(It’s the hair gel more than anything…)
For this week’s Restaurant Stories column, I visit chef Eli Kirshtein at Eno Restaurant — the Midtown wine-themed spot that was recently bought by Hawks player Zaza Pachulia.
Apologies, Eli! But there is something about your “Top Chef” publicity photo that brings to mind “The Little Mermaid”’s Ursula. For what it’s worth, I get told all the time that I look like Jerry Springer…
“Food First Under Kirshtein”
Eno Restaurant & Wine Bar opened in 1999 as a partnership between wine guy Doug Strickland and chef Jamie Adams.
These two baby boomers complemented each other’s expertise. Strickland knew the ropes from the wine distribution side. He knew about the tastings, the European travel, the festive dinners comprising many paired courses and the happy if blurry place where gaining wine expertise meant getting a good buzz on.
Adams, the skilled Italian chef from Veni Vidi Vici, knew the food side — the sourcing of ingredients, the writing of menus, everything involved in presenting classic European flavors to an American audience paying serious money for the experience.
Eno was a modest success from the get go. The wine list with more than 100 choices available by the glass got more notice than the Mediterranean-style food, which hit the scene in a glut of expensive dining options. But Eno and its attached wine shop, Barrelman, staked out its Midtown corner with aplomb. Eno has always made the point that good wine is the linchpin of gastronomy.
Today, Eno is being run by a new generation — literally. The new owner is Zaza Pachulia, the 25-year-old Atlanta Hawks player from the Republic of Georgia. The chef is Eli Kirshtein, also 25, and an increasingly familiar face to Atlantans, thanks to his turn as a contestant on the current season of “Top Chef.”
A Buckhead native who is the son of an insurance auditor and a homemaker/philanthropist, Kirshtein is one of three Atlantans the show has chosen for this cast.
Short in stature and a little pudgy, with the requisite mousse-disaster hairdo and hipster glasses, Kirshtein has distinguished himself on the show as one of the top cooks (chosen as a finalist for one challenge).
He’s also a humorous commentator who has described his style of cooking as “fat kid food.”
His cooking is certainly more than that. Kirshtein already has pulled out a set of quotation marks to describe one dish (”buttered” Scotch, and an ingredient he called “beer powder.”)
In his conceptual cooking, you can certainly see the imprint of his good friend and former boss (at One Midtown Kitchen), Richard Blais.
The current menu at Eno shows that Kirshtein, like Blais, uses many techniques and ingredients associated with molecular gastronomy to surprise guests and confound their expectations.
For instance, a dish that he calls “boneless lamb rib” consists of meat (and delicious fat) that pulls free from the bone and glues into a striated mass with a product called Activa RM (the natural enzyme transglutiminase). He then cuts this glued-together lamb into a perfect square of meaty business and slow cooks it. The result is something that feels like good pork belly in the mouth but tastes like lamb.
Lobster? Kirshtein first blanches the meat then cooks it in emulsified butter at precisely 59.5 degrees — a low temperature that will assure the crustacean gives up any hope of rubbery chew. The result, served with corn and chanterelle mushrooms, is preternaturally tender and a little tepid. It may not be the best lobster you’ve ever eaten, but it’s not one you’ll forget.
What is most interesting about Kirshtein’s food is the way it has quietly reversed the order of things at Eno. The wine list remains strong and varied if a bit less comprehensive. But the menu, with its stylish tone and unique flavor combinations, takes precedence. The wine is now in service to the food.
Eno seems to be making a play for the up-and-coming generation of gastronomes — people in their 20s and 30s who both take intellectual delight in dining and see a meal out as form of grand entertainment. In other words, “Top Chef” watchers. It will be interesting to see where wine fits in the equation.
Eno Restaurant & Wine Bar. 800 Peachtree St., 404-685-3191.