Cheeky youth and their Twitters today: it’s working for them.
Last week Flavor received a tweet from an underground restaurant – let’s refer to it as a dinner party hosted by strangers, for legal reasons – that calls itself Chez Le Commis, inviting us to supper that weekend.
We accepted and made clear we’d donate $40 each – those are the food and wine costs, and he’ll open the books to show you if you ask. What ensued was nothing short of magical: six courses of inventive, beautiful, and often expertly prepared foods, at least four paired wines (maybe five? We lost count), sherry, bourbon, three hours of eating, and 13 new friends.
The evening was the fifth pop-up Chez le Commis dinner. It is helmed by a 23-year-old recent literature/philosophy grad from UVA named Tom who picks up many of his ingredients at local farmers markets and develops his menu from there.
Tom dreamed of culinary school, but his mom urged him to get an academic degree. As soon as he graduated, though, he took off to pursue his dream. He somehow arranged to work in the kitchen of Copenhagen’s Noma, widely regarded as the best restaurant in the entire world, and then Le Chateaubriand in Paris. In between there was a stint picking grapes at a biodynamic vineyard in the Loire.
And then he came back to work in P.R. at a non-profit advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
His apartment – the stage for Le Commis — is entirely given over to his first love: the kitchen. Tom’s living room décor consists of two long tables and 14 chairs (and a funky little free-form sculpture made of stacked Lack tables from Ikea, something of an Escher drawing come to life.) No couch, no decorations but for a bookshelf of cook books and Serious Literature, and one table lamp in the corner – curiously on the floor, rather than on one of the spare Lack tables.
This young man marches to his own drummer, and his food shows it.
The first course was blackberries with roasted beets, olive oil and yogurt cream with red pepper. The second was a sublime decomposed crab salad with cucumber granite, buttermilk-yogurt sauce, dill-fennel oil, and roasted fennel. Third was a minimalist take on a traditional Mexican stew with a rich brown lamb and goat broth studded with paper-thin slices of Serrano chili and a single square of roasted pork belly with crispy skin. Fourth was squid ink-braised octopus with purslane and shiso. The fifth course was another stand out: seared Maryland rockfish with a silky turnip puree dotted with rosemary oil and flecked with fresh lavender (it’s not easy to cook with lavender; it often tastes medicinal and astringent. Tom handled it masterfully). Finally, dessert was a mango and wheat beer…. something. A pudding? Odd, delicious, and served with very thin slices of sponge cake.
The name? Le Commis is the lowest man on the totem pole – an apprentice — in a traditional French restaurant.
You should get in on this commis before some investor comes along and gives Tom the money he needs to open a proper restaurant ( and then Tom can finally have a sofa in his apartment). Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s Tom’s recipe for our favorite dish of the night:
Chez Le Commis’ Crab, Cucumber, Fennel
20 live Maryland blue crabs, cleaned
4 onions, cut in half
6 lemons, cut in half
Stock pot of water
… or 1 pound lump local crab meat – for the home cook, this is infinitely easier and honestly, I rarely think there is a marked difference in taste … plus you can worry less about a diner getting a nasty bit of shell)
If cooking crabs, add onions and lemons to stock pot and bring water to boil. Add crabs, cover pot and turn off heat. Crabs will be cooked through in approximately 20 minutes.
Remove crabs from pot and begin the (rather lengthy) process of extracting all the meat. Use the back of a knife or a mallet hammer to crack open the claws and bodies, then use tweezers to carefully remove the sweet white meat. Be careful so as to not mix shell into your growing pile of meat, which should be kept in a bowl over ice at all times. When all crabs have been emptied, carefully feel through the meat with your fingers and tweezers to remove any trace particles of shell.
If using lump crab meat, voila! Pick through the meat to ensure there are not any particles and you’re done.
At service, season crab with fresh lime juice and sea salt.
2 cucumbers, skin on
Roughly chop cucumbers and place in blender. Blend on high and strain juice through chinois. Taste and season with salt. Freeze juice in a shallow pan – every hour, stir and scrape the ice with a fork to keep the granules loose and small.
1 fennel bulb, fronds reserved
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Rub fennel bulb with oil and wrap in foil. Roast for 45 minutes to an hour. Let fennel cool.
Square off core-end with a knife and slice in half top-to-bottom. Depending on size of fennel, cut in half again – the eventual goal is to slice pieces about the size of the lump crab meat pieces. Carefully cut paper-thin fennel “shards” and reserve until service in a bowl lightly tossed with oil.
2 bunches dill, thick stems removed (use more fronds than you think is necessary)
reserved fennel fronds
Blanch dill and fennel fronds in boiling water for five minutes. Strain and dry on paper towels. Add fronds to blender and add canola oil to nearly cover. Blend on high for 7-10 minutes. Strain through chinois and reserve – oil will keep covered and frozen for many weeks.
2/3 cup fresh local buttermilk – the absolute best you can buy
1/3 cup fresh local sheep’s yogurt — again, the absolute best you can buy
Mix buttermilk and yogurt. Reserve until service in squeeze bottle or small bowl.
Squirt a circle of buttermilk-yogurt sauce in the center of a deep bowl. Place a loose ball of seasoned crab in the center and cover with chopped chives, blossoms and roasted fennel shards. Spoon a small amount of dill-fennel oil to the right of the crab and a few heaping spoons of cucumber ice to the left. Serve immediately.