Without question, this has been the most difficult review that I’ve ever written. It is the single biggest reason why I have not posted anything in 2 weeks.
It is no coincidence that almost 90% of my reviews are overwhelmingly positive, and it isn’t because I love everything I eat. I don’t. In fact, I have many meals that are just “ok”. I just don’t make you read about them.
I only feel compelled to write about the experiences that excite me, one way or the other. Usually, a meal will only wind up here if it was a story worth telling.
Were I a true critic, as opposed to whatever it is I’m currently playing at, I would simply write about every meal that I possibly could. Not all of those meals are going to be great and hopefully very few of them will be horrible. So, logic suggests that I would spend my fair share of time writing about the mediocre.
Except, I don’t really give a damn about the mediocre. And when you don’t care about something, it makes it a little tougher to write about, and procrastination becomes a much more viable option.
So, why write about this one? Because it was supposed to be amazing, and it wasn’t.
Chef Linton Hopkins is a certified badass. He is a 3-time James Beard award nominee. Not a semi-finalist, mind you, but a nominee…for those that aren’t familiar with how the James Beard nominations work, that means he made it to the finals. On top of that, he has been named a “Best New Chef of 2009” by Food & Wine magazine, and is part owner of one of my favorite restaurants in town, H&F. And Restaurant Eugene is his flagship. It is the food he cooks at Eugene that made him famous.
So, yeah, you could say I’d been looking forward to it.
This is where the whole “amateur food writer” thing actually becomes a problem. Maybe I’m just too damn nice. Maybe I’m letting my appreciation of Hopkins as a chef, and the high expectations that I carried into this meal, hold me back from being totally objective. Maybe I should just rip into Eugene and disregard the caliber of chef that was preparing my food. But I find that difficult to do.
Eugene is SUPER swanky…it is truly fine dining. The service was exceptional and attentive. But the only reason I wanted to eat there was the food.
The first thing that I immediately identified as destined for my table was the foie gras tasting. That consists of foie gras three ways, seared, terrine, and powdered. This was served with hibiscious syrup, whipped honey, and grilled brioche.
I assure you…the reason that you can’t find the seared foie gras in that picture isn’t because the lighting and my photography skills suck, though that isn’t helping. Just before my plate was due to the table, I received the soul-crushing news that they were out of the seared foie gras. Instead, I received a double portion of the terrine at half of the original price (down to $14 from $28), which I must say was damned decent of them. But it still didn’t put any seared foie gras in my mouth.
The terrine was excellent. I had no complaints about it, but the dish definitely didn’t feel complete without the seared foie gras. The powdered foie gras, however, was pretty damn cool. My date, who doesn’t usually mess with foie because of the texture, loved the powdered version. This had all of the flavor of foie with none of the texture.
Next up was the Soft Poached Bantam Egg. This was cooked sous vide and served over a bed of farro, crisped vidialia, and tasso, all in a pool of nettle-black tea.
It is not often that I find myself trying to figure out how to steal a saltshaker from the server station at a restaurant of this caliber, but that is exactly what I was doing. If you manage to get a piece or two of tasso onto every forkful that you eat, the blandness problem is drastically reduced. But there just wasn’t enough tasso to go around. I cursed myself under my breath for passing up on the Pork Belly or Lamb Rillette to order this.
Listen to this: Niman Ranch Rib eye, served with duck fat toast, onion marmalade, escarole, and brown butter emulsion. Made by Linton Hopkins. HOW GOOD DOES THAT SOUND?!?
I was so f’ing excited about this steak, I could barely contain myself. This was going to be incredible. And for $42, it had better be.
When you were a kid, was there ever a time when you finally got a toy that you had been DYING to get your snotty little hands on, only to find out it was broken? Do you remember how disappointed you were?
That is how I felt when I ate this steak. The flavors were good, but the execution was nothing short of horrible. I don’t know how they managed to do it. It LOOKED medium rare. But it was one of the toughest pieces of steak I remember ordering in a restaurant. And it sure as shit didn’t taste like a medium rare rib eye. Chewing it was a chore.
The duck fat toast, which definitely tasted like duck fat, was actually too greasy. They had soaked the bread all the way through with duck fat, which sounded great in theory. But the greasy bread, though tasty, was difficult to finish. However, I must say, the onion marmalade and brown butter emulsion were fabulous. Very rich in flavor…those two accompaniments were the only thing that saved this dish from total ruin.
This night was a single experience. So, I cannot (and will not) make a sweeping statement about if you should or shouldn’t go here, or if you will or won’t have a great meal. Reason suggests that this is a bit of a fluke. It is widely accepted that Linton Hopkins knows what he is doing. I don’t think anyone would argue that.
It could have easily been someone other than Hopkins working the kitchen that night. Given the quality of food that I received, I’d say it is extremely likely that this was the case. But Hopkins needs to get his house in order. Whoever he left at the helm steered that ship straight into an iceberg.
As I left Eugene that night, and saw Holeman and Finch right across the driveway, I felt a sting of regret. I could have spent half the money and probably had a much better experience there. For $140 for a meal for two, NOT including alcohol, this isn’t a restaurant that I’ll revisit before reviewing. I just don’t have that kind of scratch.
There are far too many other options that are much more consistent that are worth my hard-earned dollars.
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