Eat Intuition might be dubbed Women’s Intuition, and I’d like to think it’s a small dose of the latter that propelled me toward this culinary darling of two clearly instinctive women. Meet Isa (Isabella Losada De Armas), the chef, a former journalist and keen photographer from Venezuela whose world travels involved an eclectic culinary training and led her here two years ago, via a chef’s position at Le Pure Café; and Flo (Florence Hertgen), partner and manager, who also works as a teacher and otherwise devotes her time to writing and reading. Whichever devotion was responsible for Flo’s absence that Friday evening is anyone’s guess.
When my partner and I arrived, at 8.15, the dining room was empty, but Isa was already all-ablaze in the open-air kitchen, sporting a red bandana, funky neon-orange glasses and hoop earrings. I liked her immediately. Before the place filled up (and it did, eventually, with what seemed to be comfortable regulars, round 9 o’clock), we took in the surroundings. Hmm, at first blush it resembled a 1950s American diner repro’d by Terence Conran. We were rather put off by halogen spotlight overkill, the fey photo exhibition of smiley thumbs aligning one long wall, and an atmosphere that in general seemed to be part of a Pantone competition for pastel color of the year. On second glance, there was some charming, fashionably retro flair: 1960s-style dinette chairs in alternating chestnut and taupe, a large red Art Deco wall clock, a varicolored gumball coat rack, salmon-pinkish tiles behind the bar, and cylindrical ceramic water jugs in different colors (ours was bright orange).
Everything was impeccably orderly – the steam-cleaned stack of white plates on the bar; the pristine, shiny dark parquet; the wooden racks holding strictly labeled wine bottles; raffia table mats; and a glistening mirrored steel bar that made the narrow room seem larger. Sans music and banter, we felt awkward, but the silence was soon broken by a cacophonous but comforting sharpening of knives, as Isabelle and her two assistants set to work with pure Samurai focus behind the bar.
While munching on an appetizer of curried kettle popcorn, we perused the daily menu (two to four options per course, all made with fresh, seasonal, local ingredients). The skinny, almost frail, waitress brought us a wooden bowl of airy, crusty, fresh-baked bread (maize meets sourdough) and a vibrant-red amuse bouche that woke all the senses. Tuna carpaccio? No, it was Scottish salmon marinated in raspberry red wine vinegar served atop slivers of yellow and red beets, Chioggia beets to be exact, whose stripey pattern made me wistful for peppermint candy canes.
On the upside of the wine list, all are made by female viticulturists; on the downside, our server wasn’t keen on – or possibly capable of – offering suggestions, so we winged it with a zingy, refreshing, red-fruity Clos Rouca from Languedoc.
And then the meal began, a repertoire of successful dishes. My ceviche of mackerel infused in lime, cilantro and yuzu (an aromatic East-Asian citrus fruit) lifted the accompanying components – okra, avocado, red radish and onion – not to mention those tiny, glistening pearls of… Japanese flying fish roe, duh. My partner’s entrée was an equal stroke of gentle genius: hardboiled egg with mussels in a coco-milk yellow curry singing with ginger and turmeric and complemented by a micro-mash of shimeji mushrooms whose nutty flavor came through on the finish.
This was a chef who obviously knew her ingredients and, with an aesthetic eye, sweated the details – sexy details – with great confidence. Up to this point, my partner and I had agreed, but we then began to disagree and still do, about whose main course knocked it out of the park. Obviously, mine. To corroborate my argument, his sautéed foie gras with kumquats, butternut squash and pak choi arrived rather cold, so we sent it back – though it returned successfully reheated, and re-finessed with Banyuls vinegar (sweet wine, licorice, vanilla notes).
Forgeddaboutit: what could be better than a light fillet of whiting with tender cockles and smoky chorizo? And I’d never had black purée before. Smoky and silk-smooth, it turned out to be a blend of black beans, squid ink and Taggiasche olives from Liguria. Yes, certainly, mine was the dish of the eve.
The last course, for me, was a creamy Chartreux de Savoie dotted with pistachios and almonds, dashed with maple syrup. My partner had the chocolate candied with Buddha’s hand (a fragrant citron fruit), conference pears and tonka beans. Another dispute. How could cheese be a dessert? For me it was, or at least my palate was telling me it was. Talk about splitting hairs! Oh well, chalk it up to Male Logic vs. Female Intuition.