The shylight—the light sculpture that is the early star at Stephan Pyles’ audacious Flora Street Cafe—flounces up and down, its silk skirt rising and falling above the bar in a swish like a jellyfish. The piece is from a small studio in Amsterdam, and five of its sisters form a permanent display in the Rijksmuseum. Meanwhile, a fabric wall’s shimmering scales glow deeper as the evening progresses, red and green and gold, opulent as the backdrop for an opera. From anywhere in the room, from everywhere in the room, your eye is drawn to objects in contemplation. The rectangle of alabaster over the open kitchen, illuminated from the inside, sends its reflection hovering in the floor-to-ceiling windows as night falls. The orchids in glass bowls are delicately sculptural, their elegance matching stemware and flatware. Squint your eyes: the servers’ movements form a ballet.
Welcome to an evening in which everything at this Arts District restaurant becomes a work of art.
Pyles did not have to reinvent himself, and yet he has here—brazenly, ambitiously, and with humor. Yes, that is a $24 root vegetable salad, their earthy rumps sticking into the air, shaking off pesto as though they’ve rolled in grass, over a landscape of spiced foie gras “snow” and frozen goat cheese dots. Classical music mingles with ’80s flashbacks, a reference to the decade in which Pyles opened Routh Street Cafe, his first restaurant. “When you get to be my age,” he tells a guest, “you get to play what you like.” But there is more to the Routh Street reference than that. “I wanted to go back to that,” he says later over the phone. “I never did anything that small or complex again.”
He’s amassed a roster of young, creative talent: a chef de cuisine with Michelin-star experience; a sommelier with incredible depth and range in pairings; a pastry chef with exquisite mastery of technique and texture. The team thinks in symphonic terms, sweeping movements and meticulous orchestrations that extend to the whole plate, across several courses, over a full meal. By the time I arrived at the final of the tasting menu’s three desserts, a marvel of hazelnut, grapefruit, and candied kumquat perfectly paired with Haak port, I hardly knew how to respond: a hushed silence or a standing ovation?
Dishes ask you to give in to them, to experience them as an experience. The drama of the lobster tamale pie, served in something like a martini glass, insists you break an ancho chile-spiced pane of sugar glass covered in flower petals and dots of caviar to discover, underneath, a rich, luxurious corn flan and butter-poached lobster.
One pitfall is too much of a muchness. After a litany of descriptions and dishes, and an antelope entrée in which apricot tea functioned as the second apricot component in a creation where everything was deconstructed and presented two ways, with no intuitive place to start, I was exhausted before I’d even begun. They’d left me behind and taken Noah’s ark to the amusement park.
Dry ice sends jasmine-scented fog flowing even into your lap in the scallop crudo stunningly served over a bed of kelp. A frozen noodle of sweet coconut sorbet made me quietly take note that I do not prefer my scallops with ice cream. In a place where an amuse-bouche will likely have more than five ingredients, there is sometimes one too many things going on. The flip side of opera is parody—castles in the air, a circus with many tents.
I could lose other dishes’ crackling chicharron, tea cups, or infused sodas, which worked in some cases and not others.
Pyles has amassed a roster of young, creative talent: a chef de cuisine with Michelin-star experience; a sommelier with incredible depth and range in pairings; a pastry chef with exquisite mastery of technique.
But more often, I marveled at how plates pulled together, with daring, into internal coherence, easy entrance points replaced by something more essential and thrilling: flavors whose specific genius you discover as you go along.
I couldn’t have foretold the precise way yellow dots of cured duck yolk emulsion and white slashes of buttermilk lime sauce would intensify the funky flavor of a 45-day dry-aged Wagyu beef tartare bolstered by capers and little snipped chives. The way a bright yellow aji amarillo pepper purée, smoky and exotic with saffron, would marry with favas in a pork loin dish. Or that a dollop of apricot panna cotta would round out the animal flavor of a 45-day dry-aged strip loin that proved how transcendent a small portion of meat can be, a miracle with morels and mole rojo that made everything else on the tasting menu recede for a minute.
There was, too, the way saffron mousse joined pickled green strawberry and green almond to turn strawberry sorbet and rhubarb compote into something extraordinary. (The sorbet had been molded to look like strawberry, down to the tiny seeds that freckle.) And the sheer surprise of the way whipped foie gras spiced with cinnamon and whiskey came together with sea bean pickles and crunchy fiddlehead ferns to create an effect like foie gras candy.
These were moments of culinary genius.
Some of the best dishes were quieter reminders of the depth that comes from Pyles’ skill with Latin American flavors. For example: a white mole, a variation on the mole negro of Oaxaca, with sesame seeds and almonds and cinnamon but also cauliflower, is the tie that unites a whole: grouper with celery root, cauliflower, and a fish chorizo tamale served on a banana leaf with a sweet and dusky smear of onion ash. You have to understand these things from the inside out, to know and feel them deeply to elevate them with such subtlety. Pyles does.
But the team at Flora Street goes beyond anything he’s done before. Its particular art lies in the immersion that forces you to discover.
The poblano infladito, a corn masa puff filled with black bean purée and topped with paddlefish caviar, is part of the 11-course tasting menu ($125; wine pairings extra). When it arrives, the waitstaff that has pulled up mahogany purse stands and wordlessly delivered plates in perfect synchronicity now lifts the lid ceremoniously off a small white dish. Inside is the puff. On the lid, its accompaniment: a tiny daub of guajillo purée spiked with roasted chapulines—grasshoppers. There is no silverware for this course. The intended utensils, you realize, are fingers.
And so, as carefully as they have plated it, you lift the puff and drag it through the sauce, its spicy, nutty flavor wholly necessary.