And amid the overblown opulence of Devon's new La Jonquille, talented chef Michael Kanter rarely lost his way, turning-out inventive luxe-cuisine that flashed with delight - oysters topped with uni flan, venison carpaccio graced with truffled vinaigrette, and rosettes of lobster-stuffed sole.
But for the best new chef of 2000, I doff the lid of my tagine to Chris Painter, whose neo-Moroccan and pan-Med flavors turned Tangerine into so much more than a spoof on the Arabian Nights. The Pottsville native, 34, a veteran of Napa Valley's French Laundry and Washington's L'Espinasse, took the trendiest of themes and rendered it sublime through thoughtful good cooking and an inventive touch.
The key to Painter's success was first to steep in the tradition of his subject for inspiration. He preserved his own lemons; he roasted and ground the spices for his own ras al hanout, an intriguing pixie dust of cinnamon, clove, ginger and smoked paprika. And his menu is anchored with touchstones of classic Moroccan cooking. Succulent tagine stews of honeyed lamb or lemony chicken with green olives. Flakey bisteeya pie filled with exotically sweet and spicy chicken, cinnamon and candied almonds.
Add on stylized layers of modern sensibility, a broader reach into other Mediterranean flavors, and the menu rises creatively into its own repertoire. Harissa-spiked gnocchi in truffled celery-root cream. Calamari dusted with ras al hanout. Elegant fillets of rouget, tingling with Mombasa pepper and stacked like cards over a creamy puree of cod brandade. A tower of filet mignon crowned with clove-scented sour cherries, ringed with foie gras sauce.
I returned recently to Tangerine and can report that, even in Painter's absence that night, the kitchen didn't let up, with a phyllo-wrapped bisteeya of pheasant that I'm still dreaming of.
The front-of-the-house, on the other hand, has become ruefully greedy from its success, shoving tables behind columns where there should be none at all. I made a reservation for two several weeks in advance, but still managed to be seated next to a post, smack in the roaring center of a raucous 60-person private party. Apologies were issued on the way out, but too late for my taste. No one should ever have been seated there to begin with.
That I managed to retain fond feelings for the restaurant at all is an even greater testament to the accomplishment of Painter's kitchen.