Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Girl Talk

Women are rising to prominence in Congress and in Cleveland restaurant kitchens. Gains in both groups are long overdue. I leave the political commentary to others. But I am grabbing this opportunity to talk about one emerging culinary star in our midst — Melissa Khoury, the executive chef at Washington Place Bistro and Inn.

A graduate of Johnson & Wales, she last worked as the sous chef at Amp 150 from 2009 to 2011 before moving on to her latest gig and being promoted to the top toque position. Khoury joins a small select group of females running restaurant kitchens that includes Karen Small (Flying Fig), Jill Vedaa (Rockefeller's), Heather Haviland (Lucky's) and Rachel Spieth (Press Wine Bar).

After spending a couple of wonderful hours as Khoury's guest, sampling dishes from her new fall/winter menu, created with help from her sous chef Chris Kafcsak, I can say with confidence that this young chef has earned a place among these other extremely talented women. In fact, she can hold her own with the city's up and comers of both genders.

A salad assembled from arugula, watercress, pears poached in red wine, a fine domestic Gorgonzola and toasted hazelnuts all dressed in a vanilla vinaigrette achieved a great balance, playing opposites off each other — sweet and bitter, funky earthiness and green freshness, soft and crunchy. Loved this.

The presentation of pork belly was clever. Seared and crisped, the rich fattty chunk of meat came with a cabbage roll, delicate and transparent, stuffed with chopped apple, radicchio and basmati rice, and tangy preserved lemon vinaigrette.

The taste of the season was captured in a fall-off-the-bone tender confit duck leg with apricot gnocchi, braised greens, rings of delicata squash and slices of rutabaga. Vegetables are an important part of Khoury's plates, never an afterthought or a filler, and she uses them in interesting ways, as these two preparations illustrate.

Ditto for fruits. A steak goes from fine to fabulous courtesy of a fig balsamic reduction. Seared scallops take on dimension thanks to a quince gastrique that amplifies their natural sweetness. I also really liked the lentil salad accompanying the shellfish: it's topped with crunchy fried carrot and parsnip threads, a take on a classic Arabic mujaddara and a nod to Khoury's Lebanese heritage. 

The most delicious dish of all to me, the one I raved about to the husband and can't wait to go back and eat again, was the Australian sea bass (aka barramundi), a mild white fleshed fish. She serves it in a bright orange carrot broth, with a farro risotto in which celery root puree takes the place of cream. A shallot gremolata made with pickled celery root adds just the right touch of acid. This is such an outstanding creation on every front -- appearance, taste, and originality. It even gets points for being healthy.

Needless to say, after trying all these things, I did not really have room or appetite for dessert. And Melissa confessed that treats are not really her specialty. But then added that she had come up with something she thought was pretty good and really wanted me to weigh in on it.

I still wasn't convinced, but then she offered this description: "It's a vanilla panna cotta (I am helplessly, hopelessly attracted to custards and puddings like this), topped with brown sugar caramel, salt and peppered sauteed apples and chunks of pumpkin seed brittle." I couldn't say no, and I'm so glad I didn't. The play of creaminess against all that snap, crackle and pop was brilliant.

A few of the old crowd-pleasing favorites from the original menu, like oxtail pierogies and pot roast, are still offered, but as far as I'm concerned, Washington Place has become a new and different place. Khoury's boss Scott Kuhn was smart to hire her, put her in charge, and let her essentially reinvent the restaurant.  If you're equally clever, you'll go discover what she can do for yourself.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Since Chef Khoury has taken over the kitchen at Washington Place we have become regulars. We followed her from Amp 150 and we're so glad we did. The food is always a delicious surprise and the house made tasso ham is amazing.
Always so proud when a local gal comes back to her roots and makes this city look great!

Laura Taxel said...

I totally agree with you Anonymous.