I am a carnivore and proud of it.
For as long as I can remember, consuming meat has always engaged all five senses for me: the longing gaze at the fried chicken fresh out the fryer, the oil bubbles still twerking on the golden-brown skin, the gamey scent of the medium-rare lambchops filling the air as they come out of the oven, the sharp sizzle of the marbled ribeye as it cannonballs into the pool of butter that lies in the welcoming cast-iron pan, the oily pork juice that dribbles down the chin after that initial bite of the xiaolongbao (soup dumplings), and the moment when the perfectly-cooked duck breast, glazed with pomegranate reduction, becomes one with the crispy skin; savory, sweet, and acidic.
I was interested in getting out of my comfort zone and embracing a fresh perspective on food. A week earlier, I had a lovely vegan tasting menu by Chef Daphne Cheng at her supper club, Suite ThreeOhSix. That initial meatless encounter sent me reeling. Dishes were composed from vegan substitutes yet still retained the original essence and flavor I was used to, from the cheese that was made from cashews, to the white miso butter made from vegan butter and coconut oil. So when my friend, Sammy, told me about Chez Jose, a vegetable-driven tasting menu in Williamsburg, I knew I had to check it out.
Chez Jose is currently a BYOB pop-up that currently serves a $55 tasting menu of about 8-9 dishes. The pop-up temporarily occupies the space of a restaurant that is in the middle of a revamp. Both José Ramirez-Ruiz (Brooklyn Fare, Per Se, Degustation) and Pam Yung (Roberta's, Tailor, Room 4 Dessert) cook the dishes, serve the customers, bus the tables, and wash all the dishes at the end of the night.
This humbling, down-to-earth experience began well before dinner was served. I was waiting outside with my friends, Frank, Nina, and Nate when Jose came out and greeted everyone with a warm handshake.
“Hi Chef, a pleasure to meet you and I look forward to --”
“Just call me Jose, man.”
Upon entering the tiny 20-seat restaurant, my eyes acclimated to the uniquely detailed decor.
Jose came over and asked if we had brought alcohol. If not, there was a little shop down the street. When Frank came back with some Peroni, Pam came by and asked if she could chill them for us in their fridge. Then, Jose tossed two orange koozies on our table.
"You'll need these," he said with a wink.
Frank and I were comfortably settled and felt at home with such genuine hospitality when the first dish came out; watermelon sushi topped with yuzu and accompanied by a thin slice of pickled watermelon.
The slight saltiness of the rice, the sweetness of the watermelon, and the acidity of the yuzu in one delicious bite. A perfect starter.
Next was the corn chawanmushi with diced kombu - a delicious sweet corn chowder with velvety texture. I wanted seconds.
The next dish was a test for me. I had a bad experience with eggplant when I was a kid and avoided it all costs. Staring back at me on my plate, was a roasted eggplant with wild crispy rice. The intoxicating, smoky smell was followed by the crunch of the wild rice that gave way to a really tender bite of eggplant. This dish single-handedly succeeded in conquering my formidable phobia.
A palate cleanser followed in the form of a sweet potato leaf with apple slices and toasted fennel and sesame seeds. The idea was to wrap it up and eat it like a taco. Herby, tarty from the apple slices, and the slight bitterness and contrasting texture from the toasted seeds.
A pungent aroma precipitated the next dish, roasted beets sitting on a bed of fermented ramps. Two flavors hit you at the same time; the sweetness of the beet and the garlic- onion taste of the ramps, amplified even more strongly by the fermentation process. This dish had the boldest flavors yet and not for the faint of heart. I’ve been around fermented dishes growing up - stinky tofu comes to mind when describing this dish - but for the uninitiated, this dish might not have been appreciated.
Just when I was curious about the main protein for the evening, a large round plate was set in front of me. The way it was plated was interesting because of the use of negative space.
Jose leaned in and quietly said, “Skate, squash, dried kale” before walking away.
No more, no less. The brevity of his dish introduction was a testament to his unpretentious focus on the ingredients, plain and simple. There was nothing frou-frou about it.
The unbelievably tender skate was buried under a delicate canopy of squash and required nothing more than a fork to break it apart. When asked if it was prepared sous-vide, Pam shook her head.
“Low and slow in the oven, citrus-butter sauce. That’s it.”
The dish as a whole was light and restrained with the skate being the star of the dish.
As a contrast, the next dish had a bold concentration of flavors. This tomato tart was my favorite dish hands down. The blend of the different tomatoes provided a rich heartiness that made you forget about the absence of meat.
The juices ran downwards onto the crisp, flaky tart which gladly soaked up all the essence. Simple and so phenomenal.
Following the tomato tart was a basket of freshly baked bread with the standout being the green-colored stinging nettle brioche.
Let's pause here for a second. For those of you unfamiliar, Wikipedia says:
“The species is divided into six subspecies, five of which have many hollow stinging hairs called trichomes on the leaves and stems, which act like hypodermic needles, injecting histamine and other chemicals that produce a stinging sensation when contacted by humans and other animals.”
At the time, I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t care. This was the best bread I have ever tasted. There is a distinct aroma that made me think of fresh bread coming out of the oven in an old-school kitchen in Paris. The bread itself was pillowy soft with a crispy crust. The bread basket was also served with butter and buttermilk for you to dip the bread in. Suffice it to say, if they ever sold loaves of nettle brioche, there will be a cronut-like line for it.
Jose began walking around to each table for the next dish and began spooning something that emitted a faint hiss.
I craned my neck for a better look when he arrived at our table. The liquid was a bubbling brown butter sauce and the dish was composed of wild mushrooms over rice that looked like risotto. The creamy rice had an orange sheen and tasted tangy because they use tomato water and saba, a sweet syrup made from fresh grapes with similar color and taste to balsamic vinegar.
The first dessert was mint foam emulsion topped with cocoa on top of a layer of blackberries. It was the definition of light and airy. The blackberries burst like mini water balloons of tartness. The cocoa nibs imparted a sweet and bitter flavor as well as some crunch. The mint was subtle and had an Italian sounding name that sounded like “nutella” which Pam repeated thrice.
The second dessert was more nontraditional: Tomato, fig, buttermilk. The tomatoes are cooked slowly in caramel, whey juice, and a buttermilk pannacotta that tempered the sweetness.
Figs going together with buttermilk? Great balance of flavors that erased my initial trepidation.
The dinner ended and instead of presenting each table with a check, Jose nonchalantly announced that there was a jar on the back counter for us to drop off the cash whenever we felt like leaving. He then started cleaning up the kitchen with Pam. I was taken aback. Never in all my years of dining has there been such trust and such a chill attitude towards payment.
After a few minutes, Jose gladly pulled up a chair at our table to rest as he was on his feet since 9am with no breaks. He told us that he gets a lot of his produce from the Union Square Greenmarket and that he takes great pleasure in developing relationships with the purveyors. He loves discovering new and underutilized vegetables and fruits for the dishes. The menu changes constantly depending on the seasonality and availability of the ingredients. He confessed that after being open for about a year and a half, Chez Jose underwent a period in the beginning that saw no customers which almost forced them to shut down and reevaluate.
What stuck out to me was when he said that he consciously shunned early press. He wanted to retain control of the menu and execution….an early spotlight would have resulted in the public dictating the direction of his restaurant.
He wanted to develop his concept in his own time, unfettered by the pressures of those restaurants with meteoric rises and equally spectacular flameouts.
Chez Jose has since hit its stride and the recent buzz along with the gaining popularity of vegetarian tasting menus translates into booming business. Tables are fully booked through the next few weeks and Jose and Pam are finally enjoying the fruits of their labor.
“Thank you everybody for coming out and supporting us.” Jose graciously said.
Pam paused from saran-wrapping the tomatoes steeped in caramel and wiped her hands on her chef whites and flashed a smile.
“We hope to see you all soon!”
As soon as the last table filed out the door, she rolled up her sleeves and continued clearing the tables while Jose began to wash dishes.