At Degustation, Food with a Flourish

Degustation 2Kathryn Kattalia Degustation, 239 East Fifth Street.

At Degustation, a tapas restaurant at 239 East Fifth Street, the indispensable article in the chef’s toolkit is the tweezers. The dishes are of micro dimensions, and are arranged from their constituent elements with minute delicacy. Once my wife and I had settled ourselves at one of the short ends of Degustation’s 16-seat U-shaped counter, we watched Oscar Islas, a burly chef, remove from a small plastic tub a tiny, soft pumpkin-colored object and delicately place it inside a ceramic egg cup. Oscar then put down his tweezers, and with a small spoon scooped a flimsy white blob of something unrecognizable into the cup — a panna cotta which had just enough gelatin content to prevent it from deliquescing altogether.

“What’s that?” my wife, Buffy, asked in horror. “That is way too wiggly for me to eat.” Yara Oren, who works next to Oscar and does more of the talking, explained that it was the sea urchin we had just ordered. “I promise you,” Yara said, “you will love it.” The tiny white-orange mass in our cup lay in a mild broth. I devoured most of the sea urchin and passed it to my wife, thus slightly reducing the ick factor. “Whoa!” Buffy said. “This is fantastic.”

Pretty much everything produced under the supervision of Degustation’s head chef, Wesley Genovart, is fantastic, both in the sense of wonderful and of pressing against the borders of conventional reality. It is the East Village’s window into avant-garde Spanish cuisine. The act of assemblage is as essential to such cuisine as the chemical transformation involved in cooking. An actual cook’s station runs along the length of Degustation’s counter, with a gas grill and burners, and Oscar and Yana performed their magic on the plates of grilled fish and meat being prepared behind their backs. The cooking seemed almost banal by comparison. If you’re seated at either end, you can witness the delicate compositional flourishes from two feet away. If you’re seated along the length of the counter you’ll have to make do with the gross business of applying heat to raw flesh.

Oscar and Yana had a row of little plastic squeeze bottles in front of them. These bottles contained the emulsions and purees with which Oscar, who did the actual work of composition, would begin each dish. At one point, Oscar jammed the squeeze bottle right on to a plate, and then lifting it slowly, produced a perfect green fan. Then, fishing with his tweezers in a small pot, plucked out chunks of rabbit, braised and grilled, which he arrayed on top.

We didn’t order that, alas. But we did have a wonderfully odd combination of pork belly and grilled octopus. I once read about a chef complaining that cooking was just, “Tender on the inside, crunchy on the outside.” That was the pork belly—sharply seared, and almost creamy inside. The octopus was resilient and chewy. The one dark, the other pale. Oh, and what else? Sea bass which sat on a tiny cushion of lobster in a light broth. Croquetas of jamón and potato, which seemed almost normal by comparison. Buffy said “No mas.” But then the ribeye came, and it was meltingly tender. And then squab, served in a tiny casserole. The waitress recommended that we order five or six dishes, which, for all the micro dimensions, is quite a lot.

There are any number of things about Degustation which people would have found vexing in the era before food became a species of exalted theatre. All those modestly-priced little dishes add up to a rather expensive dinner, especially if your waitress persuades you that you need six of them. Owing to the seating format, you can not go in a party of more than two, at least if you want to talk to one another. And since you can’t stipulate where you’d like to sit with any strong likelihood of success, you probably won’t get seated in front of Oscar and Yara. There is no place to wait. But that’s the price you pay for fantastic, at least in our fair town.

Degustation, 239 East Fifth Street,