These olives are terrific. The evening’s guests are seated on sofas in a Jasper Avenue room, happily discarding pits until chef Ben Staley swings by to shatter assumptions. We’re actually eating unripe golden plums, cured in lye, pressure-cooked in tart pickling brine and marinated with garlic, verbena and herbs. “It took me months of failed experiments to figure out that I needed to treat them like Greek olives,” he says, eyeglasses glinting.
The mid-twenties wunderchef, formerly of North 53, co-owns Alder Room and next-door wine bar Alta. Buying tickets online for his exclusive dinner party – there are only 12 seats at the counter – is a culinary trust fall. It’s worth the risk. That delicate black sphere set atop a pile of charcoal, pickled in kombu brine and rolled in black vegetable ash? A quail egg. His 18-course tasting menu has enough little moments of brilliance, like raw spot prawns and coal-roasted beets in a wild-ginger-spiked halibut stock, to convince me he’s some kind of genius.
Somebody braver and deeper-pocketed than myself obviously reached the same conclusion: Staley’s no-holds-barred collection of kitchen toys is housed in stark digs that recall the gallery of some starchitect-designed museum. And there’s art to the warm amaro-duck-egg cannelés we close the meal with, settled back on the sofas.
Skip the wine pairings. Staley’s juices will blow your mind. Effervescent black cherry and Fresno pepper hits sweet-spicy squarely on the nose. And who knew Anjou pear, black trumpet mushroom and horseradish worked so well together? “For every three juices I mess around with, only one’s tasty enough to serve,” Staley admits. I’ll take those odds.