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Degustation: Review + Photos

plumpdumpling Aug 31, 2009 01:23 PM

Photos can be seen on my blog here: http://www.donuts4dinner.com/2009/08/31/restaurant-review-degustation/

My boyfriend got a sudden urge for a tasting menu last week, so I posted here seeking a menu without much seafood to suit me (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/648013/) Someone suggested Degustation, where we’ve been meaning to go anyway, and even though the restaurant has no website of its own to post a menu on, other people’s reviews seemed to suggest the place was right up my alley.

It’s basically located in an alley, so we almost missed it, and then when the friendly hostess came to greet us, it turned out we weren’t on their reservation list. I chalked it up to the unpleasant telephone exchange I’d had with the reservationist the day before in which I supposedly mispronounced the name of the place (http://www.donuts4dinner.com/2009/08/...) but then the hostess asked, “Is the reservation for day-gus-TAY-shun or our sister restaurant, Jewel Bako?” After I finished mentally rejoicing that someone who actually works there pronounces it the same way I did, another employee came over and led us to our seats, even though it was clear we didn’t have a reservation. So A+ to the restaurant staff for clearing up the issue, and F- to reservationist for mucking up my self-esteem and my good name (kidding).

We loved the set-up of Degustation. The 16-seat wooden bar makes a half-rectangle around the kitchen so that you can see your food being prepared and the chef can watch you enjoying it. The diners were a mix of young couples like ourselves who were all ordering the 10-course tasting menu and older couples who had obviously been there before and were enjoying glass after glass of wine. The couple next to me seemed to order every single dish on the menu, and I only noticed because the old man kept punching me in the side with his elbow and cutting his meat with his arm all up in my business, and I was dying for them to leave. Of course I assumed he was mistreating me because he knew I was too poor to be eating there, but I tried to keep my paranoia in check.

Our amuse-bouche was a croquet of corn and pork and a tortilla folded around a nearly-raw quail egg over shallot jam. The croquet was a little too mushy inside, but the shell was perfectly crisp, and corn can do no wrong in my book. I made the mistake of not eating the tortilla in one bite, so the egg leaked out all over my plate, but it gave me a better chance to mix it into the very complimentary shallot jam.

Our first course was a chilled almond soup with champagne grapes and raw almonds. The combination of grapes and almonds was even better than I expected, and as someone who doesn’t care for the texture of almonds, I loved being able to experience the flavor without finding nut bits in my teeth for hours afterward.

Our second course was broccoli rabe two ways with parmesan broth and pineapple foam. The fried rabe was probably the best preparation I’ve ever tasted, but it kept getting soft in the parmesan broth before I could get it into my mouth. The pineapple foam was delicious and inventive, but Kamran didn’t think it mixed well with the broth.

The third course was a heirloom tomato summer salad with basil, egg vinaigrette, and a hunk of pork. Tomatoes are the one food I absolutely can’t bear to eat, so I was extremely disappointed to see an entire course centered on them. When the server asked if I was allergic to anything, I should have just told her I can’t eat tomatoes and bypassed the whole thing, but I thought I could tough out anything they brought me. Kamran told me that his tasted sweet, so I tried a bite of each of the five kinds on my plate, but it took everything I had not to make disgusted faces. He tasted some of mine and agreed that they weren’t as good as his. Luckily, I love basil, and the pork was done really, really well, with an extra-crispy skin.

The fourth course was smoked sea trout with red onions and scallion cream cheese. I don’t generally like fish, but I can eat raw salmon, and this reminded me a lot of that. I didn’t notice the smoky flavor until Kamran pointed it out to me, but the onions were a great addition, as were these tiny green cubes of something incredibly spicy. We couldn’t name them, but we loved them.

The couple around the corner of the bar from us were one course ahead of us, so I knew ahead of time that sardines were coming. When it comes to fish–and especially the very last kind of fish I’d ever eat if given a choice–having more time to prepare myself for it isn’t the way to go. Knowing what was coming, I kept asking questions about it to Kamran, who could do nothing to assuage my extreme horror at the idea of having to eat fish skin.

I was even more horrified when ol’ Jabby Elbow next to me asked if he and his wife could have the sardines off the menu. “We just love sardines!” the woman said. The server told them the dish was only part of the 10-course tasting menu, so as much as I wanted to slide my plate over to them, I reveled in the fact that I had something they couldn’t have.

The first preparation was pickled with a sort of tartar sauce underneath. The taste of it didn’t bother me all that much, honestly, but I just couldn’t get past the slippery skin. Seeing the shiny silver was bad enough, but feeling it slide across my tongue was just awful. I had to give it to Kamran, who told me he’d buy me ice cream later just for trying it.

The second was fried with pickled onions, and it was the best of the three for me, simply because it didn’t look like fish.

But to be honest, the grilled piece actually tasted the best. I love the taste of blackened anything, so it really helped me enjoy the fish. As much as I could ever hope to enjoy a sardine, I mean.

I was very much bored of fish at this point, and the next dish only made it worse. It was a skin-on dorade with matsutake mushrooms and dashi broth. The fish seemed to be cooked well and all, but the dish was just plain boring. It looked bland, and it tasted bland.

I was really looking forward to the seventh course simply because I’ve always wanted to eat something out of a hollow egg. We’d seen a carton of eggshells with their tops cut off sitting on a high shelf above the chef and were excited about the possibility of being served something in them, and what we got was more interesting than I had expected.

It was a duck egg custard with maple syrup, brioche, and bacon. The custard was a little thin, but the sweetness of the maple syrup with it was really nice, as was the crunchiness of the brioche. The dish itself was just good, but the presentation of the egg in a bowl of salt was great.

The eighth course was the first one that really left me impressed. It was chicken confit on toasted bread with a smear of curry and a salad of watercress, celery, and huckleberries. Neither of us had ever had huckleberries, so that was exciting in itself, but the chicken confit was exactly what I’d needed all night. It was comfort food, but the curry and the confit preparation added an exciting twist.

I was just watching something the other day where a chef complained about how sweetbreads are always fried and how he’d like to see them grilled just once, but it turns out there’s a reason they’re always fried. Grilled sweetbreads are like a glob of gelatin with a bit of organ flavor.

Now, I had sweetbreads at wd~50 and was blown away by how surprisingly pleasant they were, but this would’ve been a much better dish had it just been the summer corn, the tomatillo salsa, and the delfino, a wonderful herb that we’d never even heard of. But it wasn’t.

Thank god the dessert was amazing. I was extremely disappointed when I heard the server tell another patron that their dessert menu consisted of exactly one item, a caramelized torija. I didn’t know what a torija was, but I knew it wouldn’t interest me. It turns out, though, that you only need one dessert when it’s this good.

It was a hunk of bread, torched until golden on the outside and left doughy on the inside, served with three kinds of berries. It was DELICIOUS. And I’m not the sort of person who thinks chocolateless, ice-creamless desserts are delicious. It was definitely the highlight of the meal, Kamran and I both agreed. One of the servers asked us how we liked it, and when we made gurgling sounds of appreciation, she told us that a couple in the night before had ordered one round of the dessert, then another, then another. And when he requested thirds, the man said, “Make mine a double.” That’s how good it is.

We consider Degustation an experience that we’re glad we had, but it just doesn’t compare to our dinner at craft or wd~50. We think part of the problem might have been that everyone hyped it so much to us that our expectations were too high. We also think that the overabundance of seafood was a problem, and I’m sure that had I asked, they would’ve prepared something else for me. Or just given me four of those wonderful desserts.

The tasting menu is a value, though, undoubtedly. For $75 each, we got 10 courses of good food with a couple of great moments in a unique atmosphere. I wouldn’t necessarily go back myself, but I’d certainly recommend it to others as a one-time experience. Plus, it gave me the chance to write my first half-negative review, which is pretty exciting.

  1. k
    KTinNYC Sep 1, 2009 08:16 AM

    I have no quibble with your review, good in depth write-up but I just don't understand "It’s basically located in an alley, so we almost missed it." Degustation is on 5th street. It's not an alley, it's a slip of a restaurant but it's definitely on a street.

    1 Reply
    1. re: KTinNYC
      plumpdumpling Sep 2, 2009 12:20 PM

      Oh, I just meant that the door is sunken back into the exterior, so if you're not looking to your right, you won't see it. They don't have a sign hanging above the door like most restaurants, and the hard-to-find-ness adds to the atmosphere.

    2. rosiemac75 Sep 1, 2009 08:05 AM

      I have had the same unpleasant experience with the reservationist for the last 8 or so months. She seems to have taken a new spin on the way the name is pronounced. Since opening in June-ish 2006, the staff I have encountered and the previous reservationists have pronounced it "day-gu-STAY-shun." Wonder what's up the new pronunciation when making resies? It's just an uncomfortable exchange when she corrects you on the phone but maybe we have all been saying it incorrectly...

      1. egit Sep 1, 2009 07:51 AM

        I always speak highly of this place... though I never intend it to be any sort of intimidation or hive-mind. I think part of the problem for the OP is that it was, in fact, rather fish-heavy. And then there was the tomato problem. So four of the ten courses you had were destined to be disappointing, at least.

        Not everyone has the same tastes, and I'm sorry if you didn't enjoy your meal as much as some others have. Although I totally agree on the sweetbreads. I didn't care for mine. In fact, I don't tend to care for them in general and have never met one that I liked. I certainly didn't like the prep at Degustation.

        Part of the risk of doing a tasting menu is that you don't have a lot of choice, and you should be willing to try everything. If you don't like seafood at all, then maybe a 10 course tasting menu isn't really the right option for you.

        Just a side note, the first time I went there maybe three years ago (2? can't remember), they weren't offering a tasting menu. The menu had roughly 10 items on it, and we ordered all 10 (they were larger than what you get in the tasting menu). If there had been something we knew we didn't want we could have doubled up on something else. That may be a better option for people who know they're not going to enjoy most of what is presented.

        1 Reply
        1. re: egit
          k
          kathryn Sep 1, 2009 08:27 AM

          If you don't like seafood or tomatoes, Degustation probably isn't the best place for you since it's Spanish influenced. And those Spaniards LOVE sardines, octopus, cuttlefish, mussels, clams, etc.

          It's not The Best Tasting Menu ever, and with 10 courses, it's hard to hit them all out of the ballpark. But for the amount of food I got and the deliciousness of most of the courses, $75 seems like a steal. But I love seafood and tomatoes, too. :)

        2. m
          maggiej Sep 1, 2009 07:36 AM

          Sorry you didn't have a fantastic meal. Did you happen to notice what was on the regular a la carte menu? I'm wondering if it's quite different from the choices last year. Haven't been since then.

          1 Reply
          1. re: maggiej
            plumpdumpling Sep 1, 2009 09:47 AM

            Here are some reeeeeeeeeeeally low-quality photos of the menu:

            http://www.donuts4dinner.com/images/degustation/DSC07200.jpg
            http://www.donuts4dinner.com/images/degustation/DSC07201.jpg
            http://www.donuts4dinner.com/images/d...

            Some of the dishes we didn't get to try sound pretty exciting, too.

          2. s
            snaporaz Aug 31, 2009 05:43 PM

            Well I haven't been in a while but I really like it... and I love sardines so I guess that makes it easier :) I understand it's not the best or the best, but I think it's still one of the best PQRs around for something approaching fine dining.

            1 Reply
            1. re: snaporaz
              plumpdumpling Sep 1, 2009 09:39 AM

              I agree. For the price, we thought it was really good, and some of the dishes were very inventive.

            2. r
              RCC Aug 31, 2009 04:47 PM

              Thank you for your review.

              Well, fwiw, I was one who was not as impressed as those who gave this place glowing reviews here ... and I posted about it, too.

              1 Reply
              1. re: RCC
                plumpdumpling Sep 1, 2009 09:34 AM

                Nice! I'd love to read it, if you care to link me.

              2. s
                sam1 Aug 31, 2009 01:30 PM

                great report and i agree with you about the restaurant. ive been hear twice. its okay but its not as inventive as one would be led to believe via this board. lots of items that i ordered were not of the highest quality (sepia, some mediocre quality fish).

                that said, its still worth trying and judging for yourself. its a pleasant experience that reminds me of some sort of omakase for tapas. great service too.

                8 Replies
                1. re: sam1
                  plumpdumpling Aug 31, 2009 02:22 PM

                  Well, I'm glad at least one person had the same experience I did. Maybe other people just aren't writing about their so-so experiences for fear of being beaten up in the alley after school.

                  "omakase for tapas" is a good description, though. And maybe I'm just too picky for an omakase.

                  1. re: plumpdumpling
                    Slob Aug 31, 2009 03:17 PM

                    I thought it was good. My girlfriend didn't like it at all. We haven't been back, but if I went back I'd probably order a few items off the menu instead of doing the 10 course again. Too many items out of the 10 that we didn't love.

                    And the entire experience lasted too long for us. We're not the type who like to sit around and linger for a couple hours. We get bored and uncomfortable.

                    1. re: Slob
                      plumpdumpling Sep 1, 2009 09:22 AM

                      Funny–the length of the meal was one of my favourite parts. We did have plenty of time between most courses, though, so it could've definitely been sped up.

                      I think you're right about going back to order small plates. I could've eaten the amuse-bouche several times over.

                    2. re: plumpdumpling
                      s
                      sam1 Aug 31, 2009 04:29 PM

                      no one intimidates me on chowhound...NO ONE.

                      1. re: sam1
                        plumpdumpling Sep 1, 2009 09:24 AM

                        Hott.

                      2. re: plumpdumpling
                        MVNYC Sep 1, 2009 08:15 AM

                        I think you hit the nail on the head. You might be too picky for a tasting menu like this. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The foods listed tend to be one that chefs and more experienced eaters gravitate towards. Personally three different sardines preps sounds like heaven on a plate.

                        1. re: MVNYC
                          k
                          kathryn Sep 1, 2009 08:25 AM

                          I've had the three sardines prep, and if you like sardines, you'll love it!

                          1. re: MVNYC
                            plumpdumpling Sep 1, 2009 09:26 AM

                            I appreciate the "not that there's anything wrong with that". I'd love to be open to all foods, but my Midwestern palate is still working up to some of the stranger ones. (Not that fish is strange, but I can only remember having it all of three times before I moved here.)

                            I blame society for making me think sardines are gross.

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