Last summer, Beacon took me on as an intern in their kitchen. They (mostly) patiently taught me to chop, saute, flip, grill and use their wood-burning oven to fire oysters, pizzas, and trout.
At the time they were experimenting with what would become weekly chef's table tasting dinners. For one great night, a few lucky employees got to become customers for a seemingly endless progression of food and wine.
Fast forward a year, and I am heading back for Beacon's Thursday night Kitchen Counter dinner with the chef; the concept that grew out of that dress rehearsal. I was supposed to arrive at the restaurant, situated on an ugly stretch of 56th Street, at 7 sharp. Due to subway trouble and a nasty heat wave, I arrived late, grumpy, and sticky, but excited nonetheless. I knew I had twelve courses ahead of me. I was greeted with a smoking peach bellini, puffing away, and a cold foie gras and dark chocolate popsicle, swathed in cotton candy. I felt better already.
A year ago, summertime brought whirlwind lunches and slow dinners. Come noon, I'd be manically piling salads high on plates and sliding salmon in and out of the oven. For a few hours, everything was a crazed and sweaty flurry. The dining room was packed with men in suits, and sprinkled with a few women, also in suits.
Dinner was different: some tourists, some families, an unhurried pace. Night left time to prepare for big parties and roll out trays and trays of cookie dough balls. One night, I was filling, or attempting to fill, hundreds of gougères with herbed goat cheese. Every once in a while, a cook would come by, observe my sluggish pace and sloppy technique, and shake his head in pity. He would pluck the pastry bag from my hands and demonstrate, hoping a helpful gougère-filling tip or two would remedy my inept ways. No such luck. I sucked.
I was about to scream, or cry, or make a break for the door, deserting an eternity of cheese-starved gougères, when the chef came over. "Wrap those up and put them away," he said sternly, pointing at my sad mess.
Shit. Would he really fire me? An intern? I bundled the trays in cling wrap and slid them into the fridge. I was nervous, but relieved to have those tasty, evil little pastries out of sight. "Go outside, by the front door," Chef ordered. Now I was totally confused. We cooks exclusively used the back service entrance. I had only been out front once, during my interview. Wouldn't he fire me in the office, anyway? Or right in front of the sorry gougères?
When I got outside, I found my fellow line cooks smoking cigarettes, and joking around. Surprisingly, the chef was smiling as he opened the door. "Welcome to Beacon!" he bellowed, ushering us inside. We sat, still in our chef's whites, where I sat last week, at the tall, handsome wood chef's table, overlooking the open kitchen. The Executive Chef, Mike, and one of the sous chefs, were at our stations, hard at work. Chef/co-owner Waldy Malouf explained that Beacon was creating a chef's table (the table itself was gleaming and new), a stage for showy tastings, and that we would be trying it out that night.
And try it out we did. We drank enough wine to be more than tipsy and ate enough courses for me to be thankful I was sporting cotton pants. I sat between two cooks, one who carried on for the entire meal about how he had to go to the bathroom, while the other scribbled notes with such intensity, he barely paused to enjoy the impressive succession of dishes and libation.
I, unfortunately, have no notes from my first time (and the first time!) at the Beacon Kitchen Counter. It didn't have a name then, but at the time the planners hoped the show would run twice a night, every night. All fifteen courses of it. From its inception it was meant to have enough dramatic flourishes, flashy food, and chef banter to make it feel like both a grand experience while remaining highly personal, and intimate. In reality, the Kitchen Counter happens only once a week, on Thursdays at 8, and there are only 12 (albeit generously sized) courses. The one thing that did reamin from the original idea: it is indeed a show.
The first night, Chef Waldy's many jokes were at our expense. Waldy sliced our salmon and laid the slices on our plates. He grated fresh horseradish over each one. There were little wild mushroom and red onion pizza slices on miniature wooden pizza boards, roasted oysters with shallots and herbs, summer vegetable risotto (which I had learned to make that very afternoon), braised short-ribs that melted in my mouth, and Sergio's ridiculously rich dulce de leche. And there were the souffles. They have achieved signature status, though I've never quite understood why. The inaugural Kitchen Counter featured a fallen souffle or two and the public chewing out of the pastry chef.
A year later, the six of us were paying customers&mdash85 bucks for twelve ample courses and alcohol pairings&mdashand there were no displays of public humiliation. The pizza and the oysters were the same, and solid, as was the grand souffle finale.
In between were dishes I had not seen during my three month stint in the kitchen last year. A huge scallop was succulent and juicy atop a creamy fava bean puree. I loved it, even though my chef friend complained that spicy chipotle overwhelmed the other flavors.
We both ooed over how lobster-y the lobster polenta was, topped with more fat lobster and tarragon butter.
But we both granted our favorite dish status to the same thing: rabbit quinoa stew, with carrots and hen of the woods mushrooms. It was what comfort food should be&mdash hearty, satisfying and sensuous. I only wished that it came with a spoon, in addition to the dainty fork, so that I could scoop up the rich broth. I was sad to see the dish cleared, the best part deserted in the bottom of my bowl.
Beacon does simple, classic food really well. My friend thought the night's fancy spectacles (smoking drinks? really?) seemed affected. They did. Especially for us jaded restaurant people. But I thought they were fun, too. More importantly, the pomp did not come at the expense of deliciousness.
For the final savory course, a hot stone and raw slices of kobe beef were set in front of us to be cooked. I let the beef sizzle for just a moment, then peeled it right off of the rock and into my mouth. It was velvety and sweet.
The wine pairings were thoughtful, if not totally inspired, and amazingly are included in the $85 price tag. The sommelier overflowed with friendliness, as did the guests, and Chef Mike Smith, who oversaw our dinner. Mike prepared the final touches of our dishes at the table, garnished them artfully, set them in front of us, and sweetly answered our constant flood of questions.
For 85 bucks, the quality, and quantity, of food is absurd. But it's not just a dinner, it's an experience. It feels both luxurious and totally approachable; fancy and laid back. It bills itself as being a chance to get up close and personal with your dinner and your chef. And you will. Even if you are not a former employee, like me.
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