I was worried last Thursday – which was shortly after all the “Autumn Dining Guides” had been released – that Kyirisan was going to be packed, so I got there around 6 PM, and was surprised to see an empty restaurant – I sauntered up to the bar, and had my pick of seating. Surprisingly, the bar area was also nearly empty when I left sometime around 7:30 PM.
My bartender, who I would later find out was the delightful Kara, asked me if I’d like a drink (yes!), if I was from the area (yes, sort of), and if I’d ever been in before (no, although I’d been to all three of Tim Ma’s other restaurants numerous times), and first “discovered” him and Joey in tiny little Maple Ave. Restaurant in Vienna – one of the smallest sit-down restaurants in the area, with one of the most treacherous parking lots you can encounter. Tim has come a long way since then, and in fact, on this evening, he was to be out celebrating his Michelin “Bib Gourmand” award – yes, Tim, I actually did see you in your coat and tie, and congratulations, by the way.
While Tim was not cooking here on this evening, I have my doubts as to whether he’s cooking here at all – he has three children, lives way out towards Fairfax, and has two other restaurants in Virginia (at least for now – interpret that however you wish). The plating I got on this evening was indicative of the “A-team” working the kitchen, so I suspect (but don’t know for sure) that Tim has stepped into the role of restaurateur rather than Chef de Cuisine – good for him: I’ve known him and Joey while they were still a small family, and they’ve worked hard for what they have.
Tim used to be a successful electrical engineer, but he had cooking in his soul, and followed his calling to the world of restaurants. Ma has the ability to use an extraordinary number of ingredients within a single dish without making them overbearing – although I do wish he would consider refining his recipes to become a bit more minimalist, as many ingredients seem to be superfluous – not detrimental, but also not necessary – and I believe he could benefit from a “less is more” approach.
The mixed drinks menu at Kyirisan is a bit difficult to negotiate, and I would recommend reformatting it (as well as matching it up to their website – I would also recommend lowering the price on (or better substantiating) the “Dealer’s Choice” which is their most expensive cocktail at $15 and leaves the customer guessing as to what it might be). Nevertheless, I was able to find Not from Charlotte’s Lemonade Stand ($10, Charlotte is their eldest daughter), made with Sherry, Gin, Lemon, and Sage – I was nearly certain that the Sherry used was an Oloroso, and was somewhat humbled to find out it was a Fino: Sherry is absolutely the predominant flavor in this refreshing drink, and the leaf of sage remained in the background as strictly visual until I got a hint of it halfway through the drink, when I, well, silently let forth a teeny-tiny little eructation – and there it was: I know, TMI, but it’s also true, and ha ha ha for making you go to Google.
I was hoping my first course would arrive while I still had most of my adult lemonade remaining, and sure enough it did – beautifully (if inefficiently) plated, and both the plating and the cutting of this dish is what leads me to believe that the A-team was indeed working the kitchen on this evening. There are three main sections to the dinner menu, cleverly named, “In the Ground,” “Under the Water,” and “On the Ground,” and I made sure to select one dish from each category – the dishes, Kara advised me, get smaller-to-larger in size as you descend each individual section.
So I was surprised to see that the topmost course “Under the Water” was a reasonably ample portion: Raw Sea Bass ($14) intrigued me because it simply isn’t that common to see on a menu – finely chopped into chunks, forming a bar across the lovely ceramic plate, topped by, mixed with, or next to a Brunoise, Fish Sauce, Orange, Aïoli, and with thin slices of radish as an umbrella, this was a terrific way to present raw fish, and I would urge lovers of sashimi, crudo, carpaccio, etc. to order it as your first course, even though it’s slightly larger than your typical “small plate” – as with so many other aspects of life, when it comes to sequencing your meal, substance is more important than size, and having studied the entire menu, this is the one dish I would order before all others.
There are several clues that Kyirisan is taking some shortcuts – not necessarily a bad thing, and not something the vast majority would notice or even care about. One is that they use Gotham Project for some of their wines (*). For my second course, I went with one of Gotham Project’s wines on tap: the 2014 Bridge Lane Cellars Rosé ($10) from North Fork, NY, [menu typo] which Kara thoughtfully offered me a taste of before I committed to the entire glass – since I had the first glass of the day, she drained a few ounces to clear the line, and then poured me a small taste, even adding it to my glass after I gave her a thumbs-up.
And the Rosé – while somewhat ordinary on its own – had good supporting acidity, and was fermented almost completely dry, making it a perfect pairing for the Deep Fried Tofu ($9). I wondered why a tablespoon was placed at 12 noon before my first course arrived, and this dish answered the question. This dish should be eaten with a spoon, like a soup, tearing the lightly breaded, pan-sautéed cubes of tofu, and having a little with each spoonful of broth. I say broth and not sauce, because when this dish is finished, you don’t want any liquid left in your bowl – this was an excellent dish which really emphasizes the almost-Japanese influence that speckles this menu. Get these two items together, and you’ll see how a good pairing can make both the food and the wine better than they’d be on their own.
Working my way bottom-to-top in the “On the Ground” section of the menu, I eliminated the Sous Vide Duck Confit (while applauding Kyirisan for noting it on their menu), eliminated the Black Truffle Congee after Kara confirmed it was made with truffle oil, and stopped at the Pork Collar ($18) with Fermented Daikon, Beets, Fish Suce Caramel, and Sweet White Soy served in a separate bowl. It would not surprise me at all if this pork collar had also been par-cooked sous vide, as it had “that” kind of coloration and texture, but it was really a very enjoyable dish – my server instructed me to take this decomposed plate, and create “rolls” using strips of cucumber as the periphery, making sure to have each item in each roll (if you do this correctly, each bite should be shaped like a piece of Maki Sushi – just put the ingredients in the middle of the cucumber strip, one atop the other, and fold both ends of the strip on top using your knife and fork, and you’ll have a perfect roll within seconds). It was all of the flavors, in combination, that turned this into a very pleasant experience of tastes, textures, and (in theory) temperatures; having the items on their own would result in an exercise of frustration and expletives.
With this meat course, I wanted to switch to a red wine, though I could have also stayed with the Rosé, so I tried another Gotham Project wine on tap – the 2014 Pacific Standard Malbec ($13) from California, an unfortunate choice which lacked any charms, and had almost surely undergone malolactic fermentation (this is the process in which malic acid (think: green apples) is turned into lactic acid (think: yogurt), softening the wine, but more often than not resulting in something lacking the necessary backbone to have with food, and the dairy components were on display in the nose of this Malbec – it just didn’t work, either on its own, or with the dish, so I saved it for chocolate (it’s hard for a red wine – even a bad red wine – not to go well with chocolate). I strongly urge Kyirisan to jettison this wine, and to find another red on tap with the right type of acidity to stand up to your cuisine (and I don’t think it would be the Zinfandel; you need something lighter than that).
All desserts at Kyirisan are $10, and knowing that I wanted chocolate, I ordered the Chocolate Mousse Cake with, gulp, Veal Marrow, Rocky Road Ice Cream, Marrow Tuile, and Cherry Bourbon Jam. For a long time, I’ve joked that “I like hot fudge, and I like pizza; I just don’t want them together,” and yet, here they were, before my very eyes, in an intricately plated hodgepodge of chocolate, veal marrow, and thick, sludge-like jam. Although the flavors didn’t clash per se, the textures just didn’t work at all, and in every bite, I was cringing at the thought of eating veal marrow with chocolate, not knowing exactly where the marrow was to be found. I suspect it was the white coating on the chocolate bar, and also the savory tuiles – neither of which were bad at all; it was more of a psychological terror, and the actual problems were in the textures which were just a mess, and the jam which was just too thick – this was the only course I didn’t finish, mostly because I was quite full, but also because this dessert just didn’t work for me. So paradoxically, the meal ended on a sour note with the sweet course.
One last thing: There are two options on the menu – “Like Your Food … Send a Round of Beers to the Kitchen” ($12), and “Love Your Food … Send a Round of Scotch to the Kitchen” ($24). Although the kitchen did everything it could, I thought $24 was a bit much for a single diner at the bar, so I bought them a round of beer.
However, I was impressed enough with Kyirisan to formally initiate coverage in Italic in the Dining Guide (this is available for free to donrockwell.com members with ten posts, is the largest single-city dining guide in the world, and is the only one which is updated constantly, in real-time) – I’m also happy to announce that in the immediate future, our Washington, DC forum is going to be opened up to the public. I have finally halfway caught up with what I need to do, and I’ll figure out a way to revisit the other half somewhere down Highway 61).
(*) When it comes to selecting a restaurant critic or restaurant guide, I would encourage consumers – the ones who spend their own money – to rely only upon those with proven expertise in both food *and* drinks: Given that beverages can easily account for 50% of the final bill, doing otherwise would only result in stranding you halfway up the mountain with a flat tire, and that’s if you’re lucky.