In art, as in cooking, the avant-garde has conventions that must be followed. Aphasic dialogue and nonnarrative plots have defined experimental fiction since Gertrude Stein's time, and there are still listeners shocked by the dissonance of Schoenberg and Boulez, however logically the music was constructed.
For the past decade, the culinary avant-garde has been defined by chefs like El Bulli's Ferran Adria and WD-50's Wylie Dufresne, who have delighted in morphological trickery: ingredients magicked into foams and powders and gels, hot and cold confounded, sweet and savory interposed. Given the wear these molecular-gastronomy conventions are accruing at restaurants all over the world, they still have the power to alienate and attract. (Yeah, yeah, I know chefs hate the term "molecular gastronomy," but it's useful shorthand.)
At Sons and Daughters, a two-month-old restaurant on the nobbiest end of the Tendernob, Teague Moriarty and Matt McNamara are applying the avant-garde idiom to Bay Area farm-to-table cooking. They are two guys in their 20s with cooking-school hubris and modest résumés — stints as private chefs, European internships, Moriarty's sous-chef position at Grégoire in Berkeley — yet their cooking has a polish many long-timers never achieve. Like most chefs working in this vein, they've taught themselves about techniques like spherification (putting a liquid into round shapes) and sous-vide (cooking at low temperatures in vacuum-sealed bags) by studying cookbooks from restaurants like Alinea and the Fat Duck and by befriending the staff from Le Sanctuaire, the nearby molecular-gastronomy supply store.
Some of Sons and Daughters' food is as exquisite as it is exciting, while a few dishes contain one element that veers comically off course. Nevertheless, there's a ton of talent in evidence, and you can sense that the chefs are building a repertoire of dishes that should carry their names far.
Here, for example, was a herb salad ($11) with curds and whey, all grown in McNamara's mother's garden in Los Gatos: a cloud of curly baby greens and fresh herbs, shavings of raw fennel and purple flower petals interwoven between the leaves. A puff of milky foam clinging to the side turned out to be the whey; tart, fresh curds hid underneath. Fried quinoa seeds that clung to the leaves created a static of tiny crunches, and the eucalyptus oil listed on the menu turned out to be a faint wisp of camphor that brushed the insides of my cheeks as I swallowed.
Even the failures were 75 percent successes. Two rectangles of lamb loin ($22), terribly tender, were accompanied by a salad of faerie-sized chanterelles and pecans. Their mild flavors were counterbalanced by mustard greens, whose dark, vegetal kick substituted for the musk absent in the lamb. There was a gram bag's worth of white "chanterelle powder," but its flavor never amounted to anything, as well as a dark-brown root-beer jus that was so sugary and sassafras-tainted that it threw off everything it touched; I scraped the syrup to one side of the plate, and contemplated building bread levees to keep it off everything else.
There's a gothic tinge to the restaurant, with its black walls and Phantom of the Opera chandeliers; the black-and-white photos; and the studded, leather-backed chairs bought from a garage sale at Bluebeard's castle (quite comfortable, actually). The small space is divided up into smaller rooms, though giant, ornate mirrors on the walls give the illusion of more space. At the center of the restaurant, facing the front door, is the kitchen, nine by nine feet, unabashedly gleaming, staffed with a trio of quiet cooks.
During the day Wednesday through Sunday, Moriarty and McNamara now serve Verve coffee and a few pastries and salads — basically, whatever strikes their fancy. At dinner, they offer a four-course meal for $48 (with wine pairings for an additional $36), all of which can be ordered à la carte.
The menu is small enough for two people to taste most of it, and changed often enough to reward return visits. Go for the full four courses, primarily because each plate is scaled down appropriately; the sight of a three-inch tile of lobster carpaccio ($12) speckled in lobster roe and finely minced jalapeño and cucumber will strike a certain kind of diner as unforgivably precious.
Each dish, however compact, was intricately stitched together. One night's amuse-bouche of compressed melon, avocado purée, and a solitary pink peppercorn was a koan, one spoonful worth pondering over the next few months. A bowl of roasted-cauliflower soup ($10) with truffle-chanterelle cream and a single oregano bud had been blended so long it had acquired the lightness of meringue. A 3-centimeter cube of pork belly ($22), more carnitas than jiggly fat, was paired with two medallions of pork tenderloin cooked sous-vide. The texture of the loin was all satin, not the rubbery blandness the technique sometimes produces. Loosely torn porcini noodles ($18) were used as the bed for a profusion of summer vegetables: pale green strands of cabbage, thimble-sized turnips, yellow basil flowers. A froth of sheep's-milk cheese had settled over its surface, adding just the right salt and tang.
Where the owners' inexperience shows is the service. The waiters are as handsome, and as formal, as they should be. They present each dish by mapping out its topography, identifying every puff of froth and pool of liquid so you have some idea how to navigate. However, there's no coordination in the service, no central intelligence. There were strange lags in attentiveness and stuttered pacing. At one meal, the waiters didn't remove excess silverware and plates, so after four courses I looked like a compulsive hoarder. My wine glass emptied, and no one thought to ask whether I wanted a refill (um, isn't this how you up your tips?). It's still early days, and so it was easy to laugh off the service problems, but Moriarty and McNamara need to fix them before they become part of the restaurant's permanent file.
The weird flaws in the food, too, were easy enough to contain. One dish matched an orange-scented lobster salad with a creamy-centered lobe of sweetbreads resting on a bed of chickpea purée and brushed with a mustard foam ($18). Eaten separately, each component was marvelous; together, the clash of flavors jarred. Seared scallops ($15) took beautifully to the subtle earth of maitake mushrooms and the pepper of nasturtium leaves; I just had to lift each bite away from the bitter, overly floral veal stock in which jasmine tea had been oversteeped.
To me, though, screw-ups like these were worth it for the highs Sons and Daughters produced, such as the mint ice cream accompanying a mousselike chocolate torte ($7), which tasted as if I were chewing on fresh spearmint leaves; or for the squab two ways ($22), served with baby carrots, squab jus, and a celadon purée of fresh peas and tarragon. The squab leg confit came out papery-skinned and succulent — I picked up the spindly, clawed limb and gnawed it when no one seemed to be looking — and the pigeon breast, cooked sous-vide, had the texture of a roasted portobello.
I've been seeing more and more West Coast chefs like Moriarty and McNamara use the avant-garde like a metaphor rather than a manifesto. Their aim doesn't seem to be shock — some high-minded desire to reinvent the way we experience dining — but to avoid clichés, to keep casting about for new ways to present the same local, seasonal ingredients we all hold so dear. There are other ways to celebrate summer than an heirloom tomato salad. Too many chefs don't bother to try.