The hardest part of dining at downtown's One Walnut is deciding among the luxurious options on the new prix fixe (fixed price) menu. Will it be the lobster nachos, say, or the roasted foie gras mousse? The caramelized sea scallops, or the popcorn-crusted black grouper? The artisanal cheese plate, or the pumpkin crème brûlée?
Not that true dining devotees don't live for this very sort of conundrum. It's just that, with dozens of artful alternatives neatly grouped into short courses (appetizers and salads), fish and shellfish, meat and game birds, cheeses, and sweets, decision-making can become a delicious dilemma, as a companion and I discovered when we found ourselves embroiled in course-by-course negotiations. "If I get the crispy duck ravioli, will you get the lobster bisque?" "Sure, if you get the lamb loin and let me have the beef medallion."
Sharing was the obvious win-win solution: That way, we could both dip a spoon into the creamy lobster bisque, for instance, or snare a forkful of that wonton ravioli, filled with shredded roasted duck, Point Reyes blue cheese, and sweet currants. Our willingness to compromise even led one of us to choose the savory cheese course (consisting, that night, of Massachusetts cheddar, French goat cheese, and Italian Asiago and peppercorn cheeses, along with berries and savory crackers), and the other one a sweet (specifically, the signature flourless chocolate-espresso torte, garnished with cappuccino crème Anglaise), so we could each end our meal with the best of both worlds.
True, one can expect the bill of fare at any top-tier restaurant to contain abundant temptations. But what sets One Walnut's new dinner menu apart is that diners can do their mixing 'n' matching within one predetermined price frame. For instance, while executive chef-owner Marlin Kaplan recommends a four-course sampling, at $54, as being appropriate for most appetites, diners with dainty constitutions can put together a lighter, three-course dinner for $42, while those with robust desires can opt for five courses, at $65. The upshot is that there is no longer any fiscal reason to pass up the lobster in favor of the chicken: You can include either -- or both! -- in your personalized meal plan for the same price. And it doesn't hurt that, at a time when many of the region's top restaurants are charging around $30 for a single entrée, snagging an entire four-course dinner for $54 is quite the bargain. (At lunch, the traditional à la carte menu prevails.)
Almost by definition, portion sizes on a "tasting menu" are petite: After all, who wants to feel food-drunk by the time the final course arrives? But rest assured that Kaplan -- one of the pioneers of the region's fine-dining scene with his earlier restaurants, Marlin, Pig Heaven, and Lira -- infuses nearly every one of his contemporary American dishes with so much potency that it's unlikely one could ever leave here unsatisfied.
Those sea scallops were a case in point. Soft, nutty, and pan-seared until their golden-brown bottoms were sticky with concentrated juices, the three little scallops might have been bite-sized, but their flavor quotient was enormous. And while we could have been happy if the dish had ended right there, Kaplan and his staff, including executive sous chef Joshua Hartranft, aren't so easily pleased. They insisted upon constructing a sheer, translucent edifice of flavors and textures -- through the judicious use of orange-and-basil butter, coconut, sticky rice, and crunchy micro-radish sprouts -- to support the main ingredient, resulting in a dish that was highly engineered and yet vivacious as all get-out.
The same skillful layering of elements was apparent in the kitchen's sophisticated version of that comfort-food icon, braised beef short ribs, here served boneless to better emphasize the meat's yielding tenderness. A feather bed of puréed root vegetables (parsnips, turnips, rutabaga, and potatoes), a tiny stack of miniature green beans, and a drizzle of red-wine syrup, bright and sweet-tart as cranberries, pulled this tightly crafted dish into a feast for the eye as well as for the palate.
Of course, Kaplan has long been known for combining serious food with a lighthearted sense of fun: Recall, for instance, his heavenly lobster "nachos," a signature dish of succulent lobster claw meat, satiny guacamole, sweet soy reduction, and madcap triangles of crisp pastry in place of tortilla chips, which has as much in common with its cheesy, namesake bar nosh as support hose have with fishnet stockings. No surprise then that, on his new menu, Kaplan is at it again, this time with "popcorn-crusted" black grouper. Sure it sounds weird, but relax: Cracker Jacks this ain't. Instead, the popped corn is slightly sweetened, dehydrated, and pulverized before being applied to the pearly fish. And although the crust has a toothsome crispness, there is a surprising delicacy about it, making it a fine foil for its ephemeral contents. Add pencil-slim asparagus spears, butter, a few drops of rosemary oil, and the dark, dusky flavor of sage, and pop a bite-sized, Peekytoe crabcake on the top, and this is a dish that can't help but make a diner smile.
While the menu doesn't explicitly lay out options for matching wines to each course, the small but well-thought-out collection of wines by the glass and by the half-bottle certainly makes it easy enough to enjoy a Washington State Riesling with your scallops, say, and then a Napa Valley Cabernet with your short ribs. The by-the-bottle list (mostly West Coast, with a few French bubblies) is similarly concise, making up in depth for what it lacks in sheer size. Among the whites, for example, alternatives range from a $25 McDowell Viognier and a $22 Hogue Gewürztraminer to an $85 Far Niente Chard; among the reds (priced from $32 to $135), the usual Cabs and Merlots are joined by a host of versatile Pinot Noirs, as well as a few Zins, a couple Sangioveses, and a Syrah or two. Ports and dessert wines, as well as a full complement of spirits, liqueurs, and mixed drinks, complete the options.
If the range of tempting dinner items can make ordering tough, One Walnut's utterly professional front-of-the-house staff (under the direction of general manager Melissa Kaplan) ensures that nearly every other aspect of a meal here is as smooth as the kitchen's lemongrass pots de crème, beginning with complimentary valet parking and ending when checked coats reappear at tableside, seemingly by magic. In between, guests can expect everything from tiny amuse bouches (such as one night's dollop of chicken-liver paté, topped with a slice of grilled Granny Smith apple, a droplet of basil oil, and a zigzag of balsamic reduction) to by-the-book service and elegant appointments, including sleek white linens, sheer crystal stemware, and Villeroy & Boch china.
Maybe money can't buy love, but at One Walnut, it doesn't take a week's salary to purchase some pampering. And sometimes, that's all we really need.
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