Chef’s tasting menus have become all the rage at high-end restaurants in the United States. But the “Omakase” has long been a mainstay of Japanese cuisine. Chefs design the meal to delight diners by presenting a series of dishes that convey their culinary vision. When executed properly, these meals glide harmoniously from dish to dish, at times challenging diners with unexpected flavors or textures. At their best, they are a symphony of food.
Tonight’s omakase dinner at the Stockton Inn was a collaboration between a trio of chefs: executive chef Alan Heckman and guest chefs Ian Knauer and Shelley Wiseman of The Farm Cooking School. The theme for their tasting menu was crab.
You may think: “that’s a lot of crab!” Indeed, five courses of crab is a bold choice because many people have a singular vision of crab as something vaguely fish with a stringy consistency. But in this case, the crab was fresh and so well combined with other flavors and textures, that each dish stood on its own, far away from the banal rendition of crab that is so common. The crab was but one ingredient of several, each chosen to complement the subtle sweet meat.
Let’s eat our way through our highlights for the evening…
We started with a wonderfully refreshing Thai spiced watermelon soup. Small chunks of lump crab meat adorned the broth, flavored with lime and cilantro. And, being Thai inspired, the soup had a little ‘kick’ to it, waking the tastebuds and reminding us that this meal would be anything but boring.
From the soup, we moved to the crab and radish roll with carrot-ginger emulsion. This Asian-French dish had an unexpected subtlety and smoothness that acted as an ideal transition between the watermelon soup and the next course. Presentation was beautiful with tiny leaves and the vivid, orange emulsion.
Next we dove into dueling crab cakes prepared by Chefs Heckman and Knauer. Each prepared their rendition of the classic Maryland crab cake. Heckman choosing a light cucumber and jicama slaw while Knauer went with his great-grandmother’s version with classic remoulade. Both were delicious but I believe Knauer truly honored his great-grandmother with his perfectly seasoned and prepared crab cake. This was one of, if not the best crab cake that I’ve ever had. That includes those fresh made in Maryland. That was a crab cake that I would return for again and again if it were an item on the Tavern Menu. In fact, it’s a crab cake that the Inn could become known for. “Hey, where can I get the best crab cakes?” …reply… “Oh, the Stockton Inn, for sure…” (Hint…hint!)
From the crab cakes, the meal crescendoed to “Tagliatelle a la Esca.” This was a truly decadent dish, flavored with crab and uni butter. I know what you’re thinking: “I *do not* like uni!” Well, usually, I don’t either. But when I have a great uni, I love it. Uni are like truffles and anchovies, with deep, earthy flavors that have to be used skillfully or they can overpower a dish.
In this case, the uni delivered an unexpected, bold flavor that cut through the butter sauce and elevated the dish beyond the ordinary. I loved it, though I admit that others may find the earthiness of uni difficult to swallow. It’s one of those flavors that requires an adventurous diner and the chefs took a (worthwhile) risk incorporating it into the dish. My advice – try it, you might just fall in love.
The last savory dish was the sauteed soft-shelled crab. The sweetness of the corn and cherry tomatoes provided a contrast to the previous salty items and gave the diner a transition towards dessert. I’m an easy sell on this dish – I love good soft-shell crab, and good this was.
We finished with the only non-crab item of the night – a lemon chiffon mousse on an olive oil cake. I was quite full by this point but managed to make a little extra space for this tasty treat.
From start to finish, we had a great meal, truly enjoying the chef’s choices in composing this wonderful symphony of food. I should add that the wait staff was very friendly and attentive and while this was a high-end dining experience, it felt relaxed and casual – a far cry from the stuffiness or pretentiousness that often accompanies fine dining. We left feeling happy and satisfied.
If you have a chance, I’d highly recommend trying it out. Check out the details here.
The Stockton Inn
1 Main Street
Stockton, NJ 08559