Dinner Lab: Anomar
With Dinner Lab meals, you never know what your night is going to entail. Perhaps you'll be eating on Cherokee Street with a concert going on below you, or maybe you'll be at SKIF International, a clothing manufacturer & store on the Hill. I never would have thought a clothing store would make a good dinner venue, but it turned out to be a great one. Christmas lights hung from the ceiling and there were all sort of free knick knacks around for the taking (just kidding--I did not steal from the venue). Aside from wine and beer, they had a fruity white sangria that I was pounding down like there was no tomorrow.
Chef Danny Espinoza, the most huggable Mexican in Chicago, was set to churn out a cuisine St. Louis is sorely lacking: upscale Mexican. Yes, we have Milagro, but that doesn't fit the bill. I read the menu and knew immediately what I was looking forward to most -- the duck with blackberry mole (pronounced mo-lay). I judge Mexican restaurants on their moles. You can't tell by looking at them, but most moles have over 15 ingredients and take all day to cook. I once spent the better part of a day making a Oaxacan mole and it sucked.
"Anomar", the name of this dinner, was inspired by Danny's grandmother, Ramona. Get it? Anomar is Ramona backwards. It sounds like some kind of romantic Spanish word, though. While I'm sure Danny would have liked to have his grandmother there to help him, he instead had a familiar face: Chris Bailey, chef of St. Louis' first Dinner Lab.
The first course was a [symple_highlight color="blue"]Tiradito de Cobia[/symple_highlight], which is like Latin American sashimi dish. Even though it had Cobia, a fish I could do without, I still scarfed this thing down. While the rest of the meal reminded me of fall, this was like a goodbye warm weather. Delicate fish topped with a crisp salsa cruda and spiced chicharrons already sounds mouthwateringly delicious, but the addition of the outstanding vanilla pickled grapes and spicy salsa verde emulsion took it to the next level. Those little yellow dots are a savory black pepper lemon curd. Mmm. I could and would have eaten 2-3 of these.
The evening's second course was a [symple_highlight color="blue"]Sopa de Coliflor[/symple_highlight], a cauliflower soup. The soup bowls are artistically decorated, since the cooks have to heat the soup in other containers. A date puree dotted the bowl, while chorizo and garlic chips lined the side. Forget cocaine -- give me lines of chorizo!
Servers poured the soup from pitchers. After tasting it, I wish they had just poured it directly in my mouth. It tasted a lot like a potato soup (specifically the one from Annie Gunn's, if you're a local), but the combination of earthy cauliflower, sweet dates, spicy chorizo and crunchy garlic gave it a Mexican flair.
The third course, [symple_highlight color="blue"]Ensalada de Cesar[/symple_highlight], suffered a bit from the cooking conditions, I think. Danny's interpretation of the classic Caesar salad was composed of grilled romaine lettuce with shaved croutons, a spicy Parmesan vinaigrette and crunchy corn. While the dressing was delicious, the lettuce itself was kind of stringy and generally not well received at my table. My guess is that getting out 70 plates of freshly grilled lettuce before it starts cooling off was just a little too tough with a new crew. Even so, most people around me cleared their plates--it just didn't stand up to the quality of all the other dishes. The little pink things on top were buttermilk-braised radishes, another delicious small touch.
These next two courses were like when we had Pujols and Holliday batting back to back: they crushed it.
Our main course for the evening was [symple_highlight color="blue"]Mole de Zarzamora[/symple_highlight], which is a much cooler way of saying "blackberry sauce". I can't believe there aren't any celebrities who have named their kid zarzamora yet.
On one side of the plate we had red quinoa topped with roasted beet and an almond espuma (foam -- Danny is fancy), and on the other was a tender duck breast topped with a blackberry mole. I don't know how they were able to create such a deeply flavorful and incredibly delicious mole in so little time with so little space, but they blew me away. I would love to learn to make that.
I'm not a big dessert eater, but I inhaled this [symple_highlight color="blue"]Not-a-Pumpkin Spice Latte[/symple_highlight]. A sweet potato puree was topped with a coffee ganache, then a rosemary meringue, then some pretty little wildflowers. After the team assembled the desserts, Danny went medieval on them with a blowtorch.
This dish may have been the highlight of the night. Every aspect of it went together perfectly. It was my ideal dessert.
So far, Dinner Lab is 2/2 in my book. Even though the majority of the STL Dinner Lab diners seem to be old enough to remember the Vietnam war vividly, the atmosphere has been incredibly fun and the food has impressed. I don't want to say which dinner I thought was better, in fear of a battle between chefs Chris & Danny (see below image: a tense stare down? Chris giving the disapproving Dad stare?), but it would be a close call anyway.
I won't be able to make the November dinner, but I'm hearing pretty exciting things about December's...