New Roots: A Delicious Tug-of-War at Restaurant Cinq
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My wife's appetizer of fresh chorizo-stuffed dates finally clicked in as I snagged a few of the thyme leaves from the corner of the plate and placed them atop a bite of the slightly meta-sausage. A casing of fruit, its textures ranging from papery to sweetly tacky to satisfyingly crunchy, swaddled a torpedo of mildly spiced fresh chorizo, hints of vinegar and paprika gently breaking against the dark sweetness of the date. Underneath, a dice of cucumbers dressed with an equally genteel crème fraîche provided a whitewash for the polite flavors. Little tributaries of black garlic echoed back the sticky fruit, adding their own mildly tart edge. It was all very nice, a well-mannered little plate you'd be happy to introduce to your mother.
Then the thyme kicked in. The synchronizing effect was a bit like the moment you finally figure out how to "look through" a stereogram, the elusive pirate ship or peace sign suddenly popping into view. The assertive herbal lilt drew out the muskiness of the sausage and threw the fresh, ever so slightly bitter crunch of the cucumber into more interesting relief. The crème fraîche dressing seemed both creamier and more vibrant; the black garlic gathered itself up into a tamarind-like intensity. As if by a kind of magic, a few leaves of thyme took a collection of pleasantly expectable yet somehow disconnected flavors and turned them into an altogether more exciting package. I would have discovered that sooner had that thyme not sat alone in the corner still attached to its woody stem, seeming for all the world like a nonfunctional garnish.
My wife and I puzzled over that one as we puzzled over the little clump of gold and green variegated sage atop her braised shoulder of goat. When I disengaged a few leaves and deposited them on top of a shreddy forkful of meat, dressed in a garlic-butter foam captivating in its intensity of flavor and insubstantiality of form, the goat did a little dance, announcing itself at last. The sous-vide-cooked muscle was delightfully tender and so mild that you'd never have guessed it was goat. That is, not without the help of the sage, which drew a bit of muskiness from the meat, making it more itself. So gilded, then dragged through a bit of the squash blossom purée mooring the dish, it became both richer and more subtle.
So why, then, the stems? The herbs themselves are a smart touch, a little unexpected jump in flavor to wake the palate back up, to make it take notice, to draw connections between the elements on the plate. Those stems, though...
They showed up again in a succotash of summer squash nestled underneath a sort of torchon of sweetbreads, poached in chamomile and then seared to add a fine layer of crispness. The succotash was a nice textural point, mirroring the crisp but yielding offal, but I could certainly have done without the ungainly sprigs of thyme left in the mix, denuded, even, of their leaves. Likewise, I would have preferred that the fat strips of sundried tomato stay home; they overpowered the delicacy of the squash.
A firm reminder that chef German Mosquera's plates are best eaten as the sum of their parts, the sweetbreads had a slightly waxy firmness to them that was cut through cleanly by the pickled Celeste and Golden figs found sliced thinly underneath the succotash and halved around the perimeter of the plate. On their own, those figs were a bit bracing, but they were a perfect pair for the rich meat, each pulling the other back from its extremes.
Extremes seem to be the norm at Restaurant Cinq these days, with the menu feeling a bit like a game of tug-of-war. Gone is the split menu of "New Ideas" and "Classics," neatly divided so as not to scare off those regulars in simple search of a nice bit of meat and sauce. Instead, the menu tries to be both at once, and it frequently succeeds. Take, for example, the buffalo hanging tender I enjoyed one night.
Meat and sauce: The meat was pan-roasted, the sauce made from the roasted drippings, emulsified with a good bit of butter. The sauce was fine-tuned, rich but not to distraction, buttery but not heavy or greasy, deeply meaty yet with a subtle fruitiness. The meat was a lovely medium-rare, though served a bit cooler than I might have liked (a consistent issue with the meat dishes here), and boasted a broad flavor with the faintest sliver of minerality. It was all very proper and expected.
Only the meat was tiled over a row of thinly sliced cantaloupe. Only the dish was presented with its own companion drink, a "charred grapefruit elixir" foaming dramatically in its rocks glass. A perfect sphere of ice sat concealed under the surface, enclosing a bit of budding greenery I was told was thyme.
While I would have preferred a bit more explanation about the "elixir" (I was at first uncertain how it was to be employed. Dump it over the meat? Drink it separately? The questions resolved themselves when I grasped the glass and found it cold, and a quick word with our waiter confirmed its intended function), I found it went quite nicely with the richness of the course. Pleasantly spicy and almost assertively bitter, it reinforced the well-crusted meat while also alleviating some of the richness.
The melon was just under-ripe enough to have a bit of bite and to avoid overt sweetness. It was a lush temper for each bit of steak, a floral and beguiling counterpoint. Had the kitchen applied proper seasoning, it would have been a truly memorable dish. As it was, I found myself reaching for the salt, a relatively rare occurrence for me. I found that happening more often than not, another confusing stumble of execution.
During dessert on a subsequent visit, the kitchen sent out an impromptu plate when two of the three dessert options failed to appeal. A stunningly simple array of fresh fruits, mild yet lively, sat atop a thin mortar of peanuts and something like nougat, though not nearly as stodgy. A pale and almost timid sorbet of the same cantaloupe mounted the fan of figs and dice of melon, echoing the flavors in haunting fashion. It was light and elegant, simple but well-thought-out, and utterly delicious. There had been no time for tug-of-war; this was German Mosquera.
So too, I'm afraid, was a previous visit's dessert of clay-crusted violet sorbet anchored by a rubble field of Pop Rocks. Those, too, were dusted in clay. It was quite a bit like eating a facial treatment: interesting, but not enjoyable. The moment the Pop Rocks hit, their earthy mantle giving them an almost nutty demeanor, was surprisingly fun, but the effect wore off quickly and the dish was pushed to the side, left to melt into a troublingly gray and suspiciously crackling mass. Not every "New Idea" is a keeper.
Given the chef's vegan roots, it should be unsurprising that one of the best bites came in such simple form as a handful of fruit. Though vegetables didn't figure as much into the food as I'd expected, fruit most certainly did. Figs were everywhere, as was melon. Yellow watermelon, its rind pickled and wrapped around a "summer sausage" of quail and beef marrow, also came as a fine dice on that plate, standing against the charry flavors of the meat and adding a pleasantly yielding crispness against the firm sausage. I tasted no marrow, nor did I find much call for the tapioca-like wild mustang grapes dotted here and there, but the overall impression was lovely and a perfect pairing with warm weather.
Cantaloupe, the first specimen from the kitchen's own garden, graced one night's fish special, a sort of napoleon of golden tilefish. The pearly and cleanly oceanic fish was poached in court bouillon, and sandwiched a spread of moist cornbread stuffing much lighter and more elegant than that implies. It was a study in light. Even the beurre blanc clinging to the bottom of the shallow dish was graceful, with just enough depth and structure to make the little cubes of melon sing. This, along with an appetizer of grilled prawns, shows the kitchen quite handy with seafood.
Those prawns, paired with deeply smoky and luxuriously textured eggplant and dusted with roasted hazelnuts, were a layered and luxurious affair. Sweet, smoky, nutty and nuanced, the dish is a standout. Once you've pulled the meat from the shell, go for the head, if you're game. You'll be rewarded with a wallop of shrimp flavor that's not unlike a crustacean punch to the nose. It's one of the menu's more visceral thrills, as is a tangled web of roasted lacinato kale, dressed up with leeks and lemon, which sides a perfectly respectable rack of lamb. Served at a perfect medium rare and glazed with a demi-glace with just enough mint to allow the phrase on the menu, it's a dish that's been on the menu, I'm told, for some 30 years, now bumping up against clay-poached baby carrots, foams and Pop Rocks.
Throughout the menu, you can feel the pull and sway of the restaurant's classical leanings and its chef's more modern aspirations. It's in the lightness of flavor applied to dishes like the summer sausage and in the clever smoked eggplant condiment underscoring the prawns. It's in the foam that actually works on top of a sizable hunk of braised meat. It's even in the bookending of a simple rack of lamb and an even simpler last-minute dessert.
When German Mosquera gets it right, he gets it very right. When he gets it wrong, it's usually just by a turn. More attention to seasoning would go a long way, as would a reconsideration of the manner in which herbs are employed. Matters of execution that can, and should, improve. Don't serve woody stems. Trim the okra, the only one of the sides I'd order again, and let me enjoy its salty/sour/sweet/bitter complexity. Also, lay off the clay. If Mosquera can do that, and maybe pick up a little more purchase on the menu's rope, Cinq could be on its way to great things.
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