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Perfection

If seeing the special Spargelfeier menu got me excited about grabbing a table at Chinook Tavern (see review), then hearing Clemens Georg talk about it made me realize I had to grab that table now.

"Do you know about white asparagus?" he asked.

Yes, I know plenty about white asparagus. I've been in love with the stuff since the day it first made an appearance in one of my own kitchens years ago. My chef at the time (a Frenchman of indeterminate culinary pedigree, with a penchant for drinking all the line's cooking sherry when he was in a mood) had ordered an entire flat from some specialty purveyor one spring and then never bothered to tell us, his crew.

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The asparagus was ugly, the huge stalks packed in dirt and straw. They didn't look white so much as gray and filthy. And they smelled so strange, like rich earth after a lightning strike, like mud and battery acid.

So we stashed the asparagus away in coolers, the way we generally treated the chef's odd purchases -- flats of edible flowers, langoustines, Black Sea salt -- and went back about our business.

Come dinner service, Chef rolled back in and took his place at the pass. With just a glance, he was able to see every inch of our mise, and he noticed right away that there was no white asparagus anywhere. He asked what we had done with all those beautiful stalks, and we told him that we'd stuck them in the cooler because no one knew what to do with them.

He acted like he'd been shot. He gasped. He reeled. He looked like Redd Foxx on Sanford and Son faking a heart attack. (The French have never let a dramatic moment go by without milking it for all the rage and pathos it's worth.) He called us every name he could come up with in two languages, then stomped off into the cooler, came back with a fistful of the asparagus, kicked my grillman out of his post and proceeded to invent the night's special right there in front of us, even as the first tables of the evening were being seated.

I'd never seen anyone work with white asparagus before. His gentle washing, trimming, oiling and grilling of the stalks, the red-pepper aioli and rouille he made, the way he plated -- patting the stalks dry of any oil again after grilling, then bundling them together and tying them with a slip of leek -- looked brilliant to me. It was so simple, so classic, so pure and unadulterated. What's more, he'd pulled it off in about three minutes flat.

"Now you," he said, slapping at the grillman whose responsibility this had become. "And don't fuck it up."

We served maybe three of those specials that night; I don't think our customers knew any more about white asparagus than we did back then. And the next day, after seeing how badly his special had flopped, Chef dipped into the sherry early, leaving us to our own devices. We all ate white asparagus for lunch -- pounds of it. We played with the stalks, experimented, tried peeling, tried blanching, attempted all the abuses that we had customarily heaped onto plain green asparagus. It was like a hundred years of culinary trial and error packed into one afternoon, and when we were done, we decided that Chef had it right in the first place.

Except for the leek ribbon, of course. That was just way too French.

At Chinook, the Georg family -- and chef Markus, in particular -- have had a decade to perfect their recipes, and they run them all during that brief seasonal window when white asparagus is at its best. But while I had some very good asparagus there, I had some pretty bad asparagus as well. This had much less to do with Markus's skills than it did with the sad fact that white asparagus is a tough bitch to love in the kitchen. Much more delicate than green and, from the start, already slightly more bitter, a stalk of white asparagus can go from sublime to absolute acidic shit in the space of just a few seconds. And it does nothing to tell you it's turned. A perfect stalk and a bad one look exactly the same, smell almost identical, have the same texture. But cook a stalk just thirty seconds past its prime, and it becomes almost inedibly nasty.

At Chinook, I had one plate where every stalk, tip to tail, was excellent -- bathed in a lemony hollandaise and just wonderful. Then I had another where three of the six massive stalks were perfect, one was marginal, and two I had to hide in my napkin. Still, the three good ones were worth it, and since Chinook's white-asparagus stock will start running low any day, as the season draws to a close, I'll take what I can get.

Cook's shelf: The Perfectionist, by Rudolph Chelminski, is an absolute gut-punch of a tome, with 344 pages leading up to the moment that sent shockwaves through the worlds of both gastronomy and criticism: the shotgun suicide of three-star Michelin chef Bernard Loiseau.

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