For almost twenty years, we at Levana Restaurant hosted, indeed pioneered, annual wine pairing dinners. Magnificent dishes, with wines to match them in full measure. The memory I keep from the first of those glorious feasts is something very inconvenient I have yet to live down and turn into a fond memory. At that dinner we were served quail. If you have ever eaten quail, you probably know that the color of its needle-thin bones is identical to that of its flesh. And that’s how I found myself with a bone stuck in my throat. Torn between panic and good manners, I mouthed the words “Call Hatzalah!” (our local, prompt and dedicated volunteer ambulance service) to my husband Maurice, and a moment later we soundlessly rushed out to a waiting ambulance, leaving our stunned guests to finish their dinner. In the emergency room at Roosevelt Hospital, we were met by an eager but green young medical student, who proceeded to read about choking from a huge medical dictionary, Norman Rockwell-style. I had to wait for the medical staff to arrive in the morning, and was given a heavy bucket of janitor’s supplies to hold in each hand, causing the shoulder line to drop and reveal an X-ray of….. the bone! I remember the frenzy that set in as I was wheeled into the operating room, with a team of plastic surgeons working on me. The bone became famous, and the doctors fought to keep it. Well, I thought, they can have it! I don’t even care that I choked in style: It would have been a chic but stupid way to go! Is it any wonder I still think of those food extravaganzas as rough sport?
Fast forward to another, last night’s, extravaganza, at Pardes Restaurant , my son Maimon, my husband and I, good food lovers all. My son had never been there, and in order to give him the whole experience, knowing we would be in chef-owner Moshe Wendell’s excellent hands, I called a couple days before our date to reserve a table and request a tasting menu: Anything he wanted to cook for us would do, I assured the hostess, let him surprise us, just as long as some vital guidelines were kept in mind: Nothing fried, and nothing too salty (my nemesis). Since I had hosted a lunch earlier, for a bunch of foodies-food bloggers that preceded a radio interview with Chaim Szmidt at Kosher Scene, and excitedly mentioned my dinner plans, I watched with great amusement several nu-nu-nu-how-is-dinner-spill-the-beans text messages flash on my phone screen. You just wait, darlings, I’m busy eating, OK? So here comes!
Let me start with the very few easy-to-correct weaknesses, and leave ample room only for the good stuff.
We settled in the charming yard in the back of the dining room. It took about thirty minutes for a harried waitress to just set the table, followed by another thirty minutes until the first dish arrived. It took another thirty minutes until the pace finally settled to normal, and the dishes arrived. I remember when customers had to wait longer than they should at Levana Restaurant, we would ply them with little nibbles and drinks, hoping – correctly – the mood wouldn’t turn cranky. But last night that didn’t take place, and instead while we waited, the lovely waitress repeatedly asked a most unfortunate question “Is there anything else I can get you?” And of course the answer was: Yes, there is: Duh! Dinner.
The wine list is much too short and undistinguished, and doesn’t in any way shape or form act as a worthwhile match to the food.
The dishes the food arrive in are so gigantic as to totally dwarf the food and make it look forlorn at the bottom, as if the dish was what was being showcased and the food was an afterthought. Like flying saucers on steroids crushing delicate little morsels.
The waiter went to great pains to describe the dishes, and was terribly nice, but we could hardly make any of it out, as he had an accent and delivery reminiscent of that of Martin Short, the unimitable caterer in “The Father of the Bride”. Good thing I asked the chef to write down a description of the dishes on our way out.
The menu never got the reprieve of an intermezzo of some sort, granita, vegetable dish, or the like, which in one fell swoop would have acted as a most welcome break to the unrelieved feast, and would have given the chef a rare chance to curtail his menu by at least one dish.
Now that we had this little talk, on to the good stuff. Seriously: The man is a food genius., and I mean by any standards, kosher or not. What I most applaud in him are not even his dishes, which to be sure are nothing short of spectacular. It is the very things that make him a cook after my own heart which I admire most: his utmost reverence for all things seasonal; his fearless exploration of all ingredients, no exception: all aboard! his uninhibited -and amply rewarded – audacity for flavor matchmaking: It is as though he places his whole faith in the interplay of his flavors, and is confident of the result because he intimately knows that old simple kitchen wisdom: Good plus good equals fantastic: Simple as that. No mediocre ingredient ever intrudes on his creations, no ingredient is ever overlooked. Lavender, fennel, wild mushrooms, licorice, absinthe, chamomille, sunchokes, burdock, to name just a few members of the American culinary family perceived as quirky or eccentric, are the regular tools of chef Moshe’s trade: I urge you to try them in the hands of the master! What I love best of all is how even though he starts with seemingly improbable pairings, it always ends up quite harmonious, never outrageous or too rich, never intimidating to the uninitiated. None of those pedantic and tiresome scaffoldings or other silly props. All those often risqué sweet-and-sour pairings that have a bad habit of erring on the sweet side or on the sour side, emerge in Moshe’s dishes as perfectly balanced reductions.
What stands out as brilliantly as the food itself is the way each dish tells a whole story. We will follow an edible character around in its wanderings. Corn four ways: popcorn with smoked paprika; chanterelles, fiddlehead ferns, licorice cream corn savarin; roasted corn, grapefruit, fennel and mizuna salad; corn soup (this one was a real gem). Or take the lamb story: Lamb rillettes (chef, please try shredding these instead of grinding them, and use less salt), pommes boulangeres (outrageous!), lamb belly, olive, prune; radish tapenade with lavender jus (see what I mean by adventurous and out-of-the-box?).
We were doomed by dish six, but we soldiered on to course eight: Desserts! Here I must tell you: They at Pardes had clearly come a long way from the ambitious but somewhat perplexing early offerings we had sampled in the restaurant’s early days. Picture a baba, that luscious yeasted liqueur-soaked dessert, done à l’absinthe (the infamous proscribed potion of the starving – and thirsty-Paris artistic world) with coconut mousse (a teeny drop runny: try a little tapioca or kuzu for texture), raspberry granita and fennel candy. One down, two to go: A chocolate mousse with pain d’epices (a tad too sweet but still wonderful), and a delightfully rustic crispy-soft-creamy-fruity cherry clafoutis with chamomille ice cream. Dairy desserts have nothing on these heavenly confections!
Best of all, just when we thought the chef must be in a state of exhausted stupor, he came out to chat with us, the last customers trying to wrap it up, chatting and laughing his larger-than-life rasping laugh: thanks Chef Moshe for a wonderful experience, and for your love of life and food!
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