Monday, May 21, 2012

iNG Living Social Menu

I receive daily offers from both Groupon and Living Social (LS), most of which immediately end up in my discard bin. Every once in a while, though, something arrives that manages to snag my attention; in this case, it was a Living Social offer for an 8-course dinner at iNG, including drink pairings, a signed menu, and kitchen tour. iNG (an acronym for "imagining new gastronomy", at least that's the on-the-record explanation) is one of two restaurants (Moto is the other) run by Chef Homaro Cantu, both of which fall in the vein of molecular gastronomy. Moto was the first and most critically acclaimed, resulting in a cookbook, a short-lived tv show, a food research & design firm, and celebrity chef status for its founder and two underlings (Richie Farina and Chris Jones, recent contestants on Top Chef: Texas). iNG came around a little bit later, replacing an earlier spinoff eatery (that was called Otom) next door to it on Fulton Market Street (both restaurants share a kitchen). The stretch of Fulton Market on which Moto and iNG are located is turning into quite the hot spot for innovative dining, with our friends Next/Aviary just up the street, Publican and Publican Quality Meats a block away in the opposite direction, and new ventures being announced (including a gourmet doughnut shop and a Latin fusion restaurant) almost weekly in this formerly downtrodden neighborhood.

Although we'd heard much about Chef Cantu and his exploits, neither Mrs. Hackknife nor I had dined at either of his establishments (the missus had appetizers at Otom for a work function once). The LS deal was valid for only Tuesday and Wednesday nights (presumably in an attempt by iNG to get butts in the seats on slower evenings), so after checking her work schedule, Mrs. Hackknife gave me the go-ahead to sign us up. We were both quite looking forward to our experience, even in the afterglow of the stellar meal we'd had at Vie just 3 short nights before. Unfortunately, not all was well. Up to the night of our dinner, I had at no point ever communicated with the restaurant - everything was arranged via LS. It was on the train ride into the city that I happened to notice the fine print at the bottom of our vouchers stating "Please contact iNG prior to your dining experience so that a reservation can be secured for this voucher" or something to that effect. Hmmm....I thought, would've been nice if that had somehow been pointed out earlier to me, so I tried calling the listed phone number (which was the restaurant's receptionist line) and promptly reached voicemail instead of a person on both attempts. By that time, my ride was pulling into the station and I resigned myself to sorting the issue out upon our arrival on iNG's front doorstep. After asking us if we had called for a reservation (which, of course, we had not), the hostess managed to find our name on a voucher list for the evening and, although seemingly a bit flustered, assured us that this wasn't a problem (foreshadowing alert: I should have picked up on this as the first sign of potential trouble).

We were directed to our table and had a few minutes of solitude to admire the futuristic decor (including a curved wall covered in tiny white tiles right next to us) before one of the waitstaff came over to explain the service for the LS menu. Each of us were given a paper menu folded into a cube (quite ingenious, actually) that listed the 8 courses, plus the drink pairings that would amount to "a lot of booze" as I believe the waiter put it. The cube contained a popcorn ball mildly spiced with Thai chiles inside (reminiscent of what Graham Elliott serves) as an amuse bouche. This was followed up with our first official course, a cobia ceviche (see below) served with avocado, watermelon radish, cucumber, and crunchy tortilla strips (a very tasty 3 bites except for the fact that you had to look pretty hard to find the fish), well paired with a slightly dry Adelsheim rose wine from Oregon (not a region particularly known for the non-floral variety of roses).

Course #2 was a small block of salmon garnished with a half of orange, a crisp ginger cracker, and salad greens that we were instructed to dress with a pipette (something I don't recall using since high school chemistry class) full of strawberry rhubarb vinaigrette. This dish was paired with a cocktail that came to the table in separate components, a Belgian lambic beer in a tall shot glass and a test tube containing a mixture of vodka, green chartreuse, cherry, lime, and sour ale, the 2 of which we dumped together in a tumbler full of ice. Although the salmon and its accoutrements was fine and was enhanced by the cocktail, the whole concept of this course seemed a little out of left field (science lab?).

Next up was our first meat course, intended to evoke spring thaw. A bowl of pork belly pieces was topped with kombu seaweed and surrounded by small white bits of maitake mushrooms, which clumped together and floated atop a miso broth looking like shards of ice atop a thawing pond (at least, I guess this is what it was supposed to resemble - you be the judge below). It may not have visually worked, but the flavor combinations were great in my opinion (Mrs. Hackknife did not agree, finding hers to be a little bland). The beer that accompanied the pork belly, another Belgian (Brouwerij Van Steenberge's Atomium Pale Ale), was fantastic and will be sought out for the Commissary fridge.

The fourth dish presented to us consisted of 3 small pita disks of shredded lamb, one each featuring hummus, tzatziki, and tabbouleh as the spread underneath the lamb. They were delicious, but really tiny (I could have used about a dozen more) and disappeared quickly from the plate. Yet another very good Belgian beer, a Abbaye de Leffe Brown Ale, was the drink pairing. At this point, I should probably mention that the pace of service had been slowing with each passing course. We noticed that a number of diners had all arrived around 7 pm (like us) and appeared to be having the LS menu at roughly the same rate; that is, we all seemed to be simultaneously waiting longer and longer for the next plate to emerge from the kitchen. In addition to the flagging pace, it was becoming apparent that the service itself lacked the polish that would normally be expected when you're dropping significant money on an 8-course tasting menu. The waitstaff was young, enthusiastic, and friendly, but made some obvious mistakes (long lapses between table visits while waiting in vain for food, setting down drinks while another server is describing the food course and vice versa) that were magnified by the delays in the back. The vibe felt, well, almost TOO casual for the surrounding environment.

Next up (after a sizable wait) came the wackiest dish of the evening - a deconstructed chicken pot pie composed like a scene from a bathtub (entitled "April Showers"). This course contained a capon breast formed to resemble a bar of soap (embossed with the word "iNG") topped with a savory foam that looked like suds, garnished with a crunchy piece of toasted brioche (made to be a "sponge") resting on cauliflower and Tokyo turnip. For the coup de gras, our server squeezed out dollops of white and green cream onto the plate from what appeared to be shampoo bottles (the drink pairing was a J. Hofstatter Blauburgunder, or Pinot Noir, from Alto Adige in Italy - no word on what part of the bathroom this was supposed to represent). I liked the way the various components melded together (it really did taste like chicken pot pie), but the whole presentation seemed whimsical for whimsy's sake, not really fitting into the overall theme of the menu. The picture below doesn't do it justice.

It was now time for the miracle berry course. What is the miracle berry, you ask? The miracle berry comes from the so-called miracle fruit, a plant native to West Africa that contains a compound called miraculin. Miraculin is a natural sugar substitute that, when consumed, actually changes the shape of the taste bud receptors on the tongue so that the sweetness of whatever is being eaten is enhanced. Chef Cantu is a big fan of using the miracle berry as a trick technique in his modern cuisine (as are his disciples - Chef Chris Jones once used it during a Top Chef quickfire challenge). For our course, we were given a simple glass of unflavored tonic water, a wedge of lemon, a wedge of lime, and a small packet containing a miracle berry tablet, which we were instructed to place on our tongue until it completely dissolved. In theory, once the tablet did its thing, the sour lemon and lime would taste sweet and, after squeezing their juices into the glass, create an all-natural Sprite-flavored soda from the tonic water. Mrs. Hackknife found that this sorcery worked very well, while the effect on me wasn't as pronounced as I'd hoped, leaving me with yet another mildly-intriguing-yet-not-entirely-relevant dish.

The tablet's magic was supposed to last for about an hour, long enough to help improve the sweet factor of the two dessert courses that followed. The first was a little flowerpot full of goodness called "May Flowers" (see photo below).

The pot contained unsweetened lime curd mixed with pieces of hazelnut and tea cookie, described to us as an unorthodox take on key lime pie. Without the miracle berry, the curd would have been exceedingly tart, but was mellowed instead. I really liked this dessert. Mrs. H did not, not even after washing it down with the accompanying Kabinett Riesling (sweetened more to the level of an Auslese by the berry).

Last up was our "Easter Egg Hunt" dessert, but not before an almost-interminable wait (15 minutes?) by 6 or 7 tables all hanging on this one dish. Mrs. Hackknife speculated that the kitchen must have screwed up something and had to restart. Or maybe none of the patrons had called ahead to secure a reservation like they were supposed to (due to the poor communication from LS) and the kitchen was overwhelmed by this point (despite the fact that the dining room wasn't even half-full). Whatever the reason, the worst part was that the waitstaff played it off as if nothing was amiss, not offering apologies, explanations, or even the courtesy of eye contact during this awkward time. With an early morning flight yet to follow, my increasingly-agitated wife was about ready to bolt when the plates finally arrived.

I can't exactly recall the composition of the dessert (it contained chocolate, brandied cherries, and graham cracker, done up to look like some sort of gothic Easter egg massacre. Very rich and tasty (melding well with the black forest two-ways - whiskey, chocolate, and cherry - drink pairing), but awful to behold.

As soon as we polished off the final course, Mrs. Hackknife ran for the valet while I settled up the bill. We didn't want to stick around for the kitchen tour, which was good since none was offered anyway. I couldn't get a good phone connection in the dining room, so I had to guess at the exact voucher numbers to write on the bill (no one has called me to complain that they weren't correct, or maybe, in keeping with the general level of disorganization, they just haven't figured it out yet). It's a shame that we had a poor service experience at iNG, as the food wasn't bad and even excelled at times. Sadly, at this price point, we expected much better and probably won't be going back anytime soon. LS didn't exactly impress me either - I got an email the morning after our visit reminding me to call the restaurant to secure a reservation for my dinner that had already occurred (not much help now, is it?). I think it might be high time to head towards the loving arms of some lowbrow dining for a little while....

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