Chef's choice, diner's surprise once a week

Theme ingredient rules in culinary adventure

April 14, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Every Wednesday evening, in a tiny kitchen sandwiched between a dry cleaner and a pizza joint, Edward Kim commits omakase.

The 35-year-old chef scours the supermarket for the best vegetables to complement the five courses of scallops, langoustine or fluke he's outlining in his head. Should he use fennel? For which course? And how many people are actually going to pay close to $100 on a weekday for a five-course meal where most ingredients aren't on the menu and the preparation is a complete surprise?

If Kim sounds unprepared, that's part of the point. Omakase, a Japanese technique that Kim jokingly translates as chef suicide and others say means Chef, I'm in your hands, is all about challenges. At first glance, this free-jazz approach to cooking seems to contradict the essence of Soigne, Kim's upscale, polished South Baltimore eatery whose very name means elegance in French. But nothing is haphazard about omakase.

Kim, who was born in South Korea and raised in New York, applies the same precision to his omakase dishes that he brings to the rest of the menu. In challenging himself, he is also challenging patrons, inviting them to try combinations they might never order from the menu.

"With omakase, you're not sure you're really going to sell anything. You have to be disciplined without being too plebeian or too mundane," Kim said. "You're trying to attract a different kind of person."

Kim said the idea for omakase came from Nobu, the celebrity-studded New York restaurant where a customer can walk in, ask for omakase and be treated to whatever the chef wants to serve.

Kim and his partner, Lisa Heckman, thought omakase would help increase Soigne's business midweek. But Nobu's methods wouldn't work in Soigne's tiny kitchen. Kim's pantry is too small to stock much in advance, and he didn't want omakase to absorb the time and energy that the menu's regular items demand.

If Kim, an exuberant chef who describes food creations as "unctuous" or "orgasmic," offered omakase every night, he feared he would not be able to devote all his attention to the menu dishes customers love.

So, about 18 months ago, Kim rolled out his own version of omakase. Each week, he chooses a theme ingredient, such as scallops or lobster, and builds a five-course meal around it.

He purchases enough of the theme ingredient to plan for a few orders in advance; the rest he improvises based on whimsy and what's fresh. Soigne charges $65 for the course, or $85 with wine pairings. Heckman e-mails the theme ingredient to regular customers each week.

Some themes have worked better than others. Lobster omakase can draw in a dozen diners, but only one patron ordered Kim's experiments with fluke on a recent night. Then there was the couple who ordered the venison omakase and looked confused when the server brought their first course, a carpaccio on a small plate. Eventually, they gave up and ordered off the menu.

"They expected a full-course meal, you know, get fat and happy," Kim said. "But that is not what it is."

Even if stuffing one's face isn't the point, it's hard to imagine feeling hungry after omakase. On a recent scallops-themed evening, the first course -- Scallops Sashimi With Pistachio Wasabi Mayonnaise -- arrived in a generous portion.

Next came scallops in a butter-and-fennel sauce with salmon caviar and mussels, followed by an entree-sized portion of pistachio-encrusted rack of lamb with scallops, foie gras and mashed potatoes. Then came the plump scallops atop a miso toro tuna, followed by a scallops-free cheese course.

The nonadventurous may as well not bother. Omakase isn't the kind of meal that allows for substitutions, sauces on the side or tried-and-true combinations.

That's exactly why it appealed to Ted Root, an educational consultant who came to Soigne on scallops night for omakase. Root wasn't sure the lamb-chop-and-scallops dish really pushed the limits of creativity. But that was a minor quibble in a meal he otherwise pronounced tasty and adventurous.

"It's an expression of confidence and creativity that is badly needed in Baltimore," Root said. "It's like having somebody paint a picture for you. He's going to do it once and he's not going to do the same thing over again."

For Soigne regulars like Christopher Arnett, omakase is a way to sample new possibilities that only last week were mere ideas.

"When you're a regular like I am, as good as the food is, it can start to taste the same," said Arnett, a hotel executive who now structures his week around coming to Soigne on Wednesdays. "You can only carry something like this off in a restaurant where customers completely trust the chef's ability. You're paying top dollar, and you only know one ingredient."

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