First Impressions takes a look at dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? E-mail us at email@example.com.
The dramatically revamped and re-imagined food program at Lounge ON20 has been up and running for only a few weeks – too new to provide a full, critical review and offer a rating.
Yet, given the excitement emanating from the kitchen at the corner of K and 20th streets, it's not too soon to look at what it has cooking, what you can expect, and see why, if you crave a memorable food experience that challenges and tempts and baffles and soothes, you should consider giving it a try.
The new style of cuisine is what we will call modern American/international, with touches of the avant garde, along with equal parts science and, well, magic. It's also farm to table, albeit with an occasional detour to a kitchen filled with equipment fit for the Jetsons.
This kitchen is spearheaded by new executive chef Pajo Bruich, 31, who has burst onto the local food scene in the past two years, primarily via his boutique catering operation.
This is Bruich's first full-time gig in a restaurant and it remains to be seen how he will handle the pressure, the commotion, the madness and the magnitude of the nightly grind in a professional kitchen. If I have concerns about this chef, they center on whether he has put in the time and done the reps necessary to pull off cooking under any conditions. As in art, literature or gourmet cooking, a trailblazer must understand the past before he can create a new future.
Deconstructed apple pie? Sure, cool. But what's your regular apple pie like? Have you mastered the perfect and elusive flaky crust? Peppers shaped like liquid pearls? Awesome. But how many bell peppers have you chopped and sautéed the old-fashioned way?
That said, Bruich is engaging, dynamic and ambitious. Though his route is atypical, he is already making me think he is the real deal.
At Lounge ON20, Bruich is not the only star in the making. Pastry chef Elaine Baker – formerly of Grange, where she was widely respected for her precise and largely classic repertoire – appears to be taking her work to new heights. Her work ranges from simple brioche doughnut holes to a deconstructed Black Forest cake that managed to take apart my all-time favorite dessert and present it in a new and delicious way, including sautéed cherries that stole the show. Baker's Greek yogurt Napoleon may be even better, a tour de force of light, crunchy phyllo dough with layers of yogurt sporting the dense texture of a cheesecake.
Then there's Mike Ward, Lounge's chef de cuisine and the former executive chef at venerable, and now defunct, Slocum House in Fair Oaks.
If you're into cooking and love to watch the way a kitchen works, the best seat in the house is at the corner of the bar, with a clear view of Ward in his element. This dude is focused, and though he's the size of an offensive tackle, his movements are fluid and graceful – from the way he twirls the pepper mill to his authoritative strokes with a knife.
If you notice Ward slice open plastic bags, he's not cheating with prepackaged tri-tip from Smart & Final. Those are cryovac bags used in a process called sous vide (pronounced soo-veed). The food is cooked in a circulating water bath set at a precise temperature. For instance, if you're after a steak cooked medium-rare, the bath might be 135 degrees, and that temperature could presumably "cook" the meat for hours without overcooking. For instance, I recently enjoyed a pork belly dish at Eleven Madison Park in New York that had been cooked sous vide for, yes, 72 hours.
There are several ways to dine well at Lounge ON20. The chef's tasting menu is a prix fixe experience of seven or more courses for $75. Ordering off the main menu, you'll find modern takes on scallops ($17), a 12-hour pork belly ($12), the foie gras mousse ($18) and larger plates such as arctic char with coconut quinoa ($25), rib-eye steak with gratin potatoes and green garlic mousse ($32) and a lamb loin with cauliflower risotto ($34).
There is still a bar food menu with more traditional offerings such as tacos, lamb sliders and French fries.
Our evening at Lounge ON20 began with a smile and a friendly welcome at the front door. There's nothing newfangled or avant garde about that, and it will never go out of style.
The restaurant and lounge, owned by Ali Mackani, is part of what's known as the MARRS Project, an entire block that has been rebuilt and transformed into an essential part of the vibrant, new midtown. Is it a great block? We could use 10 more just like it.
The revamped Lounge ON20 now includes several new dinner tables toward the back of the room, which is equal parts industrial chic and upscale urban.
The food features a cooking style that epicureans call molecular gastronomy. It's a distracting term that tends to refer to cutting-edge techniques and the use of ingredients and exotic-sounding hydrocolloids in new ways to create an altered understanding of taste and texture. This sounds much more controversial than it should. Think of it simply as more tools for the ambitious chef and more ways to entertain the adventurous dinner guest.
At the highest levels of dining, food is about flavor, but it's also about entertainment. Food can tell a story. It can tease and/or tantalize. It can look like one thing and taste like something else.
Foie gras? This duck liver delicacy has been a gourmet classic for ages, revered for the deep flavor and rich, sumptuous texture. But what about foie gras mousse? Cooked in a water bath while wrapped in a cryovac bag in which the air is removed, the foie gras at Lounge ON20 is prepared along with small amounts of carrageenan, xanthan gum and lecithin.
The foie is cooked until practically liquified, then mixed in a Vita-Prep blender, strained, put in a bowl over an ice bath and whisked until it is thick and light – like a mousse. The temperature must be precise to get the texture right – flexible enough to pipe into molds and firm enough to maintain its shape. During the piping, warm hands holding the piping bag can ruin the texture, so the cook's hands are iced down before beginning the procedure.
And what if the kitchen takes foie gras and makes ice cream? Then turns it into a lighter-than-air powder by spinning it in a space-age machine called the PacoJet? The result: a flavor that suggests foie gras and a texture that touches the tongue and – poof – disappears in an instant.
Why do all this? Foie gras is excellent the old-fashioned way found in the classic French culinary tomes.
"It poses a challenge," Bruich told me later. "It needed to be in a style that represents me. I want it to be thoughtful, creative, and a little bit different than what everyone else is doing."
The result is a thing of beauty that also contains a compressed strawberry and dollops of whipped maple syrup.
To the meat-and-potatoes crowd or the patrons who adore the farm-to-table aesthetic of Mulvaney's, Ella or Grange, this may sound like an abomination. Yet the ingredients are impeccably sourced and the mindset is still farm-to-table. Bruich and company simply take the ingredients along a different path. All cooking is a form of manipulation, and all good cooking is manipulation done in the right balance at the right time. The techniques must serve some kind of purpose.
Take the hamachi, an expensive fish coveted for its richness and found on the menus of premium sushi restaurants. At Lounge, we tasted a distinct citrus component with the thinly sliced fish that I thought might have been grapefruit. It turned out to be small pieces of compressed apple infused with lime. The apple is run through something called a "chamber vac" to compress the fruit and, thus, give it more intense flavor. This doesn't obliterate food. It respects it by showcasing its flavors.
Then there is the caviar carefully placed atop the hamachi. But wait! It only looks like caviar. The size of small ball bearings, they are actually brilliant red pearls of Fresno chilies, created with the aforementioned magic-meets-science. The process is laborious and mesmerizing.
So far, the food is making plenty of sense and Lounge On20, this new and exciting version with this talented team in the kitchen, is off to an an excellent start.