I was feeling good when I pulled into Acre restaurant the other night. My car was freshly washed, and I was wearing my spring sports jacket for the first time this season. But I missed the drive, hit the curb, and my tire exploded.
After sitting down to dinner, I got another bang (in a good way) -- out of the Tomato Tartar. The appetizer, which looks like six Lincoln Logs surrounding a filling, is incredibly good. I tried it after I heard our server, Marshall Sanchez, say it's his favorite thing on the menu.
Andrew Adams, the restaurant's executive chef, came up with Tomato Tartar after he tried the Ethiopian version of steak tartar, which is made of raw beef, clarified butter and spices. He wanted a vegetarian version of that, so he used tomatoes instead of beef. To butter he added "the Berbere spices" -- ginger, cumin, cardamom, coriander, garlic, paprika and chili powder.
"I needed something to hold the tomatoes, to carry it through," Adams said. "I chose the Mediterranean chickpea panisse -- chickpea flour cooked down with cumin, garlic and vegetable stock. It's cooked down almost like a polenta. We chill that and it congeals. And then we cut that and then fry it." These are the logs.
There's more. "To finish it off, we add two more ingredients: goat cheese to give a creamy center to the plate and preserved lemons. We pack the lemons in salt for about a month and a half, and then we take the skin off and that's all we use, the zest."
Tomato Tartar then is topped with baby arugula.
I'm amazed how chefs come up with something like Tomato Tartar. "The pressure of having a menu ready -- that's what makes us come up with it," Adams said. "When it's time to do a new menu, which is a few times every season, I just sit down and brainstorm."
He starts by asking himself, "What would you eat right now if you had to eat something?"
Since it was spring at the time, Adams thought about tomatoes. "You start going through the ingredients till it just clicks. It's a frustrating first few hours, then suddenly it works."
Tomato Tartar was on the first menu when Acre opened about a year ago, Adams said. "Only a couple of things have made it through. The other is duck pastrami.
"If I get enough feedback -- if it's a continual type of feedback -- I'll leave it on the menu."
Acre is at 690 S. Perkins; (901) 818-2273.
-- Michael Donahue: (901) 529-2797; firstname.lastname@example.org