Summer at Creo: The Chef vs The Menu
When I was first approached with an invitation to try some of the new dishes on the summer menu at Creo, the restaurant’s PR agency asked what I thought about the idea.
I thought they were brave.
And I told them that much, but they were confident in what chef Brian Bowden had put together. While they recognized I was tough, they also knew that I was fair, and were undaunted by my warning. After all, the not-so-positive experiences I’ve had with the restaurant in the past were all before he took control of the stoves.
Cap2Cap was there taking pictures of the food and tasting along, so you can click over to her blog to actually see the things we ate. Since we were trying to sample multiple dishes, chef Brian prepared smaller versions of each item, so please keep that in mind when looking at the photos. Also, for the sake of full disclosure, we paid nothing for our food (and one glass of sauvignon blanc each) but did leave a gratuity for our waitress. If you think getting free food affects my judgement, then I invite you to read on.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I want to tell you a secret.
I love chefs. The best part of the evening was getting a chance to sit down with chef Brian and learning more about what he’s trying to do at Creo, the challenges he faces, and the exciting things he has planned for the weeks and months to come.
The second best part was the watermelon salad. But I’ll get to that in just a minute.
Chef Brian has been at the helm of Creo now for over a year, and I know he’s made some changes. So towards the end of the meal, when I looked at the dessert menu, I was a bit disheartened to find one of the worst desserts I’d ever experienced still on the menu: the deconstructed key lime pie. It turns out I’m not the only one who dislikes the dish. Chef Brian took it off the menu when he came on board, and it stayed off for a year until customer demand recently brought it out of retirement.
Luckily a new pastry chef is coming on board, and the dessert menu will be changed once again. Because that thing really needs to go away.
This idea of customers driving what’s on the menu first came up earlier in the evening. We had sampled a halibut dish which made it onto the summer menu based on its performance as a special. People loved it. I liked it. But mostly I thought it suffered from being overwrought.
It was a well seared piece of halibut, sitting in a sweet corn puree, with some wilted cherry tomatoes, crisp haricot vert, and an earthy fingerling potato. On its own it would have been great. But it was then needlessly topped with a tartar sauce and a small nugget of lobster meat.
The dish already had a creamy component in the form of the corn puree, and the tartar sauce only served to dull and mask the flavors of the dish. The lobster added little beyond a splash of color, a centimeter of height, and the illusion of this being a much more expensive entree. But patrons of Creo apparently love that lobster and tartar sauce. And I have no idea what to do about that.
I also thought it was interesting in talking with chef Brian that his original idea for this dish was to fry the green beans tempura style. This didn’t happen because of the executional realities of working with many cooks on a fifty-foot line. But it’s fascinating to discover that there are some complicated things that are easier to pull off in a smaller kitchen. It makes sense and it’s a good piece of information for me to keep in mind.
Executional realities also make it extraordinarily hard to create a summer menu at the end of May. I was curious how one goes about doing this before the season’s vegetables even start arriving from local farms.
The answer is experience, of which chef Brian has plenty. What I really look for in a seasonal menu is produce that is in the height of season. But that changes weekly, and in some cases daily. This is really the role that specials play for Brian at Creo. They allow for this kind of added flexibility, while still keeping a fixed summer menu that focuses more on lighter foods with more seasonal flavors.
Heartier appetizers like duck cassoulet have given way to lettuce cups. Lobster mac & cheese has left the building, making room for orichiette with peas, favas, fennel, cannellini beans, goat cheese and basil. Braised shortribs and the veal meatloaf are also out for the season. Changes like these make a ton of sense.
That said, there are a few dishes that remain from the pre-Bowden days that seem to stay on the menu despite the new direction the executive chef is trying to take the restaurant. These are things like the Lobster and Avocado Tart and the Kung Pao Calamari.
While the roof garden may be another remnant of the past, the garden out front is expanding, and chef Brian does indeed have a passion for local and foraged foods. The local cheese plate, which is a recent addition to the menu, is so far and beyond what’s offered at McGuire’s that it’s not even funny. For the same $15 we were served three amazing local cheeses: Old Chatham Sheepherding Company’s camembert, Eclipse – R&G’s ash-covered goat cheese, and Berkshire Blue.
This was a thoughtful and well constructed cheese plate. It called upon all three major milk sources. There was a range of flavors, textures and intensities. But most importantly, it was simple. The plate wasn’t overloaded with salami, olives, fruit and crackers. This was about the cheeses and providing just enough accoutrements to add a touch of color and maybe cleanse your palate between cheeses.
Chef Brian mentioned getting his hands on some foraged ramps early in the spring, which he was able to run as a special. But we were in for a treat, because one of his purveyors delivered a supply of wild watercress that played a starring role in an amazing salad.
As a side note, somehow I’ve seemed to get a reputation for being a salad hater. And it’s my own fault. But to clarify, it’s really raw lettuce that fails to excite me. And on the hot summer day that I visited, nothing was more appealing than this cooling summer starter: watermelon salad. Besides the watermelon and wild watercress the “salad” was composed of feta, radish, jicama, pepita, red onion, and a bright citrus vinaigrette.
At only $8 for a full sized order, this is among the least expensive things on the Creo menu. But its balance of flavors from sweet, to bright, to deep, to green, to sharp, to earthy, to funky, to nutty, to spicy, to refreshing, to savory is really remarkable. And this is coming from someone who would usually be inclined to skip a salad.
In some ways this experience reminded me a bit of Chez Panisse. It was the simpler things made from mostly local and seasonal foods that were the stars of the show, and the dishes that tried hard to be fancy never really achieved the same heights.
I had hoped to like the scallops more on their bed of cauliflower puree with pancetta, oyster mushroom, mustard greens, caviar and truffle oil. Really my concern was that the truffle oil would be overpowering. It wasn’t, which was good. But the whole dish suffered from a homogeneity of texture, except for the greens, which were a bit too tough, and the caviar, which was unpleasantly small and hard.
Caviar, like lobster, is one of those ingredients that has a lot of cachet. But all caviar is not created equal. And the stuff that was placed so carefully on top of each scallop seemed to be the small and hard lumpfish roe which bears only a passing resemblance to the stuff that excites gourmands.
Dessert was notable because Creo makes all its own ice cream and sorbet. The scoop of vanilla that came with our berries, cake and whipped cream was the best thing on the plate. I also overheard that they had a beet sorbet. I may need to make a trip back just for dessert to try more of their frozen treats.
I left convinced for the first time that there is good stuff going on at Creo. Chef Brian told me he’s working with some local farmers and will be bringing in a local cow and two pigs, which will find their way to the specials menu this summer. Pig parts will get turned into charcuterie. I’m not sure about his plans for the cow. But I plan to follow up and report back.