Lofty statement? The seasonal and locally-sourced dinner cooked by Chef Travis Olson twice a month at Glen’s Garden Market made me appreciate the true meaning of “table” and why this chef’s table (at the popular grocery store in Washington, DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, which focuses on local foods) is one of the finest.
The table itself is a large wooden square set for ten placed in front of the market’s cold case. I’ll admit I wasn’t so sure about the communal dining setup after some awkward experiences dining with strangers in other settings. I should not have worried. It seemed the table had been snatched from a countryside villa in Provence, complete with a feeling of congeniality.
Gathering around the table reminded me of the moment in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder version) when the lucky finders of a Golden Ticket gather to enter his wonderland. Chef Olson, the inviting host and a gifted chef, was as excited to share his Technicolor world of local foods as we were to try it. And like a Golden Ticket, seats at this table are rare. Only 200 diners will get to share this experience this year.
Opening Chef Olson’s opus was an oyster: a Choptank oyster raised by Marinetics (a.k.a. The Choptank Oyster Company) in the Chesapeake Bay at the mouth of the Choptank River. The Choptank Oyster Company is the only privately-funded oyster hatchery in Maryland and has a deep dedication to preserving the Bay . . . and a delicious way to do it! The oyster on the half-shell was graced with a bit of damson plum pickled in gin, a pluches of dill, and my favorite part: sauerkraut ice which ensured a well-chilled dish with a bit of brine to balance the sweet oyster.
The culinary expertise and dedication to local foods of Chef Olson was certainly reinforced during his time with René Redzepi at Noma and was on full display in all nine courses. The second course was a vibrantly red dry-aged beef tartare from Roseda Black Angus Farm topped by kettle corn dusted with powdered morels. The use of the Pennsylvania-grown popcorn as a garnish was something I was eager to see because popcorn can do so much more than just be eaten out-of-hand.
This was followed by an inspired bread basket. Chef Olson hand-milled the Maryland-grown Turkey Red wheat and hand-churned the butter that was served in its buttermilk. Not hand-crafted enough? He hand-whittled the boards on which both were served.
The soup course consisted of a rich mushroom broth, slices of radish nukazuke (an incredible Japanese-style pickle created by fermenting vegetables in a rice bran mixture), lobes of Pennsylvania oyster mushroom, and a slow poached duck egg from Happy Hens with a rich creamy yolk. Following these perfect spoonfuls of soup with a morsel of the crunchy crust from the bread with a healthy dollop of the luscious butter. . . culinary heaven.
Next came the scrapple, a Pennsylvania Dutch dish made from the scraps leftover from butchering using everything from the pig except the squeal. This pig was raised on Maryland’s Eastern Shore by the Langenfelder family, now in their sixth generation of farmers. In the hands of Chef Olson, this scrapple was the best “breakfast for dinner” I’ve ever had. Served with a maple syrup aged in rye barrels, the beautifully seared scrapple was adorned with a fingerling sweet potato whose size perfectly matched the tranche of scrapple allowing eaters many perfectly balanced bites.
The next course centered on something more commonly associated with Thanksgiving decorations rather than dinner – Indian corn. Chef Olson used the corn (officially known as calico corn) from the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative as the base of a tamale. In place of the traditional banana leaf or corn husk, lacinato kale served as an edible wrapper. The tamales were served with a puree of butternut squash so silky smooth, that it left me, a trained chef, jealous of the texture.
It wouldn’t be the last dish that piqued my culinary envy. The crescendo of the savory courses was a fork-tender lamb’s neck imbued with rosemary and glorious streaks of fat as soft as butter. Elevating this oft overlooked and challenging cut is the mark of an expert chef. The sous-vide cooking method matched with this lovingly raised lamb from Elysian Fields Farm (Thomas Keller sources his lamb from here) was certainly a show-stopper.
The dessert course was a goat cheese ice cream served with a quenelle of plum sorbet set on an oat crumble. A closer look at the ice cream made from locally-sourced FarmFriend goat milk revealed small spherical voids. These were from making the ice cream with a flash freezing and vacuuming process that gave the ice cream a very light and delicate texture. The dish was garnished with cracked spice berry that the chef had gathered himself from the indigenous spicebush. Used by Native Americans, the dried berries have a peppery flavor with a hint of allspice. While I had gathered some myself from Rock Creek Park, this was the first time I had seen them used in a restaurant.
Chef Olson completed the dinner with shortbread cookies resembling thumbprint cookies that were dotted with a dollop of a jam made from foraged beach plums. Finishing the dinner with a few of these one-bite cookies was a great final movement to end this culinary symphony. Its simplicity gave me the space to meditate on the meal and appreciate my experience at this table.
The people who cooked and served the meal absolutely completed the experience. Danielle Vogel, the force behind Glen’s Garden Market, started the dinner by welcoming us and expressing her excitement to have us at her table (how often does the owner attend to every detail of service?). Chef Olson’s wife, Anne, a great cook in her own right, assisted him in the kitchen and four servers (with chef as a fifth) provided seamless service for the 10 diners. This level of hospitality, service, exceptional food, and great company is what made this table a table.
[Glen’s Garden Market, 2001 S Street NW (Between Connecticut Ave NW & 20th ST NW), 202.588.5698, Coffee Bar/Sandwiches/Salads/Soups: Daily 10:00AM-10:00PM (click on website for info/dates of special tasting table dinners) http://glensgardenmarket.com]
[Mark von Topel, 2/26/15]