The Food of My Childhood
If I were Anton Ego, then Erling Jensen’s has become my Gusteau’s. Much like the Pixar food critic, I was hostile in the beginning towards a French restaurant and not until one revisit several years later did I realize how mistaken my notions were. The meal I had last night dispelled any doubts or concerns that my previous visit was a fluke. Let me explain…
When I was a small boy who could only shop in the husky section of a clothing department, my older brother worked in the kitchen at Koto’s, an upscale Asian-fusion midtown corner run by Karen Roth and, at the time, her husband Jorge. My family ate at Koto’s often, and we developed a very close relationship with them. Those two always served me bigger portions than everyone else: three scoops of sorbet instead of one, a giant, tender, juicy ribeye served with garlic mashed potatoes, bok choy, and a teriyaki sauce, spring rolls, giant chocolate soufflés- I foam at the mouth just thinking about those days. I remember the countless meals which even now I can taste at the tip of my tongue. But even the best times must come to an end and eventually my brother moved on to college and Koto’s, due to lack of business, closed down. That was really my last memory of Chef Roth and Chef Jorge.
Several weeks ago, I was watching Action News 5 with my mother, and Andy Wise was doing a special on Erling Jensen’s. That’s when I saw her: Chef Roth side-by-side with Chef Erling Jensen. I had no idea she worked there kitchen and I figured that she was most likely cooking the night I tried Erling’s after so many years. Seeing her running the kitchen guaranteed my return…
Every time I muster the courage to take pictures at a meal, I’m either placed in an incredibly dark part of the restaurant or placed in the middle of the dining room where my bright orange light would rudely interrupt all diners. Last night, I was seated in both a dark spot as well as the center of the restaurant. So sorry but no pictures today.
My mom and I were planning to order from the menu, but Chef Roth insisted that we let her do the deciding.
Amuse Bouche: dried, hardened ribeye with pickled cucumber and carrots and a mustard-hollandaise sauce. A very lively and robust way to wake up the palette. Steak, as it should have been, was the star and everything else quickly followed suit.
First Course: sole with fresh gazpacho. The fish was very meaty, almost steak-like, and tender to the touch but also full-bodied in regards to flavor. Certainly fresh, this sole didn’t have a ‘fishy’ aftertaste. The gazpacho was excellent. The sweetness, lightness, and hint of heat in the gazpacho made for an excellent followup to the amuse bouche.
Second Course: Mero Bass with shitaki mushrooms in a miso broth. Mero bass = sea bass = the patagonian toothfish! This dish is offered on the menu but with jasmine rice and greens. Chef Karen was just giving us a taste with this ‘small plate.’ The broth had great depth to it and, together with the mero bass, had a wonderful Asian flare without being too bold.
Third Course: U.S. Wagyu Kobe Steak with potatoes dauphinoise and a teriyaki sauce. This dish is offered on the menu (although it isn’t on the website). The steak, cooked practically rare, was wonderfully tender and the earth-red teriyaki sauce brought a natural smoked flavor to the table. The potatoes dauphinoise were certainly a level up from garlic mashed potatoes and were impossible to resist even whilst lying beside a kobe steak.
Fourth Course: Gran marnier soufflé with cinnamon ice cream. Beneath a giant, crusty dome was a world of soft, fluffy goodness so light that finishing the entire soufflé was no contest. The side of homemade cinnamon ice cream with its velvety texture was unlike any other ice cream I’ve had in a while.
This meal was more important and better than I expected it to be. After dinner I suddenly realized that the “Anton Ego” moment(s) of my childhood consist of Chef Roth sending out plate after plate of beautiful, thoughtful dishes just for me. A native of New York and a graduate of the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), Chef Roth has always cooked with a passion, and being on the receiving end of her labor has helped my palette become what it is today. She is truly the first chef I personally befriended and the first to take an interest in feeding, then, a plump Asian boy with a bottomless pit for a stomach. And knowing that she’s the one in the kitchen dishing out the food, I find it unlikely that Erling Jensen’s will ever tumble into the rather large pool of mediocre restaurants in Memphis.