Thursday, November 27, 2014

P.I.G. (Pork Is Good) #5

Almost exactly five years ago was one of the first times I broke out a camera for a food event. The occasion was the inaugural "P.I.G." (for "Pork Is Good") party put on by Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog. A couple dozen folks showed up at the Harvey W. Seed American Legion Hall, Jeremiah served up some chicharrones, some smoked pork butt bao buns, a whole pig rolled porchetta style and cooked in a caja china out back, and a bevy of beverages, and everyone was greasy and happy.

Jeremiah's done it every year since, and every year it's grown. Last year, P.I.G. #4 was more of a collective effort, with several other local chefs chipping in on this ode to all things porcine. A couple weekends ago, P.I.G. #5 saw many of the same faces and some new ones too: Kyle Foster (formerly the sous chef at the late, lamented Talula), Conor Hanlon and Josh Gripper (The Dutch), James Strine (Café Boulud), Brad Kilgore (soon-to-open Alter, until recently at J&G Grill), Todd Erickson (Haven and HuaHua's Taqueria), Jamie DeRosa (Tongue & Cheek), Michael Pirolo (Macchialina), William Crandall (Azul), Giorgio Rapicavoli (Eating House), Brian Mullins (Ms. Cheezious), Steve Santana (Taquiza), Kris Wessel (Oolite), and Giselle Pinto (Sugar Yummy Mama).

This is genuinely one of the most fun food events of the year for me. The venue, in and behind Wynwood's Brisky Gallery, was great. The crowd was relaxed and friendly. The chefs and their crews even seem to be having a good time. And the food – which at many events like this, to be honest, is often disappointing – was pretty excellent. I didn't manage to try everything, but here are some highlights:

(You can see all my pictures in this P.I.G. #5 flickr set).

Man, do I miss Kyle. In the last couple years before Talula closed, he was often the mastermind of some great offal-centric appetizers and charcuterie items on the menu. He moved along to Denver and is doing just fine without me: he's now the sous at a place called Colt & Gray, is still doing the offal and cured meats routine, and recently got engaged (his fiancée came down to Miami with him to work the event). His charcuterie game is still very strong, and he brought a bunch of it: pork heart salami, finnochiona, jambon persille, ciccioli, and another salami he called the "Forest Moon of Endor," among others.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Alinea - Chicago

The idea of dinner as spectacle is hardly a new one. In the Satyricon, Petronius recounts the (fictional) dinner of Trimalchio, featuring such delicacies as pea hen eggs filled with tiny songbirds, a hare with wings affixed to it to look like a pegasus, and a whole wild boar with baskets of dates hanging from its tusks, surrounded by pastry piglets and stuffed with live thrushes – preceded by a presentation of hunting-themed tapestries and a pack of hunting dogs traipsing through the dining room to set the mood.

Fast forward a couple thousand years, and recently Jeremiah Tower – one of the titans of the 1980's dining universe, who is returning to the business on a mission to resuscitate the Tavern on the Green – spoke with Andrew Friedman about the theater of dining at TOTG:
Friedman: When you say outrageous, what do you mean, for people who weren't there back in the day?
Tower: Oh, I mean, my God. Oversized chandeliers and didn't he put live animals at one point for some party? It reminded me of the Ritz, a nouveau riche version of the Ritz, where in the old days, a grand Duke wanted a winter scene so they flooded the basement and froze it and draped everything in ice. It was that kind of theater.
Friedman: What do you remember about the food at the old Tavern?
Tower: You know, I honestly don’t remember anything. I've been looking at old menus from the 1950s but I don’t think I ever looked at the plate. I was too busy looking at the decor and the action.
So in a sense, what Alinea is doing is nothing new. But few contemporary restaurants I've visited have the same dedication to the theater of dinner.

My first meal at Alinea was a long time ago, within a couple years of its opening. They were the heady days of foams and spheres and fluid gels – back when what is now inaptly named "modernist cuisine" went by the equally inapt "molecular gastronomy." On that first visit, we had bacon swinging on trapezes, bites perched on bobbing "antennae," and dishes nestled on pillows emitting flower-perfumed air. But perhaps the most striking oddity of it all was the somber, ramrod-stiff waitstaff. There was a huge disconnect between the playfulness coming out of Grant Achatz's kitchen and the solemnity of those who served it, as if the food wouldn't be taken seriously enough if they actually cracked a smile.

Achatz no longer needs to be concerned with being taken seriously: Alinea now has three Michelin stars, a No. 9 position on San Pellegrino's 50 Best Restaurants list, and multiple James Beard awards to vouch for that. And everyone's smiling.[1]

(You can see all my pictures in this Alinea - October 2014 flickr set.)

I'd not been back to Alinea until last month,[2] when the opportunity for a return visit fortuitously arose. The gap afforded an interesting time-lapse view of the restaurant's maturation. Many things that were still just in the concept stage at the time of my initial visit – reincorporating classical old-school dishes and table-side service, the now-famous dessert on the table – are now firmly entrenched in the repertoire.[3] Dishes that were once emblematic of Alinea's cutting edge creativity – like the "hot potato cold potato" pictured above – are now signature dishes, evoking more nostalgia than awe (for a repeat visitor anyway).

There is also plenty that's new, and plenty that's still awe-inspiring. But what was most notable to me, given my peculiar perspective, is how the front of the house at Alinea has caught up with the back. This is now a fully realized experience where the food and the spectacle of its presentation are on equal footing. As to whether or not that's a good thing – I'll try to address after the recap of my recent visit.

It's hard to imagine a more traditional way to commence a meal than with caviar and champagne. It's hard to come up with a better one either. The accompaniments to the caviar here are customary ones, but of course transformed: a brioche foam, an egg yolk emulsion, a transparent gelée flavored with onion and capers. The osetra caviar itself was excellent, as was the Pierre Moncuit champagne.

Then the show really starts. Servers arrive wielding blocks of ice that are 1/25 size replicas of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic,[4] strewn with a sort of reinvented seafood platter: a sphere of oyster liquor and mignonette sauce nestled in the oyster's shell; strips of chewy clam glazed with unagi sauce, served ishiyaki style on a hot rock; a sort of deconstructed miso soup with kombu and crumbles of miso and bonito; a sort of reconstructed tomato of fresh tuna; a shooter of Asian pear and yuzu juices dug right into the block of ice, with a fat glass straw planted in it (which, awkwardly, was too long to use without actually standing up at the table); and a cylindrical sea urchin cake, infused with vanilla, wrapped in nori, and topped with lemon zest and coarse salt, poised right between savory and sweet.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

L2O - Chicago

I was looking forward to writing about my meal at L2O in Chicago last month. I didn't realize it was going to be a eulogy.

L2O first vaulted to prominence in 2008, when the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises group lured chef Laurent Gras from San Francisco to open a high-end, seafood-focused restaurant in Chicago. In 2010, L2O earned three Michelin stars; that same month, Gras left. The next year, Matthew Kirkley took over as chef de cuisine and eventually was elevated to executive chef. Many quietly said that the restaurant under Kirkley was every bit as good – if not better – than under Gras' reign.

Now comes news that the restaurant will be closing at the end of the year. On one hand, it's a big surprise: L2O is one of the city's – and country's – most highly regarded restaurants, even if it doesn't seem to draw the same quantum of attention as the venues of Chicago royalty like Grant Achatz, Rick Bayless, and Paul Kahan. On the other hand, L2O always seemed an odd fit with LEYE, which is better known (to me, anyway) for crowd-pleaser type places like Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba and Shaw's Crab House. LEYE's founder, Rich Melman, seemed to confirm as much:
"(L2O) had never been a money maker for us," Melman says. "As with all restaurants, it's all about volume. I don't want to do four-star restaurants anymore, at least for the foreseeable future. Three partners came out of L2O and it was successful in that way."
Surprise or not, L2O's imminent closing is a disappointment: this was one of the most pleasing, satisfying meals I've had all year. It's a shame it will be my only chance to experience it.

(You can see all my pictures in this L2O flickr set.)

The tasting menu[1] starts with a series of snacks. The first is a sort of ode to Chesapeake Bay (Chef Kirkley is a Baltimore native): a few precariously balanced wafers with the puffy texture of Chinese shrimp chips, but the intense, pronounced flavors of crab and Old Bay seasoning. Next, a mussel "tart," the mollusks' flavor infused into a quivering mousse brightened with parsley and citrus, nestled in a crispy shell. Then, a puffy pomme souflée, ingeniously filled with a creamy salt cod brandade, and dusted with coffee and bergamot for a pleasingly bitter counterpoint.

Maybe it was brought into sharper focus by comparison to the theatrical pyrotechnics of Alinea, where I'd eaten the night before, but there's an austerity and minimalism to Kirkley's style that I really appreciated. Most courses featured only a few primary ingredients, the flavors of which were honed, concentrated, and often reiterated within the dish. Indeed, the composition of many plates was similar: a fish or seafood item as the primary focus, sometimes a bit of animal fat to provide richness and extend flavors, often a sauce extracted from the primary ingredients, an accent note of herb or citrus.

That pattern was set in this first course, a pink ball of langoustine[2] tartare, enriched with lardo and brightened with pickled lemon and English pea. This was followed by a Kusshi oyster, nestled in its shell under a bed of green apple and vermouth creams, and presented like some nautical bric-a-brac from Shell City. Pinkish orange ocean trout was lightly cured, presented in silky, supple ribbons complemented by the delicate but intense flavors of Chartreuse, citrus confit and airy little gougere-like poufs dusted with fines herbes.

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