It's a rare sight to see a professional chef who doubles as a professor of mathematics, but at DeLand's Cress Restaurant, that relative improbability is an absolute certainty courtesy of arithmetic and culinary whiz Hari Pulapaka. What's more, diners can expect an improbability of another sort, that being the pleasant sight of chef Hari paying not one, but multiple tableside visits to check on your meal and shoot the breeze. Of course, such visits are contingent on how busy the restaurant happens to be ' mathematically speaking, the frequency of visits (V) is inversely proportional to the number of patrons (P) in the dining room, or V = 1/P. Gastronomically speaking, it all adds up to a special dining experience, and one that area foodies will eat up.
The prime reason, undoubtedly, is the Mumbai-born and bred chef. He apprenticed at Canoe, one of Toronto's finest restaurants, before honing and diversifying his skills at local eateries Machon, Kohinoor and Cress predecessor Le Jardin. Another is Cress' organic garden, which supplies a good portion of the menu's fruits and vegetables. The Cress signature salad ($8), with its mix of large-leafed greens, heirloom tomatoes and roasted grapes slicked in grapeseed oil, offers a representative sampling from the garden; the walnuts and Humboldt Fog cheese, a little Cali character. Delicately crisp basil-brie wontons ($7) wreathed with pea tendrils glazed in a vanilla-passionfruit emulsion were beautifully executed and segued nicely from the evening's amuse-bouche ' a tickling tapenade of chickpeas and olives blended with sesame-chili oil, flax and a balsamic reduction. Each dish, suffice it to say, was plated with a precision befitting a mathematician.
The pacing embraces the same exactitude ' not surprising, given how polished and professional the waiters are. No sooner had I finished admiring the restaurant's cultured, casual décor than a plate of ancho-rubbed ostrich tenderloin ($28), seared medium-rare, was laid before me. Granted, the edges were cooked through, but the redemptive qualities of the blackberry-habañero sauce made it a main worthy of ordering again. Remarkable shiitake-thyme grits suppressed any yearning for potatoes ' fried, mashed or otherwise. (Enjoy it with a glass of Côtes du Rhone Châteauneuf, $9, a nice pairing with the entree.) A marinara of pureed poma rosa tomatoes rendered pappardelle ($16) crowned with two lumps of buffalo mozzarella anything but pedestrian. If you like tomatoes and happen to be craving pasta, you'll lick the plate clean.
More thought and consideration could be given to the dessert offerings. A trio of Belgian truffles ($12), while satisfying, was hardly inspired, and the chocolate croissant bread pudding ($7) was scalding hot and required a significant amount of waiting time before it cooled. Accompanying dessert ladles of crème anglaise and Godiva chocolate appeared more out of affectation than confection.
But desserts alone shouldn't prevent the foodie trail from passing through the historically quaint streets of DeLand, even during these down economic times. A prix-fixe, three-course menu is available for $40; a five-course menu for $55 – reasonable costs, considering the quality of the fare. And if you're one to question these figures, just know that being a mathematician, Pulapaka will, in all probability, have an answer.