Opus report (well, ok, rave)
Based on recent excellent reports on the cooking at Opus, my wife and I decided to see two of our dearest friends off from Los Angeles to the cold wasteland that is Chicago with the nine course tasting menu. We arrived around 8pm to a bustling room- packed on a Wednesday night. The space is impressively cavernous, yet the design nicely breaks it up into what feels comfortable chunks with some very comfortable looking leather booths, wood accents, and warm dark tones. The only place I’ve been to recently that I can compare this too design-wise is Myth in San Francisco, which has a similar comfortable/industrial feel.
We started with a bottle of sake for the table- a very nice complement to the Japanese inflected fish courses to come. Service was a bit slow at first, taking a bit longer for things to get going than I would have preferred to take drink orders, bring drinks, take dinner orders, and get dinner out- I suspect it was 45 minutes or so before our first course arrived (we arrived a shade after eight and departed around midnight). The guy bussing tables mentioned they were short staffed, and apologized for the delays, as did our waiter. As the company was excellent, the delays were a minor matter, and once the sake arrived the wait was easy and forgivable as the place was clearly slammed.
And then the food began to come ( I may have transposed the order of dishes somewhere in the middle here). . .
Avocado mousse with salmon caviar- perhaps a hit of dill in this- a wonderful spin on the eastern European service of salmon caviar with sour cream (usually on blini) which I grew up with. The avocado mousse substitutes perfectly for sour cream adding a lovely nutty note to go with the sea salt of the caviar.
Amuse Bouche- pumpkin soup poppers- little deep fried cubes of rich sweet pumpkin soup, playing off the texture of the avocado, a bit of something sweet and rich. Fun and really fulfilling, the sort of thing you could easily eat by the handful.
Japanese red snapper tempura w/ white soy sauce- a little skewered piece of snapper wrapped in pancetta, around a shiso leaf with a sauce of white soy and what seemed to be meyer lemon juice. Immediately satisfying, and deeply tasty, while complex and interesting. The acid in the sauce cut the fat in the light tempura crust (more like the ethereal outside of the platonic ideal of a hushpuppy than a classic tempura), while the white soy gave it a subtle richness that played off the pancetta beautifully. Different on each tasting.
Yellowtail sashimi and braised octopus- Several lovely pieces of yellowtail with a firm fleshy octopus- a great textural pairing, married by what appeared to be a mild chili oil (it seemed almost like a paprika oil, echoing Hungarian sweet peppers). This worked exceedingly well together as the subtle flavors of sweet hamachi and octopus played off each other with a full mouth-feel from the flavored oil.
Maine scallop with clam chowder- Damn! This guy doesn’t shy away from strong flavors- intensely clammy chowder with a single seared scallop in the middle. This was easily the most savory dish so far, the chowder with a deep clam funk setting off the sweet seared scallop. I had a case of love at first bite; the rest of the table was initially nonplussed by the strong flavor of the chowder, then paired it with the scallop and began to appreciate it more, until, by the last morsel, they were having an ‘Aha!’ sort of moment.
John Dory on a celery relish- the other accent has slipped my mind- a lovely morsel of fish, with a the crunch and aroma of celery- very nice, though I think my piece was a shade overdone.
Fried quail with lobster bordelaise- Wow!- someone took the essential goodness of a whole fried chicken and pan gravy and condensed it down into a little half quail. So good, so simple. The quail distracted me from the sauce, which didn’t strike me as especially lobstery (compared with Jar’s lobster béarnaise on a good night), but the rich delicacy of the quail was . . . wow. . . so damn good. . . .
Pork shoulder, fried sweetbreads, bone marrow tempura over white beans and gooseberries- Another jaw dropper, this was a continuum of changing ratios, starting with a wonderful piece of pork shoulder, very moist inside with great pork flavor- the sort of taste I associate with confit or carnitas (which, as I like ‘em are a higher temperature confit) but without quite the richness which comes with cooking solely in fat and a light crust outside- either perfectly braised in a very small quantity of liquid or braised then roasted or sous vide then roasted. Damn, I should have asked. The sweetbreads were a lovely puff of panfried goodness, a thymic fritter, with a satisfyingly nutty crust and rich interior. So how do you top that? So who thinks you *can* top sweetbreads? Tempura-ed bone marrow. Crunchy lovely crust with a big scallop-like portion of what I presume was beef marrow inside. Richer and crunchier than the sweetbreads (and a related tissue for the more anatomically-minded as both are involved in hematopoesis). The whole dish came together as a riff on a cassoullet- with the white beans providing a nice counterpoint to the rich meats and the little cooked gooseberries cleansing the palate for the next bite. Brilliant, classic, innovative, and so damn good. I suspect this dish will haunt me for the rest of my life, one of those apocryphal, irreplicable food moments.
Concord grape sorbet with rice crackers- a powerful sweet-tart sorbet of concentrated grape with little rice puffs- slightly nutty and crunchy- hey this is peanut butter and jelly! A great palate cleanser and a very funny folly.
Tapioca brulee with blackberries- I’ve forgotten the accent once again- nicely done, a tapioca pudding done as cream brulee, the large granules of tapioca contrasting texturally with those of the blackberries, warm versus cool, smooth versus bursting.
‘Simple chocolate cake’- a nice little square of brownie-like chocolate cake with whipped cream, caramel, and chocolate sauces. Well done, and a very satisfying finish, but not the showstopper of the meal.
Cumin-pistachio brittle- I hunted the spice bazaar in Istanbul when I was there last, trying to find the pistachio brittle I’d had once before, only to have it placed in front of me, whole cumin seeds (a digestive) in with the pistachios. An unexpected finish, and a wonderful synchronicity.
Overall, I was extremely impressed. My sense is that the sommelier, Ralph (?), picked up on the earlier hitches in service, as he came by midway through the meal to discuss the sake which he had added to wine list recently, and graciously gave us a tasting of the other sake on the menu (described as more ‘masculine’) and a great Washington state syrah which went beautifully with the pork dish. Next time, my wife and I will definitely put ourselves in his hands with the wine pairing in hopes of furthering our education. Chef Josef Centeno came to the table on several occasions, and, in response to our request for autographed menus as souveniers, was kind enough to hand-write out tasting menus for each couple. I’m definitely now a fan of his cooking. He didn’t shy away from bold flavors or experimentation, but the dishes seemed very focused and well-composed, as did the entire experience, each course building into the next. The ultimate proof of success was in how happy everyone at the table was. My wife and I both have fairly broad culinary experience and jaded palates, and were satisfied and impressed on every level. Our guests, who had never really had dining at this level before were utterly comfortable, something which would *not* have been the case at other establishments where service can be obsequious or snide. Moreover, both had that sort of wonderful revaltory meal that stays with you, one exclaiming ‘it really is an art.’ Some moments are perfect and this was one- a beautiful experience to share with dear people on their departure from town. Satisfying both the jaded and naïve palate is an impressive feat.
Having had the tasting menus at Spago and Sona, I would say the food is easily on par with either of those places, though the service not quite up to the standard of either. Dinner for four was a tad more ($580 with tip, $90pp tasting menu, 1 bottle sake, 2 glasses sake, 4 glasses wine) than a comparable experience for two at either of those places, and with far more comfortable feel (and one which I can afford more than once a year). Overall, fantastic, I’m already planning my next visit.
Wilafur, he will accomadate requests such as these. I was there very recently for a tasting (review coming shortly) and the SO made a very similar request regarding exclusions and it was no problem at all.
Our request regarding a specific INclusion, however, was not honored.
Ordinarily I think a special inclusion request is not really appropriate when ordering a tasting menu. That's why it's a tasting.
BUT, this was the SO's very special bday dinner and she really wanted some scallops, her only request for the evening. So I asked to please include the scallops. It didn't happen.
SO was cool about it, but I was perturbed.
"Our guests, who had never really had dining at this level before were utterly comfortable, something which would *not* have been the case at other establishments where service can be obsequious or snide."
Couldn't be said any better. Great report, Andrew, thanks!
Bravo, Maestro Centeno!