The soul of a chef, to use Ruhlman’s phrase, is in many ways like that of a writer—shaped by the drive to create & to destroy in the process; swollen by success & punctured by failure; pulled this way by the desire to please, that way by the lust to kill, in still another direction by the exhausted wish to be left the hell alone with one’s tools & toys. Most chefs I know, like most writers, are cauldrons of ambivalence, bubbling with passion as the black smoke of bitterness curls ever upward.
But there are exceptions. Brian Poe of Poe’s Kitchen at the Rattlesnake is one of them. I’m sure he has his dark moments, but only a dogged optimist could walk into a collegiate, nacho-clogged watering hole with 20 years of notoriety behind it & class it up the way he has, maintaining his sunny sanity amid the skepticism that’s slow to dissolve. Straight up, over the past 2 years, Brian’s become a friend of mine. So you might be all the more doubtful about the dissolution of my own skepticism & its replacement by admiration, which I dare say peaked with my most recent visit. What to do? Keeping in mind that I’d have spared my pal any embarrassment by writing nothing at all if I’d been unimpressed, you’ll have to judge for yourself whether the Latin-inspired kitchen just keeps getting better & better. Do report back on your findings.
Actually, the prosciutto-wrapped, blackened tuna stuffed with queso fresco over creamed corn isn’t a new dish—it’s a signature of Poe’s extra-bold style. All 4 elements—salty cured ham; strong, oily, yet still clean-tasting fish; fresh white cheese; & sweet, rich puréed corn—hold their own, each complementing the other. The use of creamed corn as a sauce rather than a side strikes me as an idea whose time has come.
So does the pairing of pork with finfish rather than shellfish; by contrast, given jumbo sea scallops, Poe eschews the usual bacon or ham in favor of seared chunks of foie gras, & the flesh of both—one firm & clean, the other meltingly fatty; each sweet & delicate in its own way—marries surprisingly well. Combined with acorn squash puree & sundried strawberry–arbol chile salsa, along with sauteed greens & a dab of avocado cream, it begins to sound like a puzzle with one too many pieces—but it doesn’t taste that way; the fruity & funky notes are in harmony, the crispy & smooth textures likewise. When you think about it, this is the kind of balance among a multitude of ingredients achieved by a great salad, say a Cobb, after all. No reason it can’t happen on a hot plate.
The same could be said of this off-menu dish, in which Poe paired a hefty piece of cilantro-&-asiago-grilled swordfish with the truffle risotto, pumpkin cream sauce, chunky pumpkin salsa & fried chard that usually distinguish his Vermont quail tacos. The substitution made sense—the flavor of swordfish has more in common with poultry than with most other fish, really—though I can see how roast game bird works even better amid all those warm, earthy flavors. I tend to prefer risotto that’s a bit creamier than this was, but since it was layered directly over the sauce, its grainier quality worked, preventing too much of a mishmash.
Braised in tequila with chipotle & cascabel chiles, this giant pork shank—Poe’s portions are generous almost to a fault—may be my current fave, however.
Smoky & perfectly tender alongside an almost spoonable slice of polenta topped with smoked-tomato grits, it’s comfort food brought into focus by the touch of bitterness provided by more fried chard, the way a draft of cold air emphasizes how good it feels to be curled up under blankets (I think I stole that realization from Moby Dick’s Ishmael).
Unless my fave was the mixed grill of silk-skinned wild mushrooms in soy-ginger sauce with tomato-ginger chutney. Sheer umami shot through with brightness.
The biggest surprise, however, was the pecan tart with black lava sea salt caramel sauce & cinnamon-sugared vanilla ice cream. More like a sandie than a slice of pie, it was rich, buttery, nutty & creamy-sweet without being cloyingly gooey. I suspected dessert would be an afterthought here; I was wrong.
I know what you’re thinking: Sure, when the chef’s taking care of you, he’s personally guaranteeing everything’s just peachy. That may be so; I don’t know how the kitchen operates when Poe’s not around, because I don’t go unless he is, with the express purpose of seeing him. But he’s so kind-hearted & easy to get to know that you could give hands-on treatment a shot—literally: invite him out to the bar for a jigger of killer ghost-pepper tequila.
Soon enough, I bet, you’ll be back to shoot the shit—& he, in turn, will be keeping a characteristically enthusiastic eye on your table.