BY CHRISTINE BARBOUR
Sometimes you can tell just by the salt.
It has become customary for restaurants that pride themselves on their cuisine to leave the salt and pepper off the table on the conceit that the chef has seasoned the food exactly right and the likes of us customers shouldn’t be tampering with the final product. More often than not, that conceit is misguided and one has to go through the lengthy process of acquiring a salt shaker while the food grows cold.
Dean Wirkerman at Cardinal Spirits Distillery is one of the few who really nails the salt. It’s not surprising. He learned from masters—the late, great Charlie Trotter in Chicago; the Thomas Keller team at Per Se in New York; and a Japanese chef who taught him to prepare a 40-course tasting menu made just from a single chicken and salt. When salt is half of what you have to work with, you get it right.
Wirkerman’s food is terrific; as seasonal and locally sourced as possible, it is the product of a thoughtful and almost soulful appreciation of the ingredients he chooses. He uses the language of deep affection to talk about food—he repeats the word “tender” often, from describing the texture of perfectly risen bread dough to the delicacy of spring vegetables. When you are working with things you love and respect, you are going to treat them right. He does.
Lots of influences come together on the plate at Cardinal Spirits besides Wirkerman’s intense appreciation for pure ingredients. His stint as a baker in the Per Se kitchen shows in the fantastic house-made sourdough bread, and his time as a pastry chef is reflected in the desserts and the brunch pastries. The haunting, fragrant spices he uses reflect his association with spice guru Lior Lev Sercarz at La Boîte.
Late winter plates included small, savory bites—new potatoes smothered in melted Morbier cheese with curls of prosciutto; an amazingly fresh mozzarella salad with honey and beets; and fat, cumin-scented arancini sitting in a pool of marinara sauce (which must be sopped up with the crusty house bread). There were bigger plates, such as a comforting bowl of perfectly seasoned beef stew and an umami-laden wild mushroom risotto. Brunch highlights were a spicy poblano hash brightened with unexpected mint, monster pork chops topped with fried eggs, and really exquisite pastries.
Spring will see the advent of those “tender” young vegetables: Cheese and Peas (fresh ricotta in a pea puree with fresh new peas and a drizzle of honey), Karat (carrots coated with exotic Ararat— fenugreek and urfa pepper—with pickled raisins and fresh cilantro), and Saigon cinnamon ice cream with brûléed strawberries and a puff pastry crisp.
The chef calls himself a stickler on seasonality, though, so don’t look for those dishes a minute before they can be perfectly sourced. At Cardinal Spirits, it’s worth the wait.
Take a look at some of the dishes served at Cardinal Spirits in the gallery below. Photos by Christine Barbour (Click on the photo below to start the slideshow. Use the on-screen arrows or the arrows on your keyboard to navigate forward and backward.)