I’ve stressed for years that I don’t review restaurants; I review meals, and you all know by now that I have to call things as I see them, without any external influences. With that in mind …
Last week, I walked into an empty bar at Hazel, just as they were opening, and had a really nice, wonderful bartender who took good care of me all evening long. I *love* Hazel’s wine list, because it’s divided up in plain English – in a way that the non-wine connoisseur can figure it out without having to fear making the wrong choice. Having perused their menu, I knew I wanted a white with high acidity to stand up to their food, and so from the “Tart & Funky” section, I ordered one of Hazel’s two-most inexpensive wines on the entire list: a bottle of the recently-falling-out-of-fashion “Orange Wine” (which I happen to love) – a 2015 Meinklang, “Graupert” Pinot Gris from Burgenland, Austria ($40). I fell in love with this winery the first time I had it, because it’s not only a Vienna exurb (yet in an extremely rural area, mere miles away from the Czech Republic), but it also employs biodynamic practices – a philosophy which I embrace, not because of its wacky adjuncts, such as “harvesting by moon cycles,” but because they do so much else that makes so much scientific sense, so if you can swallow the kooky aspects of biodynamic viticulture, there’s an awful lot of logically sound methods at play. For a more detailed discussion about Burgenland, Graupert, and biodynamic agriculture, I would refer you to one of these experts, who are just out of my league when it comes to anything more than cheeseburgers: They’re the cream of the crop, and they’ll be able to help you sort through any questions you may have.
The wine was just as I thought it would be: tangy, acidic, Pinot Gris – barely recognizable as such, and smartly classified under “Orange Wines” (not to mention “Tart & Funky”). I don’t know who the F&B Director is at Hazel, but whoever it is, you have all my respect for fashioning such a smart, legible wine list, with good bottles starting at $40. Thank you for your hard work on this. I obviously can’t vouch for the list as a whole, but if this one wine is an example, it is *exactly* where I would place it, and even though it costs double-retail, I have *no problem* paying you for your expertise. Please write me and let me know who you are, as I wish to keep tabs on you going forward.
Hazel’s food menu, divided into four sections (Vegetables, Bread & Batters (cf: Tail Up Goat), Fish & Shellfish, and Meat & Poultry), is also well-organized, and makes the diner’s life easy when it comes to decision making:
I think I had Rob Rubba’s cuisine when he was (briefly) Chef de Cuisine at Tallula, but I’m not sure – there was a brief period of time at Tallula when chefs were going in-and-out like fruit flies (and I knew that losing Andrew Market was a huge mistake – arguably the best meal I had at Tallula came under his supervision). Anyway, this meal at Hazel may, or may not, have been my first experience with Rubba as Chef de Cuisine – I just can’t remember.
My meal here was a decidedly mixed bag, and I realize that I’m in a minority of just about “one” by saying so, as Hazel is receiving near-consensus raves and plaudits. Was my experience a one-off? Or, was it because I hadn’t eaten all day long, and my biology was just hangry-weird by this point? Or, was it just bad timing, possibly due to a miscommunication which may have been partly my fault? Read on …
The bartender who waited on me was positively delightful, and I’m kicking myself for not being able to find my receipt so I can praise her by name – she was a young, gregarious, woman of color who was working on a Tuesday evening, and I hope this review finds its way back to her, as she deserves recognition for her excellent work, both at understanding the restaurant, and also at making the customer feel like a welcome friend.
I ordered three courses, and she made it a point of telling me that the kitchen will course things out for the diner – my first course was very obvious, but there was (looking back) some confusion about my next two courses – I mentioned something about her picking which should be second and third (since, depending on the prep, either could have been second or third), and I don’t think I made myself clear, in which case, this is absolutely diner error, and no one’s to blame other than myself.
Course number one was the Atlantic Fluke Crudo ($15) with avocado, radish, shiso, and grapefruit ponzu. An absolutely delightful dish, both in terms of visual appeal, and also on the palate, the only possible nitpick I can find – well, there are two – is that the fluke *might* have been a little less spanking fresh than I’d normally want. Fluke is a very mild fish, and this particular fluke had a touch of the sea which caught my attention – nothing major, and it might even have been the grapefruit ponzu or shiso which imparted a slight aftertaste that deceived me; texturally, it was magnificent, and the only thing it could have been was “a little bigger.” At $15, this dish wasn’t cheap, but boy it sure was delicious, and I’d get it again in a heartbeat. In fact, I urge people – if they don’t mind paying $15 for a small-to-medium plate of crudo – to get this as their first course at Hazel (preferably with a bottle of the exact same wine I had). I took a picture of my second and third courses, and I really wish I had a picture of this, because it was the absolute star of the show.
My second course arrived right when it should have: Rabbit Nuggets ($14) with “Thai Flavors”, and curry mustard condiment. These were six “rabbit-tots” served in a paper bag (hopefully in order to keep them warm, and not just to look trendy – it served the purposes of being both). These were extremely rich, fairly heavy nuggets, and the “curry mustard condiment” came across to me as being from Southern Thailand – in fact, it came across as very much of a Massaman curry (peanut-based), even though I have no idea whether or not there were peanuts in the sauce – it sure tasted like there were. I enjoyed my first two tots at a leisurely pace, and began to notice they were getting quite heavy on the palate – not necessarily a bad thing, but “a thing” nevertheless. My bartender advised me that 2-3 courses are enough for an average person: I had ordered three, and I could already tell I wouldn’t have room for dessert, even though I wasn’t halfway through my meal.
Up until this point – this exact point – I was very much enjoying my meal, but then things just went downhill. My third course arrived less than five minutes after my second course had been served – I had only eaten two tots out of six – and I was in the unfortunate situation of having both in front of me, both needing to be eaten while they’re hot. The third course was the Gnocchi Bokki ($15), with pork-kimchi ragù, sesame seeds, and smoked pecorino. “Bokki” (and the related term “Bokkeum,” which you’ll also see on this menu) is Korean for “stir-fried.”
In front of me now were two courses that clashed as much as two courses could possibly clash, and I didn’t know what to do: Should I finish my rabbit tots, and let my stir-fried gnocchi get cold? No, that didn’t make much sense. But neither did anything else that I could think of. I want to stress that, looking back, I sincerely believe that I had mistakenly conveyed to my bartender that I wanted the courses together, even though that was the last thing I wanted.
Anyway, as you might imagine, “rabbit with peanut sauce” does not go with “gnocchi with kimchi,” and when I say “does not go,” I mean “pizza doesn’t go with hot fudge” – that’s how awful the combination was. To rub salt in the wound, kimchi does not go with pecorino: not in any way, shape, or form, and even within that single dish, the clash in flavors was almost too much to bear: It was quite literally disgusting. Why did I order it when it was clearly spelled out on the menu? Because I’m an idiot, that’s why.
Here’s a picture of what I had in front of me, and yes, that “white stuff” on top of the gnocchi in kimchi and Korean red-chili sauce is indeed pecorino cheese, to go along with my rabbit tots in what was seemingly a Massaman curry sauce (I got more peanut than mustard):
I had about 2/3 of my dinner remaining, and it had instantly become something very close to inedible. I went back-and-forth – concentrating on one, then the other, then trying to mix the two, and was almost literally choking down both items – especially the Gnocchi Bokki, which was one of the most poorly conceived dishes I’ve had in a long, long time – there was nothing that could have saved this dish: It was horrible. Not quality-wise, mind you; just the complete, total clash in flavors – I went from being so happy, to being so miserable, all in a matter of minutes. (There’s a very good reason that Koreans don’t eat cheese with their Kimchi Jaeyook Bokkum: They don’t enjoy vomiting.) But I was starving because I hadn’t eaten all day, and knew I wouldn’t eat again that night, so I just choked it down, and left in a state of something not far from nauseated. I took the rest of the wine home with me, and enjoyed it later that evening, left my kindly bartender a good tip, and headed on home, wondering what in the hell had just happened.