A lot of people think that my life is just one amazing dinner and wine tasting after another, and that nothing I experience is ever less than completely awesome. I don’t want to let you down with a bump, but the truth is that a lot of the time I’m kept busy by PR people with the job of making rather unremarkable and over-priced products look like they’re of enormous significance and a steal too. Sometimes I do get lucky though, and Saturday night was one of those genuinely inspiring moments, although it didn’t look like it was going to be that stunning when at 7pm I arrived at a pop-up restaurant in what looked like an art gallery on a dingy street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The email invitation I received told me that this was the NYC guest appearance of an avant-garde restaurant in Vancouver, BC (British Columbia) called The Acorn, and that just like in their beautiful home town they would be serving a seriously vegetarian menu. The invitation deliberately didn’t shout out the V-word, but in the end what was served was indeed a vegan meal. However, that really isn’t the point at all. What I tasted at Exhibit C, an exciting space for culinary and other arts at 88 Eldridge Street, was a breathtaking exploration of the gastronomic possibilities of vegetables and the fermented juice of the grape in BC. Even when a dish involved ingredients I’m rather familiar with like pumpkin (see the photo above), Shira Blustein and Robert Clarke of The Acorn always found an angle that I hadn’t thought of. In the case of the dish pictured above, slow-cooked squash was dusted with ground pumpkin seeds, pepper and cumin adding far more to the experience than a mere seasoning.
This sequence of dishes wouldn’t have been as stunning as it was without the complementary BC wines that sommelier Kurtis Kolt had picked. The star of these was the 2012 Riesling from Tantalus not only accompanied the flavors of the slow-poached and glazed carrots (the unpretentious, but delicious first dish of the menu), it’s lemon curd and salty-mineral character set them alight. This may not be a “big” wine, but on the other hand it’s certainly not light-weight. It also isn’t bone dry, but neither is it by any stretch of the imagination sweet. BC wine often has a radical freshness and a remarkable ability to defy the conventional categories of taste. This was a perfect example of that phenomenon! Of course, the label of this wine (like all the Tantalus wines) features a mask from one of the indigenous tribes of this part of North America. What winery in the US would dare to do that? None Instead, their labels are either cool, but hopelessly dull imitations of French/Italian classics, or they do things like feature machete-wielding nubile young women in a half-hearted nod to Tarantino. Sorry, but neither of those things excite me.
At their NYC pop-up The Acorn delighted me with each dish they served, but their variations of the Bassica family, pictured above, blew my mind. I am not a restaurant critic and I feel obliged to point out that this is not a restaurant review, not even a pop-up restaurant review. I must also point out that there are no points, stars or any other kind of symbols on offer here. The reason for these things is that the conventions of restaurnat reviewing no less than those ranking systems make it more difficult for you the reader to grasp what an exciting restaurant or winemaker are actually doing. This dish did was conjure an entire spectrum of aromas and flavors from one of the least loved and appreciated vegetables. A lot of chefs have tried to do that, also for the cabbage family, but it never stirred me before as this combination of rosemary roasted red cabbage, pickled cabbage and roasted cauliflower did. The textural contrasts were no less exciting than the flavor contrasts, but there was nothing self-consciously intellectual about this dish (or any of the other dishes), it just tasted simultaneously complex and satisfying. That’s a darned good reason to head to the airport and get on a plane to Vancouver RIGHT NOW!
Dear chefs of America, please prove me wrong if I am wrong, but it seems to me that The Acorn is a highly inventive vegetarian restaurant of a kind lacking in the USA. At no point during the evening did I feel even the slightest pang of longing for meat or fish of any kind. That was an experience I only had three times before, which means The Acorn is something very remarkable, even within the creative context of Vancouver. I got lucky that they came to NYC when I was here, and Kurtis Kolt thought of asking me if I could come. NYC got lucky that Exhibit C provided an ideal frame for this introduction to the world of BC food and wine here in the city. I went along expecting to be interested and I came away totally amazed. It is these rare experiences that make my job not only worth doing, but a luxury!
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