Me? I’m a champion of the adorable. I believe culture that’s kind of cute can also be meaningful, even deep. Eat Me Speak Me proves that theory handily.
There’s a whole lot of cuteness in this weekends-only, BYOB pop-up that fills the empty evening hours at Gato, the teensy Candler Park breakfast diner with exactly four booths and a collection of cat figurines behind the counter.
Chef Jarrett Stieber, meanwhile, is wiry, bearded and 26 years old. He’s featured in a Farmer Fund charity calendar wearing nothing but his apron and standing with a baby goat.
And then there’s the Eat Me Speak Me menu. Filled with funky fonts, puns and Guy Fieri jokes, it’s so cute, it can make even sammie-shunning adults coo. The cold Friday night I went, the menu promised “pretentious flowers” in a sunchoke dish and a shitake-laced salad dotted with “adorable croutons” tinier than Tic Tacs. Supple little veggies were dubbed “infant fennel” and “juvenile carrot.” The house-made cheese was served with a “frivolous garnish” and “not house made crackers.”
The cuteness de resistance — crushed “’nilla wafers” and pastel-colored sugar stars — came scattered on a lime custard dessert.
But is this twee? No, it’s self-deprecating. Stieber, who’s cooked at Abattoir, Pura Vida, Holeman & Finch and Empire State South, is poking fun at foodie gravitas even as he’s presenting food that’s seriously stunning and as witty on the plate as those descriptions on the menu.
Stieber’s dishes — all of them hitting the sweet spot between appetizer and entrée portion and most of them less than $10 — have a loose-limbed elegance. He splashes bright oils here, strews vivid veggies there. The final products are gorgeous and have almost too many elements to track.
But, that’s the point. When eating a sumptuous rutabaga soup, for instance, one could isolate the mild bite of the chile-dusted pecans from the fruitiness of the pink prickly pear oil. You also could contrast the velvety texture of the broth with the springy little cubes of rutabaga. But the better way to consume this bowl is without dissection, enjoying the beautiful melding of silkiness and bite; sweetness and heat.
My dining companions and I ordered the entire menu of 10 smallish dishes; fully eight of them were groaningly good. Only the super-mild house-made cheese and the moist blondie with a salty-boozy side of whiskey milk clocked in at “pretty nice” instead of “freaking delicious.”
But the dishes we ate — like the beautifully crisped chicken thigh tossed with beets, green onion ribbons and spicy peanuts, all of it nested in an earthy sunchoke broth — may never exactly repeat themselves. Stieber’s menu morphs each weekend, and sometimes each day, depending on local farmers’ bounty and his own culinary impulses.
The throughlines, though, are a reverence for vegetables and proteins from a lengthy list of local farms — a complicated layering of ingredients that results in flavors that are clean, simple and warm, rather than muddied or overwrought.
And, on every one of Stieber’s plates, there’s such exuberant color you’ll want to gaze at the prettiness for a moment before you dig in. You’ll want to, but you won’t, because someone else at your table will inevitably cave in to the aroma and take a stab at the still-life.
And, then, they’ll order seconds.
We went back for more fluffy fried tofu in coconut milk banked by bittersweet crunch (bok choi and radicchio) and chewy luxury (sweet potato wedges and flavorful pearls of Israeli couscous).
We couldn’t get enough of the salty-sweet salad of little gem lettuce, meaty shitakes and buttermilk poppy seed dressing.
And we seriously toyed with ordering a second lime custard, the one with the stars, because underneath that kitschy, crunchy garnish, the pudding was incredibly light and silky, with just the right amount of tartness.
An apple sunchoke dish, one of the few with a nicely burning jolt of heat thanks to a dash of Korean red chile pepper flakes known as gochugaru, was the only area where execution faltered. Just a bit. While some chokes were nicely caramelized, others were knobby and undercooked.
It’s a small quibble, and considering Stieber’s bare-bones operation and wild creativity, I’d expect — and forgive — much more.
Or maybe that’s the pre-nostalgia talking.
Because, the thing about being in pop-up mode, even though Stieber’s been a stalwart at Gato for almost two years, is it’s bound to end. Even Stieber agrees it seems inevitable that he’ll someday move on to his own investor-backed, permanent spot with a liquor license and a passel of business obligations.
That probably will mean saying goodbye to whimsical EMSM events like the sporadic Speakeasy Sundays, in which diners are given a slip of paper printed with a walkable address where cocktails and an impromptu party await.
I do hope Stieber can hold on to his culinary wit, his spectacular sources, his easy elegance and his ironic tweeness.
But, for now, I’ll go back to this iteration of Eat Me Speak Me as often as I can, knowing its particular magic is ephemeral.