I never expected 2012 to be such a great dining year, especially after a stellar 2011 (with the two most notable meals being el Bulli and Town House). But this year… The Ledbury, the train wreck known as Romera, Barley Swine, Annisa, St. John, Elements - I’m eating myself into the poor house, but having fun doing so.
It’s hard to compare restaurants - and sometimes silly to do so. I think that in my restaurant hierarchy, el Bulli and Robuchon stand above the rest, because of the resources thrown into your dinner. I’d say that on a four-star scale, those are both sort of still five-star places.
Then there are three-star (in my mind) places that are serving great food, but aren’t necessarily trying to give a complete fine dining experience - Joe Beef, City House (Nashville), Le Pigeon, Ssam Bar. These are restaurants that have absolutely nothing for which to apologize, but are generally a but less formal.
The four-star places are the ones that we all kind of know. French Laundry, EMP, Gordon Ramsay, Corton, Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, Ledbury. They provide a complete dining experience. There may be some unevenness, but these are professional dining experiences.
So with that being my dining context, my experience last Thursday at the Catbird Seat was a spectacular four-star experience, every bit the equal to any of the other four-star places I can name. What is most amazing is that it is done with a very small staff - two chefs, a sous, a somm, a busser/jack-of-all-trades, a hostess, and a valet.
The layout is somewhat like Atera (where I’ll be lucky enough to go later this month, for Leslie’s birthday) - 32 seats (they seem to have two seatings - again, with that staff!), about 20 of which are on a three sided dining bar that overlooks the ‘kitchen’ (pictures show it better than I can say it).
The Catbird Seat is located on the floor directly above the Patterson House, a fabulous modern mixology bar in a warm setting - so it’s a great place to grab a drink before dinner. An elevator around the corner of the building takes one to the restaurant - you’re greeted by name outside and brought up (though the elevator was down on Thursday, so we went up the back steps (which may double as the fire escape) heightening the speakeasy quality to the place, passing liquid nitro, a smoker, a snap-together herb garden, on the way.
Inside, the restaurant is spare, white, and modern feeling. One is seated at the bar, and the show begins. A single ($100) tasting menu (unless you have allergies). Choice of wine match ($50), reserve wine match ($70), or non-alcohol match ($20). I went with the reserve match and would find that throughout the meal, there would be wine drinks that were played with, in a good way - a cocktail of riesling, sake, and maple syrup, carbonated, with a slice of lime, for instance, accompanied a plate of aps.
Probably best to again refer to the pix, but the food was absolutely stunning. Sure, it’s inspired - by seasonal ingredients, by fun matches of flavors and textures - but I was more impressed with the impeccable preparation (especially given the small staff). Not a single dish had an obvious flaw in taste or presentation. One of the three chefs would place your plate, describe, and answer any questions. The somm would pour and explain. Everything without a hitch.
There’s a fair amount of whimsy - the meal starts and ends with “Oreos” - porcini & parm to start, coffee & cream to end. A triad of aps includes an oyster, a hush-puppy like bacon mousse stuffed fried cornbread round, a chicken skin tribute to Nashville’s famous Hot Chicken. The beef tartare was great (and fun to see beef used in an early ‘light’ dish). The pork belly & SV egg (with pickled carrot & ramps, watercrest, radish, & rhubarb mustard) was probably my favorite dish. But the halibut with black garlic pudding, lemon, fava beans, and sorrel was nearly as great. The chicken with dill, crawfish sauce, & smoked potato puree was probably my second favorite dish. Lamb with grilled peaches, spring onions, morels & nasturtium was fab. Local blueberries with hay-infused yogurt & puffed rice were a great transition dish from savory toward sweet. The egg custard with maple & bacon was a hoot.
The Catbird Seat is every bit the equal of the four-stars I’ve named. Between the two of them, Chef’s Anderson & Habiger have worked or cheffed at Alinea, French Laundry, Fat Duck, and Noma - so they have their chops. But with this, they have made their own mark on contemporary food.