It was my dining companion who noticed the weird thing about the tables at Encore.
"Look at that," she said, pointing to the round four-top next to us, noting how uneven the table was, how crooked. It was warped so badly that the flat outside edge had cracked and split like a barrel stave.
"That's weird," I agreed, nodding but somewhat distracted as I tried to snag the last few french fries without just lifting the bowl to my mouth and tipping it back like a fat kid getting the final crumbs from a bag of chips.
Encore has great french fries — fresh, crisp shoestrings served with a drizzle of delicious, addictive spicy mustard. They're greasy and hot, salty and perfectly cooked. I've had the fries three times now, and will continue to order them every time I find myself at Encore, may even go there just for the fries. They're that good.
While I was busy with the fries, my friend was quizzing a server. Encore had just opened in December; what could go so wrong with the tables in just four months of service? The waitress explained that Encore's partners, Steve Whited and Sean Huggard, who also own the Black Pearl, are very committed to the environment and to having a green restaurant, so they'd had the tables made out of recycled materials. But their good intentions had gone wrong, because the table we were looking at wasn't even the worst one. The server pointed to another table in the middle of the narrow dining room that looked like half a taco — one of the sides sloped so badly that when plates and glasses were set down, they'd skitter towards the center, coming to rest against the candles, the very cool thumb-trigger salt and pepper mills (which are for sale, pimped by the waitresses during slow moments and lulls in service).
By now, I was picking at the last of the salmon — a beautiful seven-ounce portion, well-cut, redolent of the cedar-wood plank on which it had been cooked and served, and shellacked in smoke, almost like a piece of good barbecue. The surface was stiff, the flesh inside still oily and perfect, separating along the striations in the muscle at the least pressure. This was serious comfort food — a simple plate executed with meticulous attention to detail — and a perfect match for the pile of simple, red-skin mashed potatoes and compound butter that had melted into a puddle on my plate.
My friend and the waitress were still talking about recycling, about the re-use and re-application of found objects, cast-off materials. And though I was concentrating on the food, some of their conversation must've penetrated, because I found myself thinking about recycling, too. About the salvage and reclamation of forgotten things.
Cedar-plank salmon was a stroke of rustic genius in the '80s, when it started showing up on the menus of restaurants featuring "California Cuisine" before "California Cuisine" had officially entered the culinary lexicon. Like salads with Laura Chenel goat cheese or whole roasted garlic cloves, cedar-plank salmon signaled the start of a revolution in modern cooking. By the early '90s, this particular dish (done in all manner of ways, from simply roasted on a dry plank and served bare to cooked on a wet board so that the rising, woody steam would do its thing to the fish) had insinuated itself onto the board at restaurants on both coasts, as well as the prep schedule of forward-thinking square-state bistros. I started making it in the mid-'90s, first cooking it simply and honestly for a small joint, then doing it pan-seared and oven-finished, napped with an anisette sauce and topped with a scattering of chive sticks, in a humongous hotel kitchen. But by the time the salmon hit the radar of the Hilton and Columbia-Sussex executive chefs, it was already something of a gag dish among more respectable white-jackets — the kind of thing you'd use as a joke, making fun of a colleague who was cooking a less-than-cutting-edge menu: So, what's he got on the board there now? He still doing that duck-sausage pizza? That cedar-plank salmon?
Cedar-plank salmon started disappearing from menus shortly after that. Sure, there were some places that still served it — just like there were tribes of aboriginal people found decades after World War II who'd stamped flat runways and built rickety bamboo control towers in anticipation of the return of American and Japanese supply planes. But by the turn of the millennium, as chefs chased after new fads, cedar-plank salmon had passed into the realm of cargo-cult cuisine.
And yet I think most cooks would agree that cedar-plank salmon was actually a pretty good idea in its day. It was a little bit showy, a little bit rough around the edges, and a lot delicious. The cedar smoke and the taste of salmon went together like peanut butter and jelly (or like french fries and spicy mustard). And while it was simple, there's nothing wrong with simplicity. In fact, cedar-plank salmon was one of the ultimate expressions of a perfect, three-ingredient entree: a salmon filet, a lemon and a wooden shingle were all that was required for a wonderful, center-plate protein. It was a dish that deserved to be forgiven its historical baggage and elevated once again to proud and un-ironic main-menu status.
Which is what chef Huggard has done at Encore. He's recycled cedar-plank salmon and put it to very good use as one of the primary plates on a menu to which it is absolutely suited, surrounded by fried calamari, sweet onion soup and excellent clam chowder (which is actually served in a bowl — unlike at Black Pearl, where the same chowder comes "unassembled" in a game attempt at another done-in food fad: deconstructionism). There's also an assortment of equally rustic flatbread pizzas that eschew the glam, Spago-style caviar and crème fraîche toppings in favor of wild mushrooms and rosemary, prosciutto, fig jam and arugula. The best is the simplest of all: a tomato, basil and fresh mozzarella Margherita, stretched into an ovoid crust on a wooden board. It's a model for any kitchen chasing that aesthetic of a pizza thrown together with bucolic nonchalance, as a casual snack for diners unwilling to commit to the ribeye or loin of sushi-grade tuna.
When I finally look away from the food, I see other problems besides the warped tables. I'm not crazy about the room (recycled from a space that once housed the ticket window, offices and some backstage access at the old Lowenstein Theater), whose low ceilings, drop-sash windows, seafoam-green color scheme and harsh acoustics make it feel rather like my grade-school cafeteria (except for the bar and chandeliers, of course). And when the place gets busy, the sound reverberates like the inside of a bomb shelter during an air-raid drill. Whited and Huggard decided to keep the space's original composite stone flooring, filling in gaps where walls had been taken down with darker stone, which not only adds to the noise problem but makes every trip to the bathroom or out onto the patio for a smoke sound like a Gene Kelly tap-dancing exit. And while the long bar is lovely and the open kitchen at the back a nice installation, I don't know what Huggard was thinking when he put his guys in giant, black muffin-top toques. Granted, a toque is part of the classically accepted chef's uniform, but these make the crew look like the cast of Strawberry Shortcake: The Musical just waiting for their cue to take the stage.
Still, it's easy to ignore such annoyances when the food starts arriving. On a return visit, I got a bowl of mussels in anise broth, sided by frites — another excellent recycling of a classic meal that never really went out of style. The wood-fired pizza oven had also done double-duty for the half-chicken, cooked until the skin was crisp and the flesh tender, served napped with a New Mexican red-chile sauce that was smoky, hot, earthy and sweet all at the same time, and possibly the greatest single trick of reprocessing on the entire menu because it was such a pitch-perfect copy of the authentic New Mexican article. The grilled artichoke was awful, though — soggy, oily, overcooked, with just a couple bare slashes of quadrillage and none of the delicious, nutty flavor of a properly handled artichoke; the kitchen clearly wasn't paying attention to this dish.
At brunch, when the crowds tend to skew older, gayer, shriller and occasionally drunker than any brunch crowd in the city (not necessarily a bad thing, depending on what kind of entertainment you're after on a bleary Sunday morning), the kitchen makes a fantastic roasted-chicken-and-bacon breakfast burrito. At lunch, there's a very deliberate and considered board of burgers and sandwiches that run a weird gamut from the fairly standard (and tasty) Gruyère, bacon, blue cheese and arugula burger to one made with tuna and topped with rémoulade and another made of falafel, topped with hummus and tzatziki.
That last burger represents what could be the strangest recycling act at Encore. There's a strain of vaguely Middle Eastern influence running through the menu that seems completely out of place. On the appetizer menu, hummus. Among the sides, couscous with mint and orange vinaigrette. Included in the mains is a mezze platter with falafel, hummus, another grilled artichoke, harissa, couscous and olives, as well as a short-rib entree that's even described as Moroccan, served with still more couscous and golden raisins. To me, the inclusion of Lebanese, Moroccan and Persian classics is more jarring than the dated cedar-plank salmon — because the salmon, at least, seems connected to the grill-heavy and tree-hugging virtue of the recycled cuisine and recycled space that is Encore.
Restaurant recycling is a worthy endeavor when it brings back plates like cedar-plank salmon, real red chile and proper Nor'east clam chowder. But, like anything, it can be taken too far. It's time for Encore to do a little recycling of its own, disposing of the dishes that don't work along with those warped tables. The goofy chef hats can go, too.
But don't touch the fries.
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