Showing posts with label goes around ... comes around. Show all posts
Showing posts with label goes around ... comes around. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Who Wore It Best?

In a post earlier this year, I mentioned a recent experience I had at St. Petersburg's Dalì Museum: seeing some of the artist's early works, what was most striking about them was how derivative they were. Several of Dalì's paintings from the late 1920's looked like lesser works of whichever contemporary he was currently in the thrall of, including many that bore remarkable similarities to Picasso's and Miro's works. It was not until the following decade that one of the most distinctive artists of the twentieth century actually found his own style – when Dalì started making paintings that looked like Dalìs.

The delicate subject of inspiration versus copying in the cooking world is one I've explored often here. Few, if any, artists start their careers with a fully formed vision of their style together with the technical ability to execute it. There's plenty of exploration, experimentation, and, yes, copying, that usually comes first. And I suspect it's much the same in the kitchen.

The complicating fact is that in the restaurant world, chefs generally aren't doing it in the privacy of cloistered artists' studios: they work in a public setting, serving up their creations on a plate to paying customers. Does it matter if those "creations" are sometimes very similar to dishes actually created by other chefs? If the primary focus of a restaurant meal is flavor, then perhaps not: a great-tasting dish tastes great, regardless of who thought it up first. And indeed, many outstanding dishes are the product of one chef taking another chef's idea and making it even better.

Some chefs unabashedly fess up to copying others. The Mission Street Food (the pop-up precursor to Mission Chinese Food) book talks about how they did "homage" dinners centered around their "phantom culinary heroes" including Rene Redzepi. Not having actually been to Noma, they had to "piece together our recipes by poring over images online and culling bits of information here and there, not unlike teenagers learning about sex from porn."  In Fancy Desserts, Del Posto's punk rock pastry chef Brooks Headley talks about how it can even happen subconsciously. He draws a cooking:music analogy between Noma and the Dead Kennedys as having unique and "un-rip-offable" styles, then notes how that didn't stop everyone – including himself – from trying to copy Noma: "For a long time, seeing sorrel and sea buckthorn berries on fine dining menus really pissed me off. (You can't rip off the Dead Kennedys, man!) But then I realized that I was doing it, too. I was so guilty, and I didn't even realize it." The incriminating evidence: pickled green strawberries.

So there shouldn't be any shame in it. But if you are copying (or paying homage, depending on how negative or positive a spin you wish to apply), how much, if any, credit ought you give? Should you do like David Kinch does when he serves an "Arpege egg" at Manresa? Can you be coy, like Pubbelly when it lists "dates AVEC chorizo" on the menu? Or is it sufficient to just assume that knowledgeable diners will be in on the joke (and oblivious diners won't care)? And with creativity an increasingly common component of the marketing pitch for new restaurants, what of Ferran Adríà's maxim, "creativity means not copying"?

I don't know all the answers. But I do know when something looks and/or tastes a lot like something I've had before. So, inspired by Us Weekly (and with a hat tip to JSDonn), here's my version of "Who Wore It Best?" Let me know what you think.

Who Wore It Best? (Round 1)

1. Roasted baby carrots, mole, hazelnut, yogurt, za'atar at Vagabond Restaurant, Miami.

2. Roasted carrots with mole poblano, yogurt and watercress at Empellon Cocina, New York.

My latest mantra is that "carrots and yogurt" is the new "beets and goat cheese" – a combination that seems to appear on every new menu in some form, and which despite its increasing ubiquity I'll still order because it's usually pretty darn good. But the similarities between a dish at chef Alex Chang's new Miami restaurant, Vagabond, and Alex Stupak's Empellon Cocina in NY go further: not just the carrots and the yogurt, but also the distinctive use of Mexican mole sauce, plus the tepee presentation, though some other components differ. (Note: Empellon has been serving this dish since at least 2012).

(continued ...)

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.

(continued ...)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Goes Around ... Comes Around: Double Feature Edition

I ate at two new restaurants this week. I’ll need to make return visits to give a complete assessment of the food, but just from looking at their menus I could tell something about both of them: they kind of want to be other restaurants.

First, Tikl. Or, to be more precise, Tikl Raw Bar Grill. Where the menu is divided into “snacks,” “raw,” “small” and “robata” sections, rounded out by a couple “large” dishes. Where said “raw” dishes feature creatively flavored seafood crudos, the “small” items are an eclectic mix of tapas style dishes, and the “robata” items include meats, seafood and vegetables with a mish-mash of Asian and Mediterranean flavors. Where the menu puts the main ingredient of a dish in boldface, followed by a lower-case list of the other ingredients separated by slashes.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is almost exactly the same menu format as Sugarcane. Or, to be more precise, Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill. Which has a menu divided into “snacks,” “crudos,” “tapas,” “robata grill” and “large plates” (though Sugarcane also offers sushi and sashimi). And which just happens to be one of the most popular and heavily trafficked restaurants to open in Miami the past couple years.

In fairness, though, Sugarcane uses a slash between ingredients on the menu. Tikl uses a backslash.

Now, to really be fair, I should point out that while the menu format at Tikl is clearly copied from Sugarcane, the dishes are not. Even if it’s in the same style, the particulars are certainly different. And none of this ultimately has anything to do with how well they’re actually executing what’s on that menu. But it’s impossible to look at Tikl’s menu and not realize that it’s trying to be the Sugarcane of Brickell.

(continued ...)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Goes Around ... Comes Around - Etxebarri Edition

Clearly I'm not the only fan here in Miami of Asador Etxebarri, the wonderful temple of grilling in Spain's Basque Country that I visited a couple years ago:

Gambas de Palamos, Asador Etxebarri, Axpe, Spain, September 2010

Florida Soft Shell Shrimp, Tuyo, Miami, Florida, July 2012

Mejillones a la Brasa, Asador Etxebarri, Axpe Spain, September 2010

Mediterranean Mussels, The Bazaar, Miami, Florida, July 2012

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Goes Around ... Comes Around: Spanish Edition

We periodically devote our attention here to the task of tracing how food ideas and trends migrate their way from restaurant to restaurant. As we noted way back when,[1] sometimes the phenomenon is the result of "homage" or "inspiration;" sometimes it's "copying" or "plagiarizing," the lines between which are not always easily drawn. Every once in a while it may actually be a case of genuinely spontaneous independent creation.

Often, what prompts these reveries is the audacity of a chef who claims to have "invented" a dish. Almost invariably, such braggadocio is unwarranted. There is, in fact, very little that is truly new under the sun, and very few culinary creations can legitimately claim to be so completely untethered to what came before as to constitute an "invention."

That apparently doesn't stop Chef Alex Raij: ["Alex Raij on Copycats and Surviving in New York."]

I'll bet I'd really like Chef Alex Raij's food. For several years now, she's put together menus of pretty authentically Spanish tapas dishes for New York restaurants, first at Tia Pol, then El Quinto Pino, then plumbed more deeply the depths of Basque cookery with Txikito, and most recently opened La Vara, which explores the even more esoteric Moorish-Jewish-Spanish food connection. I love all that stuff, and by most accounts, she does it very well.

So why the compulsion to shit-talk other chefs? In the recent Eater piece, Chef Raij simultaneously (1) claims "first" for several dishes; and (2) complains that several other chefs (specifically, Ken Oringer of Boston's Toro, coming soon to NY, and Miami's Michelle Bernstein) have "stolen" dishes, either from her or others. Specifically:

You say that before you opened Tia Pol, no one was doing certain things that are now common.
No one was doing a current expression of tapas. I wanted to dispense with all the Spanish dishes that were on every menu. No one was doing patatas bravas or shishito peppers. Nobody was making bikini sandwiches or pintxos morunos. No one was eating romesco sauce. I'm resentful, in some ways, but not regretful.
What bothers me is when people get called innovative when they've taken someone else's idea. Toro is coming to New York, but he straight-up took the uni panini from us. I know he took it, and he knows he took it. It's one of the few original things I've created in my life.
Michelle Bernstein took that Bar Mut dish and then got called a creative genius by Frank Bruni.
What bothers me is when people don't credit where they took it from. When we borrow something, we give credit and name the restaurants we love in the menu.
Let's take each of those in turn.

(continued ...)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Goes Around ... Comes Around - Gray Lady Edition

It seems somehow a bit petulant to start a new year off on a sour note. And yet ...

While doing a little archive-diving for an in-the-works review, I stumbled across a New York Times review of Gigi, the Midtown den of pork buns and noodles that opened in the summer of 2010. The NYT review begins:

Many restaurants are born when a chef has a concept. Gigi in Miami’s Wynwood district started with a concept in need of a chef. Last year, the restaurant’s owner, Amir Ben-Zion, placed an ad on Craigslist seeking a chef who could turn out "cutting edge, high performance, Asian-inspired and freshly prepared cuisine" that is "affordable, innovative comfort food for the modern, educated, discerning palate."

Which actually sounded kind of familiar. Then I remembered why. Because nearly a half year earlier, I'd written this:

Sakaya (Richard Hales), Chow Down (Joshua Marcus) and American Noodle (Michael Bloise) each started with a chef's own vision, and were very much personal projects. Gigi came about things from the opposite direction: Gigi was a concept in search of a chef to execute it. Amir Ben-Zion, who also runs Bond Street and Miss Yip on South Beach, Sra. Martinez in the Design District, and the Bardot nightclub right down the street from Gigi in Midtown Miami, placed a Craigslist ad looking for a chef about six months before the restaurant's opening. The ad was not lacking for hype: "Its cutting edge, high performance, Asian inspired and freshly prepared cuisine is affordable, innovative comfort food for the modern educated discerning palate."

I guess since Gigi was stealing its concept from New York's Momofuku, a little inter-city turnabout is fair play?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Goes Around ... Comes Around: Italian Edition

In a piece that will be appearing in this Sunday's New York Times magazine (apologies to anyone shut out by the new paywall), former NYT restaurant critic Frank Bruni writes of the latest obsession of the New York trendsetters, Torrisi Italian Specialties. I've heard very good things about Torrisi, and I'm intrigued by the thesis of the piece, which is that Torrisi's unorthodox grab-bag approach to culinary traditions represents a new direction for Italian - or, maybe more precisely, Italian-American - food.

Having said that ... the couple of examples he gives of culinary brainstorming that supposedly reflect Torrisi's "fierce and sometimes mischievous creative itch" sounded mighty familiar.
"What about repackaging scungilli along the lines of escargots?"
Hmm - you mean like Michelle Bernstein's escargot-style baby conch that she was serving back in 2007 at Michy's?

"Italian-Jewish would be the term for a Passover-pegged riff on porchetta that the group deliberated at even greater length. Porchetta is a classic Italian pork roast, but they wondered aloud about substituting lamb. And, for a glaze, what about using Manischewitz, a semisweet kosher wine? Would the nuances be right?"
I dunno, maybe you could ask Ilan Hall, who was doing Manischewitz-braised pork belly when he opened up The Gorbals in 2009.

Va Intorno ... Viene Intorno

Friday, June 18, 2010

goes around ... comes around - milkshake edition

Richard Blais, former Top Chef contestant and present proprietor of Flip Burger Boutique, with locations in Atlanta and Birmingham (no relation to the Flip Burger Bar just opened in North Miami - and just wait till he gets wind of that) is all up in arms that a burger joint in Denver is serving a milkshake that he thinks bears a more than passing resemblance to one served at Flip Burger. He's so upset his hair is standing on end!

The details: Flip Burger's menu features several liquid nitrogen-chilled shakes, including one with Nutella and burnt marshmallow. A place in Denver called H Burger (Blais didn't name it, though Eater quickly figured it out) lists on its cocktail menu a liquid nitrogen-chilled "Nutella Marshmallow" shake with vanilla vodka, hazelnut liquor, nutella, and vanilla ice cream topped with roasted marshmallows. Though Blais' column noted the similarities between the two - that is, Nutella and burnt marshmallows, liquid nitrogen, and a similar presentation ("right down to the pint glass and red straw," which, I've got to say, doesn't exactly sound as novel or unique as, say, the peacock used at Alinea) - he omitted that H Burger's, unlike Flip Burger's, is an alcoholic libation.

Anyhoo, Blais thinks H Burger is ripping off his steez: "On the street, you don't copy someone else's style." He's so mad "it makes me want to load up my smoking gun and do a mother fucking drive-thru drive by." Of course, Blais is smart enough to know, and acknowledges, that recipes can't be copyrighted or patented. He's also smart enough to know, and acknowledges, that he didn't invent either the ingredients or the techniques involved in his particular concoction:
I didn't invent liquid nitrogen, or its use in food preparation. Shit, chemistry teachers have been making LN2 ice cream in classrooms for 30 years, at least. I didn't create marshmallows. Or Nutella. Or milk shakes. Or straws and pint glasses for that matter.
So what's he all bent out of shape over? Perhaps it's a matter of credit or attribution. He says:
I have been so sensitive to the topic, that if I find a dish of mine is similar in spirit to one I've seen, I'll denote it a "remix." Maybe it's in my blood. I don't think Wylie Dufresne is going to find me on a corner and put a cap in my ass. But that's how I approach it. Inspiration is a funny thing. Sometimes you can't remember exactly how you got there or who helped, but I believe you know if you're completely ripping someone off.
All right. So Chef Blais thinks his milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and damn right it's better than yours. But this all gave me a strange sense of deja vu. And then I remembered why. A couple years ago, I came across press blurbs about Blais' "creation" of something he called a "Popcornsicle," a ball of popcorn frozen with liquid nitrogen and served on a stick. The press blitz came complete with photos of the chef blowing liquid nitrogen smoke from his nose and mouth as he ate one. Well, other than the stick, Chef Blais' "creation" just happened to be identical to an item that was regularly served at José Andrés' minibar, where it's called "Dragon's Breath Popcorn," and where I'd just happened to have eaten a week earlier. And I said so. That prompted a discussion on Chowhound about the nature of "copying" when it comes to cooking. Back then I noted:

(continued ...)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Goes Around ... Comes Around: Small World Edition - UPDATED

[Updated - see below]

I initially scoffed when South Miami restaurant Town Kitchen & Bar, which has been in business for a few years now, complained about their new neighbor, 72nd Bar + Grill. Town even went as far as issuing a notice that "someone in the neighborhood has copied us" and that Town was the "original neighborhood joint." Indeed, I suggested that after claiming to have invented the neighborhood joint, next Town would be claiming to have invented the question mark.

After looking at each of their online menus, I'm beginning to understand why Town is so sore. Here, have a gander yourself:

Town Kitchen & Bar:

72nd Bar + Grill:

Almost identical color scheme and font style, right down to the use of the "+" between descriptors in the menu. Pretty much the same menu groupings: salads; "starters"; pizzas; burgers; "certified angus beef steaks" vs. "from the grill"; "Old Town Favorites" vs. "72 Favorites". Even 72nd's circle logo bears more than a passing resemblance to Town's.

The actual food items are different in many respects, but it's hard to imagine how there could so many commonalities in the look, layout and format without it being a deliberate copy.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about it all is the incredible lack of inspiration from Juan Mario Maza and Vani Maharaj, the chef-owners of 72nd Bar + Grill. The husband and wife team, both Michelle Bernstein alumni, also operated Alta Cocina, which recently closed after a two-year run in South Miami just down the street from the location of their new restaurant. Is it wrong to expect a bit more creativity out of folks with that pedigree? Of course, it'll all be just fine if the food is good. If so, hopefully South Miami is big enough to handle two neighborhood joints.


After this post went up, I received an email from chef Juan Maza. With his permission, I am now reprinting it here in full. I'm glad to see that Town and 72nd have apparently cleared the air, and I thought this was a thoughtful and clearly heartfelt response:

I have read you post about the menus with Town. I would like you to know that we have allready apologized to Brandon "Town's owner" and are redoing our menu formats. We both talked like gentlemen and although we never intended to copy him or anything similar they just ended looking similar. As for the logo we agreed they are not similar as you can see on his webpage.

As for the comments of Chef Bernstein we have nothing but the greatest respect for her, when we left Michys and open Alta Cocina everyone seems to think we did it becuase we know it all, and it is not like that, we had only one option to stay in the country and it was to obtian an investor visa through opening a business. Alta Cocina was the toughest learning experience we faced and for two cooks with one year of experience in the kitchen we did well and we learned through very tough criticism. We risk everything we had and own for a better oportunity in the country, but no one knows that but Vani and myself. Now we are residents Alta Cocina did its purpose, we have a better oportunity for us and our future children for our future.

We are not trying to be superstar or super chefs, all we want is to be able to learn and grow and pay our bills.

We are nice people who work hard , not copy cats or anything like that. If you may know we took a big risk, all food bloggers and critics seem were are just trying to shine on someone elses talent, it is not and never been like that I am the first one to tell that all i ever did in Michys was the most simple prep work, and you know I have trained my self almost everything including working the line and I really think for what we achieved at least for being a top Zagat new comer we should just get a little break.

Thank you for taking the time read this and I hope you are a gentleman with this email and if you ever come to us I will love to be able to get your opinions on our food and learn from you.

Juan Maza

I wish them the best of luck and much success.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

goes around ... comes around Part III

A few months ago, as part of an ongoing fascination with food trends, a post here traced the origins of the "uni sandwich" back to local darling Chef Michelle Bernstein (though the Food & Wine story dubbing it "The Next It Sandwich" managed only to identify several New York variants).

image via All Purpose Dark
Such sharing can work in both directions, and it seems Michelle's borrowed a couple ideas from some big-shot New York chefs for her newly opened restaurant at the Omphoy resort in Palm Beach. One of the dishes on the menu, as described by All Purpose Dark, is a veritable Eric Ripert/David Chang mashup: a tuna carpaccio topped with foie gras "snow".

The parents of this concoction? How about the pounded tuna laid over foie gras at Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin, combined with David Chang's famous frozen foie gras "snow" at Momofuku Ko (named by both the New York Times and Food & Wine as their 2008 "best dish of the year"!).

Turnabout's fair play.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

goes around ... comes around Part II

I noted in earlier posts the curious phenomenon of similar dishes multiplying like tribbles across menus throughout the country. Today, Food & Wine predicts that sea urchin will be the "Next It Sandwich," giving props to Michael White at the newly opened Marea, George Mendes at the newly opened Aldea, and El Quinto Pino, a tapas spot in Chelsea. One curious omission? Michelle Bernstein, who has had her uni sandwich (which was wowing folks at the James Beard Awards a couple months ago) on the menu at Sra. Martinez since it opened last December. At least the New York Times gave due credit when it ran a similar story last month, as did an earlier blogger's recounting of the genesis of the dish (sort of) at El Quinto Pino.

Not that the increasing prevalence of uni sandwiches is anything to complain about, of course.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Gravy?

Rack's Italian Bistro hosted an opening shindig yesterday evening, apparently to much acclaim. I missed the festivities but was sufficiently inspired to take a look at the menu. And something about it triggered a little itch in my head, some stray memory that I could not place. Specifically, it was this menu description: "Meatball - Whipped Impasata + Sunday San Marzano Gravy." My first thought was this:

Isn't it a little goofy to be going all retro/homestyle with the "gravy" reference, while simultaneously going all upscale/snooty with the "San Marzano" reference?
But then the further nagging thought was:

And where have I seen this before? What other place would refer to "San Marzano gravy" on the menu?
After a little searching around I placed it: Devito South Beach, whose menu features an "Original Old School Meatball - Whipped Ricotta, Nonna's Marzano Gravy". Hmph. But that's not all. Consider the following:

Devito: Calamari Devito - crispy calamari, peppers, spicy Marzano tomato sauce
Racks: Calamari "My Way" - Lemon + Spicy Marinara + Cherry Peppers + Basil

Devito: The Original Italian Chop - Salumi, provolone, diced vegetables, tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers
Racks: Italian "Chop" - Salumi + Aged Provolone + Onion + Chick Peas + Tomato + Egg

Devito: Whole Branzino - Spiced tomato jam, aged balsamic vinegar, Olio Verde broth
Racks: Branzino - Tomato Jam + Cracked Olives + Capers + Lemon + Oil Verde

Both also offer their salumi and formaggi (almost identical selections) with accompaniments of truffle honey and amarena cherries.

The Devito menu is much more expansive than the offerings at Racks, yet does not feature the coal-oven pizzas that are provoking oohs and ahhs at Racks, so this is nowhere near the same magnitude as the outright menu-lifting which Nexxt Cafe did from Cheesecake Factory several years ago. And yet there are enough similarities to make me wonder: Is there some connection in the kitchen between Devito and Racks, or did Racks just like what it saw at Devito and try to mimic it? And regardless, can we please just nip this whole "San Marzano gravy" thing in the bud?

Edited to add: I should have also mentioned one other notable difference between Devito's menu and Racks' menu - prices. For instance, Racks' meatball appetizer is $11, while Devito's is a hefty $17 (!!!). That's one *pricy* meatball.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

goes around ... comes around

I've always been intrigued by how food ideas and trends work their way through menus and restaurants. Often the phenomenon is at its most acute in a place like San Francisco, which is a serious foodie town but is also, in many ways, still a fairly small town. I recall one visit several years ago when every place we went had a beet salad with goat cheese (yes, that one seems to have some staying power). On our last visit a couple years ago, it was in-house charcuterie.

It's not all that uncommon to see basically the same dish done at different restaurants. Sometimes - often - that can be the result of spontaneous independent creation, but it's also often the result of conscious or unconscious influence. Because there is little intellectual property protection for a recipe or a plating presentation, there's little a chef could do about it even if they wanted to, though culinary plagiarism has been a topic of robust discussion. You can call it, respectfully, "homage" or "inspiration," or pejoratively, "copying" or "plagiarizing," and the distinctions are sometimes difficult to assess. The perception (and, I suppose the reality) can depend on a lot of things: how original was the dish in the first place? how willing is the chef to acknowledge the influence of others? what's the relationship, if any, between the two chefs?

But that's not really my point here, rather I just find it interesting to watch how food trends work their way through the restaurant biz. This particular reverie was prompted by a Ruth Reichl twitter about a dinner at Animal, a much-talked-up new Los Angeles restaurant. Animal, opened less than a year ago, is the product of Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who were featured in a short-running Food Network show called "2 Dudes Catering." Little did I know, until looking at the Animal website, that Shook and Dotolo had South Florida roots, having gone to culinary school in Fort Lauderdale and gotten their start at The Strand restaurant with Michelle Bernstein as head chef.

But the South Florida connection that I saw was their menu - in particular, a couple of the dishes mentioned by Reichl. Pork belly with kim chee and peanuts? Fried hominy with lime? Sound familiar to any of you Miami folks?

For those not in the know, these just happen to be a couple of the mainstay items at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink. Now, it's not like Michael Schwartz would ever claim to be the first person to have combined these ingredients. Nor, for that matter, is he in any position to complain about someone riffing on the same tune that he's been playing. After all, another of the mainstays on his menu, the wood-oven roasted whole chicken (served with plumped raisins, toasted pine nuts and baby arugula) is, as I noted some time ago, pretty much the same recipe that Zuni Cafe in S.F. is famous for.[*] More recently, I had a porchetta de testa that appeared to be made using the same recipe that Chris Cosentino of Incanto had done in a video for Gourmet.

So I doubt that Chef Schwartz would ever make a stink about it. And let me be clear, I'm not accusing anyone of "copying" anyone else. But it is curious how a restaurant on one coast should be getting kudos for dishes that sound mighty similar to the dishes that were earning another restaurant on the other coast kudos a year earlier, no? Could just be that everyone loves them some pork belly and kim chee, and some crispy hominy with lime. I know I do.

[*] I had the good fortune of trying the MGF&D whole roasted chicken within a month of a trip to S.F. and trying the famous Zuni Cafe chicken. My verdict - the MGF&D version was even better than the original.