Let me start by suggesting that before you read any further, you seize the opportunity to make reservations at The Catbird Seat. Because by the time you read all the way to dessert, if not well before, you'll be salivating with hunger and curiosity to explore brothers Benjamin and Max Goldberg's newest enterprise — and by then, you'll already be way down the reservation list.
While you're at it, you might also consider setting up a tax-deferred 529 savings plan to fund the evening, which is going to run $100 per person for the multi-course meal, plus $30 or $75 for beverage pairings, depending on whether you plan to drink first class or coach. (Either way, beverage director Jane Lopes, an alumna of The Violet Hour in Chicago, brings a welcome depth of knowledge with her eloquent and unobtrusive introductions of the cocktails, wines and beers matched with each course.)
One last thing: Have your wallet handy, because The Catbird Seat's online reservation system insists that you provide your name and credit card number up front, a requirement that comes off as a little presumptuous. The same could be said for the automatic 20 percent gratuity. Then again, it's their party and we want to be a part of it.
With those details out of the way, sit back and enjoy the show — a tasting menu devised by chefs Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson. In fact, the show started about a week before our dinner (we booked three weeks in advance), when we got a call confirming our reservation and inquiring about any food allergies or special occasions. Furthermore, the caller advised, the meal would consist of somewhere between seven and a dozen courses and would take about three hours. She wanted to make sure we had enough time in our evening. We did. What's more, we wore our eatin' pants.
Pull up to the valet stand in front of Patterson House, the Goldbergs' artisanal cocktail lounge, but don't go up those stairs. An attendant will meet you at a lower door and usher you through a windowless corridor that might just as easily lead to an underground art exhibit. You'll ride the private elevator, a vertical exhibit space adorned with human silhouettes carved in sleek wood. When the doors open, you'll walk down a Scooby-Doo-style tunnel, papered floor to ceiling in a psychedelic pattern of spiraling pink and silver, until —Zoinks! — you emerge in a Manuel Zeitlin-designed white chamber, where a dark horseshoe-shaped bar rings an open stainless-steel kitchen. In the center, beneath the silver canopy of an oversized range hood, a team of chefs hunkers over swirling immersion circulators and pristine plates, orchestrating an evening that is both dinner and theater.
Like hotel pillows dressed with tiny chocolates on crisp linens, our place settings were laid with petite amuse-bouches that looked like snack-sized Oreos. But no, that was not chocolate with "stuf" in the middle. In a playful illusion that would carry throughout the marathon meal, the dark layers were earthy porcini wafers sandwiching a salty stuffing of Parmesan cream.
Next up, a triptych that interpreted hot chicken as a shard of glassy-crisp skin dusted with warm red spices and topped with Wonder Bread purée, alongside a puffy globe of warm cornbread injected with bacon pudding, and a miniature radish atop a dollop of nori butter. Accompanying the dish, a pretty champagne glass with a carbonated and lightly herbaceous cocktail of dry Riesling, Rhum Agricole and Cocchi Americano offered a prelude of many intriguing sips to come.
Soup arrived with an autumnal flourish when servers delivered still lifes of savory granola, crisp apple slices, ribbons of purple carrot, fresh herbs and peaks of chestnut puree, then ceremoniously filled the bowls from a cruet of chanterelle velouté. The thick silken liquid filled the gaps between the elements of color and texture, melting an airy chip of dehydrated milk and honey into a creamy swirl atop the orange pool. A pairing of fizzy apple cider echoed the crisp fruit in the bowl. As much as the creative juxtaposition of ingredients, temperatures and textures in the soup, the restraint and portion size left us wanting more.
By contrast, the dramatic egg dish overwhelmed with too much of a good thing. Dipping into a hollandaise-colored emulsion of sweet onion and bacon, topped with a dollop of caviar and Champagne-shallot gelée, the spoon burst the golden core of soft-poached yolk embedded in the custard mantle. The first bite was sublime. Someone in our group let out a quiet moan. The second bite was reaffirming: Yes, that first taste really had been as decadent as initially thought. But the third bite edged into excess, and there were still many bites to go. We should have stopped there, but we didn't. Consequently, as the evening progressed, we began to regret the early overindulgence.
A buttery hunk of cod prepared sous vide and wrapped in a ribbon of spicy kimchi — think cabbage prepared with the technology of a Fruit Roll-Up — recalled a plump round of nigiri sushi belted with seaweed. Plated with avocado puree, diced melon and kiwi and a fluffy drift of coconut powder, the dish dazzled in both taste and appearance.
Breast and leg of duck, prepared sous vide and pressed into a single plump square that was seared to an unctuous crispness and sliced into tender strips, was plated with a cannoli of butternut squash wrapped around spaghetti squash and Brussels sprouts. The sizzled duck skin offered crisp counterpoint to the soft vegetables, while a bath tinged with anise and ginger added zest to the rich meat.
If things had ended there, we'd have had our money's worth. But the best was yet to come, in a Wagyu beef short rib strewn with paper-thin swatches of matsutake mushroom, polka dots of shaved black truffle and dollops of truffle puree and finished with house-made farmer's cheese, sweet potato, nasturtium leaves and a sauce faintly laced with essence of pine.
If we could have omitted one course, it would have been the pungent slab of Brillat-Savarin triple crème cheese overkilled with apricot purée, parsley jus, frizzled shiitakes and curry foam, which oozed into a wet mash-up of green and orange. Served in a specialty bowl resembling a small urinal, it was like a cheese course à la Marcel Duchamp.
But the same experimental creativity that leads to such minor missteps also leads to triumphs such as the three preceding protein courses and the dessert course. The series of sweets opened with a brown-on-brown medley of malted cream, chicory gel, dark chocolate and a pistachio crisp, displayed dramatically under a bell jar, which doubled as an inverted glass cradling a shot of Lucky Bucket Certified Evil ale laced with sherry and Madeira. As if anything could top the double threat of coffee and chocolate, the pièce de résistance arrived with a dollop of smoked-oak ice cream, pineapple jam and vanilla cake topped with a crisp shard of tangy dehydrated cherry and whimsical "berries" of Bulleit bourbon, like tiny water balloons of whiskey made from the same kitchen chemistry used in El Bulli restaurant's signature liquid olives.
And yet, it's still not over. Such a buildup requires a gentle let-down. First, a fluffy bite of peanut butter divinity before the inevitable settling of the bill. The Catbird Seat is expensive, but it is extraordinary — a fact that helps the price go down a little easier. To ensure the expense doesn't leave a sour taste in your mouth, the server presents a final bite. Remember that snack-sized Oreo that kicked it all off? Here it comes again, but this time it's not mushroom and cheese, it's coffee and cream — a second playful cookie sandwiching a string of exquisite courses.
Catbird Seat serves dinner Wednesday through Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m. Reservations are required.
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