Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Adsum for Hedonists

I saw Molly O’Neill’s awesome “Adsum for Pescatarians” review the other day, and I felt compelled to paint the other side of the picture. Adsum and its decadent menu seemed like a great choice for me, since my only dietary restriction is that everything must taste as good as possible.

I’m pleased to say that the requirement was fulfilled when I stopped in to give Matt Levin’s pretentiously subtitled “refined neighborhood bistro” another try after a strong-but-not-standout meal there last year. My dining partner and I ended up at a bar table because the one we’d reserved outside was too chilly. Things were good quickly; already the staff was more attentive than last time, and more than happy to move us inside. Overall, they were cordial and personal—not personable, but personal; you got the sense you weren’t getting the same spiel as every other customer. Another plus I hadn’t noticed during my last, late-night trip was Adsum’s huge windows; people-watching a block away from South Street added an element of fun to the meal, with everyone from punked-out little kids to pierced 60-somethings walking by. Our favorite character was a girl with bright purple hair glued up in Sonic the Hedgehog-like spikes.

I began with the Poppy Doble, a kitchen-sink cocktail with lime, almond, grapefruit, maraschino liqueur, rum, and a bunch of poppy seeds. While it tasted very good, the drink contained no trace of half of its ingredients; lime was the dominant flavor, with a hint of almond and subtle nuttiness from the poppy seeds, but not much else. I was pleased, though, that it utilized my favorite crushed ice—perhaps necessary to keep the seeds (whose added texture was a fun diversion) from drifting to the bottom of the glass.

We went on one of the last nights Levin offered his now-infamous Tastykake sliders, passionately explained to us by the waiter. So we eschewed a starter of grilled octopus with black pepper caramel—the biggest standout from my previous trip—in favor of those. It was very much a just-to-say-we-did affair, but they ended up being pretty damn good. The mini sandwiches took what we all love about the combination of peanut butter and chocolate—the melange of salty and sweet—and elevated it to an unprecedented level.

The buns were Kandy Kakes, which consist of sponge cake topped with peanut butter and covered in chocolate. The patty was ground brisket and, though it had some unexpected gristle, it was still meaty and satisfying, and enhanced the salty flavor of the Tastykake’s peanut butter. The patty was topped with a thin slice of melted white cheddar that didn’t add much. On top of that was a squirt of sour cherry-sriracha jam, which wasn’t remotely hot but did effectively add to the sweetness of the chocolate. So though all of the ingredients weren’t pulling their weight, the end result was a tasty mix of familiar flavors, united in an unexpected, but surprisingly comforting way. $11 for two sliders is steep, but for a one-time experience it was worth it.

Next was the restaurant’s famed poutine: duck-fat French fries topped with separate bacon and duck gravies, fresh mozzarella curds, and a slab of seared foie gras. The fries had been overcooked and were dry as a result, rendering them no more than high-calorie vehicles for their embellishments. And while none of those were outstanding on their own, and the fancy gravy combination not discernable from a standard beef gravy, we found that there was something magical about eating a gravy-covered piece of warm cheese with foie gras oozing on top of it. And the foie, I should note, was beautifully cooked, with a thin, salty crust on the outside giving way to a center decadently viscous enough to remind anyone why it’s basically the best food on earth. At $15, this dish felt like a bargain because of the large piece of liver, making it a little too easy to forgive its other components’ shortcomings.

The last dish we tried was the pork belly entrée. Its description on the menu was cryptic: “pork belly, bananas, green curry, lobster, vanilla cream.” I anticipated a stew, with a green curry broth and bits of pork and lobster. Given Levin’s daring reputation, I should have known better. We were served a huge, unadulterated hunk of pork belly, the size of a generous entrée portion of fish. Beneath it were two creamy sauces and a mound of spinach; above it, a bit of lobster salad. And while on the whole the entrée was remarkable, it fell into the same trap as every other dish we tried: some ingredients were amazing, while others simply had no reason to be there.

The main reason for this dish’s success was its center: the pork belly was perfect in ways I never thought a piece of pig could be. For one, it was leaner than most cuts, with a roughly 50/50 mixture of meat and fat. Second, it had clearly been cooked excruciatingly slowly and with much care; the top layer was the most melty, tender fat I’ve had from any animal, and the bottom was braised meat at its finest: gorgeous pork that fell apart at the slightest pressure, beautifully moist and delicately seasoned.

The other major winner was the green curry-banana gastrique, whose spice was bold enough to hold up to the unctuous pork. A vanilla sauce on the other side of the plate wasn’t necessary, since the curry’s spice was already tempered by the banana. The spinach was sautéed and unremarkable, with no apparent connection to anything else on the plate. And the lobster salad was most offensive of all; its inclusion made no sense and didn’t work with any other element in the dish. Worse, it was too mayonnaise-heavy and had too many scallions, blocking out the flavor of the lobster itself. So while the dish would have been best as its two main components alone, it was still damn good, and easily worth the $21 price tag.

On the whole, Adsum was definitely enjoyable and worth returning to—though I won’t be rushing to do so. Every dish has so much going on that a few ingredients fall by the wayside each time, and it’d be refreshing to see simpler plates with every component working in harmony and executed right.

But if you haven’t tried that pork belly, get on it. Seriously.
-Alex Marcus


  1. OMG. We should totally do a pork belly tour of the city!! :D

  2. if you do, be sure to stop by at Fond for their pork belly ... best in the city for sure!



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