It takes a little effort to dine at Claudia, which has been entertaining diners, a scant handful at a time, for close to two years. Chef/owner Trevor Teich hosts fixed-price, multi-course dinners just two Sundays each month (in the early days, it was fewer than that); each Sunday features two seatings, each serving no more than 16 guests.
Sixty-four covers a month spells doom for most restaurants; at Claudia, that's a sellout.
Teich may be a name with which you're unfamiliar, but his papers are very much in order, after lengthy stints at L2O (under Laurent Gras), Acadia, Sixteen (all four-star restaurants) and NoMI (three).
After you've scored a prepaid online reservation (expect to pay about $185, plus tax) and circled the date in red (Claudia offers neither refunds nor exchanges), it will be time to shop for wine. Claudia is BYO, which can be daunting at the haute-cuisine level, but Teich does post the menu on the Claudia website in the days leading up to the dinner. (Take a printout to a trusted wine seller if you're in doubt.)
On the big day, you'll travel to the western edge of West Town, ending up on a weed-choked, industrial cul-de-sac that will have you triple-checking your GPS. (The plus side: No lack of street parking.)
You'll be greeted at the door and escorted to an elevator, eventually ending up in a charmingly rustic dining room with polished-oak floors and exactly two distressed-wood communal tables, each holding up to eight guests. Seating is along wood benches, which can be hard on the keister after a couple of hours.
Communal seating can be a mixed bag anywhere; sometimes you're trading quips and observations with total strangers; other times you eye-lock with your partner and hope for the best. On my visit (I could have waited for a second visit before reporting, but then you'd be reading this in 2017), my wife and I chatted with another couple for a few early minutes, but once their friends arrived, the woman seated next to my wife smiled, said, "Have a great dinner," and didn't speak to us for the next two hours.
Then again, service is friendly enough for everybody. There are two front-of-house professionals, Eden Kaminski and Stephanie Fuller, who take care of your wine and dispense glassware and explain Teich's complex dishes, and you couldn't ask for better tour guides. In back, Matthew Munaretto works with Teich, and now you've met the entire staff.
Considering that his food is purchased in advance based on the number of tickets sold, Teich does a remarkable job accommodating dietary restrictions. (Customers are urged to make these known in advance, but that doesn't always happen.) At my table, there were two people who didn't eat meat, four who wouldn't touch pork and one with a snail allergy. Among six guests.
"I can't just grab something else from the walk-in (refrigerator), because I don't have anything else," says Teich. And yet he manages.
The current menu, which made its debut on the night I visited, consists of eight to nine courses, a mix that includes a few dishes that have become favorites over the last year or so, and a majority of new creations.
Things get off to a rousing start with the course titled Snacks, a bento box of well-loved Claudia treats. Chief among these is the foie-gras torchon wrapped in sushi-grade tuna, topped with dots of ponzu gel, resembling a rice-free nigiri roll. This is such a pitch-perfect combination of flavors and textures, such a wonderful bite (or two), that I suspect Teich will be serving it until the day he dies.
Also in the bento box: a fluted carrot marshmallow, bearing an umami undercurrent of green-tea powder; "cucumber tonic," a cocoa-butter globe filled with liquid cucumber and a bit of gin, topped with lime zest; and a cured-salmon macaron (tiny salmon disks form the cookie; trout roe and wasabi cream make up the center) with wisps of lemon grass and anise.
Next comes a shallow pool of white-chocolate panna cotta, supporting a beautiful arrangement of crabmeat, lemon, pickled seaweed, caviar and gold leaf. The crab and the acidic/salty accompaniments played joyfully together; the white-chocolate component was a bit too much, skewing the dish too far to the sweet side.
Things pick up with a forest-inspired dish of tempura snails, set on a "soil" of dehydrated portobellos and truffle, tumbleweeds of fried reindeer moss and dots of vivid-green gel of concentrated fine herbs. The texture of the snails, always a tricky proposition, is perfect, and the coarse soil and herbaceous gel bring home the woodsy theme. The tree-bark-like service piece is an undulating, crevice-filled plate; it's beautiful, but I wished for a pair of tweezers, so as to extricate those last mushroom-truffle bits.
A solitary but jumbo-size scallop is the centerpiece of a following dish; chocolate makes an appearance yet again, but this time as a near-liquid lump of bitter chocolate, an intense flavor meant to highlight the scallop's innate sweetness. The contrast is a little too extreme, frankly, but foamed almond milk and a smidgen of yuzu gel help bridge the gap.
After a pleasant composition of lobster, mushrooms and sea beans (nice textures there), Teich goes deep into the woods for two consecutive venison courses: A beautiful tartare, coarsely chopped and topped with Pommery-mustard ice cream; and perfectly cooked medium-rare loin slices, flanked by butter-poached heirloom carrots, caraway crumble and tart red-cabbage puree.
Dinner concludes with a layered rectangle of mango and rum-chocolate ganache, with broken pieces of beet marshmallow and a smear of avocado puree, but the previous course — blue-cheese panna cotta topped with a thin layer of apple gelee and draped with poached apple slices, a virtual two-bite cheese course — is so good that it really should be the finale.
It's worth noting that I experienced Claudia's fall menu on its inaugural weekend, so I expect some of my quibbles will be smoothed over rather quickly.
There's a bit of awkwardness at meal's end, when there's an opportunity to pay a gratuity (which of course everybody does). Credit cards are accepted, but the smart phone swipe-and-click is a bit clumsy. Next time, I think I'll take cash.