AI have an infatuation with the nonsensical.
Which explains why one may find so many Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan whimsies littered across my work, and often a thematic play for fashion shows (Alice + Olivia) or food shows (Dominique Ansel) that I attend. One such spot in the culinary haven San Francisco did the same with not just it’s name but its juxtaposition of unlikely ingredients in every dish!
For it was once called Verbena, and then Reverb, a brainchild of the Andale Management Group. With walls of jars filled with pickles and preserves, and complimentary wines for our hungry palettes and thirsty souls, it’s no wonder that I found myself overjoyed with the gastronomy of it all.
The beginnings were punchy red, my favorite of hues, with a vodka and grapefruit cocktail in a tall glass, with a boozy bourbon and muddled strawberry one in a shorter glass. Both were fresh and simple, perhaps to set a path for the whimsy to follow.
It began with pastel art on a plate – a brown stone plate with disheveled bits of cardoons and rhubarb with caramelized honey dressing, Douglas fir yoghurt as a base and nepitella. The paradox of cool, almost sweet yoghurt (reminding me of a time in Istanbul) with the tangy pickled rhubarb was a delightful treat to the tastebuds.
With an acclaimed (and often frowned upon) disdain for bread, I could have devoured the next sprinkling of it had it come in a basket! A delightfully seedy sprouted seed bread – with a beautiful contrast of forest green and black seeds against white sesame and others – with chevre (cheese made with goat’s milk) and beet sauerkraut. The dramatic beet powder and scatter of candied walnuts were a vision of modern art. With a gritty texture as a base, the sweet and bitter beet married well with the salty and creamy chevre. Heavenly.
Almost like creating a trend for salad desserts, next up was a fairly sweet salad with sugar as one of its key ingredients! With sugar, strawberries, spedona, black-walnut miso, fennel and edible florets, this was a deceivingly simple but tastefully complex dish. The brine-y bitterness of the miso was in stark juxtaposition with the tangy strawberries, and while one may argue that the sweet offset of sugar was a distraction, the dessert lover in me was all for the joy!
Carrots are one of my favorite vegetables, and I have been delighted many times to find them as a centerpiece of a dish. Next up was a beautiful plate of charred carrots, smoked cashew, lemon verbena, Perrine lemon date molasses. Divinely presented in an asymmetric plate with the carrot thrusted upwards amidst greens, the swirls of verbena were unlike anything I had tasted or smelled before. The smokey flavor was gratifying, cut nicely by the fibrous vegetable and the sweet-and-sour combination of lemon and dates as an undertone.
A rather mushroom centric dish followed, reminding me of Alice’s own magical ones. These were the dark black trumpet mushrooms with a dollop of summer squash hummus that had extinguished every sign of the squash, alongside avocado powder. To turn a Californian staple into a gastronomical sprinkling was truly an ode to food science. While a tad bitter without much to break up the mushroom upon mushroom texture, it was a non-saccharine dish for a change, which blended well with the squash hummus. Where was the seedy bread when I needed it again?
The first was an elegant and floral dish, with florets and strawberries floating like lotuses in a golden pool of the bowl. It was in fact a deconstructed cheesecake, strawberry, oats granola wafer and Douglas fir whip. The poached strawberries were addictively juicy, sweet and tangy all at once, marrying beautifully with the crunchy granola bars of sorts. The foam and solids that were more reminiscent of a cheesecake flavor took a backseat in terms of their flavor profile, owing to the aromatic and tasty strength of the berries.
Next was one of my favorite desserts of a long time: a vegetable dessert, on trend with the blurring of meals. It was a pea tendril cake with chamomile ice cream and rhubarb, alongside some pea juice. The creativity deserved a bow on this plate, for the green cake was ethereal – soft, spongy and even tasted of peas! I could have never fathomed turning a barely like staple in many foods into a cake. The rhubarb slices were juicy and both sweet and tangy at once, a trend I had noticed across the meal, balanced well with the light chamomile ice cream which gave an aroma and undertone that would have been off-putting with just plain vanilla. Truly a stroke of genius with vegetable desserts!
Last was the obvious devotion to chocolate, without which my every meal is incomplete. It was a deconstructed chocolate custard with beet-cherry ice cream and Perrine lemon. I am thankful that they deconstructed the custard texture with two namesake portions, overpowered by an alluring dark chocolate brittle wafer instead, which was rich, decadent, and the perfect for any serious chocoholic. Texturally, it worked with the beet-cherry ice cream, which in itself took the beautiful red hue of its parents, and tasted alarmingly like both, at once – bitter and sweet and sour. The lemon disguised as caramel acted as a palette cleanser for the dessert, and to the meal too.
And thus ended another soiree in a culinary city of whimsy, opportunity and nonsensical ingredient and flavor combinations. I would fall through the rabbit hole any day to eat like this.