Hope Springs Eternal

For the last year I have really been trying to embrace this “molecular gastronomy”. It’s not taking.

Its greatest contributor Ferran Adria prefers the moniker “modern cuisine”, and I concur. I was taken aback last spring at the Catersouce Convention in Las Vegas by young European chefs demonstrating a nitrogen-frozen mojito and quick frozen yogurt lollipops. Cool space-aged equipment and a whole array of products that I can buy online rather cheaply…and I have!

I have been seduced by pictures of beautiful food from another planet called “Alinea“, and another called “NOMA“. I’ve studied some of the works of Adria and Andres, and I’m currently making my way through a series of Harvard lectures by a number of today’s cutting edge culinarians. I even did a little demo of this stuff just a couple days ago in Maryland.

Milk skin, spheres, powdered anything–dehydrated, aerated, gelled, noodled, filmed, parceled, and yes…foamed gastronomic delights! And I must tell you that after working with some of this stuff and paying huge amounts of money to try it in restaurants I really don’t get it. It’s just not fucking food!

I’ll tell you how weird it got for me. In designing a menu for a recent benefit dinner I actually almost menued Thai Curry Marshmallows with Chili, Lime, and Crispy Chicken Skin. That’s when I woke up in a sweat, screaming, and said “this must stop”.

I must say that I finally got the blackberry sphere right, and it was pretty frickin’ cool, but I couldn’t help but notice the harsh aftertaste from the calcium chloride. You’ve seen this stuff, it’s the little white balls that you spread on your sidewalk when it snows. I think they’re used in pickling as well.

A couple days ago I put a teaspoon of them in a little plastic cup and added some water to dissolve them. Within moments the plastic cup became too hot for me to hold. And you want me to eat this? Even worse, serve it to others? And this is something that naturally occurs and is not a dangerous “chemical”. I dunno pal!

When the long-distance love of my life and I are able to get together for a quarterly visit we always have at least one extravagant meal together. Last November it was at The Inn at Dos Brisas in The Middle of Nowhere, Texas. They are one of 20 U.S. restaurants that are fortunate to have a Five-Star rating from Forbes (formally Mobil Travel Guide).

Dos Brisas is about 2 hours from Houston on a road that Tom Tom is very confused about. Once through the stately front gate and on the property one winds over hill and dale through several Certified Organic growing fields where most of the Inn’s produce is grown year round. Once at the 28 seat restaurant we were escorted in and seated in front of a huge and picturesque fireplace–the evening’s only diners. We were pampered by the manager/maitre d’/sommelier and cooked for diligently by a team of two (one of whom was supervising for the most part I believe). You can tell a 5-Star place by the little stool they bring the ladies to place their purses on. That may be about it these days as you’ll soon see.

Our first course, a amuse, was a lone tiny radish buried in a bowlful of brown butter powder that needed more brown butter and salt. I actually kind of like this technique where a fat or other non-water item is blended with tapioca maltodextrin into a feather light powder that melts immediately in your mouth.

Maltodextrin is used in several things that we’ve been consuming for ages. The thing that most readily comes to mind is the protein powder that so many body builders stir into a delicious (sometimes) shake after a hard workout.

The radish was good, the combination was good (in theory)…but it was a two component dish where one component was merely plucked from the ground and the other made poorly.

Next we were dazzled with a couple tiny, tiny small little beets, some beet puree, and a baby beet leaf all splayed out on a thin slab of slate. Art imitating life I guess.

It was about this time that the bread basket came ’round including a buttermilk biscuit that was the size of a wagon wheel and as dense as a sea ration from the 1600’s. It was like one of those coloring book pictures where you’re supposed to circle the thing that doesn’t belong.

Additional courses stayed the course of more traditional cooking methods, but with a disappointing trend of harvesting vegetables for looks long before they develop flavor and texture. We also found it alarming how undercooked some of the items were. Why does fine-dining have to equal “undercooked” these days? Is that what they’re teaching? Where is the skill and craftsmanship in that?

Clams were unpurged and sandy. In a 5-Star place one would expect that someone has taken the time to ram pipe cleaners or something into each clam’s intestinal tract and extracted each grain of sand individually. It is normally customary to cut bivalves loose from their shells in even the diviest of oyster bars. These were firmly fastened, a severe faux-pas.

Lobster had no flavor. Dishes were missing components that the menu described. Our captain described Loupe de Mer (the king of European sea bass) as a bottom-dwelling flounder-like fish. Vegetables were undercooked. And vegetables were almost raw…repetitively.

Dessert was a lemon ricotta tart–cheesecake. Just cheesecake.

Mignardises were fresh-from-the-oven full-sized chocolate chip cookies that had nothing on the Toll House back-of-the-bag recipe. Not 5-Stars!

It seems that Forbes has apparently made a mockery of Mobil’s Star system if Dos Brisas is any indication of the mettle of things.

Our next venture takes us to Maryland and Virginia just last week during Spring Break.

The Ashby Inn is a delightful bed and breakfast in the tiny town of Paris, VA. Paris is quaint and beautiful with a population of 51. The only two buildings in the town are the Ashby Inn and the church next door which is now closed.

From our first course we felt that the chef was torn between contemporary American and modern cuisines. There was the cleanness and innovation that one expects from today’s trendier restaurants, but with a distinct clumsiness and portion sizes that would founder the heartiest of eaters. Too much of a good thing IS too much. Too much of a dish that hasn’t quite reached its evolutionary peak is just not good at all. We had several of these.

Poached Egg Salad

I had a spectacular bacon and egg salad, though it could have been half its size. Following was an enormous portion of tough, gamey beef that was billed as “smoked” but I couldn’t be convinced. The plate was splattered by farro salad that consisted of the now-popular ancient grain swimming in a warm sauce based on the most indistinguishable flavor I’ve ever experienced. It was brown and it tasted like a combination of stale refrigerator melange and wine vomit.

Joan had a pork shoulder dish that was presented in a not-elegant manner. Really an over-sized clod of uninteresting well-done pork piled onto…something. I can’t remember, but it did have a couple of sorrel leaves thrown on for garnish and delicious puree of garbanzo beans that tasted more like Jerusalem artichokes.

Tapioca and Cinnamon Custard

She had an amazing dessert of warm tapioca pearls swimming in a light cinnamon custard, pistachios and some olive oil, and crowned with a quenelle of dried fig gelato. Very delicious actually. My dessert was a chocolate semifreddo with candied barley and vincotto ice cream.

Semifreddo is turning up on a lot of menus this year. Last year it was chiboust and speculaas, this year semifreddo. This is sort of new to me, or at least it’s been a long time. Semifreddo means “half frozen” and in my opinion amounts to lightly aerated frozen mousse that is not nearly as pleasurable to eat as ice cream. Vincotto is a condiment made from non-fermented grape must leftover from the wine making process. Good I suppose. Anti-climatic at best.

Semi-Freddo

Candied barley nearly destroyed my teeth and was entirely inedible. Raw, whole barley was tossed with a little hot caramel. That’s it. No cooking, no puffing. Just hard, hard little pellets of grain. If this entire meal was the product of a creative chef being inspired on the way to work, tossing together initial ideas and throwing them on a plate thinking “this could be better, but I’m not sure how”, then candied barley was its pinnacle!

The Alinea influence is felt here mainly in dessert, although Achatz/Adria’s “air bread” turned up on our favorite course which was a delightful sharp cheese from Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, Virgina. Toasted almonds ground together with maltodextrin and a little sugar made an awesome addition to the semifreddo. Saved it in fact. The presentation very Alinea-ish. Altogether though we gave the place a 5 out of 10.

Cheese with Pita Bread

Keep practicing. Stop reading and become your own chef!

A couple of days later we ventured out to Fredrick, MD to the kind-of-famous-in-some-circles Volt. Right away we were treated to a trio of amuse’; mock oyster, potato soup with lobster, and crisp apple foam with foie gras.

Mock oyster was the most perfect and beautiful sphere of salsify (oyster root) topped with a hand-torn piece of oyster leaf (never heard of it). Terrible.

Potato soup was sublime, but Joan’s son and I both got the tiniest fragment of lobster shell that nearly took out a couple teeth. Disappointing in the end.

Foam and foie gras thing was right out of the Alinea play book. Just saw it online that afternoon. What it amounts to is a meringue made with water and methyl cellulose (whatever that is), dried in a dehydrator, and filled with the tiniest little squirt of foie gras. Anti-climatic at best.

Kampachi

Thin sliced kampachi was about 1/2 inch thick, and there was about 4 ounces of it on the plate. Way too much for the first of 7 courses. Blood orange sauce was juice over-thickened with UltraTex. We used a similar product in the hospital to thicken liquids and pureed foods so that patients who were unable to chew could enjoy some type of texture to their food and beverages. Comes out kind of like piping gel. Not very classy.

I must say that the next course was a divine combination of noodles arranged in a bonito flavored broth with radish kimchi, microgreens, perfectly cooked chicken, and a poached quail egg. This was our favorite, and I’d put it against nearly anything I’ve ever eaten for flavor and finesse.

A couple courses later we had turbot (another one of the great fishes of Europe) that was bland, flat, colorless, boring, and covered with what appeared to be a substantial mouthful of spit except it had no flavor. Here we go with that foam crap.

Right away we got three black ravioli haphazardly thrown on the plate and artfully topped with more spit, except this spit looked more like bubble bath suds. Still no flavor in the foam. Is this stuff supposed to be for looks or what?

Next came sweetbreads that were properly cleaned and stuck back together with “meat glue” or transglutaminase. Now I actually really like this stuff. It’s the secret behind chunked and formed ham, turkey, and roast beef; the star behind Chicken McNuggets, and the controversial element that binds little scallop scraps into something that looks like a real scallop. You’ll see these heavily coated with breadcrumbs and fried on Chinese buffets.

Sweetbreads

Transglutaminase was at one time illegal in Australia and parts of Europe because clever butchers can take meat scraps, glue them together, form them into a nice uniform logs, and slice them into what appears to be top quality filet mignon, and no one can tell. I’ve been using it to bind roulades, especially this boned and rolled whole chicken that I do. Before I discovered meat glue I was tying and I lost at least 25% of each chicken because it was just ugly. This stuff really is handy in my opinion, but one must wear gloves and a face mask when working with it or it can cause pretty severe problems.

Some chefs are mixing it with pureed seafood and chicken and then it can actually be rolled or extruded into “noodles” and poached. Kind of cool but then there is a great deal to be said about actually just eating a noodle.

Beef

Probably the best course was a couple of slices of beef (not sure what cut) that was served with a tiny little potato and perfect thin rectangle of potato puree on the plate underneath. So I’m guessing that this is what this guy does really well. Ok, just do that! It was decadent, delicious, and appropriately portioned!

Now we start down the slippery slope of modern dessert.

I think what they tried to do was recreate carrot cake but with parsnips. Parsnips look like white carrots, but it is there with physical resemblance that all similarities cease in my opinion. While quite closely related botanically (which may be an error that no one has had the stones to challenge) parsnips to me have a flavor and texture closer to a sweet potato. Nonetheless they do not make good cake.

Also on the plate however was a homemade version of Dippin’ Dots, which I adore. Basically you take ice cream base and drip it into liquid nitrogen. Frickin’ cool, don’t care what you say!

Then we have another idea stolen from Grant Achatz (which by the way rhymes with “jackets”). Nitrogen frozen chocolate mousse. Much better that the Ashby semifreddo from earlier in the week. A paper thin shard of burnt sugar made it all worthwhile, but otherwise the dish was sloppy and not terribly exciting.

Even Joan’s teenage son agreed on a score of 5 out of 10, even though he got a free special occasion dessert out of the deal. You guessed it…semifreddo.

So pending a trip to Chicago this summer to try “modern cuisine” at the last existing mecca of its creation, and to say goodbye to Charlie Trotter’s which closes its doors in August, I am all but giving up and going back to the classics. I intend to give it one more shot in my own kitchen and I’ve fashioned a shopping list of among other things iota carrageenan, calcium lactate, gellan, methyl cellulose, glycerin flakes, a dehydrator, and a caviar spherification kit. Perhaps…just maybe there’s something to this stuff and these other guys are just doing it wrong.

So I said all of that to say this…

The original title of this article was “Foam Is For Pussies, Revisited”. It was inspired by my chagrin with modern cuisine–a plug for the classics and the simplicity of “a lot of little things done well”.

I was called to St. Louis, MO for a seminar about sustainability (I feel another article coming on). While trying desperately to stay awake during a lecture on building “green” parks and buildings I entertained myself by Googling “best St. Louis restaurants”, in the hopes of finding a reasonably decent dinner in a town that I am sure is void of genuine cuisine. Although there is this indigenous thing called Gooey Butter Cake that must be experienced!

At the same time my mind wandered back to the last 2 or 3 upscale dining experiences I’ve had and I thought “Jesus, another 3 hours in a restaurant wishing I’d gone somewhere else”. Keep in mind that I know nothing about this city, and even forgot that they make beer here.

My eyes found “Niche” on the little 2 inch wide screen of my Blackberry, and as best I could tell with just the right squint it was by far the most interesting option that I could conjure. I made reservations. Nestled in an unassuming neighborhood next door to a church and across the street from what appears from the huge flashing neon Budweiser sign (there’s a lot of those in this town) to be somewhere between a biker bar and a liquor house.

I went in and was shown to a table for one directly across from the kitchen…and then it began.

I gave the menu a quick glance and decided upon my entire meal in mere moments. I don’t remember ever being so decisive!

“BBQ” Trotter; foie gras, calvados, tobacco, grapefruit, and mint

Pork Duo; smoked shoulder, pulled belly, popcorn polenta, dill, hickory broth

Vacherin; lemon meringue, thyme, hickory, lavender

I had passed on the Chef’s 5-course sampler, but was disappointed that I was going to miss a couple things that weren’t on the menu–and then they came.

They sent out an amuse which was an egg shell filled with warm maple custard, roasted shiitake mushrooms and I believe grapefruit (but I could be mistaken), and then topped with bonito caviar. I wasn’t in the mood for caviar, but then it occurred to me that this wasn’t true caviar. Oh no–much, much better. It was Adria-style hand-made caviar-like “spheres” made from an umami filled bonito broth.

I dug down into the egg with the little spoon and combined silky smooth custard, bacon-like roasted shiitake nuggets, a hint of sweet/sour fruit, and a little mass of “caviar”, and suddenly I was transported back to Joel Robuchon’s amazing lemon/anise gelee. I think that I can honestly say that the two afore described dishes were the two most genius dishes that have ever graced my palate, and I have discovered an amazingly valid use for spherification! I’ll be investing in the study of this craft immediately. Like a child watching fur-lined red velvet clothed legs dropping from the chimney on Christmas morning–I BELIEVE! I’m giddy! I furiously texted Joan elation-laden expletives describing the rebirth of cuisine as I know it.

Carrots Three Ways

Next I was brought a delightfully playful arrangement of carrots on a large white plate entitled “Carrots Three Ways”. On this night two baby carrots beat the fuck out of beets on a rock!

Next came another dish that incorporated some of the stuff I see in the fancy books of late. A space-age arrangement of boneless pig’s feet molded into disks and fried layered with Keller’s foie gras torchon and shards of fleur de sel “glass”. A sauce made from apple brandy and infused with tobacco (Cohiba or Marlboro…I can’t be sure) adorned the plate underneath. Grapefruit and mint finished the presentation. The textures, flavors, and originality were flawless!

This is how I cook…take a perfect component from one chef, another from a favorite book, one more from a cool picture, and some of my own creativity and intuition to make it mine. When it doesn’t work is when you don’t really know what you’re doing, but that’s not the case with Chef/Owner Gerard Craft (who I didn’t actually meet). This guy really knows what he’s doing. He’s the real deal. After a little accidental research it turns out that in addition to ten years worth of accolades he’s nominated for a James Beard award this year. Hope he wins! He certainly has my vote after just two amuse’ and a first course.

BBQ Trotter and Foie Gras

My delightful server Sarah (who also deserves a James Beard award) brought me a single slice of focaccia that was flavored with something, something, and chili flakes. It was the softest, most moist, chewy, airy, and delicious bread I’ve ever had. I had bread this memorable one other time, and that was at Charlie Trotter’s in 1997. Sarah didn’t offer butter, she didn’t offer more focaccia. When I was done she took the plate away.

This was a course–a bread course. Probably not intentional but how fricking perfect is that? At this point I’m asking myself where did this guy learn how to cook?

Then a scoop of sorbet as a palate cleanser–grapefruit and basil.

Now at first I’m thinking this is the 3rd course I’ve had that had grapefruit (though I’m still not sure about the first alleged grapefruit addition). But then I tasted. Sweet…salty…bitter…sour…basil, basil, basil! Then I went back to the demo I did for Joan’s class last week on the physiology of taste when I explained the benefit of filling the palate with flavor by touching all of the components of taste.

So it’s not actually just grapefruit again…but perfect!

We move on to a spectacular table-finished presentation of pork shoulder, pork belly, apples, parsnips, a really cool polenta cake that tastes a bit like popcorn, some crunchy pork cracklings, and an ethereally light hickory broth. I thought about the slight version of this dish that Joan had in Virgina last week and I wanted to go back there and punch the guy that made it right in the mouth. THIS was the way it was SUPPOSED to be!

Here I shall make a comment about where dessert has been heading for the last few years in the fine-dining sector. Why does dessert have to be made from vegetables and herbs and chilies and such. What’s wrong with fruit and sugar and chocolate and a limited number of spices. Why does black pepper and vinegar and olive oil and basil have to keep showing up? Are we really that bored with dessert that we have to reinvent it? I wasn’t!

Ok, thanks.

Lemon Vacherin

When I ordered the Vacherin I ordered it like a lot of people are going to vote this November–not FOR anyone but AGAINST one guy (again hope springs eternal). My memory is of the gateaux I made every day as an apprentice with circles of crispy baked meringue, ice cream, and whipped cream. I figured this would be at least that, but much, much more and I was not disappointed.

Again I was presented with a plate designed by a sculptor and a genius in a nearby galaxy 60 years from now. Something like the ice palace from the first Superman movie actually. A disk of lemon/thyme ice cream was topped with whipped cream and tiny scoops of the most tart lemon sorbet I’ve ever had (almost too tart to be honest, but it worked) and shingled with delicate sheets of perfectly crispy meringue that you could almost read through. Splatters of rich lemon curd, dots of woody (but not smoky) hickory whipped cream, thyme leaves, and lavender blossoms adorned the outer circle of the plate.

This was another dish composed of inspired components that I’ve seen in some of my favorite books, yet it was truly a unique dish that belongs to Niche. While it is clear to me where some of Chef Craft’s inspiration comes from, it is truly inspiration and not plagiarism by any stretch of the imagination.

Sarah brought the bill. $60!

I paid over twice that 3 times in the last year and got bupkiss!

I’m putting Niche in the category with the most masterful meal I’ve ever had at Robuchon last year which blew my mind, restructured my entire understanding of cuisine, and took $350 plus tip out of my pocket.

I paid the sixty bucks and left before they changed their minds.

Folks there is hope for the future of cuisine in America. I wish I could tell you how to find it every time, but there doesn’t seem to be a pattern or an accurate and consistent indicator of excellence. Gerard Craft has certainly found his “Niche”. I guess you have to kiss a lot of frogs.

That’s a different story!