House of the Rising Sun
The pretty people waiting for a table won't step outside because it's pouring rain, but they won't back up to let us in, either. There is no lobby at Aries, the new restaurant on Montrose where 43 Brasserie used to be, so we have to decide between standing in the rain or shoving our way indoors. I do the blocking honors for my girlfriend and her sister while the witless patrons scurry around honking at me like geese. There is no one at the hostess stand, and even if there were, she wouldn't be able to see us among the idling humanity. After a few minutes, the valet appears, and the turtlenecked and high-heeled gaggle files into the rain and out of our way.
The hostess finally appears, and we decide to wait for a nice table up front that will be ready in a few minutes. Meanwhile, we simmer at the bar over some icy martinis. The alcohol takes the edge off the awkward entrance, and we are soon joking with the bartender. The table is readied quickly, and we sit down with our cocktails. For a restaurant named after the fiery sun sign, Aries has an awfully cool color scheme, with sage-green walls and taupe tweed fabric on the low-backed banquettes. There's not much art on the walls either, so the place has a sort of "blank slate" ambience; it assumes the personality of whoever's in there, whether they're in black tie or black jeans.
The menu at Aries changes daily; tonight there are several soups on the starter menu. I order celery root soup with a Maine dayboat scallop. My girlfriend gets white asparagus soup, and her sister decides on the organic iceberg wedge with Danish blue cheese and hickory-smoked bacon. The wedge salad is so good that my girlfriend and I reach impolitely across the table to mop up her sister's blue cheese and bacon.
The cream of celery root is buttery, and the scallop that sits in the middle of the bowl is seared on top but perfectly underdone. Celery root is also known as celeriac; it's a variety that's grown just for its root and tastes a little stronger than regular celery. Dayboat scallops are appropriately named; they come off boats that fish the waters and return to dock the same day, thereby assuring the scallops stay fresh. It's a good soup, with a striking presentation, but it's still not quite as impressive as my girlfriend's.
Her white asparagus soup is flavored with truffle oil and garnished with baby tips. Early March is the cusp between the beginning of the white asparagus and the end of the black truffle seasons, so there's some playful gastronomic astronomy at work here. And serving this combination in a creamy soup on a rainy night makes it absolutely magical. But it's the bunch of tender asparagus tips, bound together with a scallion green, standing upright in the bowl like a tiny shock of wheat that turns a bright idea into culinary art.
To call Aries chef-owner Scott Tycer an artist doesn't do him justice. There are lots of egocentric culinary artists in America, and they all scream, "Look at me!" with every over-the-top dish they cook. Tycer is something better. He is a culinary genius who has grown up and gotten over himself.
Tycer, who is originally from Houston (see "Today's Horoscope," by George Alexander, December 7, 2000), spent several years in Northern California working his way up from line cook to sous-chef at Spago in Palo Alto. Spago owner Wolfgang Puck, the original celebrity chef, is now better known for his frozen pizzas, movie appearances and Hollywood ego than for his former prowess in the kitchen. Tycer seems to have learned the lesson.
At Aries, Tycer exhibits none of the caviar-pizza cutesiness that makes California cuisine look so dated these days. His food isn't just brilliant, it's brilliantly restrained. He insists on making remarkable ingredients his main subjects, and he complements them with an imagination that never loses its focus. But it's in the presentation that Tycer shows true self-discipline. There are no tentacles sticking out of things, no Jackson Pollock squeeze-bottle paintings and no extraneous garnishes. Like the giant scallop and the white asparagus tips in the middle of the soup bowl, the food itself is the garnish. American cooking just doesn't get much better than this.
It's difficult to categorize the food at Aries, because American fine dining is in transition. Six or seven years ago Texas chefs were obsessed with regionalism; they emphasized local ingredients and local cooking traditions. But that is beginning to change.
"Southwestern cuisine, New England cuisine and the other regional cuisines are fading," Chicago's Charlie Trotter commented at a food seminar in Madison, Wisconsin, last fall. "Regional cuisine is too limiting. Chefs want to incorporate flavors they've tasted in other countries."
Scott Tycer is a rising star in this new era of individualism. I returned to Aries three times looking for something to complain about, and I came away without a quibble. Well, except for the lack of a lobby on a rainy night. And a chatty maítre d' who can be excessively informative when he knows what he's talking about and annoyingly oratorical when he doesn't. But that's being awfully damn picky. The truth is I went back three times because Tycer's cooking is extraordinary.
You can hardly miss with this menu. The Hudson Valley foie gras and caramelized pineapple is one of the best foie gras presentations I've had in America. Acidulated fruit is a favorite foie gras accompaniment in France; the Champagne region's superstar chef Gerard Boyer often serves his with grapes and lemon juice, so the pineapple isn't as odd as it might seem. Tycer's version is served in a bowl with coconut milk. The white liquid modulates the sweetness, but it also makes for a stellar presentation. The colored juices oozing from the foie gras and pineapple float on the surface of the coconut milk in surrealistic patterns that change every time you take a forkful.
Tycer cold-smokes his own fish. I order smoked salmon and sturgeon served with a salad of warm fingerlings and clams on top. Fingerlings are tiny potatoes; they are tossed with the clams in a simple dressing of olive oil, which spreads across the plate and onto the smoked fish. Potato, smoked fish and oil are a traditional French salad combination. This is one of the most clever variations on the theme that I've seen, and the artisanal smoked fish also makes it one of the best I've tasted.
Of the seven entrées I try, my favorites to eat with white wine are grilled poussin served in a big bowl of white-bean-and-bacon cassoulet, and a sea bass on saffron croquettes with a potato emulsion sauce. The free-range chicken breast with potato puree, mustard sauce and garlic confit is more subdued -- sort of haute comfort food. The Oregon poussin with Moroccan barbecue and couscous is an international twist on homey flavors, but slightly out of sync with the other dishes.
With red wine, I try the Allen brothers steak with bordelaise sauce and goat cheese potato gratin, which is probably my least favorite entrée. It's a great steak, but it bears little imprint of the chef's hand. I vastly prefer the Colorado rack of lamb. The juicy pink lamb chops are served with a slick sweet-and-sour eggplant puree that becomes a sort of haute barbecue sauce. With a little chard, some fingerling potatoes and a couple of sun-dried tomatoes, this is a red-meat eater's gourmet dream come true. Especially with a bottle of Ridge zinfandel. Yow! My mouth is watering all over again.
When our entrées are gone, my girlfriend and I both smile fiendishly.
"Bring us the cheese cart," she says, waving off the dessert menus. There is an item on the dessert menu that reads "selection of five farmhouse cheeses with fresh fruit and honeycomb." When you order it, the waiter brings a wooden cart to your table with an array of eight to ten cheeses on it. After a guided tour, you get to choose five. There's an old Cheshire cheddar and a chunk of Reggiano that the waiter attacks with a sharp flat tool; they are both as hard as soap. Then there's an exquisitely smelly, melt-in-your-mouth French Reblochon. We skip the mild French Clisson and pick a couple of goat cheeses. They are served with fresh fruit and an innovative accompaniment, a piece of honeycomb oozing honey.
The cheese cart appears on both the appetizer and dessert menus; I recommend having it between your entrée and dessert. The wisdom of this strategy is that you get to savor the cheese with the last of your wine, without missing out on having some sweets with your coffee. The chocolate cake is good; so are the shortbread cookies that come with the miniature dessert assortment.
But the truth is that Aries' desserts are wasted on me. With the last slurp of wine and a gooey French cheese that's smellier than my junior high gym locker, I have already died and gone to heaven.
Wine Notes: L'Ecole No. 41, Chardonnay, 1999, $35
I'm bored with over-oaked (and overpriced) California chardonnays. Aging on the lees, fermenting in new oak and all the other manipulations have caused us to forget the lovely flavor of the grape. So it's a pleasure to find a straightforward (and reasonably priced) chardonnay like this one. The aroma of this well-balanced wine reminds me of pears with a note of thyme in the background. L'Ecole No. 41 is one of the best wineries in one of America's emerging regions: eastern Washington. The Walla Walla Valley, where the grape is grown, seems like an unlikely area for wine. It's essentially a well-irrigated desert. But the proof is in the drinking.
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