I assume we have an understanding. You all know that I have what could be described as a tomato fetish. I don’t like to go more than a couple of days – and I mean only two – without ingesting something tomato-y. So, Summertime in the South means absolute breathless anticipation of those juicy, sun-warmed ripe, ugly beasts that actually taste like a tomato, instead of those strange, flavorless, uniform globes in the grocery store the other 9 months of the year.
The perfect tomato is lumpy, imperfect, warm, eaten just sliced. Sometimes I will enjoy a purist tomato-sandwich, but I prefer my Summer, vine-ripened homely beauties warm, sliced, and, if not plain on their own, coupled with some basil and aged-balsamic. That is perfection for me. I do not want my tomatoes jazzed up. Keep it simple.
So, imagine my delight and sheer giddiness when I learned of a dinner with tomatoes at every course. What other heaven is there?
I should recuse myself. I do not typically review restaurants. Well, I do not typically review restaurants in writing. I have an opinion of every restaurant I try (Hits: Magnolia Grill; Tru. Disappointments: Watt’s Grocery, Four Square. See why I don’t put this in writing, normally?), but I’m not sure how I feel about putting those opinions in writing.
This tomato dinner I had a few weeks ago was at a new restaurant to me. Zely & Ritz here in Raleigh. I don’t know the full scope of its history, but I will tell you that the ambiance of the restaurant is one that I thoroughly enjoyed. I felt like I was having dinner with a group of friends, people who cared whether I enjoyed myself or not. The chef was personable, willing to accomodate diners’ dietary limitations, and he didn’t seem to mind at all. I like that. It’s what makes me want to come back.
The tomato menu at Z&R included wine pairings (which I always love). The courses were as follows:
First Course: Heirloom Tomato and vegetable gazpacho finished with basil oil.
Well. This was good. Not amazing, not the best gazpacho I’ve had, but it was good. I have no idea if gazpacho is possible to screw up, though. I suppose it could be to spicy or too bland. But, this one was good. I liked very much that it was pureed. It was good, I liked it. It didn’t knock my socks off.
Second Course: Heirloom tomatoes wich local, Chapel Hill creamery fresh mozzarella, EVOO, fresh basil and sweet balsamic glaze.
Well, it was a caprese. Let me say this – I love caprese. Love. I love it in almost any form. Nothing too crazy, caprese should be simple. The best part of this particular caprese was the varietals of heirlooms. (hellooooo Cherokee Purple and Arkansas Traveler! Come to mama…). So, no insult intended, but sliced tomatoes , basil, mozzarella, balsamic – if you read the first couple of paragraphs, you know this is a no-brainer with me, no matter where I am , or the chef’s credentials.
Third Course: Roasted Jaune Flamme tomatoes stuffed with bratwurst, gypsy peppers and onions over sweet corn and tomato risotto.
To be fair, I am not a fan of bratwurst, especially ground. I do love risotto, however, but this risotto tasted more like creamed corn than a risotto with sweet corn and tomato. It was memorable, but because it was unusual, not because I was in rapture over it.
Fourth Course: Harris Robinnette beef brisket slow cooked overnight with onions and Jaune Flamme, Red Roma and Red Zebra tomato guts , served with grilled eggplant, grilled squashed and finished with grilled Red Roma and Orange Banana Roma tomatoes.
I will say this. That brisket was tender. I’d expect no less from beef cooked for fifteen hours. Beyond that though, it wasn’t my favorite. It was no wowing dish. It lacked the tomato-y luster I wanted. It was beef with some cooked-for-fifteen-hours vegetables. It was nice. If I were at dinner at my aunt’s house, I would eat it with no complaint. But, I expected more, and this did not bring to me what I wanted. Moving on.
The dessert course, was, by far, the highlight of this meal.
Tomato Panna Cotta.
Nevermind that the chef clearly had something other than tomatoes on his mind. This tomato panna cotta was the most creative, interesting spin on tomatoes I’ve had. Ever. So yummy. I don’t typically think of tomatoes when I am pondering what to have or make for dessert, but after this subtle, delightful surprise, I wasn’t able to *stop* thinking about tomatoes as dessert.
So, yes, it was my most recent recipe adventure. I simply used a simple recipe for panna cotta and added the juice of a yellow heirloom tomato. Shockingly easy. So yummy.
I wasn’t sure at what point to add the tomato juice, so I just dumped it in the pot with the cream, vanilla and sugar. Voila.
I still can’t believe how easy that was, and so yummy (the recipe is upon my Recipes page). Go on, give it a try – and then, branch out, try flavoring your panna cotta with other unexpected lovelies: anise stars simmered in the cream, lavender, rose water, lemon extract, any sort of flavor . I may try lavender next. I’ll let you know how it turns out.
I also tried a cucumber/avocado soup that I adapted from www.pinchmysalt – it was simple, cool, refreshing, and delish. I recommend making your own variation. This one filled my kitchen with the smell of cilantro, which is a smell that makes me think of vacation, I’m not sure why.
So, look, I’m not knockin’ Zely & Ritz – I’d definitely give them another go, I’d like to try their dinner menu on a non-tomato night. What can I say, I am a hard sell when you mess with tomato-perfection. And the dinner was good, it just wasn’t wow , well, except for the unexpected grace of the tomato panna cotta. See? I’m still thinking about it.
Now, guys, the challenge remains – can you get me as riled up with anticipation over a first date as I get over a good tomato? Come on, try.
Oh, and post script: If you have not had gazpacho with a nicely chilled rosé, go, do it now.