Substantial hype is both a gift and a curse – on one hand the exclusivity of ten diners five days a week plus a chef coming off his stage at the best restaurant in the world is sure to fill seats and create buzz – on the other, when one is lucky enough to land one of the “exactly one month in advance” seats from Opentable, the expectations are high – perhaps unreasonably so for a restaurant that is so new and a chef that is so young. Often times I have no trouble resisting hype – especially when it surrounds new restaurants that no trusted palates have experienced…other times I am game, usually with mixed results. On my recent trip to New York City I took the bait hook, line, and sinker – one seat at the Compose bar at 7:00pm on the night of my arrival.
Making my way south into the lower parts of Tribeca I must admit that had I not known what I was looking for I’d have never had a clue there was a restaurant at 77 Worth Street – to the naked eye the building is a veterinarian office and pet wellness center. Walking right past but noting the bar through the window I turned around and made my way through the door where I was greeted first by the door man and second by the host – a young fellow who noted my reservation and the fact that I was from Ohio, ironically just like the door man and one of the servers. The first to arrive, approximately 10 minutes early, my bag and coat were checked and I was led to a seat at the bar – one of the 5-6 (out of 10) seats with no view what-so-ever of the kitchen. Uncertain as to why one would have a “chef’s counter” with no vision of the kitchen I inquired about the other seats but was told the seating was already arranged due to the other parties (and the fact that my original co-diner had opted out last minute.) Figuring this was fair I settled in and waited while listening to the sounds of the kitchen and non-descript music playing overhead.
Glossy and sleek, ordained with specially cut ice and a plethora of fruits and spirits the bar was quite the site to behold while the padded barstools with excellent lumbar support were a vast improvement to those at Ko. Seated with napkin unfolded and house filtered water poured the next person to greet me would be the bartender – a man I would see a whole lot more than any of than the chefs throughout the course of the evening and although charming, rather pushy in suggesting beverages. A light weight when it comes to alcohol I made it evident from the start that I wasn’t particularly interested in cocktails or wine pairings, but on his third “are you sure – tell me what you like,” prompting I conceded to “something with rum and fruit” and received an intricate cocktail of fresh squeezed lime and pineapple juice, Amadeus almond liquor, Smith and Cross aged Jamaican Rum, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, and green chartreuse over crushed ice. Taking nearly 7 minutes to craft I will admit that given the quality and flavor this was one of the better cocktails I’ve ever had and at $15 it was actually a relative bargain considering it’s alcohol content – easily 2-3oz that would leave me a bit warm and loose throughout the meal.
As 7:05 approached the second pair of diners would arrive and the non-tasting seats would fill quickly to capacity – by 7:20 all but two of the tasting menu diners would arrive with the last folks arriving around 7:40, approximately 10 minutes after the amuses had commenced. With general manager Eamon Rockey greeting myself and each subsequent diner starting around 7:15 chef Curtin would approach each of us individually at 7:30 to welcome us and make absolutely certain that all dietary restrictions were accounted for (I heard at least 3 shell fish allergies, 2 religious pork intolerances, one tree nut allergy, and one alcohol intolerance at least.)
At 7:31 the first of four amuses would arrive – the dish that, at least from early reviews, seems to be a constant signature - Duck Fat Popcorn with sea salt. Clearly taking advantage of the high temperatures allotted by animal fat as opposed to butter the popcorn was intensely crunchy without being burned and the mildly gamey flavor was lightly accented with a dusting of salt – a pleasant opening taste, but certainly nothing worthy of signature status.
The second course to hit the table was certainly more interesting than the first – both in construction and texture. Described as Kir Royale Gelee the dish was detailed as being creme de cassis and Champagne based and utilizing a special extraction and carbonation container to “over carbonate” the cube. A single bite the gelee absolutely erupted on the tongue – like an entire glass of champagne bubbles in a single bite – spicy, fruity, intense, and fun.
At this point I feel it pertinent to note by the time the second amuse arrived it was already 8:00pm and the subsequent courses would arrive at intervals ranging from two minutes to twenty. In addition to these timing issues, as the restaurant filled and the bartenders shook drink after drink the noise level became both loud and jarring – not Ko loud, but certainly more intermittent. While water remained full throughout the evening, the chefs bringing plates from the kitchen also seemed to serve at random and no one was ever really sure who presented the dish which led to me thrice receiving a description of the dish from three different people and multiple times from both Chef Curtin and at least one other chef (with the descriptions often somewhat different, as well.) I find this relevant to mention here as the third amuse would be the Ocean Sphere dish – a dish presented by a sous-chef and subsequently described by the bartender and then Chef Curtin. Featuring what my palate and ears have surmised to be a spherification of oyster emulsion, Langoustine cream, pickled shallot, and grated seaweed we were instructed to slurp the dish like an oyster and the resultant taste was brine balanced with mild sweetness – decent, but largely using “mg” technique for the sake of using the technique rather than elevating the cuisine.
The final amuse of the evening was the World’s Smallest Baked Potato with Osetra Caviar, Green Onion, and Crème Fraiche – a perfect little spud, soft and supple, with lovely accoutrements – there was no way this dish could fail.
Starting the proper tasting, course one of our ten courses would arrive around 8:20pm in the form of Baby Red Beet with Raw beet vinaigrette, Jerusalem Artichoke, Charred Vidalia Onion, Pomegranate Sauce, and Sorrel. Presented rather simply on a curved plate, this dish seemed rather simple until fork and knife met vegetable – at this point the beet literally began to ooze – a process that would not stop for the duration of the course. Apparently sous-vided and then dehydrated/rehydrated the beet was imbued with a hearty yet sweet essence that mingled nicely with the small slices of artichoke and the accompanying sauces were sweet, savory, and smoky – each providing a different experience. A very well composed dish and amongst my top three for the night.
Course two would feature Crudo of Fluke with Basil, Anise, Hyssop, Puffed Wild Rice, Mint, and Smoked Grape. Nicely prepared and exquisitely textured, the Crudo matched with puffed rice was undoubtedly the highlight of this dish while the smoked grape was an interesting touch – it tasted nothing like a grape, yet at the same time its mouth texture was every bit what one would expect. With the base strong, this dish was unfortunately unnecessarily complicated and I felt the Mint, Anise, and Hyssop largely detracted from the overall experience – while that may personally be my aversion to mint with meat, I overheard my neighbors note similar; “fluke is too mild for all this mint.”
The third dish would prove to be the worst of the evening – not because it didn’t taste good, but because the texture and temperature execution failed. Titled Butternut Squash Soup with Maple-Sherry Vinaigrette, Cold Chestnut Foam this dish seemed to want to be Achatz’s Hot Potato/Cold Potato dish, but unfortunately became “luke warm sweetened squash puree” by the time it arrived – again, style over substance because it was actually really tasty and could have been excellent if served at proper soup temperature like the version I’d experience at Bouley three days later.
Dish four would be my second favorite of the night and in terms of uniqueness it was perhaps the best. Described as Sous-Vide diver scallop with baby fennel puree, butternut squash confited in bacon, and dill the brilliance of this dish was the execution of the scallops – four melt-in-the-mouth morsels that tasted part scallop and part salt-water taffy – like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. Pairing this flavor with savory fennel plus gnocchi-textured cuts of squash that tasted only mildly of salty pork, the dish was almost upscale surf and turf without a single bite of land animal on the plate.
Dish five was taken from the noma text book and although good was much more style than substance. With a large rock claimed to be 450 degrees emerging from the kitchen first we were instructed not to touch. Moments later a large shrimp was added to the stone and allowed to cook before us. With Chef Curtin next emerging from the kitchen the shrimp was flipped over using a fondue fork and a squirt of smoked paprika and herbs were added with instructions to eat whenever we were ready. Taken whole the shrimp was clean, sweet, and nicely prepared while the paprika lent a bit of bite and smoke – but theatrics aside this was a seared shrimp, no more and no less.
Course six was another excellent flavor, but certainly nothing overly novel. Titled Butter Poached Maine Lobster with Lemon Cream, Cocoa Butter, American Caviar, Nasturtium Leaves, and Chervil everything about this dish felt like something from The French Laundry cookbook – never a bad thing. With a buttery and sweet mitt anchoring the dish, I must admit I really enjoyed the pairing of lemon with cocoa butter while the caviar added the slightest bit of brine. The Chervil and Nasturtium were largely overwhelmed by the other components, but their visual appeal was pleasant.
After course six the table bread would arrive – a single option, and one serving per guest. Titled Potato Chip Bread with Crème Fraiche butter all I can say is that if Compose is going to make bread and butter like this they should probably consider offering it throughout the meal – perhaps as bread pairings or simply as a bread basket. Likely made of 1/2 flour and 1/2 crushed potato chips the bread was crunchy on the exterior and soft within – intensely salty and with a great texture. Paired with curds of slightly sour butter this was a clever take on “chips and dip” that I really liked. All things being equal, perhaps it is good that they don’t offer a basket or refills as I’d have certainly overindulged.
Course seven would be my favorite of the night largely due to personal bias towards egg dishes, but also because it was a situation where every component added to the overall. Titled Poached Egg with roast cauliflower puree, poached oyster mushrooms, Cocoa Nibs, and Artichoke chips the bland white and tan presentation gave way to a texture and flavor experience that was anything but. Nicely poached and creamy the egg itself was excellent, but when paired with the understated cauliflower, fibrous mushrooms, and crisp artichokes the dish tasted the very essence of fresh, natural, and earthy. With the nibs adding a floral top note that lingered on the palate this was one of my five favorite bites of the trip and evidence of Curtin’s skilled hand when he doesn’t try to be overly complex.
Plate eight was the final savory of the evening – but unfortunately it simply didn’t click. Presented as Pork Belly with Charred Red Cabbage, Mint Puree, and Charred Pine nut the dish featured two main components, one a flavorful and fatty slice of pork belly and the other a sort of fibrous disk made of reduced red cabbage and what I believe was pine. Topped with crunchy pine nuts and served with a minty sauce I simply feel that this was a course where either the pine in the cabbage or the mint on the plate needed to be scaled back significantly because overall I felt like I was eating tasty swine in a bathroom – needless to say a substantial part of this dish went back to kitchen, and that part was not the pork belly.
Much needed the next dish would be a palate cleanser – a taste so good it would be the best of the desserts. Described as Sake sorbet with carrot ginger froth, yuzu pudding, micro basil, basil oil, micro shiso, and finger lime this decidedly Eastern influenced dish was actually quite delightful with the sorbet serving as a punchy backdrop but allowing each of the other components to shine forth. While the couple next to me opted to mix everything up and seemed to enjoy the dish as well, I personally opted to attack it piece by piece and was rewarded with different flavors in each bite – the best being when a slice of finger lime, yuzu pudding, and ginger all landed on the palate at once.
Course nine would present the first proper dessert and as cool as it looked, the flavors were just as strange as you would expect from the title - Apple and Pine with Wood, Hay, and Juniper. Having already tasted more than enough pine and mint for the evening, this dish again was a situation where one less ingredient could have proved to be much more in execution. With a tasty poached apple with ample notes of wood and smoke as the base the crunchy pile atop was a sort of hay and juniper flavored “crisp” that was surprisingly tasty and provided a great textural contrast. Beneath the apple, however, was pine – and a lot of it. Another interesting concept marred by one overpowering flavor, but a more restrained hand could have made this a truly unique and delicious experience.
The final dessert of the evening was substantially better than the first, but should have come with more instruction. Titled Oatmeal and Citrus with Blood Orange, Oats, Buckwheat, and Brown Butter the flavors here were excellent and the myriad textures, temperatures, and surprises were nicely designed. Sitting to the right of the plate, however, was a spherification of brown butter that I did not notice until the very end when I popped it into my mouth and received quite the unexpected jolt – I rather imagine it would have been better paired with the divine oatmeal cake and blood orange meringue.
As the clock neared 11:30 Chef Curtin approached with the final bite of the evening - Iced Honey Lavender Crème Brulee. A small ball of crunchy sugar on the outside and the essence of Lavender Honey (rather than soapy lavender or overly sweet honey) within this was excellent. Bidding us farewell and appearing as humble as he’d been throughout the meal he then stopped by to each guest and asked them what they liked and what didn’t work – a nice touch to be sure. With only one small cash register working it would be nearly 20 minutes before the bill was settled while many of the guests hung around for more cocktails. As a final gift before leaving we were each presented a copy of the menu in a wax sealed envelope – a classy touch as Eamon bid each guest a good night.
When it was all said and done I spent nearly 5 hours and 17 tastes with Chef Curtin and team on that Wednesday evening and at a cost of $120 plus $15 for the cocktail I think Compose represents a relative bargain in the world of New York fine dining. While the menu lacked some designer ingredients such as truffles and (to my dismay) foie gras, the ingredients utilized were clearly top notch and Chef Curtin is clearly adept in the kitchen. While I’m still somewhat uncertain as to why one would choose to put a “chef’s counter” restaurant in a space where more than half the diners cannot see the kitchen, I do realize they are doing the best they can with the space available and I respect that. All in all at such a young age (both the chef, the GM, and the restaurant itself) I feel Compose has great potential to live up to the substantial hype, but I think part of that development will be simplifying things a bit – less complexity, a better flow from the kitchen to the table, and perhaps removing some of the ancillary seats to cut down on the noise – and less pine, too.