Ever since LC and I enjoyed one of our most memorable meals ever at PushStart Kitchen about a year ago, I’ve been waiting for Zach and Cristina Meloy to open their brick and mortar restaurant. It finally happened in December 2013 with Better Half, but with the holidays and heart attack, we didn’t make it in…until now.
Still waiting for their liquor license, the restaurant suggests diners bring their own, so we brought a bottle of 2011 Tuella Douro, a spicy Portugese blend that I thought would match Meloy’s Latin American flavors nicely. Our reservation was later than we normally dine, so we were happy to be seated right away at a table against the wall with Meloy’s cartoonish yet industrial mural in shades of blue and gray. It’s very cool, illuminated by the warm glow emanating from the kitchen. Tables made of thick slabs of repurposed wood are topped with colorful wooden birds from Costa Rica, like the ones that sat upon their communal table at the Goat Farm.
We received water and wine glasses right away, then waited for our server. And waited. LC was hungry and I was getting nervous that they might run out of the dish I had my eye on, the seared duck breast with duck skin croquant and butternut squash. Finally, LC flagged down the water girl who found Cristina who apologized profusely. It was a misunderstanding, and she graciously offered our starters on the house. We shared the ricotta dumplings and sopa negra.
But the damage was done…the duck was indeed sold out. I went with my second choice, the pork loin with parsnip mustard, roasted turnip, and pickled apple. LC debated between the skirt steak and the flounder, finally deciding on the steak with pureed and pickled cauliflower, blistered tomatillo and white cheddar.
There were the flourishes of brilliance I was expecting…the presentation of the sopa negra for example. A large bowl arrived containing charred onion relish, crumbles of cotija cheese, a few crisped nuggets made of masa, and a soft egg (sous vide, I believe), to which our server added the sopa negra, a.k.a. black bean soup. Lovely, texturally pleasing, and delicious.
Ricotta dumplings looked like Asian potstickers, but contained a dense cheese filling rather than the usual cabbage and meat. They were garnished with crispy slivers of Spanish chorizo and pea shoots for a pop of color.
Meloy’s menus are the type that list the ingredients but when the dish arrives, many of them are unrecognizable. Generally, I find this method exciting. It challenges diners to discover how the chef has reinvented an ingredient, like the white cheddar in LC’s steak dish. Meloy had turned it into crisps, then used them to puncuate the plate. Likewise, the blistered tomatillo was made into a vibrant green puree which dotted the dish. Thin skirt steak was rolled up, then sliced into thick chunks. I believe the meat was cooked sous vide, then seared, but I’m no chef so don’t quote me on that! It all rested in a thin puree of cauliflower. We both loved the contrast of the pickled cauliflower with the rest of the flavors, but wished the steak had been cooked a bit longer.
(Note: the evening LC and I attended Pushstart Kitchen was the same day chef Meloy purchased his sous vide machine…he was super excited about it! And it appears he uses it quite often.)
Ingredients in my pork loin dish were more straight forward. Sliced baby turnips were wonderfully roasted, slivers of apple were pickled, both providing a flavorful accompaniment to the tender, delicate pork, which was somewhat overpowered by the parsnip mustard. I found myself longing for the duck breast that I would likely never have the opportunity to try.
We chose two desserts, the roasted pear crepe and the goat cheese chiboust. A neighboring table ordered the latter, which looked like a stick of butter cut into cubes. Luckily, the cubes turned out to be more like flan, with the addition of gelatin, and a hint of goat cheese. Honey ice cream, blood orange syrup, and pecan praline provided sweetness and textural interest. I was less pleased with the other selection. The roasted pears were hard to find and the pickled pears and thyme proved to be too savory for dessert.
I wanted to love this place, and in many ways I did. The cozy space embodies the intimate spirit of PushStart Kitchen. Better Half is still in its infancy so I can forgive the missteps, and look forward to another visit…hopefully at the chef’s table.
349 14th Street, bldg. C 404-695-4547