To kick off the excellent new tasting menu at Olmsted in Prospect Heights, a whimsical new American spot that temporarily eliminated its a la carte offerings, chef Greg Baxtrom sent over a shot of hot rutabaga puree. “Not again,” I thought.
Anyone who regularly dined out in the pre-recessionary aughts and beyond will recall servers taking pride in beginning your meal with a shot glass of creamy root vegetable or fungi soup. Maybe it would be drinkable celeriac with maple. Or potato-leek with chive oil. Or pecorino-dusted wild mushroom soup in a sake cup. Or some other variation with salsify or butternut squash, usually with a dollop of foam on top. This was a calling card of the peak farm-to-table era — a diverting gift from the kitchen the first time, an earthy spoonful of medicine by the 10th, a grim reminder that winter was coming, and that we couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
So it was with a sense of duty that I picked up Olmsted’s demitasse of rutabaga. The kitchen garnished it with a dose of foam (of course they did) and finished it with a sliver of lime zest. I took a sip, and then another. It was unexpectedly perfect, perhaps because it had been a few years since someone last sent this typically soporific bit of terroir my way. The brassica soup itself almost seemed weightless, delivering a hint of sugar and a wallop of bitterness. It was quite hot, contrasting with the cool, fragrant espuma of coconut. Unlike so many previous purees which weighed down the palate before a long meal, this one perked it up with flavors and aromas that recalled a warm June as much as a chilly January night. It also helped heat up our insides in the cold outdoor tent.
The soup, like the $89, seven-course menu, felt like Baxtrom’s way of saying: Sometimes a fun way to make things feel new again is by shaking the dust off a preparation or technique from yesteryear.
Olmsted has still got it. In a city where sub-$100 tastings are popping up more frequently — often functioning as a counterpoint to the city’s more gilded fine dining scene — Baxtrom now serves one of the most innovative-yet-nourishing prix fixe meals I’ve sampled in quite some time. Over the course of 90 minutes, a flurry of dishes with foams, dusts, reconstituted proteins, and things with the word “air” in them arrived at our table. Such techniques recall the city’s old molecular gastronomy havens, places like WD~50, Tailor, and other venues whose almost scientific approach to cooking never really attracted as fervent of a following as, say, El Bulli in Catalonia.
Our Saturday night dinner began with that stellar rutabaga soup, then moved onto a trio of small plates. Duck ham came wrapped in an “air baguette,” an old Adrià Brothers term for what’s essentially a hollow breadstick. The snack of a dish is gamy, salty, crunchy — and thanks to a hidden filling of duck liver mousse — just a hint squishy too. Even better is a packet of fried monkfish bites, the fritters doing their best impression of tender chicken nuggets; a scattering of makrut powder gives them a powerful tropical scent. And with falafel, a crunchy, bronzed exterior hides not a filling chickpea center, but rather a minty, airy pile of shredded Brussels sprouts.
There will be a moment when someone gives you a cube of what looks like crisp agedashi tofu. It jiggles like tofu but that does not taste anything like tofu. It is, in actuality, shellfish.
There will also be a moment when you also get a nice slice of chocolate cake. And that’s an important point. Olmsted, in the proverbial Before Times, laced its a la carte menu with fanciful dishes like carrot crepes and beet pappardelle, as well as more standard fare like scallop skewers and hanger steaks. When Baxtrom switched to a tasting menu in January, the chef, who spent time at temples to modernism like Alinea and Mugaritz, as well as haute barnyard bastions like Blue Hill at Stone Barns, ensured that every diner would experience the full scope of the Olmsted kitchen.
“The price of the menu will fluctuate,” Baxtrom wrote in a recent Instagram post, while adding that the set menu was designed to cost as much as a typical meal at Olmsted. I’ll argue, however, that most diners will end up paying more than a few dollars extra, especially as you can no longer drop by for a few small plates and a glass of wine. Indeed, dinner will now run at least $150 per person after drinks, tax, and tip. It’s tempting to declare this as another case of a great neighborhood restaurant becoming more out of reach to the neighborhood, but the fairer analysis is that one can still experience the culinary wonders of Baxtrom and company in more accessible ways, including at Maison Yaki across the street — for great French-Japanese skewers — and at Evi’s bakery.
Baxtrom also admits that the prix fixe menu might only last a few months. He calls it a “temporary solution” as the restaurant struggles to “offer a consistent, delicious, and safe experience during these ridiculous times.”
It will be an exciting few months. Consider the case of trompe l’oeil food, a staple of modernist cuisine, where the thing you think you’re eating is actually something quite different. A classic example is WD~50’s old sunny side up egg, where the white was made from coconut milk and the yolk from carrot juice. This brings us back to the unusual agedashi tofu that’s not really tofu. Baxtrom purees scallops with olive oil, soy, and red yuzu koshu, then fries the mixture in such a way that it bounces with the softness of chawanmushi while still flaunting a sweet oceanic flavor. Therein lies the brilliance of the dish; even though it’s a dead ringer for soybean curd, the scallop flavor is even more profound than with a seared piece of the namesake shellfish.
Salsify risotto, the final savory course, is tasty if you realize it’s not so much a starchy rice dish as it is a creamy, nourishing root porridge; it comes topped with a black trumpet sauce that’s as dark as mole negro and heady with the scent of wet earth.
And then, after that, you get that slice of chocolate cake, a comforting sachertorte to reward you for indulging in a night of experimentalism. Though for a hint of extra whimsy, treat yourself to the chaud-froid apple pie drink: a mix of Pommeau di Normandie, rum, and maraschino sitting underneath a chilly layer of creme anglaise foam. The alcoholic beverage starts off cool and creamy, a sensation that quickly gives way to something that’s more distinctly hot and boozy. It’s an appropriately modern body-warmer for those dining outside on a chilly day, but if that’s not enough, an employee brings you blankets. How old-school.