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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Young Chef Practices His Craft in an Art Gallery

Dinner begins on a dark and windy night. An errant newspaper skitters across the street. My invitation to a tasting by chef Paul Shoemaker, says the address is 4200 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood 91602 but the entire block looks abandoned. Using my iPhone as a flashlight, I locate the numbers on the building although a battered sign says this is the Evolution Dance Studios.

To escape the darkness, I follow a rectangle of amber light. Just beyond the doorway, the entryway brightens with stylish lighting and colorful paintings on the wall. A plaque declares this is INTRO. A few steps more and I’m inside a large space with a beautifully set communal table. Overhead bare bulbs hang like trapeze artists. Bingo! I’m here.

General manager, Rob Ciancimino greets me with a flute of light and dry Marcopolo prosecco.  I join the other twenty guests and wander around the space, which doubles as an art gallery. The colorful paintings are by Oscar Meza, a multi-talented professional skateboarder and artist.

Rob returns to see if anyone needs a refill. Glasses are raised and he pours. He tells the group that he is happy we’ve joined him tonight.  INTRO is open for Friday and Saturday night dinner and available for private events. All of this is prelude to the fall when he and his partners will open Verse, a bar, club and restaurant down the block.

It’s time to take our seats and read the menu. The fourteen courses are a mix of elegant ingredients (big eye tuna, foie gras, Maine lobster and Hamachi) and comfort foods (beets, dates, bone marrow and ravioli). And because this is fine dining, there will be wine, including a tasting of wines hand carried by Matthew Ospeck from AuburnJames winery in St. Helena.

As we are introducing ourselves to our table mates, Ciancimino sounds a small chime. It's time to begin our meal. 

Chef Shoemaker comes out of the kitchen to talk us through his first dish. He has a great smile. He avoids the traditional toque and chef's whites. Appealing and friendly, he wears a baseball cap and a brown apron. His first presentation is visually stunning.

The Edible Cocktail is a Meyer lemon icy-foam gin martini sharing a block of charred wood with two Asian spoons. We raise our glasses to salute the chef and each other. The cocktail is delicious and fun like eating a best-ever lemony snow cone. Then we feast on the spoons, enjoying the mix of textures, temperatures and flavors. Sweet, frozen, crunchy, spicy and acidic sensations roll around in our mouths. The evening begins with a “wow”.

The next dish riffs on the great versatility of salmon. Half a dozen roe are scattered on top of a thin slice of sashimi quality belly meat which in turn is placed on a strip of salmon skin cooked to chicharon-crispness. Designed as a sensory encounter, when placed in the mouth, the skin evaporates and the roe releases its salty creaminess leaving the pleasure of the fatty, pliant belly meat. The art of the dish is notable because even after the bits and pieces are consumed, the favor sensation continues with the wonderful heat of Togarashi, the sharp edged Japanese pepper powder.

For his tastings, each dish, from the first to the last, from small plates of single bites like the bone marrow ravioli or the butter poached lobster to the larger plates of Hamachi and hanger beef steak, demonstrates Shoemaker’s culinary talent. His flavors are balanced. Every element has a contrary element. Sweet is paired with acidic. Crispy with pliant. And, more often than not, a gentle heat lingers at the finish to prolong the experience. 

Adding to the sensory experience, the dishes are beautifully platted. Some are served on charred blocks of textured wood. Others in pure white porcelain bowls. Shoemaker arranges the edible ingredients like an artist applying paint to canvas. The ingredients are as much a part of the visual portrait of the dish as they are part of the flavor composition.

Each time the chime sounds, we are alerted to the beginning of a new adventure.

For the sixth course, a single Maine scallop in a porcelain white bowl is placed in front of me.  Cross-hatched with grill marks, the pink-white scallop the size of a silver dollar rests on a pillow of avocado mousseline next to a pale white cube of pickled daikon, smaller than a dime. At the bottom of the bowl, chef poured a pool of house-made ponzu broth with a gathering of white and black sesame seeds. The scallop is paired with AubernJames’ Meritage 2010 (Napa Valley), a lovely, crisp white that compliments the delicate flesh and acidic broth.

Selecting the ingredients for this dish as with all the others, Shoemaker searches for the best ingredients. If he can't find what he wants locally, he looks elsewhere. 

What Shoemaker serves depends on the seasons. He tells me with a big smile that this week he is expecting a FedEx delivery of Dutch white asparagus. He is the kind of chef who delights in the perfections of the moment. Who will source ingredients from half-way-around the world. 

In his travels he is always on the look out for quality providers, which is how he found the fisherman in Maine who supplied him with the scallops for our dish. And the scallop is perfect. Tender. Slightly sweet. Full of briny flavor.

A DIY Kitchen Produces Sophisticated Results

Looking at the complexity of each dish, it is easy to visualize Shoemaker’s kitchen. It must be high tech, fitted out with the latest gadgets. Given the detailing of the platting, surely there must be a dozen sous chefs bending over plates with tweezers picking micro greens from their mise en place.

Nope.

Shoemaker’s kitchen is a large space with a playhouse feeling.  When I walk in, one of the chefs is taking a break on a rope swing secured to the ceiling. There are some high-tech tools like a sous-vide cooker but INTRO’s kitchen is very basic. The two 1970s era stoves were purchased on eBay. There is no grill so with DIY inventiveness, to place grill marks on the scallop, the chefs use a kitchen torch to heat a knife red hot. Pressing the sizzling knife against the scallop creates the cross-hatch marks and adds a hint of caramelization.

Back in the art gallery-dining room, the chimes sound. To explain the dish, Shoemaker reappears as the servers place the next dish in front of each diner.

Foie gras is served nigiri style, on pressed rice. Who would have imagined that fat slices of beautifully charred foie gras go so well on vinegared rice, itself also lightly charred on the bottom to create a thin crust? The sweet acidic flavor so essential to balance the richness of the foie gras comes from a single blackberry sliced in half and a dollop of sour plum sauce.

The foie gras is exactly what I want from a fine dining chef. He should have a mastery of technique. Display flawless execution. Present artful platings. Cook with inventive parings of textures. From the beginning to the end, Shoemaker delivers in all those ways.

At the End

Talking about the meal, everyone has their favorite dish. Mine is the pork belly. A fat triangle of pork skin is fried to airy crispness. Which contrasts perfectly with the fork-tender, apple cider poached pork belly served with a sunny-side up quail egg, the yolk still runny, and pureed sweet potato flavored with maple syrup and bourbon. As we eat, all conversation ends. We're all too busy savoring each bite to talk. I am careful to maximize the deliciousness of the dish. I swab bits of pork belly into the richly sweet sweet potato, being sure to add a bit of egg yolk and maple syrup.
As people finish, they say to no one in particular, “Wow.” “That’s amazing.”

I reach for my glass of AuburnJames' delicious Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Napa Valley and notice that chef leans against the wall in a corner of the room. Clearly he is an impresario who takes delight in hearing us appreciate his creations. 

As we finish dinner, Shoemaker brings out his crew. Like the end of a theatrical performance, the cast takes a curtain call. Seen on the street, his cooks would be mistaken for skateboarders. To our applause he stands smiling with Paul Richardson, Erik Punzalan, Raymond Morales, Dro Dergy and Joel Ocampo.

At that moment it seems abundantly appropriate that this space is named INTRO. Ciancimino is using the pop-up chef’s table to introduce Shoemaker to Los Angeles. With the slow roll out to the opening of Verse in the fall, Los Angeles will have the opportunity to meet a very talented chef in an intimate dining experience.

INTRO: Art Gallery & Chef’s Table, 4200 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood 9160. Champagne is served at 7:30pm. Dinner begins promptly at 8:00pm. http://www.experienceintro.com; reservations on https://resy.com/cities/la/intro-art-gallery-and-chefs-table

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