Virgin Flavors

Written by Mary Ann Fitzmorris March 01, 2024 12:02 in Dining Diary

One of the most oft-asked questions on the Food Show is this: “Would you rather eat challenging food or comforting food?”

It's a favorite question of mine, and the answer is always the same for me: the latter. I also say I am an unapologetic traditionalist, and frankly, not terribly adventuresome when it comes to food.

So it surprised me the most that I couldn’t wait to try the food offered by the new Commons Club chef Chris Borges, a native New Orleanian with a wild streak. A wild streak is required to work for anything in the Virgin brand, but I was intrigued to see how this guy from here would pay homage to his roots and still offer the Virgin experience.

On this menu there are some classics, some familiar things, and a few ingredients most people would have to look up. I didn’t need to do that, but I also didn’t need to eat these things. The strange thing about this is that I wanted to. Chris was such fun on the radio I wanted to see how his creativity manifested itself.

None of it was ridiculous food, as is so often the case now. But this was no ordinary menu.  Nettles, bottarga, fennel pollen, Farro Verde, and Vignole were scattered about as accessories to common proteins like steak and fish.

We started with some French fries for snacking since our waiter replied affirmatively when we asked if they were housecut. What arrived at the table did not look like they were cutting potatoes fresh in-house. I have now concluded waiters do not understand the question.

We also had some divine grilled ciabatta, toasted perfectly and dripping with melted butter. This bread was unfortunately gone in minutes. 

There was nothing to use with the BBQ shrimp that soon arrived with two other apps. We got a cold green garlic and artichoke soup with raw oysters in it, and a spring pea salad. The BBQ shrimp was added because I was curious to see his interpretation of a classic New Orleans dish.

There was a puddle of clarified butter clouded with the rich melted shrimp fat from the heads. The shrimp were cut in a way to make eating them trouble-free. There was a tail intact and a head mostly detached. All six were lined up, middle meat exposed, and topped with breadcrumbs and bottarga. It was hard to tell where the bottarga left off and the breadcrumbs began, but you could taste the bottarga. These dried mullet roe cake shavings blended in nicely with the bread crumbs, making it hard to tell where the odd flavor originated. It was not so pronounced, but it was definitely there. This earthy sea taste replaced the familiar garlic one. I scraped off the bottarga/breadcrumbs medley. The shrimp were not too large and were cooked exactly “ to my taste.” I ran each through the shrimp fat butter before eating them. Comfort over challenging, any day. Would anyone rather eat fish roe shavings over garlic? C’mon!

Tom’s cold soup was beautiful to see, creamy and thick with oyster crackers, raw oysters, and little flower buds sitting on the surface. Tom loved this and it was gone in no time, crackers and all.

My pea salad was the most interesting salad that has ever been placed before me. It resembled a wild garden. Here were peas, chopped pea pods, pea shoots, chopped endive, cucumbers, and radishes. The most familiar thing about it was the buttermilk dressing, but that was studded with dukkah.

This was not easy to consume, with long pea tendrils getting caught in the teeth. Under this was an eclectic mix of these unusual vegetables dotted with regular peas. I loved this salad, thrilled to have such an unusually healthy vitamin addition. There was nothing left in the bowl but an occasional seed. I did initially feel like a grazing cow, pulling long pea tendrils from my teeth, but this was good. And fun.

Chris brought out some nettles, just because we had so enjoyed chatting about them. He described this wild spinach with spines as “mildly toxic “ until it is properly cooked. A little unsettling, but I’m game.

Tall piles of burrata topped with fennel pollen dotted the top of this rare dish. All of this sat on toasted ciabatta. There were porcini mushrooms here too, as well as pinion nuts. The burrata dwarfed all other tastes. The toast was nicely toasted with a bit of crunch, and properly chewy. The nettles didn’t make much of a statement.

For entrees, Tom had lamb chops and I ordered the pork osso buco, which I had thought about after the interview. It came with Vignole, mint chimichurri and Farro Verde.

Chris explained how farro differed from Farro Verde when we chatted on the Food Show. Farro is an ancient grain that I love, but Chris explained that the ancient Romans used to burn the fields before it ripened to open up the grain. This imparted a smoky flavor to the farro. This was another wild-looking dish and I can’t say it was pretty, but I did love it. All of these intense flavors and an overall green look combined into a hearty meal and delicious taste. I thought this was different and delicious. Also memorable.

Tom’s lamb chops were meaty and marbled. They were centered over a mound of rice grits, a carb I am seeing around town a lot, and loving. This was encircled by a bright orange moat of cauliflower bits in a sauce that included masala. The Indian spice put this in a whole different realm, and it was good.

We were having such fun with all this we kept going to see Chris’s interpretation of the last course. There was bread pudding on the dessert menu and a Valrhona chocolate tart, but we knew that wasn’t the end of the story.

The bread pudding was apricot bread pudding, with a Hibiscus syrup base. Ginger, saffron, and cardamom were part of this mix of flavors. So yes it was stale bread softened and baked in custard, but that’s where the similarities ended. No matter. It was sweet and different and Tom loved it. Everything doesn't have to be the same.

My chocolate tart was dense and dark and great. But the odd flavors deterred from my pleasure. There was salt coming from somewhere, and a strain of cinnamon. A dollop of Chantilly cream contrasted the chocolate and I tried to ignore the fortunately very subtle odd tastes.

I love this place. I would go back again to bask in the beautiful hipness. It was all exciting. The staff was wonderfully welcoming, acting as pleasant guides through the culinary adventure. Not classic, but fun.