Sam Mason first came to my attention when he opened WD-50 with Wylie Dufresne. At the time Sam was the pastry chef and was combining savory elements into his desserts in amazing ways, blurring the lines between them, but always maintaining a focus. After a few years at WD-50, having built a reputation as one of the most creative and best pastry chefs in the business, Mason left to open his own restaurant, Tailor, this time as the head chef. The food remained creative as ever with Mason now incorporating sweet elements into traditionally savory parts of the meal as well as his trademark of savory elements into the sweet, doing both with consummate balance and style. Along with an exceptional, creative cocktail program, Mason's food and the ambiance at Tailor made it into one of my favorite restaurants. Every aspect of a meal there was delicious and fun. Somehow though, the restaurant still didn't survive. Mason left it last summer and both the restaurant and bar have since closed. Since Mason left, he has been busy with a cable tv show combining his love of cooking with his love of music and he recently announced plans to open a casual bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As of now, Mason is not letting on as to whether he harbors plans to get back into the restaurant business. For this night though, he would be performing some of his greatest hits from Tailor at Aldea, the restaurant of his good friend, George Mendes. Helping him out would be a few of his old kitchen band-members from Tailor including Francis Derby, Mason's opening kitchen partner at Tailor and Ryan Bartlow, the former sous chef at Tailor and current chef of Bar Carrera. In addition to the kitchen connection, another connection is Heather Laiskonis, the former GM of Tailor and current GM of Aldea.
The night would start with a cocktail hour featuring two of the most famous cocktails from Tailor, The Waylon and the Smithers featured alongside canapes from Chef Mendes' Aldea repertoire. The uni toast, shrimp alinho, oysters, steelhead trout roe and other goodies did a wonderful job of satisfying my acute hunger, while the yuzu-based Smithers and smoked-Coke based Waylon quenched my cocktail lust. Those cocktails were wonderful and fully representative of the cocktail prowess of Tailor and its former head Mixologist Eben Freeman. The one Tailor cocktail that stood above all others for though was the Huitlacoche Margarita, which sadly for me was not on the menu. No matter, though, for the two that were were well beyond satisfying.
As the cocktail hour wound down, we were seated at our table facing the kitchen, which was a beehive of activity, as one might imagine given they would be feeding approximately 70 or so people from a set tasting menu.
I had eaten at Tailor a few times over the course of its existence. A few of the dishes, but not all were familiar to me from those times. The others were like exciting new cuts on a greatest hits album. The wines were of Iberian origin, primarily Portuguese, fusing some of Aldea's culinary personality into Mason's.
The first dish, scallop with red papaya, spice bread and tarragon was new to me and a delight. The fruit added a touch of tropical sweetness, but not too much, a hallmark of Mason's cooking. I generally don't like foods that are unbalanced towards sweetness, but with this dish, as it was throughout the meal, the level of sweetness was always spot on - enough to provide depth and balance, but not so much as to dominate or overwhelm.
Foie Gras with cocoa, peanut and pear is a Mason classic. This dish once again provided superb balance, but also displayed Mason's expert and appropriate use of hypermodern technique. This was apparent not only with his treatment of the foie gras, which was somewhat reminiscent of a flour-less chocolate cake, but also with the desiccated and pulverized peanut butter accompaniment. The other significant embellishment to this dish was the presence of green peanuts, which added textural contrast as well as a relatively unusual treatment of an otherwise overly familiar ingredient. The 10 year old Bual Madeira from Cossart Gordon was a perfect accompaniment.
The arctic char with passion fruit, lime pickle and coconut was another old favorite from Tailor . The sous-vide cooked char melted with the sweet-tart passionfruit in a way that was swoon worthy. The added layers of dried coconut enhanced the tropical treatment of this cold-water fish as did the lime pickle. Served along with this dish was a chilled Periquita, Terras dos Sadas red from JM Fonseca. The high acid wine from a tropical clime, suffered its chill well and provided an admirable pairing for the fish.
Mason's Pork Belly with miso butterscotch, artichoke and green apple is a spectacular dish and perhaps his most well known. The piece of belly on my and my tablemates' plates was simply beautiful and delicious, amply illustrating Mason's skill of balancing flavors, ingredients and textures. Interestingly, we had some different viewpoints at our table regarding the details of the dish and the kinds of flavors we were encountering. In particular, whether there was much or any sense of smoke within the ingredients as well as whether or not the artichokes had been pickled. The point is that as delicious as the dish was, it was also quite complex and surprisingly difficult to pick apart even with experienced diners. This was wonderfully paired with another JM Fonseca wine, this time the Moscato from Setúbal Peninsula.
I'll never forget the first time I had Mason's Beer and Pretzels at Tailor. I was with my wife and our sons. The dish was shockingly good then in the way it not only picked up the flavors, but enhanced them so that even in the form of ice cream and foam, the dish was better than any beer and pretzels I'd ever had. It still is!
Has any single food item been more prominent over the last five to ten years than bacon? Mason's tribute to the salty and smoky combination of protein, salt and fat added some sugar, flour fun to come up with his Bacon Cake with cornbread ice cream, blueberry and maple served with El Maestro Sierra 15 Años oloroso Sherry. The precise balance and pleasure of this dessert provides a clear example of how nobody combines the sweet and the savory better than Sam Mason.
Our final nibble of the night was perhaps the most intense for me and the clearest example yet of the mastery that Mason holds over the balance of flavor. A simple looking, one bite chorizo caramel provided the absolute essence of one of my favorite flavor combinations and did so with only the faintest hint of sweetness. This was the perfect bite to end this meal with as it combined Mason's magic touch with the Iberian essence of Aldea.
With two of my favorite people and chefs in the kitchen of one of my favorite restaurants, this was a dinner I was looking forward to from the moment I first heard it was happening. With my wife and two more of my favorite people, Joe Bavuso and Linda of Playing With Fire and Water joining me, I looked forward to the evening even more. Since I started this blog, I have been fortunate to have dined several times at Aldea and have chronicled those meals here. Unfortunately, I didn't get to chronicle my meals at Tailor on this blog as they preceded the blog. On this evening, I was lucky enough to experience,enjoy and chronicle both! To me, the evening was priceless. That the cost per person was only $110 including all food and beverage but exclusive of tax and gratuity made it an absolute steal. It was more than worth that plus the three hour drive each way!
George Mendes and Aldea are making beautiful culinary music right now and George is compiling many of his own greatest hits. I hope and expect that those hits will continue to mount over time. I very much enjoyed this time to re-experience the culinary hits of Sam Mason.I now look forward to the time he gets back in the kitchen to create more culinary music. I certainly hope to be there when he does.