Friday, February 12, 2016

Go to Aromes

After a good dinner, I'm usually very content, but there's a particular feeling I get after an extra-special dinner. Call it a glow, maybe. Or giddiness. Either way, it comes with an urge to talk about the meal with everyone I see.

 That's how I felt after a recent dinner at Aromes. It was a media dinner, organized by Amy "Charm City Cook" Langrehr, and it was fabulous.
Clockwise from top left: Jerusalem artichoke and salsify with Jerusalem artichoke milk and green juniper berry oil; menu; carrot miso creme brulee with lime ash and swarnadwipa; sea salt-baked celeriac with goat cheese, celeriac and chickweed extraction juice, shaved dried celeriac and celery vinegar jelly; potato ratte doughnut with sea urchin fish sauce and fresh sea urchin, fried scallops, coffee and licorice powder and lovage cream; sweet potato "risotto" with spoon fig leaf milk, lemon verbena oil and crispy black rice crackers; mugwort beer-braised oxtail taco with ramp vinegar in caramelized hay milk skin shell; grilled duck breast with duse seaweed and butter and slow-roasted beet sprayed with elderflower vinegar. (Monkfish with eggplant oil, served with fermented emmer grain and squid ink, pickled black radishes, buttermilk and lemon thyme oil is not pictured because my photos were super blurry.)

Aromes is a tiny BYOB spot on Chestnut Avenue in Hampden. The vibe is warm and simple, with a big plate glass window, bare wooden tables and an opening in the back, giving diners a glimpse of what Chef Steve Monnier and Sous Chef Jeff Schultz are doing in the kitchen.

Monnier is French, though he moved to the U.S. in 2002, first to southern California. He opened Aromes in Baltimore in 2014. Though he clearly has classical training, his food is anything but traditional. It's wildly creative, smart and - importantly - delicious. I was reminded of Tae Strain's food at demi, the tiny spot in Belvedere Square (that I still miss) - but Monnier's food is earthier than demi's high polish fare.

Each night, Monnier presents a new, multi-course menu. Diners have the option of ordering a three- or six-course meal - but there's no picking which courses. It doesn't matter, though. Everything is spectacular.

On the menu, dishes are described by a handful of key ingredients, from sea urchin to sweet potato. On the plate, they're wonderfully complex, technique on top of technique. And they taste good.

One of the highlights of our meal was a surprise off-menu dish - an oxtail taco. The meat was braised in mugwort beer and the shells were about as far from Old El Paso as you can imagine. Made with the caramelized skin formed by cooking milk - milk that had been infused with hay - they were smooth, delicate and outdoorsy in the very best way. And so interesting!

Everyone at the table also went crazy for one of the night's simpler dishes, a thick slice of grilled duck breast served with a slow-roasted beet. But, of course, it was more involved than that. Prior to cooking on a Japanese grill, the duck was marinated in fermented brown rice. The beet was roasted at a low temperature for five hours with dulse seaweed and butter, until it was papery and thin and almost resembled an artichoke.

The duck, we all agreed, might have been the best any of us had ever had (and it was not a table full of people who shy away from food). That was in part because of the creativity and behind-the-scenes flourishes involved...but it was also because Monnier and Schultz simply know how to cook.

Chefs as creative as Monnier run the risk of getting too cutesy - of doing things because they can, even if maybe they shouldn't. That did not happen at Aromes.

A word, too, about the service. Because the space is small, during our visit, one waiter, Gilles Mascarell, handled the whole room. He was excellent - and that was not a surprise, given his pedigree. Most notably, for nearly a decade before joining Aromes, he worked at Salt Tavern.

There is just something about Salt Tavern alumni. Frequently, when I've had seriously good service, I find out after the fact that the server did a stint at Salt. (Note: I might be biased because Teresa from Thames Street Oyster House is both my neighbor and my favorite waitress in the city - but I still think I'm right about this.)

I couldn't have asked for anything more from the meal - though it's not a dining experience that's for everyone. Some people get twitchy when they don't have choices on the menu, or prefer food that is more straightforward than creative. Both of those are perfectly acceptable preferences - and if you do fall in one of those categories, Aromes might not be the restaurant for you.

But if you don't mind putting yourself in the hands of a super-creative chef for an evening, you need to get there sooner rather than later. It's a special experience. One that'll make you glow.

Aromes, 3520 Chestnut Avenue, Hampden; 410-235-0035;

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