’Scuse me while I taste the sky
Some great chefs create exquisite architecture where flavors build upon one another to some heady altitude. Others ground their cooking in essential flavors and then combine them in ways that even as they surprise seem like classics you just haven’t discovered yet. The cooking of chef Martín Rios of Restaurant Martín reminds me of James Turrell’s sculptures — the ones made only with light that nevertheless seem to have weight and substance.
Rios’ flavor profile is like a stained-glass window — intense washes of translucent color anchored with the occasional opaque contrast: an earthy confit garlic in the middle of a bright apple julienne and watercress salad. Or nuggets of Point Reyes Farmstead blue cheese that cast a funky shadow in the lemon brightness of a swath of Meyer lemon foam highlighting a Chioggia beet and piñon salad.
In the texture realm, he is fond of pastes and foams to varying effects. A tarragon foam with Maine diver sea scallops mostly tasted like air, but a crustacean foam with jumbo blue lump crab was a breath of the sea — a shockingly pure taste of shellfish that almost makes you gasp like having cold air in the lungs and then immediately disappears into, well, thin air. The peppered gnocchi accompaniment, however, was too pasty for me — even if the word “pasta” translates directly as “paste.” A thick pencil of chocolate-flavored cream on a crunchy cocoa cracker as part of a wildly extravagant dessert worked better — like a kid’s dream of chocolate toothpaste, though this kid wanted the chocolate to be more intense.
Precision in such delicate kitchen chemistry is key, so perfectly pan-roasted organic chicken or an enormous Kurobuta (related to Berkshire) pork chop seems natural — and the flavor dividend richly rewards ordering these seemingly banal main courses. A rich and salty duck breast gets a wake-up call from a parsnip purée so that together they create a sensation. The truffle oil-drenched orzo mac and cheese with the roasted chicken, though, is a surprising example of a tired food fad that needs to fade. This is surprising because Rios usually makes his own fads, and they are rarely short of spectacular. The mac and cheese also lacked any discernible cheese. The sort of creamy cheesiness we associate with that comfort food is not his taste, anyway. His style is mascarpone whipped into a risotto with Nantucket Bay scallops in which the slight sweetness of the scallops and the cheese play so well together you don’t want them to stop. I was also surprised by a slip-up with the popular bittersweet truffle cake, which is supposed to be what the French call a moelleux au chocolat — a warm cake with a molten chocolate center. I’ve never enjoyed the molten center, however, though I have tantalizingly spied it across the room. When fully cooked it’s just chocolate cake.
For spring, Rios is creating desserts that are like playgrounds for Lilliputians and require a dictionary of geometrical objects to describe. A fantasy of strawberry pyramids conserved in honey are mortared by a tangy cream to a yogurt cake standing on one end of a berry sauce pond across from a monumental cylinder of red grape and pectin (described as “chewy”) sorbet. The above-mentioned cocoa cracker plank rested on an apparently eggless, almost clear chocolate “flan” near a mound of hazelnut ice cream and across another lake of berry sauce from a log of more chocolate cream, or paste, or something in between. All of which was mostly more interesting, beautiful, and creative than fundamentally delicious — except the lusciousness of the yogurt cake and cream. Such invention is a reward in itself.
Rios’ purist strain translates to the minimalist décor and a well-selected wine list. The Schloss Vollrads Riesling is fruity up front and finishes with bright lemon, a good foil for seafood. The Château des Tuquets Bordeaux has good tannins, tobacco and smoke, and other darkly interesting undercurrents. Seekers of purity, of revelations of flavor, will bask in the light of Restaurant Martín.