Little Things Mean a Lot

Celebrating the spring Harvest

Apr 26, 2000 at 4:00 am
With the emergence of the spring menu at Harvest, we first thought a brief update would be in order, but it quickly became apparent that there was no way to reduce the consistent brilliance of chef Steve Gontram and his staff to the few tablespoons that would fit into two or three paragraphs. No, nothing less than a lusty celebration was in order, so we supplemented our initial drop-in with a second visit and came away, in short, astounded.

We'll get to the near-rapturous drooling about the food in just a minute. First, however, some praise for many of the little things that went right, such as our being shifted over a couple of tables because the hostess knew that one table tended to get a draft when adjoining tables weren't occupied. Or the meticulous attention to visuals, both environmentally and on the plate: a striking dried-flower arrangement on the mantel in the center of the dining room; modern tapestries hanging alongside eclectic mobiles that blur the line between two and three dimensions in the rafters of the front seating area; a multilayered sculpture of three-sided figures -- plate, fruit, pastry -- in one of the desserts. The food alone at Harvest puts the restaurant on a fairly rarefied level, but these little extras elevate it to an entirely different plane.

It's been a little more than three years since Harvest first charmed local reviewers and everyday diners alike and subsequently grabbed top honors in the 1997 "Best New Restaurant" category of the RFT readers' poll. Almost since day one, Harvest has been -- and continues to be -- the kind of restaurant that deserves and has received national renown. If you have foodie guests in from Chicago or New York or San Fran or D.C., take them here and ask them how it stacks up against the stuff they get back home. I'd wager that the quality and innovation are every bit the equal of the food capitals', and the prices are tangibly lower.

As with the overall experience, it's the little things that make the food at Harvest so special. Gontram seems to have a fundamental intuition about flavor combinations that takes the basic enjoyment of a dish -- for example, two double chops and one triple in a rack-of-lamb presentation, ultimately succulent and juicy, a quintessential carnivore's dish -- and turns it into an epic romance. In this case, he grafts the gentle fire and fruitiness of poblano chile onto the expected classic pairing of mint with the lamb, producing additional little tingles in odd corners of the mouth. But he doesn't stop there -- as background support for the forward flavors of the lamb and sauce, he sides with the relatively neutral garden taste of wilted spinach, then wraps the whole thing together with common grits made much less common by the addition of a smooth, ever-so-slightly tangy goat cheese.

Then there's the appetizer of mussels steamed in a coconut-lemongrass broth. One of the recurring dishes on Harvest's rotating menu is mussels roasted in an iron skillet, and with the selection of unusual fresh oysters, shellfish can probably be considered a specialty of the house. This seasonal treatment again highlights Gontram's affinity for subtleties of flavor combination -- the lemoned-scallion flavor and crunch (not to mention the five-steps-before-it-got-to-the-table aroma) of the lemongrass, gently sweetening the coconut flavoring, with the soapy bite of cilantro, a mild fire of chile and additional island sweetness of pineapple pitching in from an accompanying salsa.

Are you worried that this might be too weird for your palate? The interesting thing is that none of the more exotic-sounding combinations was overwhelmed by any one individual flavor. But if the involved descriptions scare you off, there are, in fact, several almost-straight items, such as a hanger steak with grilled fresh asparagus and Yukon Gold potato fries. This cut, which we relearned a few months ago during an encounter at Eddie's Steak and Chop, is called onglet in France and features a full-bodied texture something like a cross between a London broil and a flank steak. At Harvest, it once again reminded me most of flank steak in terms of the texture at first bite, but it also was much more tender than a flank steak. The grilling (as opposed to steaming) made the asparagus crisp and concentrated the flavor; with the fries, even the ketchup (actually three different housemade styles) was something special -- one with the fire of chipotle; a less tangy yellow-tomato-based version with mango fruitiness; and a third with a barbecue-sauce taste.

Or does your culinary spirit of adventure have relatively limitless boundaries? Then perhaps you'd enjoy the veal-sweetbread terrine. There's an occasional misperception that sweetbreads are a calf's nasty bits, but it's not nearly that bad -- they're actually the thymus, an obscure gland between the throat and the heart. Even so, organ meats aren't everyone's cup of tea, but if you swing that way, sweetbreads are much less intrusive than liver, kidney and the like. Rather, they tend to form a textural foundation for other flavors -- in this case, the earthy concentration of truffle oil, the sweet-tart of pomegranate syrup and the mellow tang of aged balsamic vinegar, all served along with a garden base of spring greens and chestnuts.

In keeping with the same general theme, the Harvest spring menu sports a fabulous, slightly surreal interpretation of foie gras, featuring a sizable fowl's liver from the Hudson Valley, pan-seared and served on a flaky brioche colored an unnatural blue with Curaçao, an orange liqueur, and then islandized even a little further with matchsticks of mango and a "gastrique" (a name that sent me to my food dictionaries, which revealed that it's a vinegar-and-sugar-based reduction) of passionfruit. Though it was served on a field of vaguely bitter, jagged greens, the enduring visual impression was, as my wife described it, one of dozens of "googly eyes," created by the passionfruit's seeds.

In case you haven't guessed yet, I was having an ecstatic amount of fun grazing through the various choices, with subsequent selections resulting in a few more taste symphonies of Mahleresque depth and complexity. A fine fillet of pure white halibut was coated with a powdery mixture of wasabi (Japanese horseradish) and cilantro, with a Lincoln Log cabin of sweet-potato steak fries as a foundation; crisp texture and a different layer of sweetness from a slaw of pineapple and cabbage; and a "mojo" that a midget version of Gontram (he shall call him "mini-Steve") had kidnapped from a red pepper. And in another instance of Dolly Levi-quality culinary matchmaking, the final entree in our two-evening sampler was an unusual coupling of braised oxtail and grilled scallops: four jumbo scallops over a stewy mixture of slow-cooked oxtail meat mixed with barley and flavored and decorated with slivers of green onion, with more earth flavors from a roasted-carrot emulsion and a final flash of inspiration, a pinot noir reduction (visually, a lava lamp under the whole mixture), with the subtle berry flavors of the wine complementing both the land and sea components of the dish.

Harvest not only makes its own desserts but employs its own pastry chef, Miriam Aquino, who obviously has standards equal to Gontram's own. The artistic implementation of three-sided figures mentioned earlier was a strawberry-rhubarb empanada, a playful creation employing two of the treasures of the early spring crop. The sweet-crisp combination was something like a hot fruit compote, although very intense, with a iced-cream-cheese feel and taste to the sour-cream poppyseed ice cream and further concentrated flavoring from three dried strawberries arranged at each corner of the triangular serving plate.

Aquino also makes a not-over-sweet chocolate delight using semisweet ganache cocoa as the foundation for delicate crepes; in another dessert, a takeoff on crème brûlée, she adds Madeira-roasted bananas and serves the concoction in an oversized soupbowl rather than the traditional ramekin, which results in more of a skin than a crust from the broiling process.

And as a final nice detail, Harvest is one of the few restaurants in town to offer a cheese course, populating it with such boutique American cheeses as Maytag blue from Iowa and dry-aged jack from California, accompanied by a generous portion of dried and fresh fruits.

Like the cheese selection, the wine list is meticulously drawn from primarily smaller producers, all American, with individual varieties and wineries spotlighted (this time, zinfandel for a variety, individual red and white meritages both by the bottle and by the glass, and Babcock in Santa Barbara for a producer). Although a momentary slip seems to have caused them to include a white zinfandel on the eclectic list of 16 wines by the glass, the rest of this list is a great way to wander through multiple wines (and white-zin advocates should take the next step and try the Sinskey Pinot Noir Rose). Or, if you're nervous around wine lists, you can sample three staff-picked glasses for 8 bucks, and I can virtually guarantee you won't be disappointed.

Even the multiple varieties of fresh, warm bread were special, served with choices of various unusual spreads, including garlicked, puréed white beans, honey sage and strawberry.

A handful of restaurants in any given city readily deserve unqualified superlatives, and Harvest is one of ours.

HARVEST, 1059 S. Big Bend (Richmond Heights), 645-3522. Hours: 5:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 5:30-10 p.m. Fri. & Sat., 5-9 p.m. Sun. Entrees: $16.95-$23.95.