When Bad Things Happen to Good Tomatoes (and the People Who Love Them)

by Mika Chall

On the Friday of Labor Day weekend, the symbolic end to the fastest summer season in recent memory, we queued at the Coffee Bar Pop Up for what we anticipated would be a delicious, five-course dinner celebrating the quintessential taste of summer: heirloom tomatoes.  We opted for the 6:30 dinner and were seated promptly. It was downhill from there.

Heirloom Tomatoes
Courtesy Laurel’s Heirloom Tomato Plants, heirloomtomatoplants.com

At 7:45 we received our amuse, caprese molecular―small spheres of tomato and mozzarella dressed in a balsamic sauce. The molecular gastronomy involved cheese oozing from the center as it was cut. My ooze was sadly lacking.

Looking around the restaurant, it was clear from all the frenetic activity that the room was critically understaffed. The servers were navigating the space like characters from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or at the very least, whirling dervishes. But their energy and sincere desire to be efficient and cheerful couldn’t compensate for the fact that there were just too few of them. Another 15 minutes had passed before we finally surrendered to reality and opted out of ordering the wines that were offered as the dinner pairing. Instead, we walked to the downstairs bar, ordered from the café’s wine list and served ourselves.  Unfortunately, the very appealing rosé we ordered was warm because of a refrigeration problem that had not been dealt with, but that’s another story.

Our appetizer was Dungeness crab salad with ahi carpaccio, tomato gelée and avocado mousse. The dish was quite ordinary; the tomato gelee played a small, supporting role.

The soup that followed, Brandywine tomato gazpacho, with cucumber, roasted chili peppers and shaved almonds, was excellent.  The roasted chili added a potent kick to the sweetness of the Brandywines. Surprisingly, at a celebration of heirlooms, this was the only course in which the type tomato was actually identified.

Our main course, Australian lamb two ways: loin and shoulder, fingerling potato puree, tomato confit and jus, arrived at room temperature.  It took another 10 minutes to request and receive the necessary cutlery and by then, the food had gotten even colder.  The shoulder was tender, but the loin was tough and resisted all efforts to be cut.  The accompaniments were not memorable.

At nine-ish we were served a dessert described as caramel apple, which consisted of a green tomato that served as a receptacle for ice cream and walnut crumble. It was dreadful. The tomato was hard as a stone and the walnut crumble was sticky and cloyingly sweet.

When we left at 9:30, the 9 p.m. reservations were cooling their heels on the first floor.  Most of the 6:30 people were still upstairs dining and schmoozing.

Not much of a celebration.

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