Tuesday, March 11, 2014
I’m late in the game to share in the infinite pleasures of Chef Cara Stadler’s Brunswick restaurant, Tao-Yuan.
If my only excuse has been the distractions of Portland’s restaurant scene, then I readily chide myself for the omission. After a recent Sunday brunch, which is held on the last weekend day of the month, I now admit to being thoroughly awestruck by the experience. The confluence of flavor, texture and brilliant roster of ingredients in every dish was the stuff of revelation. It was like experiencing the first foray to nouvelle cuisine in a Paris restaurant in the late 1970s with all of those wondrous emulsions and painstakingly simplified techniques that were the canons of French cuisine of the day.
The charmingly simple dining rooms are divided by a wall between the front bar room and the sunny back room
Stadler does, I think, bring a lot of that French sensibility into her pan-Asian kitchen. Yet she coerces flavors in a fusion of Oriental influence that splice modern taste with old-world largesse.
From all the praise that this 25-year old chef has received in her young career I expected the meal to be good. But it went way beyond that.
The brunch is an $18 prix fixe for which the diner gets to choose three dishes from a fairly long list of dim-sum preparations. As I looked around at the neighboring tables most of the patrons that Sunday went beyond the three prescribed dishes. One table of four, in fact, ordered dish after dish of exquisite looking food, which kept coming even after we finished our meal..
With our order placed, we learned soon enough that it’s better to go overboard than to hold back because everything is so wonderfully made.
My brunch companion wanted Pemaquids to start--an ordinary choice, I thought, until I sampled one dotted with the incredibly divine yuzu dipping sauce and made the dish very worthwhile..
I found, however, great comfort in the kimchi pancakes. The fermented cabbage with a host of sweet and more aggressive spices was delicious within its crusty exterior. There were 7 cakes on the platter, and we both could have gone through a second order easily.
The kung pao chicken dumplings that followed were pan fried and seasoned sensitively with Stadler’s commonality of spicing that is elegant and subtle. It exhibited the thrill of first bite that explodes in your mouth and lingers long after.
Kung pao chicken dumplings
Probably my favorite dish was the yang rou bing-- lamb pancakes. These were served with a pungent tomato sauce, which is something not often seen in Asian cooking but comes up in Stadler’s kitchen because of her devise of mixing influences from many regions in China, taking the code and spirit of Asian cuisine to complex uses. When I asked Cara about this she explained that tomatoes were introduced in China a long time ago.
Two of our last dishes were the sunshine squash 10-spice pork dumplings, beautifully flavored and the cha shao bao (roast pork buns), an old recipe from Stadler’s grandmother. They’re different from the sweeter variety that you get in Cantonese cooking. They had tremendous flavor, though I thought the bun wasn’t as feather light as it might have been.
Sunshine squash and pork dumplings
Steamed pork buns
Though we were done with our brunch, an extraordinary dish was served to the table of two next to us. We had to have it and ordered it right away. It was this glorious pyramid of little golden-hued orbs shimmering with sweet shards that looked like needles of sugar cane.
Pears coated in caramel
It was a dessert of pears covered in a luscious caramel, which you must dip into a bowl of ice water before eating otherwise the caramel would adhere like cement in your moth. This was, without question, the final glorious touch.
Cara Stadler has had the most compelling career, a chef’s curriculum vitae that other professionals barely have at twice her age. Together with her mother, Cecile, they have spent years exploring their love of fine food.. From cooking together in a private dining club in Bejing in 2009 to Cara’s independent journey to Shanghai and then to Paris in the kitchens of Guy Savoy and Gordon Ramsey. Eventually she returned to American to team up with her mother in Brunswick where Tao-Yuan was conceived.
I wonder now, after such a remarkable meal, what lies ahead when future visits beyond the divine simplicity of a dim-sum brunch beckon so invitingly?
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.