Recess is important. It shows that our local chefs are committed to our city, despite sirens like Chicago beckoning nearby with deeper pockets, supposedly more sophisticated diners, and trendier locations up the road. Plus, this city hasn't always appreciated their genius.
But they believe we have a scene of our own, thanks. And Recess is a Who's Who of it, with Greg Hardesty, Gabe Jordan and Eli Anderson on top billing. Hardesty, formerly of Elements, and Anderson, formerly of H20 Sushi, are brilliant chefs riding the wonky rodeo bull of the local celebrity chef scene. Jordan, former wine steward for Goose the Market, was shot for the $20 in his wallet last fall while walking his dog on the east side.
Now they're all back to work at one of the most novel concepts in the city, anchoring the College Street restaurant corridor chef Neal Brown has dubbed The Gourmet Ghetto. The literal description still rings uncomfortably true of the run-down area teeming with police cars, so it hasn't charmed locals like its namesake in Berkeley's North Shattuck.
Recess does its best to beautify. And it does so accessibly: For about $38 -- $60 a night, Hardesty takes you on a food tour through his mental playground with a singular prix fixe menu that changes nightly. Supplemental courses are sometimes offered, along with choice of entrée.
Despite the inspiring exposition, the real story at Recess, as with all great restaurants, is the food. One of the most amazing courses I've had in recent history, in fact, was Hardesty's elevated take on the old South with collard greens, root veggies, and slightly fatty chunks of pork cheek. These were all steeped in a cumin chipotle bouillon, which elevated the homely but hearty ingredients to hauntworthy on wings of a long, hot-sweet finish.
But to better appreciate the food, first, an aperitif.
Let's talk atmosphere. Just try to pass by the box-of-a-venue on any night of the week and not feel a bit jealous that you aren't hobnobbing in the packed, sleek-industrial setting with patrons who seem to have the inside track.
Indeed, the place vibes of New York speakeasies. The secretive, underground tone comes courtesy the sprawling, noir-gray brick. Inside, simple, shiny ecru tables seat diners in various denominations. The earth-colored, lacquered floor also emits a warehouse feel with its black shoeprint stains.
The place is made for inquisitive food warriors who live to eat well. That invocation is fitting: Last time I visited, chef-owner Hardesty and manager Jordan were going over what seemed to be the night's menu with all the intensity of generals preparing for battle. With a glass of white wine for Hardesty.
Jordan is a beer man. Here he's assembled one of the strongest and most eclectic beer menus I've seen in fine dining restaurants anywhere. The theme does center on Belgian: Piraat ale, Brasserie d'Achouffe and Brooklyn Local 1 make appearances.
Recess even sells Estralla Damm Inedit, the malt beverage created by no less than Ferran Adria's team of sommeliers. (If you don't know about Adria, do a quick Google search on El Bulli: the whole world is lamenting the impending close of his molecular gastronomy mecca. The papes are, at least.)
I had been on a hunt for this beer, billed as the first explicitly designed to pair with food (snicker snicker), last summer. I couldn't find it anywhere in town, so I got the contraband shipped from a friend in California. After all that, I was underwhelmed. If you're a beer lover, you might also shrug at this very soft brew with Belgian spice, citrus-honeysuckle overtones, and no perceptible hops. Non-beer lovers may find it appealing. Eli Anderson, my server for the night, recommended it as an option. I scoffed. He said he'd ask Jordan. I scoffed harder, on the inside.
Wine I would have trusted him with - their list is longish, and with $18 course pairings for the truly trusting. But beer is my intimately known baby. Well, Jordan recommended the Trappist dubble I'd overlooked from Koning, a malty, full-bodied ale with dark fruit, a honey nose and toffee overtones on the warm-up. He was spot on.
So you gotta have faith in the chef-owner that picked him. That man, Hardesty, is a perfectionist. He spares no detail to convey a dish to his infinite intention. This controlled micromanagement is evident down to the way he cuts ingredients. For example, his spinach salad had perfectly engineered proportions of rectangular shaved onion and half-matchsticked boiled egg, whose similar textures and cuts played off one another. Providing the crunchy balance were perfect sugar cube crouton squares.
But always pay attention, or you may miss the skeletal notes of Hardesty's symphony. Sometimes they're barely perceptible triangle dings, like the julienned apples in his fresh watercress salad. Those slivers blended so seamlessly with the tangy soy vinaigrette, I mistook them for fennel.
Other times, Hardesty plays allegro. His beef ribeye, for example, paired moist medium-rare beef with the clean-tasting counterpoints of Asian greens, celery and lime radishes, possibly even a reckless flake or two of mint. The experience was truly novel, and wholly delicious.
And the sendoff is always with fireworks. Each dessert I've tried has been inventive and bright. Take the fig ice cream placed atop some oatmeal cookie shavings and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. The cookie debris tasted like a day in grandmother's kitchen, the warm scent of sugary hominess dissolving in center of my tongue. The zip of the balsamic woke me up from my dream, and the fig ice cream let me coast.
Could the man do no wrong? Once my dessert seemed to have a slight flaw: The chocolate ganache cake served on Valentine's Day was a tad dry and brittle, though dining cohorts didn't detect that flaw. I must also acknowledge, however, the perfectly pitched orange sauce around the mini bundt, which was strewn with juicy pops of pomegranate. The flavor combination of deep, smokey chocolate and the vivid, zingy sauce was explosive.
Some people might balk at the score I'm giving Recess, saying local critics are "too easy" on our food establishments. Honestly, though, I can't remember the last time I had such a thoroughly striking food experience - or when I gave this score. In Indianapolis, few other venues even come close