My memory sucks.
There are gaps spanning several years. The most complex experiences survive only as basic sensory reactions — smells and sounds, especially. Etched in my nostrils even now is the aroma of burning leaves.
Before sparks turned to flames, I would splash through piles taller than I was, burying pine cones and needles. Nature’s firecrackers fell from the only kind of tree I knew growing up in east Texas. I don’t know how old I was, but I can still hear that sound.
I was 22 years old when I first heard of kecap manis. Jordan Kahn used it in a dessert at a short-lived New York restaurant called Varietal.
He looked back then as he looks now — like a shy kid, chin tucked in toward his chest. Longish black hair shoots straight down one side of his head, sucked into an invisible vacuum on his shoulder. Jordan was the same age as me then. I suppose he still is.
A certain Frank Bruni wrote that the creations of Kahn and his savory counterpart Ed Witt weren’t “just slightly altered carbon copies of what’s on plates everywhere else.” But he and other critics found the restaurant disjointed and self-conscious, filing a punitive one-star review.
I believed Mr. Kahn’s desserts to be the most compelling in the city, but the pastry kitchen was his only presidio, and the walls were crumbling around it. One can hardly blame him for jumping ship after just four months. (Varietal itself lasted only seven.)
The intervening years saw Jordan and me both move to California, though he stayed put while I boomeranged back to New York. I ogled from afar in July of 2010 as he opened Red Medicine, a vaguely Vietnamese solo project in Beverly Hills where he would pinch the salt and spoon the sugar — both kitchens were now his.
No surprise, then, to see the myriad garnishes that graced our plates last month at Red Medicine. Most were wild. Few were easily identifiable. The first — gangly pea tendrils — were arranged to stand aside snap peas in a soymilk custard as if the whole dish had literally sprouted up from the table.
Peas begat carrots. Heirloom black ones, roasted until the insides were like pudding, dotted with guava and tamarind, mounded with crispy kale and dulse seaweed. An expressive, exceptional plate of food.
Turnips turned up. Sweetness and funk alternated as the deeply caramelized root vegetable mingled with roasted banana chunks dusted in a powder of fermented black beans.
Not the entire menu focused on vegetables, but I relished in pretending it did. How could I order otherwise when Indian eggplant bursts like a twice-baked potato with sprouted mung beans and edamame, when sweet corn swims in a fish bowl with lemongrass, young ginger and frozen uni powder?
Protein proponents aren’t punished, either. They just have to wade through piles of leaves to get it. Beef tartare hides beneath water lettuce, mixes with nuoc leo (a Vietnamese peanut sauce) and is to be piled high on shrimp chips. Raw amberjack is buried under seaweed, buttermilk, and tapioca.
We dutifully ordered the heirloom rice porridge the first night. The restaurant’s most popular dish, it’s like congee on crack, brimming with as much butter as a Joël Robuchon X Paula Deen collaboration. The rice itself is so flavorful as to outshine its glam accessories (uni, egg yolk, crumbled chicken skin).
Each plate arrives with a living, breathing owner’s manual, which you can choose to read or not — these servers know their stuff. From a less-seasoned crew, my questions might have elicited blank stares, or worse yet, pontification. But I’m happy to report that I encountered neither.
Nor did we encounter any resistance in ordering one of the large format dishes the second night after polishing off 11 dishes as a two-top on the first. In fact the kitchen taunted us with sweetbreads, prunes, beech mushrooms and smoked bone marrow — a generous gift; a spa snack while we waited on the prawns.
Wild Santa Barbara spot prawns, they were. Cooked over hot river stones. Too many of them to count.
The heads were dusted in lemongrass powder and fried. Strategically seated with three girls who were at first curious-but-mildly-grossed-out and later only grossed out, I was lucky enough to eat most of them.
The bodies were sweet and succulent, especially for fast eaters like me who would sooner throw themselves on hot stones than see these delicate crustaceans linger on them and overcook. And the aroma? Oh, it was just that of lemongrass, coriander, star anise, and a hundred other things I could smell forever.
To come to Red Medicine just for dessert would be both a tease and an infinitely rewarding proposition, for Kahn remains perhaps the most brilliant pastry chef I’ve ever come across. Good old kecap manis still has a place in his heart, here with bitter chocolate, parsnip puree, toasted oats, soy milk sorbet and the craziest-looking spaghetti string of brown butter gel.
Green strawberries go with frozen cream, sorrel, elderflower, and wild chervil. I have a hard time imagining the labor necessary to produce so many different textures and temperatures on the same plate, but a very easy time enjoying all of them.
Something they call peanut croquant is the part of the coconut bavarois that we can’t put down. It’s the dessert that guides us the most clearly towards southeast Asia, with flavors of coffee, condensed milk and Thai basil.
Now in my head I’ve been guided back home. Not my first home, necessarily. Just to one of the many places to which I’ve attached that title over the years.
In certain parts of California, redwood trees predominate the same way pine trees do in east Texas. So Chef Kahn decided to make an ice of them. Then he thought to put that ice in a huge glass bowl, covering the top with a thin layer of almond praline dusted with white chocolate powder.
You break through to discover orange blossom bubbles and redcurrant pâte de fruit scattered over the ice, and you find the ice filling just one half of the bottom. The other side holds a silky jasmine cremeux.
My old apartment was just down the hill from a national park full of redwood trees. I used to waste away my days reading and writing in their shade. On my walk home, I’d stop and smell the jasmine blossoms that peeked out over my neighbors’ fences. That became — and remains — my favorite smell.
I don’t remember when that was, actually. But I suppose it doesn’t matter. One way or another, I can always go back.