Jack and Grace Lamb are the acknowledged king and queen of micro-dining. While other restaurateurs dream of birthing behemoth restaurants of two or three hundred seats apiece, the Lambs continue to churn out 16-seat spaces in an empire centered on East 5th Street. They’ve tackled Japanese and French, but their latest effort is light-years different. Early reports made Degustation out to be a Spanish tapas bar, but that’s like calling the French Laundry a rural roadhouse.
Chef Wesley Genovart strides in the footsteps of Ferran Adria, the influential Catalan “science” chef who invented culinary foam and catapulted Spanish cuisine into the gastronomic future. More sushi bar than tapas bar, Degustation is the city’s third science restaurant (after Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50 and Paul Liebrandt’s Gilt), where newfangled culinary ideas owe as much to freshman chemistry as to traditional French or Spanish cuisine. In some ways, Degustation is truer to Adria’s culinary vision, though foam appears in only one recipe, which finds a fried artichoke and a Kumamoto oyster deposited in a mussel broth and topped with celery foam. Hey, it’s good!
Degustation thrives on culinary mayhem. A mackerel fillet is flame grilled on one side until the skin is crisp and blackened, then positioned next to a puree of chorizo and fennel—two ingredients that have probably never seen the inside of a blender together before. In another mini-masterpiece, a seared plank of foie gras disintegrates as you touch it with your spoon into a caramel broth, maybe made by soaking dessert caramels in a warm water bath. Also contrary to kitchen logic, a squid carapace serves as a sausage skin, spilling a savory mixture of short ribs and lentils out its open end.
Meanwhile, a roast beef sandwich is “deconstructed” into a tower of toasted bread, raw roast beef sliced thin, and fresh herb salad, and sided with foie gras allioli—as if simple mayo weren’t rich enough. In addition to a killer cheese plate, only two desserts are offered. One of them is a deconstruction too: a tart tatin transformed into a perfumey dice of apples, a crunchy plank of dark pastry propped at an uncomfortable angle, and thick Greek yogurt squirted like a lost cloud in a Dalí landscape.
Degustation is dark and narrow, clad in rough-hewn stone in copper and midnight black. Three cooks gyrate behind a counter shaped like an office staple, presiding over a grill, a griddle, and a deep fryer. The counter also provides all the seating in the tiny restaurant. The menu consists of three sections of five or six dishes each, roughly arranged according to size. Given the quality of ingredients and care in preparation, the menu seems reasonably priced, with most dishes in the $6 to $10 range. Indeed, you can dine well—though not voluminously—for around $50 per person, including a glass of wine.
Among many brilliant dishes, a few flag. Slow-poaching an egg in a controlled bath at 147 degrees Fahrenheit—the point at which albumen coagulates—is a science restaurant standard. The yolk remains fluid while the white attains a texture like melting plastic. Genovart deposits his egg in a chicken stock flavored with Serrano ham. Getting the white into your mouth is the problem. It’s like trying to catch moonlight in your fingers.