Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Compose NYC: Exciting intimate chef's tasting

Last Wednesday I walked a whole five blocks North from our apartment to try out Nick Curtin's tasting menu at the couple month old restaurant Compose. I was instantly intrigued when I first read about the new establishment, but was not able to secure a reservation until last week. This was due in no small part to the fact that for the tasting menu, only ten diners a night are served at the intimate restaurant, although they do offer cocktail and a bar menu in dozen or so additional seats in the small venue. I opted for the wine pairings to accompany my meal, which were well chosen by the affable Eamon Rockey, erstwhile captain at Eleven Madison Park, but after seeing some of the cocktails being crafted I'll be back erelong in one of the other seats to try the cocktails. Chef Curtain recently staged at Noma in Copenhagen, and is making great use of inspiration from there in his new menu for Compose.
Only ten lucky diners a night are served the tasting menu, all in one 7pm seating, and the ten courses plus several additional bites are served to each diner and described by one of the three chefs. As you can see in the picture, you sit right at the horseshoe shaped bar, with the semi-open kitchen at the open end of the 'U'.  The setting is intimate, and fosters interaction and dialogue with the staff. I was tempted to start out with a cocktail, but wisely opted to stick with only the wine pairing, which, I just now realize as I type, was not only the ten pours for each course which I had thought, but in fact there were at least two additional ones to pair with the amuses! On top of that, the bartender gave me a taste of some roasted chestnut-infused bourbon they had behind the bar, yikes!
I've got a feeling this is going to be another long one, so I best get started. They started us off with a glass a Champagne and duck fat popcorn sprayed with rosemary oil, which proved a nice little snack to start the evening off.

Next up was a bite of "Kir Royale" - Champagne Gelee and Cassis Aspic with galangal petal, which had a surprising carbonation effect captured in the gelee, which I suspect were pop rocks of some sort. In any case is was a nice amuse.

Following the Kir Royale we received a Mini baked potato Crème fraiche, American hackleback caviar, and chive.
Mini baked potato?  How mini you ask?  Here's some scale:
The potato was a playful and tasty bite. I perhaps could have used a tad more seasoning in addition to the caviar, but I'm a salt fiend.
The last amuse was perhaps the highlight of the night for me, and with an excellent drink pairing to boot. We were served there "Ocean Sphere" - spherified oyster emulsion with pickled shallots and seaweed dust, which we were instructed to shoot like and oyster, which was mild but briny and quite aptly named. This amuse was beautifully paired with a junmai sake, both had very clean flavors and some umami that played off each other well. This is a relatively new dish to the restaurant I believe; previously they were serving a warm sphere of mozzarella. Here's a review from a dinner a month or so before mine.
Only now do we reach the main meal, for which we were given a handsomely printed menu in a wax sealed envelope on our way out, complete with wine pairing information; quite a nice touch. You can click on the menu below for details on the components and wine pairings I may not touch on later. Regarding the wine pairings, they were very well done across the board, and had some interesting choices, but my comments about them will be sparse; do not mistake that for disapproval, just lack of memory.

 The main menu began with an earthy plate of  roasted baby beets with charred onions and a beet vinaigrette. It was a simple preparation which allowed the ingredients to express themselves.

The second course was new to the menu, and a welcome addition. The supremely fresh and clean tasting Crudo of Fluke was given an additional textural component by virtue of the puffed wild rice hidden in the rolls of fish, and a hint of sweetness from the smoked grapes nicely offset the herbal notes from the fresh herbs, basil oil, and ethereal anise water. The fino sherry was again an excellently chosen foil for this dish.
The butternut squash soup that followed was perhaps a tad sweeter than I prefer, but it was quite smooth and I really enjoyed the maple-sherry vinaigrette and chestnut foam floating atop the soup. It was quite a large serving of rich soup, maybe a little too generous, not that I didn't finish. For me I think it would have been better were it a smaller serving with higher chestnut foam to soup ratio, but that's a minor quibble; the diners on either side of me loved it as is.
The poached diver scallop was the one dish of the night that fell a bit flat for me. It's a shame, because the scallop itself was a thing of beauty, harvested the previous day from the waters of Maine, and scallops are one of my very favorite things. This one was carefully poached at 104° and served warm. I adore raw scallops. I can't get enough seared scallops.  This middle ground just didn't do it for me. It was by no means bad, it was quite tasty in fact, but it was just a little disappointing. It lacked the caramelized crust and melting flesh of a nice seared scallop as well as missing the pure freshness and creamy mouthfeel of raw scallop. The taste was nice, I just felt like it was missing something. A contributing factor I'm sure was that I saw several of the same beautiful scallops go out as a seared version from the bar menu which I thought we'd get before discovering that I was destined for this version. Which I'm glad I tried, but perhaps next time I'll see if they can sneak me the seared one instead. But that's just my preference talking.
The "Rock" Shrimp with smoked paprika oil and baby (beet?) greens was next up, and it came with a whimsical presentation (which I believe was borrowed from Noma). First a bowl containing a very hot rock sitting atop some pine was placed in front of each diner, the heat from the rock excited the oils in the pine and aromatizing the room. All diners being served this course at the same time only added to the effect. Then a single raw shrimp was placed on each rock to briefly cook on the hot stone. After a brief time, the chef came to flip each shrimp and adorn them with the paprika oil and greens, then they were ready to be eaten. The shrimp was just barley cooked through, still tender and juicy; an elevated take on the classic tapas dish. The Oloroso Sherry brought led my mind back to Spain even more. As an aside, Chef Curtin told me that they had once used eucalyptus in lieu of the pine, and although the diners that night loved it, the chefs thought it smelled awful as they smoldered for the remainder of the night in the kitchen trash bin.
The shrimp was followed by an expertly cooked butter poached lobster, the sweet tender meat inventively sauced with lemon cream, cocoa butter, and caviar. If I were to nitpick I would have dialed back the cocoa slightly, but judging from the exclamations of the other diners no one else shared this thought. Nonetheless, a delicious dish. Eamon Rockey poured an interesting white from Slovenia whose acid and fruit did well by the rich lobster and its sauce. Another solo diner nearby astutely surmised that the Slovenia vineyard must have been close to the Friuli region of Italy; in a discussion after dinner with Eamon he confirmed that at one point the vineyard had in fact been in Italy proper until the border was slightly redrawn after the war, so indeed it was close to Italy.
Not that we were hurting for amount of food, but while the next course was being prepped they presented us each a Potato chip roll with Crème fraiche butter; I have to say it was quite good.
The next course was the poached egg, silky and barely poached and accented with a a heavily roasted cauliflower puree, oyster mushrooms, cocoa nibs, and some fried shaved artichoke for texture. This was a very earthy dish, more so than the more common light and herbaceous poached egg dishes usually found on menus, but tasty and appropriate for the cold winter's night.
While the earlier "Ocean Sphere" was probably the most notable dish of the night for its ingenuity and uniqueness, the meat course up next was my favorite of the night, simply because the protein itself was so magical and rare in the US. Compose has sourced cuts of fresh Ibérico de Bellota, the fabled pork from the acorn fed Spanish 'pata negra', or black footed pigs. They have served different cuts at the restaurant, but on this night they offered Paleta, a cut from the shoulder. I've previously written about the wonderful secreto, and this cut measures right up. It's important to show restraint and not do to much to such a pristine ingredient, and Chef Curtin shows his deftness in this regard. On the side is some charred red cabbage and mint puree just to add a hint of sweetness and acidity to the rich meat if desired. This dish alone is worth the trip. (Despite menu indicating an Italian wine, I'm pretty sure they poured us a very good Rioja, which I thought was an excellent choice given the Ibérico. Don't want to overthink this one with such a simple classic.)
We were given a pleasing palate cleansing sorbet for pre-dessert whose details escape me. The Apple & Pine dessert with wood, hay, and juniper was a marvel, possibly the most innovative course of the whole night. I wish I had notes on this course, for it was really something, and thankfully not too sweet. Rest assured the "wood" and the "hay" were quite apparent flavors and aromas in the dish, and surprisingly delightful. The dessert really made me think, but at the same time was wonderfully familiar and comforting. I'm not a dessert guy but I really loved this one. If desserts are your thing, just last week Compose started offering a 4 or 5 course dessert tasting you can book separately from dinner; were I a dessert guy I'd definitely try it out, however I have no idea if this dish is offered in that format. I enjoyed the wood and hay in this so much I'm actually tempted to find out.
The second dessert, Oatmeal and Citrus, was also tasty and comforting, but nothing nearly as special as the previous course. It also was not overly sweet which I appreciated.

Lastly, we were left with one last bite, Iced Honey-Lavender Crème Brulée.  This one was sweet, but for just a bite it was an appropriate amount of sweetness to end on.

This is the aforementioned wax sealed envelope containing the menu for the night, which was an excellent ending touch capping off an entire night of excellent and thoughtful service.


  1. Excellent write-up! I have a reservation at Compose in a couple of weeks and at least I have a better idea on what to expect. May I ask how does this compare to other high-end multi-course tasting menus you've done recently (say within the past 1-2 years)? Also, how much were the wine pairings? I know the food costs $120.

  2. Wine (&sake&sherry) pairings were $80, and they gave me a lot of wine. I even got some repours when I finished a bit quickly, although they may have been extra generous because the patron next to me got the pairing but didn't want too much so asked for very small pours for most of them.

    As for a comparison, that's a bit difficult. It was somewhat reminiscent of Momofuku Ko with the set menu, bar seating, and service by the chefs, but Compose's space was far less stark and more welcoming. (Don't get me wrong, I love Ko.) And Compose was much more focused on service and interaction. Both Nick Curtin and Eamon Rockey were a delight to chat with.

    That makes it hard to compare, one does not typically get to discuss the food and wine with the chef and wine director to such an extent. Often you can have a good dialogue with the Sommelier, but it's not like you chat up Thomas Keller about each course at Per Se. Also I was a solo diner (wife dined nearby at Tamarind Tribeca with the girls), and there were two others flying alone to my right, and all three of us ended up chatting with ourselves and the staff. So it's different, but fun. But only because they have one seating of so few diners is this possible.

    As for the food, it was perhaps more uneven with a couple misses but some huge hits, but I chalk that up to some extent to the newness of the place, but mostly due to the ambition in reaching on some of the dishes. The couple I didn't like quite as much were some of the favorites of others; that's the nature of this kind of food sometimes. If you try too hard to please everyone with every dish on a long tasting, I think you risk ending up muting the high notes of individual people's favorites.

    Overall the experience was just as enjoyable for me as any other recent top tasting, perhaps for different reasons. I liked the exciting food and intimate interaction.

  3. Well based on your info (and real info/reviews on this restaurant so far has been sparse), I'm looking forward to my meal there.

    I've been to Ko once, when it first opened. Thoroughly enjoyed my meal, but in a city with so many restaurants, it's not always easy to go back. Have you been to The Kitchen at Brooklyn Fare? Perhaps it's a very similar experience, except Compose's inside looks like an NYC trendy restaurant, as opposed to a a test kitchen.

    I went once last year in March (when it was just 11-12 diners per night) and thought the meal was better than my dinner at Ko. And Chef Ramirez loves to talk, so it very enlightening to hear a chef talk about his passion, philosophy, and work during each course, albeit that style is not for everyone. And BYOB put it over the top.

    That's pretty cool that you went there to check it out while the wife did the girls' night. I live in Tribeca as well, but haven't hit up Tamarind. It's on my list to go. And the great thing is that if you see solo diners at a place like Compose, you know they're serious foodies that would love to chat.

    Again, thanks for all the info. There haven't been too many reviews on it yet.

    - Mike

  4. I forgot to ask, where they OK with you taking the photos?

  5. They didn't mind at all about the pics.

    I've yet to make it to Brooklyn Fare, it's high up on my list as well. Gotta get around to picking up the phone one of these days. I guess I'm unclear about how to book or how hard it is to reserve, suppose I need to investigate.


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