Season to Taste is Amazing (Long)
Season to Taste, for those who don't know about it, is a catering company in North Cambridge that will cook a tasting menu (6 or 9 courses) for a group from 8-12 (or more specifically, for a group willing to pay at least $800 for their meal). It's a pretty cool setting - a catering kitchen stuck between a copy shop and a pizza place. There is a big, extended family-sized table that is separated from the kitchen by a counter. The table could seat 12, but there were 9 of us. The way it works is that you tell the staff in advance about various food aversions, allergies, adventurousness level, and they source groovy local, in season, ingredients and make a menu. When you are there, it is just your group, one server (very friendly, down to earth, not pretentious at all) and one chef who you can hang out with between courses while he cooks. It was very laid back and comfortable (if a touch cold in the room). In each course, there were usually two options - one accomodating various food aversions, the other for the rest of the people. It worked out. Let me just say that I've been to most of the very good Cambridge restaurants (and I actually think that Cambridge is a very good food town for locavore quasi-fine dining), and this meal was by far the best I've had here. Indeed, it compares (though does not exceed) to some of the best meals I've had anywhere. And, at $100 for six courses, while it isn't cheap, it does not feel at all like a rip off. Let me also say that they offer wine pairings, but that the list of a la carte bottles on offer is interesting and not exorbitant. There were only a few bottles over $40, and there was a lot of choice below that level. So what did we eat?
There were two little amuses (by the way, they didn't count this as a course, so it wound up being 8 courses rather than 6 - I don't know quite why, but I felt like I was getting a deal at that point). The first was a rather generously filled demitasse of Oyster veloute. The way they did it was to put oysters in a food mill and poach it in a fish stock. They finished it with some herbs, cream, and butter. It was delicious - the oysters had dissappeared into the liquid, and so the sips were creamy, oystery, but not overly fishy. Really excellent. The vegetarians had a squash soup.
The other amuse was a "potato gaufrette" aka a waffle cut potato chip that had a small dollop of a cranberry relish on it and a shaving of foie gras on top. The foie had been torchoned and then frozen and grated, so it was not at all overpowering. This was in the running for best bite of the night, many at the table felt cheated that there was only one chip, which I think is a good sign. The veggies got a smoked yogurt cake on brioche.
First Course: Truffled Chawanmushi
This was a pretty crazy dish. The chef made a warm chawanmushi (japanese egg custard) with smoked fish stock and white soy sauce. There were shaved truffles at the bottom of the bowl, and the custard was topped with a dollop of uni, and a few perfectly sauteed bay scallops. The texture of the custard was perfect. The bite with the uni (I wish I'd split it into two or three bites) was sublime. The veggies got a mushroom version.
Second Course: Baby Octopus Confit
Probably my favorite dish, partly because I love baby octopus. The chef had poached and then confited the octopus in speck oil (he fried speck in oil and used that) before grilling it for us. It was served on top of mascarpone grits (rich, but not too creamy) with grilled frisee and a soft boiled quail egg. All of it was sitting in a small lake of chorizo broth. As you ate, the broth picked up bits of egg yolk and octopus juices, meaning that the last bites of grits and broth were filled with happy memories of the first bites of octopus. The veggies had roasted sunchokes instead of octopus and a white miso broth.
Third Course: Gnocchi a la Parisienne
This was a favorite for many at the table. The gnocchi was French style, which I learned means that it is made with pate a choux - the result was extremely light and almost melty. It was tossed with an herb (I think sage) pesto and a hard, almost parmesan-like, tomme. Mixed in was roasted butternut squash and brussels sprout leaves. If I had one complaint, it was that the squash pieces were a tad large, but that was forgiven because the whole thing was topped with about the best long-braised brisket I've ever had. It's hard to imagine how well all this went together, but the portioning was just right so that there was a bite of brisket for every bite of gnocchi - and the combination was really fantastic.
Fourth Course: Duck Roulade
This was many's least favorite course, not really from an execution standpoint, but just in comparison. The duck had been wrapped in chard leaves and steamed until rare. It was served over a farro pilaf. On the plate also was a great carrot caramel (not sure how he did that, but it was awesome), some crispy speck (probably left over from making the octopus confit) and chantarelles. Nothing was wrong with the dish at all - but the other courses somehow outshone it.
Fifth Course: Lamb Two Ways
Another frequently picked first choice. The first lamb prepartion was a "tenderloin cigar" which was a small peice of tenderloin cooked rare and wrapped in a filo pastry with fennel. This was served with a small coin of delicious lamb sausage, a peice of oven-roasted tomato, a few peices of sublime marinated feta, and a smooth fava and mint puree. What was great about this dish was how soulfully Greek it felt, while at the same time bringing elevated techniques. I liked it so much that I ate someone else's dish when they had to stop because they were too full.
Sixth Course (Dessert): Taza Flourless Cake
The cake was essentially just a flourless chocolate cake, executed extremely well. What made the dish sing, though, was that the cake was topped with a beet ice cream (made by processing beets with the cream). The sweetness of the beet and chocolate was balanced out on the top by a fried (and salted) beet chip and on the bottom by an orange gastrique. I was afraid that the whole thing would be too sweet or too rich, but I thought it was very well balanced.
re: Bob Dobalina
It was a private dinner. I had some say in the menu, and probably could have had more. But my sense is that they are most happy getting a set of parameters and being creative within those parameters. I'd bet, however, if you went to them saying "I want a meal where we eat every part of a goat" they'd be into that. They seem pretty resolutely seasonal and nose to tail, and my sense is that the chefs enjoy cooking outside of the sometimes constricting parameters of catering.