indeed take the plunge back into the regular restaurant world, it will be interesting to see how he translates the intimacy of his art form for the larger stage. His ability to reproduce the quality is already clear.


PhilaFoodie said...

Great shots! Now I'm hungry for M.

David McDuff said...

I am as well, pf. I'll absolutely need to make a return visit on a "normal" night sometime soon.

HungryChic said...

Once again I missed Shola, and now I've missed M as well since it closed last week. Bummer.

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