Features on StarChefs.com

Play with Your Food

from Chef David Gilbert
of Luqa – Dallas, TX

» Roasted Eggplant and Garlic Soup

» Maine Lobster Salad

» Squab Through a Window

» Fruit Slider

» Kangaroo Tenderloin with Roasted Garlic Gnocchi, Brown Butter- Sherry

» Deconstructed Sweet Potato Crème Brulee, Anise Glass, Cinnamon

by Tejal Rao
February 2007

The wave of open kitchens and over-the-top meals that require instructions has set diners standards extraordinarily high. They don’t just want a meal that amuses the mouth with flavors and textures, they want to be entertained. At Luqa, Chef David Gilbert’s exciting high-concept dishes do both. The concept begins with the voyeuristic floor-to-ceiling glass in Gibert’s kitchen. While the unsuspecting diners at Luqa can’t hear what’s going on inside, they watch the kitchen and the cooks. And when we tell Gilbert how much we enjoyed sucking tart, fruity mousses from the open-ended test tubes that arrived on a black napkin, he nods and smiles, “I know,” he admits, “I was watching.”

The downtown Dallas restaurant, which lies between miles of highway dotted with strip malls and familiar chains, is an unexpected shrine to unpretentious and interactive fine dining. A meal at Luqa stimulates the diner with interaction that goes beyond picking up their fork and knife and sawing away. Instead, they suck on tubes, inhale the scent from hot rosemary stems, and break the crust of a crème brulee hovering 6 inches above its custard. In this way Gilbert removes familiar ingredients and pairings from their usual context without alienating the diner.

The eggplant and garlic soup is the opening act: a bowl of soup sitting in a bowl of rosemary stems that release a warm, piney scent when hot water is poured over them tableside. The experience is, although seemingly opposite, very much the same as the more obviously sensual act of eating blindfolded: a self-conscious effort to enhance one sense by fooling another…you can taste the green even though you’re not eating it. Maybe it was his time spent cooking in Amsterdam at Vermeer – although Gilbert claims to have been working too hard to indulge in the mind-altering Dutch frivolities of the Milky Way – but Gilbert’s dishes, while grounded in our world, transport the diner to another.

His barley risotto, a tender ode to caramelized bacon and onions, woos the underappreciated ingredients with a luxurious bath of cream and stock. The risotto is contained in a clear ring, where pudgy onions and bubbles of spiced froth press against the glass. When the glass is pulled away, the tower of barley collapses into a bowl of loose, aromatic risotto topped with tiny slices of scarlet-centered squab. The onions, bacon bits and froth mingle on the plate. Ta-da, the diner is amused!

The little quenelle of mascarpone mousse, striped with truffle honey, serves as both delicate composed cheese course and refreshing pre-dessert. What follows is a sweet potato crème brulee: a bowl of sweet potato cream topped with a crispy bundle of sweet potato threads and balancing an ultra-thin shard of anise flavored sugar. Like a classic crème brulee, a few taps with a spoon break the sugar into the bowl where you’re free to play some more, dipping pieces of sugar or crushing them to bits.

What makes Gilbert’s eccentric touches successful is not just his precise technique with ingredients but the way he anchors his dishes to familiar flavor-profiles. In the brulee’s case it’s the micro-planed cinnamon bringing the dish into a Southern dessert context. With the rosemary scented soup it’s the classic match of eggplant to garlic. One gets the feeling Gilbert isn’t seeking to impress but simply encouraging diners to join him at play, have fun, and enjoy the experience of dining out again.

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