|Kumamoto Oysters with Yuzu, Chili Gelée, Micro Shiso and Fresh Wasabi||Dominic Armato|
Of all the food trends that have come and gone over the years, I have to admit that -- selfishly speaking -- this is one of my favorites.
It would seem that the "staff meal" -- when a restaurant that isn't typically a late-night institution has extended hours one or two days a week -- is rapidly gaining popularity here in Phoenix. They don't even remotely resemble any staff meals I've ever seen, and I'm mildly resenting the implication in some circles that this is increasing the availability of "good" food late at night (late-night diners aren't good?). But when you're somebody for whom the easiest time to sneak out for a bite is late at night, they could call it the Book Club or the Board Meeting and I'd still be happy to have another dining option.
So on a recent Thursday, I struck out with a couple of fellow food nerds with the intention of hitting the most recent addition to the late night scene. Posh is still a fairly young restaurant, and their hook is that they've taken the age-old practice of letting the chef cook whatever the heck he wants and turned it into standard operating procedure. Not so from 10:00 PM to midnight on Thursdays, however, when an actual menu with 4-6 small dishes and plenty of alcohol specials makes an appearance. For now, late nights at Posh are a three-week-old experiment, but based on my experience the first two weeks, here's hoping it remains a regular event.
|Boar Bacon with Fried Egg||Dominic Armato|
Briny Kumamoto oysters received a treatment far more elaborate than their resultant flavor would suggest, and that's a good thing. When you see that they're dressed with yuzu, chili gelée, micro shiso and fresh wasabi, you wonder if there's going to be an oyster buried in there somewhere. But the additions complement both the oysters' flavor and their provenance, gentle Japanese touches accentuating rather than standing in the way of the salty little critters. Braised(?) boar bacon, accompanied by artichoke leaves and a lentil puree, was barely visible, peeking out from beneath a fried egg with a vibrant yellow and deliciously oozy egg yolk, but its shyness was a ruse. Big, porky flavor was its true character, the inherent saltiness of the bacon mitigated by that luscious egg yolk. A fusion of two food trends (bacon and fried eggs) that are getting a little ubiquitous? Ehhh, who cares. Great flavors, and the menu's better for it.
|Pig Ear Ravioli with Morels||Dominic Armato|
Late night at Posh wasn't exclusively comprised of hits. A play on stuffed shells with tomato sauce that substituted brandade for the ricotta was a lot nicer in theory than it was in practice. But even if the misses weren't relegated to the minority (they were), Posh could have earned my loyalty on the strength of two dishes alone, the first of which is the pig's ear ravioli. Conventional wisdom is that pig ears are all about texture, and doing something meaningful with them is a matter of harnessing that odd chewy/tough character and using it for good rather than evil. But Posh's owner/chef Joshua Hebert sidesteps the texture issue entirely, pulverizing the pig ears into a smooth and savory paste and using it to stuff some rather delicate ravioli with a not-so-delicate veal demi. The sauce is intense, just a tiny bit sweet, and further accented with sautéed morels. I really need to quit using the term umami bomb, but it applies in spades. The pasta is light and delicate, but the flavor is huge.
|Brûléed Foie Torchon with Spun Sugar||Dominic Armato|
One of my new favorite dishes, however, is one that could just as easily lead off the dessert menu, despite its decidedly meaty nature. Foie gras takes sweet very well, but a lot of people overdo it. Hebert over-overdoes it and circles back around to awesome. A succulent little puck of foie is sugared and brûléed, paired with diced fruit, dressed with a very sweet orange sauce, and topped with a rather dramatic cloud of spun sugar. The foie's brûléed crust is wonderfully crisp, and the spun sugar is thicker than cotton candy and comes across as downright crystalline (probably because it is), making for a pair of delightful textural contrasts to the foie's natural squishiness. But even the foie itself has a lot going on in the texture department, having been assembled, it seems, from a rough and uneven dice that keeps it from being texturally uniform and makes it a real pleasure to eat. Most importantly, however, the foie somehow stands up, its rich flavor blasting right through all of that fructose and sucrose. I've had some pretty mean foie dishes over the years, but this one's going to stick in my head for a good long while, I think.
I should probably get around to eating a normal meal there at some point. And with a couple of big winners like those, the sensible thing would have been to go home happy. But why have one dinner when you can have two? When discussion turned to Petite Maison's role as local pioneer of the "staff meal" and it was pointed out that they were just down the street and still open, we decided that one late-night meal couldn't hope to contain us. That I'd kicked off the evening establishing myself as culinary enabler by handing the menu to my companions and saying, "The answer to all of your questions is yes," may have also played a significant role in this harebrained decision.
Thankfully, it paid off. Though Petite Maison's website features their staff meal quite prominently, in practice it was simply a matter of walking in, parking at the bar and asking what they had that night. On this particular night, it was but two dishes. A "BLT" and... chili cheese fries. At a French bistro? Huh. Ah, well. I lived two blocks from Bob's Big Boy in Burbank, California for five years. I'm no stranger to late-night grease bombs. Bring two of the former and one of the latter, we said, in perhaps not so eloquent a fashion. The "BLT" was a rather loose riff on convention, thin crispy bacon on a brioche bun with endive and sweet -- very sweet -- tomato confiture. My compatriots quickly identified the bacon as the work of The Meat Shop, and that fine product was well-accompanied. "BLT" might be stretching the limits of the term a little bit, but it was a tasty little sandwich.
|Chili Cheese Fries||Dominic Armato|
While the BLT was a significant departure from the tried and true, the chili cheese fries were exactly the opposite. This wasn't an upscale reimagining of chili cheese fries. It was simply chili cheese fries, done very well. A huge pile of crisp, seasoned fries were buried under a mound of meaty, flavorful chili that was studded with chunks of a soft, tangy cheese that I couldn't identify (read: was too busy eating to bother trying). I don't want to oversell it. It's chili cheese fries. But it's made with an unusual amount of care. It was still a gutbuster, but rather than being a total grease bomb (not that there's anything wrong with that), it was actually a carefully executed dish with components that maintained their own character rather than devolving into a uniformly squishy mess.
I'm somebody who's only too happy to roll out the door at two in the morning, grab a newspaper, park at a linoleum countertop somewhere and tuck into a questionable tuna melt. But you know, it IS kind of nice that the amount of late-night fare that isn't of the greasy spoon or booze sponge variety appears to be on the rise. In chatting with Hebert, he mentioned -- and I'm paraphrasing -- that it'd be nice if a few more restaurants jumped in, everybody took a different night, and it became possible for folks to go out for more refined late night food on every night of the week. I say why stop there? I'd love to see everybody pick a night or two to offer extended hours. Not that there's anything wrong with that tuna melt, but it sure is nice to be able to sneak out at night for a little brûléed foie and an endive and tomato confiture BLT. As trends go, this is one I can get behind.