The Food Muse: Clink. And Clink again.
The tall multi-paned windows at Clink. look on to fall colors or the night, the river outside. The style is inviting, informal, and the food is elegant, the taste as good as it gets. Let’s clink to that.
By Sally Steinberg
Where in America is there a Filipino chef using Spanish arrope (candied pumpkin, for the uninitiated), pureeing Russian fingerling potatoes, juxtaposing kingfish sashimi with an emulsion of Marcona almonds, and using local Macoun apples, Maine wild-caught seafood, and ham raised in Iowa?
The answer is at Clink., the new jail-cell-inflected casual eatery in the flashy Liberty Hotel in Boston, the old Charles Street jail made new, where see and be-seen is part of the sine qua non. Clink. shows off iron bars on the windows and jail-cell doors, the stone floor of a whole jail cell, and blond wood with surprisingly ergonomically comfortable seats. There are no ghosts, says the chef, Joseph Margate, pronounced Mar-gah-tay in the Philippines.
On this sunny October afternoon of autumn reds and golds, there are five kinds of apples waiting on the counter for their maker, to become a delicious soup of apple and celeriac that is the feature of today’s chef demo. Macoun, Mac (McIntosh), Cortland, Gala, Honeycrisp. The apples are red and gold too, in case your orientation runs to color. We taste the apples, which Joseph says are available in stores like Whole Foods, not the 20-odd varieties that his suppliers would bring. He wants people to be able to buy them. The apples have sharply different tastes, and everyone likes the same one best, the Gala. Except for the chef—his favorite is Honeycrisp. But Joseph says the Macoun has the best texture for the soup– it doesn’t leach out liquid.
Then there’s the knobby celery root, ugly, hairy, rhino-skinned and redolent, along with various kinds of ham from La Quercia, the ham maker of renown that raises pigs in the Midwest in the European way and produces ham as good as you get in Rome or Seville, some say better. Joseph says, “The ham is really very porky.”
Joseph holds demos, called Margate Mondays, each week. “It’s ingredient-driven, like our philosophy in the restaurant, strictly seasonal, as local as possible. Anyone can come, up to ten people, if you’re nice.” The people at the chef demo—this week apples are the focus, next week clams–are really interested in food and how to get to know it better. “I showed everybody how to make tomato water and made everybody drink it in my heirloom tomato demo, and then a bartender made it in his bar. I think introducing people to ingredients is more important than teaching them how to cook. One time I did rosehip jam.” The demo has an informal feel. The chef talks to the people as if they were his friends, and he regards the social aspect of his job as “like a cocktail party, an organic cocktail party.”
He blends the apples, celeriac, leeks and onions and adds crème fraiche, saying it’s better than plain cream. “It’s cultured and has more taste so you don’t need to use too much and you can taste the vegetables.” Voila—autumnal soup, a Margate favorite, featuring the fruit that spread its seeds across America, led us to perdition in the Garden of Eden, and is a cornerstone of healthy eating.
Joseph has an easygoing, sweet manner, nothing like the famously ferocious enfants terribles chefs. He is genial, friendly, genuinely interested in people, and he’s not pretentious or imposing or temperamental. He originates in the Philippines—not the usual chef provenance in the US. Then via California and Seattle and New York to Boston. He’s a diamond-in-the-rough, or perhaps not that rough, since he was a sous-chef at New York’s elevated temple of gastronomy, Eleven Madison Park, the jewel in the crown of the Danny Meyer empire.
But he’s not yet a “celebrity chef,” although his food attains those lofty heights. Eleven Madison Park boasts the extravagantly creative young Swiss chef Daniel Humm, who flies ingredients in from wherever the best place for them might be, as far as New Zealand, although Joseph says that lately Humm is gaining respect for local products. Joseph does stress local, New England bounty—the apples, Berkshire pork, wild-caught seafood from Port Clyde Fresh Catch in Maine.
His signature dish, veal and ricotta sliders, consists of the best meatballs you’d ever hope to eat. They are more soufflé than burger, light and lighter, and with a hard-to-pin-down, subtle, delicate savor. This fits with the chef’s emphasis on umami, that elusive quality that inheres in some foods and renders them irresistible.
His chef bio says, “Diners can experience his enthusiasm for umami, the fifth taste most commonly described as the sensation of savoriness on the tongue.” Joseph says, “Somebody asked me about umami and I said it was one of my favorite ideas. Umami is what makes everything delicious. I love the idea of umami, it’s in ham and cheese, a touch goes a long way….Did you have my nuts? I put seaweed on them and people who love them don’t stop eating, and others tell me it was the dumbest idea. I add a bit of umami and see how people like it.”
The sliders started with breadcrumbs and a cheese sauce that Joseph wanted to use, the way an artist might start with a found object to create a work of art. “I had never made meatballs before, and it came out of having too much bread and figuring out where to use the breadcrumbs. When I worked for John Sundstrom at Lark in Seattle, he had ravioli with beurre monte, with Parmesan cheese. It’s the best cheese sauce there is, but I didn’t want to make fish or pasta with that, and I didn’t want to serve a burger. In hotels you are expected to have a burger. It eats up the whole menu, that’s all you sell if it’s good. I made the cheese sauce, and I took veal and sage and garlic and onions, and I used sriracha (Asian pepper), and ricotta cheese. You cook the meatball and dip it in the cheese sauce.” The result, served on a melting brioche mini-roll is—well, try it.
Joseph, age 37, has a wonderfully Filipino face, open, tawny, wide-eyed, Asian, but also global. His accent is American–he’s been here since he was 12. Born and raised in the Philippines, in Batangas province, he says, “We make adobo (a Philippine pork and chicken dish) for the cafeteria. My parents came to the US because of the political climate.” He went to high school in California, near aunts and uncles in San Francisco.
He got into culinary matters not because he intended to but because he blew with the wind, into culinary school in San Francisco. “I fell into it, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I visited San Francisco and seeing the culinary academy, it seemed like a dream to go to school there. It was not as wonderful as it seemed, but I did get practical experience.”
Then he went to work at Jardiniere in San Francisco, then to Seattle to work for John Sundstrom, which he did for 6 years. “That turned me into a chef. What struck me was that he used ingredients that were really good. I then took a line cook position at Eleven Madison Park because I wanted to be challenged. I learned to standardize, so when a preparation fell into a different hand, it was consistent.” As a sous-chef there Joseph did not create, but he did see a master at work and he did get to execute the culinary artistry of the chef. He stayed for over a year, and he has been at Clink. since December ‘07. It was not until his plunge into the culinary world that he developed the passion and acuity of vision that led him to create what this food muse, a new arrival on Boston’s food scene, deems one of the best cuisines in Beantown.
Take his discovery of arrope. What’s arrope? You’ve probably never heard of this abstruse ingredient that Joseph found in Barcelona and brought back to adorn foie gras. The taste is fruity, but with spicy notes and depth. It’s candied pumpkin in grape must, and it gets a dice on top of foie gras, a sweet/savory foil for the rich foie.Then there is the burrata that Joseph makes into a salad with frisee, celery and, again, apples. It comes from Caseificio Gioia, in California, no large scale manufacture here. It’s the special form of mozzarella created in Puglia, Italy, with a center of cream and cheese scraps encased in a ball of the cheese and wrapped in a green leaf. This purveyor, Margate tells us, never saw a credit card, gets paid by check, and if you don’t use it in 3 days, it goes into the circular file. It’s fresh and cheesy, perfectly creamy, slippery and smooth and velvety. It fits with Wendy Wasserstein’s adage, How can anyone be depressed when there are so many wonderful cheeses in the world?
In his domain, Joseph oversees the kitchen and also makes himself available to talk about the food and what’s in it. I wanted to know what kind of potatoes he used for the potato puree with the short ribs. Russian fingerlings, cooked in their skins, made into the most sublime puree you’ve tasted, with butter. The butter that Julia Child said “won’t hurt you.”
What was that white splash on the plate next to the kingfish sashimi and harvest grapes? Pureed raw Marcona almonds with breadcrumbs and garlic, with a runnel of his favorite olive oil from Italy, Trampetti. Joseph based the white splash on ajo blanco, the white gazpacho of Andalusia, a palate-transformer for anyone who eats it, and then forever wanders the globe in search of it.
There’s a genie or genius inside this tireless explorer of flavors and savors. People state the obvious, somewhat disparagingly at times, in saying that cuisine is simply a matter of combinations. Could you think to combine almond puree and raw fish? You have to invent those combinations the way a poet thinks up word juxtapositions. It’s the thought that counts, and Joseph thought this one up. Even the green accent on the plate of sliders, fried sage leaves, is an inspired note. I tried to fry sage at home and was rewarded with a bitter leaf. Joseph told me the temperature has to be just so to avoid bitterness. I think I’ll let him do it.
And I don’t think I’ll try what he calls the simple pasta dish—hand-cut flat pasta ribbons with sage butter, pine nuts, lemon and cream, too good. It’s a toss-up for good with the addictive sauce on wild boar with gnocchi and currants, which he says is just a veal reduction, but I know better than to think I can try these at home and get them right.
Dessert? How about butterscotch pots de creme with espresso gelee, or bay leaf panna cotta? Better than you imagine. Ineffable, in fact. Texture just right but different in each, creamy but not too dense, so you want that one more bite. These plates are obsession-inducing.
I ask Joseph if he thinks Boston is a foodie town. He says, “a little.” But it is poised to appreciate this superior food at very reasonable prices. You can make a meal of those sliders for ten dollars.
Tonight the huge Liberty lobby, several stories high, with rotunda and cupola above, is full of conference attendees, and also of chic chicks in skyscraper stilettos. It’s busy with state-of-the-art décor, fabric tapestry panels of spreading trees in silhouette–to bring the outside in, along with the tall windows, exposed brick, wing chairs and couches waiting for your order of drinks or espressos. It has buzz. Joseph says, “Once I went up the escalators into the lobby I knew I wanted to work here. The hotel is like an oasis.” It has the right feng shui.
You are not supposed to gloss over the fact that it is a former jail. You are meant to revel in it and extract all the color and originality served up in the name of historical preservation combined with cutting edge design and sensibility. The jailiness is visible to the eye in wrought iron railings from the prison, and also to the verbally astute.
Alibi is the bar, Scampo (escape) is another restaurant, the name of the hotel itself, Liberty, opposes imprisonment, and Clink. has its own double-entendre. The period after the name, Clink., is a “statement,” and indicates “an interval of time,” according to the hotel. You eat well while you are doing time in (the) Clink., and clinking glasses to celebrate this cuisine.
Sally Levitt Steinberg is a writer, journalist and oral/personal historian. She has written several books, including “The Donut Book”, the world’s definitive book of everything-you-need-to-know about donuts. It was chosen twice as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, it has been featured in all the media, including NPR, the Martha Stewart radio shows, and the film “Donut Crazy” for the Travel Channel, and its materials form The National Donut Collection at the Smithsonian Museum.
She has written a biography, “The Book of Joy,” as well as several personal histories and a book on interior design. Her essay, “Coffin Couture,” was cited as the best piece in the recent anthology of personal history, “My Words Are Gonna Linger.” She has written articles for many publications, including “The New York Times,” “The Boston Globe,” and “The New Yorker.” She lives in Boston.