I was recently interviewed, along with a few other writers, by a veteran radio host of a certain age about the state of the restaurant scene. Among this older gent’s complaints was the prevalence of what he charmingly referred to as “science food.” This subject arose with the inevitable invocation of the groundbreaking work of modernists like Grant Achatz and Homaro Cantu, specifically in the context of the opening of Baume & Brix by two veterans of Cantu’s restaurants.
That would be Thomas Bowman & Ben Roche. When last we heard from the Secret Order of Posturing Publicans, the shadowy fraternal organization that controls the restaurant industry, they’d just awarded the coveted Ampersand to the bearded sausage slingers at Owen & Engine. Times have changed, and if antiquated punctuation is to remain a relevant hammer in the restaurant-branding toolbox, it too must change with the times.
And so the & goes to Bowman, the longtime chef first at Otom, then at Ing, and Roche, the supertalented pastry chef from Moto. They’ve named Baume & Brix not for Dickens characters, or hobbits, but for the scales used to measure the density and sugar content of liquids. Yikes! That sounds sciencey. That radio host surely wouldn’t be happy here. The music is loud, the restaurant is staffed by plaid-clad Portlandia extras and patronized by imbibing youngsters, and the food—while not a full-on expression of the contemporary modernist’s foam-filled, vacuum-sealed bag o’ tricks—is just overmanipulated enough to fall into the generation gap.
Not everybody is going to get on board with a foie gras dish in which the lobe is frozen and grated over a scoop of toasted-brioche ice cream. Usually fatty duck liver is served with some sweet element, but Holy Julia, that sounds like dessert! Then again, the dish is served with four tiny yellow buds from the Brazilian Acmella oleracea plant, referred to by Cantu-ese-speaking servers as “buzz buttons.” These produce a numbing, tingling sensation nearly identical to that produced by the Sichuan peppercorn, and you’re instructed to eat them as a palate cleanser because this, in fact, is an appetizer, not dessert, and you have more work to do.
But in the context of the entire menu, dessert for dinner isn’t so strange. Bowman and Roche, along with chef de cuisine Nate Park, also late of Ing, are attempting to integrate sweet and savory flavors across the menu, which is divided into sections titled “Explore” (shareable appetizers), “Summit” (entrees), and “Divide” (a dozen chocolate-chip cookies)—which is somehow conceptually separate from “Conquer” (dessert). The radio host didn’t like the sound of that conceit. Not. At. All.
This profligacy with sweetness is most evident in dishes such as “Naked lobster,” so named because the bite-size shellfish nuggets are served raw, perched along a ridge of cool, vanilla-flavored potato foam (a lot more substantial than the dreaded word might suggest), and topped with some tumbleweeds of shredded, deep-fried parsnip “hay”—sweet, but more suited to packing lightbulbs for shipment.
You’ll taste sweetness again in the little dishes of coconut powder “fun dip” that come along with Peruvian yellow chile powder and smoked paprika-tomato powder—you’re instructed to dredge olive-oil-slicked lengths of octopus tentacle through them. Not fun. Tedious. And again with the meatless bone thrown to the vegetarians: a colony of maitake mushrooms blanketed in a sheet of melted cheese, surrounded by hibiscus-flavored jelly cubes and cauliflower chimichurri. And yet again with a pork chop garnished with the same dense, boozy Luxardo cherries you want in your manhattan, set atop a corn and Romanesco broccoli succotash. This relatively straightforward entree comes to you with a server who incinerates a few pine needles under your nose in an attempt to resurrect that hazy childhood memory of the time you set the garage on fire with an old can of turpentine.
Less overtly manipulated, dramatized, and sweet is a tough, stringy brick of beef short rib with some squirts of a red-curry-flavored liquid in a pool of viscous coconut congee with a fried lemon disk on the side. A jar containing chicken liver mousse layered over a deposit of zaatar-seasoned egg salad is probably the most straightforward thing on the menu. If the kitchen could replace the stale, torn focaccia the mousse is meant to be smeared on with more of the crispy chicken-skin garnish, this would be a stellar munch.
A mushroom velouté, darkened with fermented black garlic and forbidden rice, drowning a poached egg, is the unloveliest dish I’ve come across in a long time: imagine yourself spooning slush out of a pothole. Similarly distressing: a trench of bony, bland pig tail nuggets topped with Greek yogurt, and a pair of lamb T-bone steaks and a bundle of shredded brussels spouts soaking in a chai-spice slurry.
Conversely, savory elements are incorporated into desserts. For now there are just three dishes on the “Conquer” menu (though on occasion Roche appears in the dining room to bestow a trial dish on guests). Brunkow Brun-uusto cheese (a farmers’-market favorite) is grilled until melty and affixed to a wet rectangle of brown-butter almond cake and topped with slices of quince, alongside a rooibos-tea-flavored ice cream. This could have been a remarkable cheese course, but in my case a runner made it all the way across the dining room before mysteriously returning the dish to the kitchen. By the time he’d come back with it the cheese had congealed to rubber. There’s also a dessert meant to mimic the time-honored practice of dipping french fries in milk shakes—a deposit of potato-flavored ice cream sprinkled with potato stix—but the star element on the plate is a plank of banana shellacked in caramel.
The wine list neatly corresponds to the menu’s divisions, and a cocktail list does something similar, broken into lighter aperitifs, harder power loads (such as a rye, yellow Chartreuse, and Fernet Branca boozer), and a couple after-dinner drinks that could be desserts in themselves. As a separate document it makes far more sense than the complete output of the kitchen.
But Baume & Brix isn’t nearly as zany as Moto, or even Ing—though it’s similar to the latter in the way it’s incorporating highly manipulative techniques less expensively and more casually than the familiar temples of culinary modernism. Even so, it’s still not likely to please curmudgeonly deniers of “science food.” And for some reason it’s not showcasing the skill and technique of its very able chefs to please even those who appreciate being thrown off balance once in a while.