Integration back into normal society after the “Night at the Museum” type chaos of the Marriott during the Folklife Festival was a process which certainly had its ups and downs. On the one hand, I had grown extremely weary of the hotel’s breakfast buffets and the constant availability of filling yet largely unsatisfying hotel food. But on the other, I would miss (indeed, I already do!) the craziness of the cooking demonstration area prep kitchen tent. I would miss the excitement of seeing the homey Hungarian dishes once made by my grandmother in her kitchen in Budapest being presented to an audience from a stage with the Washington Monument as its backdrop. Ever so often, when things turned out well despite the discrepancy between Hungarian recipes and American ingredients, sneaking home some freshly baked Tepertős Pogácsa or Slambuc or Halászlé in those invaluable little tupperware containers became the highlight of the entire experience for me.
The adjustment to normal life was bittersweet but a few things definitely helped fill the vacuum left by the departure of my Hungarians. One of these was the ability to take a long shower in my own bathroom using my own shampoos and soaps and lotions. Another was a wonderful dinner at Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons, during which I felt completely taken care of from start to finish. Service was very friendly and attentive, seemingly like that as a default rather than because my dining companion was a fellow Four Seasons affiliate. An anonymous follow up call to fact check ingredients confirmed their eagerness to make guests feel like a priority. Much attention was paid to the timing of courses and at no point did I feel rushed to finish something or bored waiting for what came next. Pairings were not pushed on us by the sommelier, though some particularly ill-suited cocktails did arrive table-side as a gift from the manager, I think mostly as a joke which I appreciated by the end.
And the menu itself was a wonderful surprise – not just a list of pricy cuts which I was expecting from a steakhouse, but a well thought out array of dishes which seemed to showcase Owner Michael Mina’s vision blended with Executive Chef John Critchley expertise. I don’t usually get too excited about reviewing steakhouses because the purveyor is often more of a superstar than the chef, the latter of which just slaps the meat on the grill and keeps it there for the right amount of time, the expression of his creativity limited to sides. But my experience at Bourbon Steak was different. There are plenty of things I have to say about the dishes I tried there.
Dinner started with a trio of Bourbon Steak’s signature Duck Fat Fries, each with it’s own dipping sauce. There were herb fries spotted with what I think were thyme and rosemary, served with pickled ketchup. There were also pastrami fries with creamy thousand island dressing and cheddar cheese fries with a smokey tomato-based BBQ sauce. Out of these I enjoyed the cheddar cheese fries the most, as they had the most flavor of the three. All were pretty crispy, though I did not note the duck fat as a particularly bold flavor in either. In the case of the pastrami fries, I couldn’t really make out the seasoning as anything special based on flavor alone. Not too memorable an amuse bouche, but not bad.
My shoulders were hinged high in an apathetic shrug following those fries but they dropped pretty quickly when I bit into what came next to our table, their Black Truffle Butter Rolls, served piping hot in a miniature cast iron pan. Our server loosened these up before us and pulled at them with tongs, movements which added greatly to the appeal, as they brought my attention to the texture of the rolls – blistered, crackling, golden brown on the top, while delicate and smooth with steam spilling off the interior. The rolls were in swirl form. Peeling off the thin external layers and eventually arriving at the plump little core made eating these all the more enjoyable. The dough was speckled with bits of black truffle here and there, but I think very little truffle oil (if any) was used in the dough itself. That earthy funk was very much present, but was not as offensively prominent as in many other “truffled” pastries I’ve tried in the past.
Our first appetizer was the Foie Gras Torchon, drizzled with bourbon gastrique and surrounded by slices of compressed peach lain over crunchy, hearty bits of bread. Breaking into the torchon released a deluge of thick peach puree that flooded over the plate as the yolk of a poached egg does when set free from its snow-white prison. The thin, soft foie walls of the structure melted a bit, becoming loose. These could either be scooped up on their own, to enjoy that buttery soft texture and ever-so delicate smoke of the foie itself, or together with the peach puree, to bear witness to the delightful interplay of smokey, savory foie with sweet and acidic fruit. The foie purist in me protested initially against this combination, but when experienced as I believe it was intended to be experienced – crusty bread with thin, chewy dry peach, buttery foie and some silky, slimy peach nectar all in one bite, it somehow all worked. The hint of bourbon in the sweet gastrique served as a great mediator between the two very different flavor profiles, pulling closer the smokey and fruity, the meaty and sweet.
Next came a signature dish of Chef Mina’s, his Ahi Tuna Tartare with a hint of ancho chile powder, mint, toasted pine nuts, and diced Asian pear, bound together with sesame oil and quail egg yolks. The tartare was prepared in front of us – the yolks tossed onto the center of a tower of medium diced tuna, oil drizzled on, the mix-ins added and the ingredients quickly smashed together – with the deft movements of a server wielding two spoons. The glossy, cool mass was then served up with slightly toasted fluffy bread. The table-side preparation lead to the flavors of the ingredients blending very nicely without breaking the delicate cubes of fresh fish. What dominated for me in this was the nutty, smokey, woodsy flavors of the toasted pine nuts, which were dramatically underlined by the very similar qualities of the sesame oil mixed in. This combination did not completely steal the show from the tender, smooth freshness of the fish but defined the character of the dish. The ancho chili added a nice bit of heat to pull the flavors back from nutty, while the cubes of Asian pear served as hydrating little bursts of freshness. The sweetness of the fruit also helped round out the flavors entirely, resulting in a nice complexity of flavors.
Following champagne, I had a 1919 with aperol, grapefruit bitters, sparkling wine and a sugar cube. The drink was very light and well-fitted to the end of the appetizer round, with the bitterness cleansing my mouth and leaving it dry and eager for the mains to come.
The dish that completely stole the show for me was the Moullard Duck, an artfully arranged plate with three chunks of perfectly cooked roasted duck breasts sitting atop a bed of wax beans, peas and chanterelle mushrooms, with a few cheesy cannelloni logs filled with slightly smokey duck rillette buried in the veggies here and there. A single black line of ground espresso and, I think, cocoa powder was lain to add some intrigue. Far from just being a beautiful dish, it was also very smart-seasonal. It was light, with colors that reminded me of summer and each ingredient seemed to be freshly picked and in season as well. The vegetables were cooked to a nice texture, until the peas had blisters of caramelization and the chanterelles reached the perfect medium between soft and gummy. The duck rillette stuffed inside the cannelloni was very flavorful and wonderfully smooth, though the pasta wrapped around it may have been just a bit too stiff and hard, making it difficult at times to cut through. The same does not apply to the duck, which was expertly prepared. The flesh itself was incredibly tender, though sinfully rare, releasing its juices after each hearty chew. It was wonderfully delicate in flavor with that clean yet deep fowl flavor so characteristic of duck. Most important (for me at least) was that the skin was treated beautifully, a crispy, bumpy sear that passed my fork-tap test with flying colors and shattered into brittle pieces when bitten into, revealing the moist, juicy layer of melt-in-mouth fat underneath. The combination of these ingredients worked rather well, with the pan jus poured over the top binding everything together and the coffee powder adding a bitterness which accented the sweet flavors in the dish.
And then the steak, the 10 oz. Wagyu Flat Iron served rare with a thin sauce I don’t seem to remember too well. I guess it was mostly salty and a bit sweet. The flesh itself was butter smooth and tender, though the cut was too thin to satisfy me as a steak and too thick to approach the appeal of a carpaccio. The flavor was fine but did not even approach the juicier cuts of Wagyu sirloin I’ve had in the past. I’d definitely recommend for going for something more interesting from their USDA Prime Dry Aged Beef section or the A5 Miyazaki Wagyu.
Probably one of my favorite dishes of the night and one which definitely showed off the quirky creativity of the Chef was the side of Eggplant, mixed with pine nuts and golden raisins, doused in a thick sweet and sour sauce. Bite-sized chunks of Japanese eggplant were cooked to the perfect texture, soft but maintaining a firm bite. These were mixed together with toasty, nut-oil pine nuts and plumped up, re-hydrated little golden raisins. What really stole the show was the sauce, this sweet, sour, spicy thing that had a strange little North African twang to it, one I really could not decide whether I loved or despised for a few seconds before deciding it was my favorite flavor of the night. The whirlwind of different flavors in the sauce was quite the ride for my taste buds: an acidity followed by a floral, fruity sweetness which then left room for the savory eggplant but finished with a heat that left my mouth on fire. I took some of these eggplants home with me to try to figure out the flavors the next morning, but when I still failed to do so I called and spoke to the chef who laid it out for me – sweetness from cherry (the jus or the whole thing, I’m not sure, but cherry), the roundness from red wine and the heat from harissa, a Tunisian hot sauce made from piri piri, serrano and other hot peppers as well as garlic, coriander seed and caraway. Maybe there was some cumin or cinnamon in there too. Whatever else there was, this dish definitely captivated my attention and was very memorable.
As an accompaniment to the steak, I also ordered the Bone Marrow, which was split horizontally and topped with crispy shallots as well as a bit of grated cheese. The bone was served with crunchy country bread to slather the buttery wet interior on. Although the marrow was cooked perfectly, with the consistency of the stuff itself being right where I wanted it, I thought there was far too much of the crispy shallots heaped up over the top. At one point I was scraping some of this off and discarding it at the pit of my plate just to get to the marrow, which is something I hate doing especially with crunchy, golden-brown fried stuff.
For dessert, my dinner companion chose the Bourbon Brownie and, to my surprise, paired it with a Royal Tokaji Aszu (5 puttony), my beloved dessert wine from the Olde Country. The combination was excellent. The brownie was composed of a deep, dark chocolate ganache, rich and creamy in texture and almost bitter in flavor. It was sitting on a flaky, buttery peanut biscuit base and lined over the top with a glossy thin layer of a slightly lighter chocolate. All around the brownie were pint-sized dollops of Marcona almond mousse, topped with 1-2 large specks of sea salt, which melted in the mouth with a zing, leaving the taste buds more sensitive to the delicate, nutty flavors of the almond mousse. To add extra texture were some brown sugar wafers stuck into the dish here and there. While these were, I think, meant to be crunchy, they became a bit chewy and didn’t really add much to the dish overall, so I avoided them. What I didn’t avoid were the whiskey cordials, little pills made of what looked like sea glass but ended up being sugar creations. These shattered when bitten into and let out a gush of bourbon that blended beautifully with the chocolate and almond flavors. The thick, honey-sweet Tokaji was the perfect pairing even with the whiskey present, as it balanced out the bitterness of the chocolate which was actually brought out even more by the whiskey.
My night at Bourbon Steak was one of elegant comfort, the meal highlighted by moments of surprise and amusement which are not typical of most of my past steakhouse experiences. While the quality of the Wagyu’s and dry aged USDA’s on the menu were probably great and the treatment of my own steak showed enough skill, it was the other dishes that stood out most. The engaging and creative appetizers, the artful combination of ingredients in mains and the risks taken in the reinvention of sides make Bourbon Steak not just a good steakhouse but a great restaurant.