Degustation Isn't Just Another Small Plates Restaurant
Back in the days when I was still cutting my teeth as a diner, I used to wonder why restaurants didn't serve their cuisine in smaller portions. The benefits seemed obvious to me. Why couldn't you order a single Robuchon lamb chop along with a small pot of mashed potatoes? Or maybe a tasting size portion of Alain Senderen's Canard Apicius might hit the spot. But even though it seemed like a no-brainer, unless you wanted to eat classical Spanish tapas cuisine, the small plates concept didn't exist outside of my imagination.
That all changed a few years back. I'm not exactly sure who was the first to take the plunge but now small plate restaurants are everywhere. Ironically, the most famous small plates restaurant of our time is run by Joel Robuchon himself. In fact Robuchon, after closing his haute cuisine restaurant in 1993 so he could retire and live in Spain, has opened a mini-chain of small plate restaurants and currently operates seven different locations in four different countries. And lo and behold, my beloved lamb chops and pommes puree are the stars of the menu. I guess Monsieur Robuchon must have been reading my mind. If you see him please thank him for me and tell him I'm honored.
The trend for small plate restaurants didn't hapen overnight. There were a few early and notable examples such as Barcelona's Comerc 24, a small plates version of contemporary Spanish cuisine, and London's Club Gascon, a small plates version of modernized Basque and Gascon cuisine, that broke ground and ultimately inspired others to follow their lead. But the trend turned into an epidemic and now among others, you can find small plate restaurants serving Asian, Italian, Mediterranean, Moroccan, Greek and Turkish cuisine. In fact in researching this article I counted thirty-six different small plate restaurants in New York City alone.
So when I heard that Jack Lamb, the colorful owner of the Jewel Bako empire, had opened a restaurant called Degustation featuring small plates, I didn't exactly get excited. In fact I deviated from my standard operating procedure and I waited until I heard a positive review of the restaurant before booking a table. Then one day David Chang, the chef/owner of Momofuku told me, "you have to go to Degustation right away. Wesley is cooking some of the best food in the city right now." Wesley turned out to be Wesley Genovart, the product of an American mother and Spanish father, who was raised on the Spanish island of Mallorca. When he reached high school age he moved to California and ultimatelty he ended up with jobs in the kitchen at Boston's Clio and Jean George's Perry Street. Then at the ripe old age of 28 he was appointed to the position of executive chef at Degustation.
Our meal started with a pair of croquettas – a tortilla of thinly sliced potato stuffed with a quail egg and shallot confit paired with a sea urchin and shallot tortilla, both topped with thinly sliced rings of pickled japalepeno, was delicious and just enough to whet your appetite. Then three dishes right out of the Spanish culinary playbook, the first two modern and the last traditional. Fried artichokes with a Kumamoto oyster topped with mussel foam and then a slow-cooked egg with smoked cheese, Serrano Ham and a rice-crusted asparagus spear. Both wonderful and it was as if they has transported me to San Sebastian for dinner. Then a small plate with head on shrimp, African red shrimp and and a small langosta cooked ala plancha. Very nice with the large African shrimp being especially delicious.
While Wesley has some good appetizers in his arsenal, where he really shines is during the middle courses. He sautees foie gras and serves it with a coarsly chopped compote of cherries and caramel water gelee. A superb dish and a beacon of light in a world filled with redundant foie gras dishes. Sweetbreads, crisped with rice flour and served in Greek yogurt laced with cucumber, dill and spicy chillies, adds a unique flavor profile to the meal and demonstrates the breadth of modern Spanish cuisine. A simply grilled quail served with a forum reduction, candied pistachios and frisee lettuce managed to be meaty and playful at the same time. But his isgnature dish is squid stuffed with braised short ribs and served atop a mound of chorizo flecked lentils. It is a masterpiece and worthy of a full portion.
I'm slightly less enamored with the main dishes although crispy pork belly with grilled scallions, Shimeji mushrooms, pickled japalpenos, cilantro and sherry gastrique is a very good dish that also has a bit of kick to it. And monkfish in Serrano ham broth with baby carrots and peas was tasty while not being among Wesley's best dishes. But lamb loin served with Hen of the Woods mushrooms and chloraphyl and ribeye with red onion marmelade, mollasses and bone marrow were less interesting than the other dishes Wesley serves. There's a cheese course and a few perfunctory desserts like bananas in chocolate.
Any review of Degustation wouldn't be complete without mentioning how much Jack Lamb adds to the experience. To say that Jack is a character is putting it mildly. He is part host, part bon vivant, and the best way to describe the way he dresses is flambouyant investment banker. If you are visiting the restaurant (or Jewel Bako which shares the same premises as Degustation) and you are at a loss as to what to order, just ask Jack and you will end uo with some terrific food while being entertained by some of his terrific schtick. All in all Degustation is a great addition to the NYC dining scene and it joins Momofuku and Tia Pol at the top of the heap of small plate restaurants in the city. B+