Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Two dishes at Benjy's

The problem with Charcuterie

Charcuterie -- the branch of cooking concerned with preserved meats -- has a long history. Before refrigeration, it was an important way to preserve meats.

The problem today is that charcuterie plates are rarely exciting. So often, processed meats -- no matter how fine -- taste like ordinary lunch meat. I had enough lunch meat in elementary school to last a lifetime.

Worse, charcuterie plates are often served with nothing other than bread and mustard. That sort of dish suffers the same problem as a plate of just sashimi or just cheese -- too much sameness.

Fortunately, many contemporary chefs make cheese plates and sashimi plates more interesting by adding touches of other ingredients. Cheese benefits from nuts, honey, and fruit-based sides. Sashimi benefits from greens, fruits, and mild sauces that highlight the flavor of the fish.

Why not do the same thing with charcuterie?

Charcuterie - Benjy's "Meat Plate" special

The "meat plate" on special at Benjy's last Sunday was something special indeed:

On the the top right was a slice of summer sausage topped with an onion jelly or compote. In the middle was a slice of duck terrine topped with a cold salad of fennel, pear, and mint. On the lower left was lamb sausage served with sweet, spicy mustard.

Benjy's chef processed all the meats himself.

The meats were of the highest quality. But what interested me most was the additional flavorings that went far beyond mustard and crackers. For instance, the onion jelly had a sweet, bulbous flavor that offset the salty, vinegary flavors of the processed meat. And the strongly flavored spicy and sweet mustard stood up to the spicy, gamy flavor of the lamb sausage.

Best of all, the duck terrine was a complex, tasty creation, combining the licorice flavor of fennel and sour sweetness of pear with the slightly gamy flavor of duck.

Benjy's meat plate was a whirl of flavors -- sweet, spicy, sour, salty. It is far beyond the average charcuterie plate.

No meat here -- Benjy's ggadashi

Benjy's sesame crusted agadashi has made appearances on the menu for well over a decade. Recently, the dish had a face lift. Rather than a large bowl that mixes everything together, now the tofu and mushrooms are served alone, with separate sides of baby bok choy and rice topped with thin slices of pickled ginger and Japanese cucumber.

This may be the best tofu dish in town. Each cube of tofu is has a crispy exterior. Shitake mushrooms add an earthyness and texture contrast. But the highlight of the dish is the spicy, sweet orange-chili sauce. The sauce is highly addictive.

A lot of hardcore meat eaters refuse to even try tofu. They need to try this dish.

On one hand, I would like to see Benjy's menu change more often. I would like to see more new dishes like the meat plate. Benjy's kitchen can be quite creative. On the other hand, I hope Benjy's never removes some of my favorite dishes from the menu. I never tire of Benjy's agadashi.


Steve said...

I know that Benjy's has had that asian element to its food for a long time, but I noticed a while back that Mike Potowski, former chef de cuisine at NOE is now there as a sous chef. I went back to Benjy's for the first time in a long time and have to say it's much better and more updated. Maybe it's somehow attributed to him?

Where as I thought Benjy's was overhyped before, my last visit there made it seem like it's settled into its proper niche. Good to see restaurants pick themselves back up.

Plinko said...

mike potowski is a great chef and im glad to see he is making awesome changes at benjys.

i too thought benjys was overhyped. i've eaten there a few times, prior to potowski, and was only satisfied. the food was good, but nothing exciting.

i havent been there yet, but i know with mike the place will turn around.

im looking forward to the new benjys to soon open on washington.

Anonymous said...

All of that product in the photos looks like a bought product(not made in house) of course it's boring. the garnish sounds nice though.

Anonymous said...

"...duck pate topped with a cold salad of fennel, pear, and mint."

That sounds so good I nearly fell out of my chair. *drool*

I HAVE to get over there and try that meat plate!

anonymouseater said...

The waitress emphasized that all the meats were made in house. I don't remember her exact words, but I had a definite impression that the person who made them was the executive chef.

Also, I originally wrote "duck pate." I meant to say "duck terrine." (I have since edited the post.) I am not sure what parts of the duck were used, but it did not have a strong liver flavor.

rr said...

supper club round two is posted!!!

Foodie/wino said...

To: anonymous

I personally know the chef who made the duck terrine and summer sausage. The products in the photo ARE NOT bought. The chef has a flare and taste for the "old school" and makes his own sausage, salami, and cheeses as well.
I give Benjy's props for re-inventing a classic dish. I too, have not eaten at Benjy's in sometime. It looks like it time to start going back!

Vegan_Noodle said...

I agree that the agedashi tofu is one of the best here in Houston. But my fave has to be the tofu luc lac at Mo Mong...

Thanks for the great review, and including a tofu dish!!