Scent, indeed, is a wonderful appetizer, and it's the complimentary first course at Fire. If Katz could bottle it, he'd be a wealthy man, although -- judging from the crowds that have been crossing his threshold since the restaurant opened in July -- he probably won't need help in that regard. A clay oven gets much of the credit for the restaurant's good scents. About the size of a washing machine and cloaked in shiny stainless steel, the trusty tandoor sears thick slabs of beef, pork, and lamb over mesquite coals at around 700 degrees, sealing in the juices and sending clouds of fragrance wafting through the bustling dining room.
Of course, the tandoor roasting is only one factor in the astonishing flavor intensity that Katz coaxes from his ingredients. Many dishes begin with wholesome, naturally farmed meats from Niman Ranch, products that are already imbued with exceptional character. Because excess fat can cause flare-ups over the high heat, the meat is then closely trimmed. And because the trimming can reduce succulence, Katz marinates the meats for 24 hours prior to cooking, in various combinations of herbs, spices, sugars, wines, and juices. The results are thick, juicy pork chops that explode with taste and plump, yielding steaks that dissolve in the mouth like cotton candy.
Even ingredients that aren't destined for the clay oven get lavished with attention. A perfect half-pear, tossed together with microgreens, prosciutto, and brie in a sumptuous seasonal salad, is both pan-seared and oven-roasted, to ensure a meltingly tender texture, before it's finished off with a light, housemade dressing of champagne and apple-cider vinegars and walnut oil. The red and yellow beets at the heart of another simple-sounding salad are seasoned with salt, pepper, and olive oil; slowly roasted to develop the natural sugars; peeled, wedged, and cooled; then tossed with a delicate red-wine vinaigrette before being topped with a bit of freshly grated horseradish root and sprinkled with crumbs of Vermont chèvre. Even an unprepossessing cheeseburger (an amusingly incongruous find, tucked between the coq au vin and crispy duck with sweet potatoes) gets the star treatment, nestled into a homemade bun and sided with hand-cut french fries.
Katz also makes good use of a high-temperature pizza oven, where he bakes a superlative little portobello, Gruyère, and onion pizza, as well as one night's special appetizer of candy-sweet bay scallops, served with chewy roasted garlic chips stuffed inside a braised leek, and drizzles of thick shrimp bisque and herbed oil.
Despite the emphasis on meats and seafood, discriminating vegetarian palates are not neglected. Meat-free delights include vegetarian lasagna, roasted vegetables and herb-crusted tofu, and a platter of pillowy ravioli stuffed with butternut squash puree, stroked with both a burgundy-colored port reduction and a butter-and-shallot-enriched cider reduction, and finished with a handful of whole toasted hazelnuts. And an appetizer of puffy naan, freshly baked on the side of the clay oven, topped with two aiolis -- roasted red pepper and aromatic garlic -- then showered with shaved Reggiano Parmigiano and parsley, was almost a meal in itself.
But while preparation may be painstaking, the menu is a model of economy. Rather than lengthy dissertations on ingredients and techniques, menu notations couldn't be more straightforward. "Sautéed shrimp," reads one appetizer listing; "salmon and roasted vegetables" is a typically taciturn dinner description. "We wanted to be very simple and clear," Katz says about the menu. "We wanted things people could relate to."
That pared-down, "less is more" sensibility extends to the bright, artful, but thoroughly unpretentious presentation. Sauces are minimal, garnishes are edible, and vertical stacking is pretty much nonexistent. Comforting coq au vin -- a savory French bistro standard of extremely tender chicken thighs; whole crimini mushrooms; coarsely chopped carrots, parsnips, and rutabaga; red pearl onions; and fingerling potatoes, seasoned with mirepoix and simmered to perfection in red wine -- was served in a rustic earthenware casserole set on a hammered copper charger. Slices of crusty French bread (perfect for sopping up sauces) arrived tucked inside a neatly folded brown paper bag; sweet butter, on the side, came in a glazed terra-cotta ramekin.
Considering the classical simplicity of both the menu and the food, Fire's postmodern, industrially chic ambiance is an attention-grabber. Natural elements like a worn wooden floor and old exposed brickwork are subjugated by shiny stainless steel, poured concrete, and vivid modern artwork. A massive metal standpipe, like an ancient tree trunk, rises from the basement boiler, pushes its way through the center of the dining-room floor, and stretches its shiny ductwork branches out across the ceiling like roots.
White cloth-and-paper-dressed tables are lined up in too-close-for-comfort formation, making it impossible not to eavesdrop on your neighbors' conversations, and the din from the open kitchen can be considerable. Yet somehow, it all works. While this is clearly not the spot for intimate tête-à-têtes, it is the right place to celebrate good food and friendship, to laugh out loud with solid companions, and to raise a glass or two to the pleasures of the season. Katz's wine list is a one-page collection of fairly obscure, youthful, reasonably priced reds, whites, and bubblies, primarily from California, Italy, and France. Bottles seem to have been selected more for their value than for their sexiness, and for their ability to complement the food rather than for their "stand-alone" personalities. Our choice, a 1998 Wynns Australian Blend ($22), was a case in point. The combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Merlot grapes made for a simple, straightforward table wine, with a pleasantly jammy flavor underscored by a hint of smokiness that was especially well-suited to the pork chop and the coq au vin.
In keeping with the bistro-style menu, a well-turned-out cheese platter -- with fresh fruits, berries, three types of cheeses, sugared nuts, and bread crisps -- is included among the appetizers as well as on Pastry Chef Heather Haviland's dessert menu. Other seasonal sweet endings included a moist, light-textured, and refreshingly fruity trifle of roasted pear, gingerbread, and whipped cream, prettily layered in a smallish Old Fashioned glass and served with a soft, chewy gingerbread cookie; and a warm apple tart in an incredibly rich shortbread crust, topped with housemade honey-mace ice cream, warm caramel, and a little sprig of fresh mint. Along with a dazzling sweet potato tart, finished with whipped cream and a sprinkling of pecan brickle, these more than made up for the cleverly conceived but poorly executed S'mores, with their soggy graham crackers and syrupy chocolate ganache. After-dinner drinks include a selection of ports by the glass and the usual spiked coffees, as well as espresso, cappuccino, and an impressively large selection of brewed loose-leaf teas, served steaming hot in dear little teapots. Aside from a 20-minute wait on a busy Saturday night for our reserved table, service was uniformly welcoming, professional, and well-paced.
Along with wife and partner Karen, general manager Melanie Sullivan, and the remainder of his staff, Katz obviously has a hot commodity on his hands. And why shouldn't he? Cold, dark days may be upon us, but, like its namesake, this fire throws both heat and light.