Showing posts sorted by relevance for query microwave cake. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query microwave cake. Sort by date Show all posts

Sunday, February 28, 2010

CSA Canistel Microwave Cake

Some CSA canistels had been hanging around in my freezer for several weeks now, but I had a plan for them: microwave cakes. This was actually one of the things I hoped to accomplish when I started blogging my CSA shares: to combine fresh-from-the-farm produce with some personal experimentation in contemporary cookery, a small, humble attempt to show that the two are not as antithetical as many people (i.e., those who insist on tags like "science fiction cooking" or use "molecular gastronomy" as an epithet) make them out to be. Well, best laid plans and all ... I've generally been lucky just to get the stuff cooked in the most primitive of fashions, though I've done some good eating along the way.

Anyway, like so many contemporary techniques, the microwave cake's genesis appears to trace back to none other than Ferran Adrià. It uses an iSi whipped cream canister charged with nitrous oxide to aerate the batter (the same tool chefs sometimes use to make those foams so dreaded by some), and is cooked in a single-serve cup in the microwave in 30-40 seconds, making a wonderful light spongey cake. There are a few recipes floating around the intertubes if you search for them, but they vary considerably, so I went to my resident experts - chefs Kurtis Jantz and Chad Galiano - for guidance, who gave me a few recipes and suggestions as starting points.

Not surprisingly, none of the recipes use canistel, so my primary guide was one for a beet cake, figuring pureed beet is about as close as I'd get to canistel. Here's what went into it:[*]

100g almond flour (a little less than a cup) (couldn't find actual almond flour anywhere, simply ground up some blanched unsalted almonds in the food processor)
200g canistel flesh (about a cup)
250g egg whites (about 6 large whites)
160g egg yolks (8 yolks)
100g sugar (about 1/2 cup)
130g flour (about 1 cup) (recipe called for cake flour, I had none, and used all-purpose; no doubt cake flour would have yielded a lighter final product)

Mix all the ingredients in a blender (I suspect a stand mixer would have worked equally well) until smooth, and strain through a chinois. I had to stir it through vigorously with a wooden spoon for about 10 minutes.

cake batter

Then you break out the high-tech hardware:


The iSi canister, and - that's right: Dora the Explorer paper cups. Trust me, this is exactly how they do it at El Bulli.

Monday, December 13, 2010

CSA Week 2 and its Uses - Yuca Latkes with Spherified Hibiscus Caviar

So it turns out that a two-part series on homemade kimchi is not nearly as popular as writing about where to eat during Art Basel week. This does not come as a surprise to me. And yet here I am, persisting in writing about my humble efforts to dispose of my weekly CSA share yet again. (If the truth must be known, I'm also still only on Round 1 of my visits to several of the new places to open recently in Miami - including DB Bistro Moderne, Vino e Olio, Wynwood Kitchen & Bar - and am filibustering some here).

Week 2 brought an unusual assortment of goodies: yuca, roselle (a/k/a hibiscus or Jamaican sorrel), lemongrass, callaloo, green onions, eggplant, avocado. Once again, I set out to come up with a dish that would use up at least a few of the components at once. What I wound up with was a very unorthodox latke:

yuca cake w hibiscus caviar

What exactly is that? Well, it will require some explanation.

The roselle and lemongrass were the starting point, as I steeped them along with some fresh ginger to make a tea (which is exactly what I did with the roselle last year). OK, now what? Well, one of the things I'd hoped for in doing this was that the CSA would be an inspration to do more playing around in the kitchen, including with techniques that I've eaten but not necessarily cooked before (like last year's Adrià-inspired canistel microwave cake). So it was time to bring out the "chemistry set."

sodium alginate

Plus, it was Hannukah, so I was thinking of latkes, only maybe using that yuca instead of the traditional potato pancake. And then, what's good on top of a latke? Well, applesauce and sour cream. But also, caviar. So why not make some caviar out of that tea I just made, and then put it on top of a yuca latke? The hibiscus/lemongrass tea has some tartness and fruitiness like applesauce, right?

I'm not saying these are all good ideas. I'm just explaining the thought process.

(continued ...)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Cobaya St. Regis with Chefs Richard Gras and Antonio Bachour

berry lemon spiral

In a recent column for the San Francisco Chronicle, restaurant consultant (and former Square One and Chez Panisse chef) Joyce Goldstein bemoans the prevalence of what many pejoratively call "tweezer food." She imagines "an underground team of tiny elves with tweezers, carefully placing tiny little pieces of food in regimented lines across plates all over the country" and rails, "Where is the passion and energy?"

It is, of course, a false dichotomy. Attention to detail and passion are not opposites, nor are they even somehow mutually exclusive. Food that is delicate, or technical, even artful, can and often is prepared with every bit as much passion and energy as any long-simmered braise or sizzling sauté.

There is no better evidence than the dinner that the crew at the J&G Grill[1] in the St. Regis Bal Harbour put together for our Cobaya "underground" dining group earlier this week. The restaurant's chef de cuisine Richard Gras, executive pastry chef Antonio Bachour, and hotel executive chef Jordi Valles[2] do elegant, careful, graceful work; I'm sure tweezers are part of their kitchen arsenal. Yet I have never met any chefs who have more passion for food, more energy, more drive to please and excite than Richard, Antonio and their team.

The St. Regis opened at the beginning of the year;[3] but while high-end travelers have been flocking in droves, I suspect many locals haven't found their way inside yet. They're missing out. Our Cobaya meal was, as we always hope they will be, an off-menu experience, so don't expect to find something exactly like this on any given Tuesday. But some tremendous talent resides in the kitchen there, and we were glad for the opportunity to showcase it.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya St. Regis flickr set, or click on any picture to enlarge it).

St. Regis Bal Harbour

They set up our group of 34 at one long table in a space downstairs from the main restaurant; the same beveled rectangles of mirrors that line the hotel's lobby provided an elegant backdrop.

chef cam

Though our table was some distance away from the kitchen, an A/V hookup, with two massive flat-screens, provided the opportunity for the guests to see and hear the chefs at work, explaining dishes as they were being prepared and plated.

beet gazpacho explosion

The dinner service started with a one-biter, a spherified beet gazpacho "explosion" served over crumbles of a lemon thyme infused pound cake - the brilliant color matched by a burst of flavor.

(continued ...)

Friday, March 30, 2012

Harding Dinner Series with Chef Jeremiah

harding dinner series

It's only going to be around for a week, so I've moved my writeup of the first "Harding Dinner Series" with Chef Jeremiah to the front of the queue. As I mentioned here earlier, the original Chow Down Grill in Surfside is being converted into Josh's Deli & Appetizing during the day, and a pop-up dinner venue for visiting chefs in the evenings. The first guest chef is Jeremiah Bullfrog (of the gastroPod and also a two time Cobaya veteran) and several of us got a preview dinner[1] on Wednesday. It bears repeating once more:
There are some genuinely interesting and exciting things going on in Miami's dining scene right now.
The format of this dinner was a lot tighter, more focused than the sprawling 17-courser Jeremiah did for his last Cobaya: seven courses plus a cocktail to start. But the style and spirit was very much the same - playful, but with a serious focus on maximizing depth of flavor.

(You can see all my pictures in this Harding Dinner Series flickr set).

You want local flavor? How about the "Instagram"? Not a popular new photo app, this was the other kind of gram. But the fine white powder in this baggie, unlike many others commonly seen in Miami, was only baking powder, which reacted with the acid in the drink (Bombay gin and lemon) to make for a fizzy, frothy cocktail. It's the same chemical reaction that powered the volcano you made for fourth grade science fair.

beet composition
beet composition

The first course, a "Beet Composition," was like a terrarium:[2] inside a glass jar were beets in various forms - salt roasted garnet beets, sous-vide candy-cane beets, ribbons of pickled red and golden beets, magenta-stemmed micro beet greens, plus bits of creamy cheese, all nestled in a black sesame "soil." Not merely a presentation ploy, this had great vivid flavors, ranging from the more deep roasty notes to brightly acidic pickled notes.

duck pastrami
duck pastrami

The next course was one of the best things I've eaten this year. Jeremiah' s duck pastrami was cured  in salt, sugar and pink salt for about five days, then thin shavings of the duck were plated on a long communal plank[3] with brussels sprout "kraut" and a spiced pumpernickel streusel. It was just a perfect combination of flavors: the duck, meaty and fatty; the sprouts, bright, vegetal and tart; the streusel providing an earthy, spicy anchor for it all. Great stuff.

(continued ...)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hurricane Sandy Relief Dinner at The Dutch

"Superstorm Sandy" hit the eastern seaboard exactly three weeks ago on October 29, leaving a trail of damage that will have lasting aftereffects. Lower Manhattan went dark for days; some New York and New Jersey communities like Rockaway, Red Hook, Staten Island and Long Beach Island have been devastated by flooding, fires and ongoing power outages.

The restaurant community, with its thin margins, perishable inventory and dependence on customer foot traffic, is among the most sensitive to disasters like this. And at the same time, it is also one of the most apt to respond and assist: almost immediately after the storm cleared and the damage was assessed, chefs and restaurant owners were looking for ways they could help others.

One of the first to jump on the task was Andrew Carmellini: two days after Sandy, before the power was even restored, The Dutch in New York was serving up free soup and salad for anyone in the neighborhood. And together with fellow New York chefs Marco Canora, George Mendes and Seamus Mullen, he quickly put together "NYC Food Flood" to provide direct aid to those impacted by the storm.

When I heard Carmellini had a stash of truffles for a planned "Trufflepalooza" dinner that had to be cancelled, I suggested he send them down to Miami so we could do a fundraiser down here. The truffles found another home, but the idea stuck. Chef Carmellini suggested lining up some local chefs to team up for a charity dinner, and the outpouring of support was overwhelming. In only a couple days, Michelle Bernstein (Michy's), Richard Gras and Antonio Bachour (J&G Grill), Aaron Brooks (Edge Steak), Brad Kilgore (Exit 1), Jeremiah Bullfrog (gastroPod), and Bar Lab had all agreed to participate. Andrew Zimmern sent his AZ Canteen truck down for the event. Many others - Michael's Genuine, The Bazaar, Bourbon Steak, neMesis Urban Bistro, Wolfe's Wine Shoppe, South Beach Wine & Food Festival, Miami Wine and Food Festival, and more - contributed items for a silent auction.

And when we called for our Cobaya "guinea pigs" to come out and support the event, we received an equally enthusiastic response, filling more than 40 of the available spots for the dinner. South Floridians can surely empathize as New York recovers from the aftermath of a destructive hurricane, and I was gratified and moved by the generous support for the efforts of Chef Carmellini and so many others. Thank you for being "Cobayas for a Cause".

So, sure, it's all for a good cause; but what about the food?

(continued ...)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

CobayaJeremiah with Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog


Though our Cobaya - Gourmet Guinea Pigs events are sometimes called "underground" dinners, that's probably a bit of a misnomer, since we happily have some events in operating restaurants. But we really do strive for each of them to be an experiment. What we want, very simply, is for both chefs and diners to see it as an opportunity to try something new and different, to take chances.

Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog of the gastroPod has been one of our most steadfast supporters and facilitators since we started doing these dinners two years ago. He didn't cook our first dinner, but he did do the second one, and has lent a hand and sometimes even a kitchen to several others. So when Jeremiah came back from a trip to the MAD FoodCamp in Copenhagen and a stage at Noma[1] restaurant full of inspiration, we were glad to line up another dinner.

There were several firsts for this dinner: it was our first time trying staggered seatings, with rounds of about 8 diners being seated every half hour instead of one big communal table; it was our first time using this particular space, which had some temperature challenges;[2] and it was our first time with a tasting menu this ambitious, more than 15 courses all told. The idea was that the smaller seatings would let the cooks focus more on each plate as it went out instead of cranking out 35-45 plates at once.[3]

You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this CobayaJeremiah flickr set.

the dining room

The dinner started with a cocktail: the "Fernet Sour" mixed clarified Fernet Branca with clarified grapefruit juice, cooled with a blast of liquid nitrogen. Fernet is a profoundly, eye-crossingly bitter digestif, one of those concoctions of roots, twigs, spices and herbs that tastes like it must be either really good for you or poisonous. It is the epitome of an "acquired taste" - one that I sometimes enjoy after a heavy meal for its seeming purifying powers, but not one I've ever had to start a meal. Here, I suppose it could be seen as having the same kind of palate-cleansing effect as Heston Blumenthal's nitro-poached green tea and lime mousse at the Fat Duck. But I couldn't finish a full flute of it.

snack: pickles

There followed an extensive progression of various "snacks," starting with a pickle plate clearly inspired by the Noma aesthetic. Pink radishes were topped with paper-thin, faintly crisp shards of (Benton's?) ham. Pickled okra was coated in a light tempura batter and fried. And tiny beets were halved and pickled, served with a sphere of rosewater-infused yogurt spheres resting on a nest of noodle-like beet strands. I liked the bold flavors, the interplay of salty and sour, the variation in textures, and the communal presentation on a long plank.[4]

(continued ...)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Paradigm Shift

A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.  - Karl Marx

Very generally speaking, I think most of us tend to think of art first and foremost from an aesthetic perspective. Yet it is also in most instances - to a greater or lesser degree - a commodity. The financial success of the recent Art Basel weekend undoubtedly attests to this. By the same token, most people tend to think of food first and foremost as a commodity - nothing more than a thing to be bought and consumed. Yet food also has the capacity to strive for art, aesthetics, even perhaps metaphysical subtleties.

A recent dinner which put together Chefs Kurtis Jantz and Chad Galiano (the guys behind the Paradigm dinners) and artist Stephen Gamson at PH2 provided an opportunity to explore the intersection points of art, culture and dining.

One of the things I so admire about Chefs K and Chad is the seriousness and earnestness with which they take any mission. I recall them telling me that when they did their first menu for the Miami Spice promotional program, they put their heads together to formulate a menu that would use spices to highlight local ingredients - only to be baffled when they saw so many other restaurants just cranking out the ubiquitous farmed salmon, chicken paillard and skirt steak. So I knew when they were asked to do a collaborative dinner with a local artist that they would come up with something inspired.

Gamson's pictures all use the same simple iconography, borrowed from the visual lingua franca seen on bathroom doors around the world. The first dish we had took visual cues from the artworks, roughly duplicating the forms in some "his and hers" stick-figure anticuchos of baby octopus and chicken liver (though I'm not sure which would be "his" and which "hers"). The baby octopus, marinated with green Tabasco sauce and lemon, was paired with a Boscoli olive sauce (a twist on pulpo al olivo). The chicken liver achieved a crispy exterior and a tender, warm interior, the crunchy batter made using Trisol (one of the many items in Ferran Adriá's "Texturas" bag of tricks). The aji panca tartar sauce was nicely brightened by an unexpected bit of fresh tarragon.

Next course, a Surf-n-Turf of "2 Tails": on the left, lobster tail, cooked sous vide, served over a green bean salad dressed with "Jester" vinegar (made, if I heard right, from the remnants of some heavy-duty Aussie Shiraz from a Mitolo wine-pairing dinner), paired with a 30-second microwave corn cake (derived from an Adriá technique which you can see here, with the added bonus of Anthony Bourdain throwing out an oblique René Magritte reference). On the right, an oxtail meat pie, with a wonderful tender buttery crust, topped with some hot pepper jelly which made for a nice contrast to the rich meat filling.

I was not anticipating a "shout-out" but, lo and behold, the next dish was called "Frod's Shrimp Dickles." Months ago, Chef K and I had gotten to talking about pickled shrimp and I'd told him my mom had a great recipe. He asked me for it, and I got it from Mother Frod and passed it along - certainly never expecting to see it turn up on a menu. But there it was, and their adaptation was actually not so far off from the original - though mom surely didn't pair hers with a surprisingly nice brussels sprout slaw (surprising for me, anyway, as I usually don't like brussels sprouts raw) and some home-made cheese-its. (If you really want the shrimp recipe, I'll post it). Chef K will tell you that a "dickle" is a "dill pickle" - that's also Chef K's creation, not Mother Frod's.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Best Dishes of 2011

This time last year, I was still basking in the reflection of a trip to Spain that included two meals that will probably always be among my most memorable - Asador Etxebarri in the Basque Country, and el Bulli. Not surprisingly, my "Ten Best Bites of 2010" list had a distinctly Iberian tilt. We didn't venture out of the U.S. in 2011, but nonetheless ate well, at home in Miami, on the other side of the continent during a trip to Portland, Oregon, and during a too-brief sojourn to Chicago.[1] For much more worldly lists, I'd highly commend those assembled by Ulterior Epicure and Doc Sconz, who in one year could check off my dining wish list for the next decade or so.

It's always a fun task to compile these kinds of lists. The exceptionality of some dishes is immediately apparent, the experience of them firmly and indelibly imprinted on the memory. Others may need the perspective of time to truly appreciate, perhaps seeming simple at first but gaining depth and nuance upon further reflection, like the flavor development of a good braise.

I tried to hold myself to ten dishes last year but cheated, actually listing fourteen. With no editorial oversight here, I've expanded the list to 20 for 2011. A few curious patterns emerge, though I can't say whether it's mere coincidence or holds some deeper significance.

First: I hope it doesn't come off as self-horn-tooting that several of the dishes listed here (seven) were served at Cobaya dinners, a group I help organize. We've had the incredibly good fortune to work with many outstanding chefs in the past year, who have eagerly embraced our simple "mission statement:" "to get talented chefs to cook great, interesting meals for an audience of adventurous, open-minded diners." Our little experiment is now 2 1/2 years old, we had 10 events in 2011, and we continue to be both energized and humbled by the support from both chefs and diners.

Second: there sure is a lot of foie gras on this list; the ingredient is featured in four of the twenty dishes. At least that foie is somewhat balanced out by three predominantly vegetable dishes that also made the list. I have nothing against foie - clearly - but it's the latter that I think and hope is a real trend. The vegetable universe has been coming under increasing focus and attention from chefs worldwide, and with our uniquely upside down growing seasons here in South Florida there is plenty of material to work with.[2]

Third: the simplest of dishes can still be made outstanding. It's hard to imagine anything more humble and rustic than choucroute garnie or bollito misto; versions of both were among the best things I ate this past year. And once again, one of the very best bites I had all year was basically nothing more than fish, rice and seasoning. This is by no means a rejection of culinary "modernism" - only a recognition that there are many paths to pleasure.

Here, then, is my list for 2011, with excerpts of my earlier comments on each.

1. Quail with Tripe - Le Pigeon (my thoughts on Le Pigeon)


The most memorable dish of the evening (maybe - this is a close call with one of the desserts) was the quail, burnished golden-brown crispy skin encasing tender, mildly gamy meat, served over a tripe and pepper stew with some generous dollops of a (saffron-infused?) aioli. Who'd've thunk to combine quail and tripe? It was simply and unexpectedly perfect.

2. Salmon Nigiri - Naoe (my thoughts on Naoe)

salmon belly

Scottish salmon belly. Cool fish, fatty and rich. Faintly warm rice, perfectly cooked, delicately seasoned. A brush of soy sauce. Perfect.

[Note: I included the same exact item in last year's list. It's hard to pick among the great sushi I've had at Naoe - outstanding aji, aoyagi, Hokkaido uni, among others - but it's this bite of salmon, always the first nigiri served, that perhaps best encapsulates what I love about the place.]

3. Foie Gras Profiteroles - Le Pigeon (my thoughts on Le Pigeon)

foie gras profiteroles

The dessert that will raise eyebrows, and should not be missed, is the foie gras profiteroles. Another twist on a classic, these light, faintly crispy puffs (the choux pastry itself enhanced with foie, recipe here) are filled with a rich foie gras ice cream that perfectly balances sweet and savory, and then generously drizzled with a thin caramel, a sprinkle of coarse sea salt, and delicate chocolate shavings. Outrageously good, it was very possibly one of the best desserts I've had all year.

4. Beet Salad - Azul Cobaya dinner (my thoughts)


Chef Huff's beet salad was brilliant, one of the best dishes I've had all year. From three basic ingredients - beets, blue cheese, bread - he crafted a stunning assembly of shapes, textures and flavors which he said included about 32 individual components. There were roasted beets in various hues, pointing their tendrils into the air. There were rounds of thinly sliced raw candy cane beets providing a bit of earthy, vegetal snap. There was beet espuma encapsulated in thin cylinders of beets. There was garnet-hued dehydrated beet paper, thin enough for light to shine through. There were powders, purées and gels of blue cheese, feather light croutons, razor-thin squares of lacy brioche. It was a dish that inspired a lengthy pause at the table, as everyone was reluctant to undo this beautiful construction.

Sometimes when presentation is such a focal point, flavor can get lost along the way. Not so here. This dish really highlighted the flavors and textures of its star ingredient, and was as delightful to eat as it was to look at. A truly exceptional dish.

5. Carrots with Yogurt and Mint - Ned Ludd (my thoughts on Ned Ludd)

carrots, yogurt, mint

If you can't get excited over chard, you probably won't get excited over carrots either, but this was one of my favorite dishes of the trip. A variety of different-hued carrots - orange, golden, garnet-red - were roasted in the wood-burning oven till tender but not limp. The carrots weren't woody, but still had a firm, almost meaty texture to them, reinforced by the hint of woodsmoke. A dollop of yogurt added both a richness and a tangy contrast, further brightened by wide strips of fresh mint. This was nothing complicated, nothing fancy, but it was perfect.

(continued ...)

Monday, January 9, 2012

é by José Andrés - Las Vegas

é by Jose Andres

If Ferran Adrià is thought of by many as the great inventor of contemporary Spanish cuisine, than José Andrés is surely its great ambassador. Where Adrià, chef of the now-closed el Bulli, has dedicated his culinary career to the relentless pursuit of creativity and creation, Andrés (who trained with Adrià at el Bulli) has been equally dedicated to the promotion of both traditional and contemporary Spanish cooking in the U.S., and has perhaps achieved more recognition and success in doing so than any other chef of the past twenty years.

Andrés opened Jaleo, a tapas bar and restaurant offering a wide range of traditional Spanish regional dishes, in Washington DC in 1993. Before the decade had closed, he was recognized as a James Beard Rising Star Chef, followed in 2003 with an award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. That same year, he opened minibar, which showcased some of the products of the culinary revolution that was overtaking Spain, spearheaded by Adrià and others.

The format of minibar was unique. Described as a "restaurant within a restaurant," physically it was really nothing more than a six-seat sushi bar tucked into a corner of an upper floor of his Café Atlántico restaurant, with a few kitchen tools (circulator, blender, fryer, a couple portable burners) jerry-rigged behind it.[1] The menu of 25+ small dishes, many of which were one- or two-bite "munchies" or "snacks," was undoubtedly inspired by the sprawling tasting menus of el Bulli. So were many of the dishes themselves, some of which had direct antecedents in Adrià's work. But the "minibar" format also brought another intriguing element - interactivity, with two chefs working directly in front of the diners to do the final preparation and plating of the dishes. With only six seats and only two seatings a night, minibar is perennially one of the toughest reservations to score in DC.

Since opening minibar, Andrés has expanded the geographic scope of his ambassadorship, moving into Los Angeles with The Bazaar in 2008, and into Las Vegas in 2010 with a branch of Jaleo along with China Poblano, both in the Cosmopolitan resort. Also tucked away within Jaleo is é: an 8-seat "restaurant within a restaurant" featuring only a set degustation menu, very much along the same lines as minibar. Virtually nothing is done to promote é: there's just a one-page website listing an email address for reservation requests; it's not even listed on the website of the parent company for Andrés' ventures, Think Food Group. But it's definitely worth knowing about.[2]

(You can see all my pictures in this é by José Andrés flickr set).


Unlike minibar, where you're literally sitting in a corner of the main dining area, é gets its own private room within Jaleo. The centerpiece is the kitchen bar, a rounded arc with eight seats circled around an open "kitchen" (though it's really more plating than cooking that goes on here).[3] The effect is decidedly theatrical, and the sense of having stepped into the middle of some sort of performance is enhanced by a space that feels more theater set than dining room, walls lined with card catalog drawers and various knick-knacks. A team of three chefs performs final preparations and plates each of the dishes, which are then handed directly to the diners.[4]

Much of the cooking at é is what got called, until recently, "molecular gastronomy," and now seems to have taken on the sobriquet of "modernist cuisine." In other words, there's liquid nitrogen, and foams, and lots of other textural transformations at work. I'll circle back to the issue of whether, as some might claim, this style of cooking is already passé in light of the advent of what gets called the "New Naturalism."[5] I bring it up here only to note that the interactivity and intimacy has an interesting effect: the ability of the diners to see the preparations, hear the story behind each dish as it's presented, and ask questions of the chefs, creates a connection to the food that might not be otherwise established in the same way. It won't necessarily make a dish taste any better, but I think it demystifies food that some find alienating and inaccessible, without taking away any of the novelty of its presentation.

We visited é in late December and they were serving a special holiday menu loaded with luxury ingredients (and priced quite a bit more than the "regular" menu), so the meal you see here may not be entirely representative. Even so, some of my favorite dishes were those with the humblest components.

gin & tonic

The meal started, as good meals often do, with a cocktail: a "Gin and Tonic," to be precise. With evaporating liquid nitrogen billowing across the workspace, one of the chefs prepared a gin sorbet a la minute, which was then topped with a tonic froth and a grating of fresh citrus zest - a refreshing rearrangement of the traditional drink.


A collection of little snacks followed.

(continued ...)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Restaurante Arzak - San Sebastian

I mentioned briefly earlier how one of the things I find so enjoyable about Spain is the happy confluence of the old and the new. Ancient buildings stand side-by-side with contemporary architectural creations like the arched glass Bilbao Metro entrances designed by Norman Foster (hence, "Fosteritos"), to say nothing, of course, of the iconic Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao. Madrid's Prado Museum, a bastion of classical art, displays an exhibition of modern master Francis Bacon, in a newer contemporary wing built right onto the back of the 18th century building. And often, even the most cutting edge food has roots that go back several generations.

Arzak is generally regarded as one of the high temples of modern gastromony, and for good reason. But its origins were much humbler. The restaurant is housed in a building which was constructed more than 100 years ago and operated by Juan Mari Arzak's grandparents as a tavern. When his parents took it over, they began to run a restaurant, which Juan Mari Arzak began working at in 1966, and over time undertook the process of reconceptualizing and reinventing Basque cuisine. Now, with Juan Mari's daughter Elena intimately involved in the operation of the restaurant, the baton is being passed yet again from one generation to the next (the fourth generation to be in the hospitality business at this site, spanning more than a century).

Arzak is a humble unassuming place from the outside, and even when you step through the entrance, the scene that greets you is of a very traditional-looking wood bar and a couple comfy chairs scattered around what looks, more than anything else, like someone's living room. From there, we were led into a dining room that was considerably more modern - mostly black and white, with walls of rough grey concrete bearing the imprints of various silverware.* Despite the monochrome scheme, the room manages to avoid feeling too sterile. There's no particular dress code and we saw people in all different states of dressed-up to dressed-down.

The tasting menu as initially presented was amusingly brief - I'm not exaggerating much to say that it read to the effect of "apertivos / pescados / carne / dulce ...". Obviously there was plenty more in store. While there was also a standard menu of apps and mains, of course we were there for the tasting menu, and were happy to learn that there were two options available for most of the courses. As a result, we got to try 13 different dishes, aside from apertivos and post-desserts.

A quick word on photographs before I begin describing our meal. While the restaurant allowed us to take pictures, it was solely on the condition that they be for our personal consumption only. I have sworn to none other than Juan Mari Arzak himself that I wouldn't circulate the pictures, and I will keep that promise. As I mentioned before leaving for this trip, I have mixed feelings about the photography thing myself, and while I can only speculate as to the reasons a chef might have for not wanting pictures of his food circulated - the desire to protect techniques or presentations, the goal of preserving the surprise element of a meal, or even just a reluctance to let some hack's crappy photos make your food look bad - I will respect that wish.

Look, I think one of the more interesting things about what's happening in the current "food scene" is the "open source" nature of it, with chefs like Grant Achatz not only putting out cookbooks that pull no punches as to Alinea's methods and techniques, but going even further and running a website - Mosaic - to serve as an ongoing forum for discussion; plus dozens of other chefs with websites and blogs that regularly and happily share information. But that doesn't necessarily mean everyone has to play along or play the same way. The Arzak family has a lot more invested in their restaurant than I invested in our 2-top tasting menu, and particularly given the incredibly warm hospitality we experienced throughout our meal, I have no problem with their position. As a result we're left with my meager descriptive abilities to try to capture the essence of our meal.

Anyway, on to the food -

We were started with a selection of apertivos (I'd consider using "amuse bouche" but I'm not sure whether the plural should be "amuses bouche" or "amuse bouches"), some brought out on our plates, others on a display box that was lit up from underneath.

On the plate -
puding de kabrarroka con fideos fritos - a light mousse of scorpion-fish (or rockfish?) wrapped in what was described as fried fideos (angel-hair pasta), but which appeared to me to be kataifi or shredded filo. A good example of the old/new thing. The presentation here was completely modern, but given the abundance of recipes I find online for "puding de kabraroka or "pastel de kabraroka," my guess is that this is a variation on a traditional Basque dish.
bola de setas y polvo de maiz - a spherified orb of wild mushroom, sprinkled with crispy bits of dried corn.
caldito de alubia negra con queso - a little shot glass of black bean soup, topped with a frothy head of liquified white cheese.

On the display box -
raiz de loto con mousse de arraitxiki - slivers of lotus root chips, sandwiched around a creamy mousse of "arraitxiki", which I can only discern is some common local fish.
arroz crujiente con hongos - crispy puffed rice crackers (flavored with saffron?) sandwiched around a mushroom mousse.

All very nice nibbles to start the meal, the standout for me was the black bean soup, which was light but powerfully flavored, really one of the best I've had. As for the mushroom sphere - I've now seen the spherification technique enough times that it no longer holds any awe or mystery for me. Which is just as well, as far as I'm concerned, because it means I can evaluate a particular iteration based on the most meaningful test alone - does it taste good? Does the technique advance the flavor? Or is it merely gratuitous or gimmicky? Here, I thought the sphere carried the mushroom flavor nicely, and provided a good textural contrast against the light crispiness of the corn dust.

manzana con aceite de foie - three small disks of sliced, sauteed apple, each topped with a round of "foie oil," presumably the fat thrown off when cooking foie gras, though more solid like butter rather than liquid like oil, and then topped with a little sprinkle of sugar and brûléed. A wonderful pairing of flavors and textures, with the slight bitterness of the foie fat balanced by the sweetness of the fruit and the caramelized sugar.

ostras vegetales - two plump oysters bathing in a tart sauce, sprinkled with briny sea beans and capers.

bogavante con aceite de oliva "extra blanco" - a beautifully tender lobster, served over a bed of white olive oil powder (typically made using maltodextrin), which was then topped tableside with a spiraling pour of broth that re-emulsified and partially liquified the olive oil powder. To some degree I thought it was a shame to do so, as when done right I enjoy the texture and flavor sensation of these powdered fats as they "rehydrate" in your mouth. A little salad of tiny greens and herbs was presented with the lobster, in a separate bowl. These little "side dishes" were something of a recurring element of our dinner, and sometimes (as described below) I didn't understand the purpose of the separate presentation.

cigalas sobre liquer de hongos y algas - two langoustine tails, again just wonderfully fresh and perfectly tender. The printed menu we received after our meal says "liquer de hongos y algas" but what I recall is a yellow corn sauce flecked with corn kernels and infused with a hint of vanilla, along with a translucently thin, golden brown crispy chip. Alongside in a separate bowl was another langoustine tail, this one over a bed of tiny sprouts. I don't know why.

del huevo a la gallina - "from the egg to the chicken?" Arzak's answer to the perennial riddle, this was the only course where we both received the same dish, and it was a good one. A translucently thin, bright yellow sheet of egg yolk is wrapped like a cylindrical tent balanced in a shallow bowl. Lurking within is a perfectly cooked "Arzak egg" (wrapped in plastic wrap with goose fat and truffle oil before poaching - and yes, that link is a recipe from AARP online magazine! For another take, here's a spin on it from Ideas in Food), generously flecked on top with fresh black truffle shavings. Tableside, a warm chicken broth is poured over the yellow tent, which softens and begins to melt, making a sauce for the egg. Just a great dish all around, both presentation and flavor, though the egg was wanting of a tiny pinch of salt.

rape bronceado - "bronzed" monkfish. The monkfish itself was given a light glaze that gave a reddish-orange hue on the outside edges (making it look even more like the "poor man's lobster" it is often called), and again, perfectly cooked. It was plated with a medium-brown jus (which again, I believe may have been chicken) which then had another sauce spooned over tableside; as the second sauce hits the first, it produces vibrant, shiny bronze pools, almost like the iridescent look of an oil slick. Accompanying on a separate plate were a couple of bright bronze "crackers," really more like paper, folded into abstract origami-like shapes. I believe Elena Arzak (both Elena and Juan Mari visited each of the tables multiple times throughout the night) explained that the paper is made primarily with onion, and the color comes from a product that is typically used in baking. Very cool stuff, and the use of color was clearly a recurring theme throughout the meal, a subject Elena apparently addressed at Madrid Fusion a couple months ago.

lenguado con aceite de jengibre y pan de coco - two filets of sole stacked on top of each other, surrounded by several little disks of melon, along with several little cubes of croutons (described as "pan de coco" but I couldn't discern the coconut), with a ginger-inflected sauce and a scatter of tiny, brightly colored green and red sprouts on top. Light and elegant.

pato azulón con perdigones dulces - "azulón" means dark blue, I believe, though honestly the duck didn't look all that blue to me. It did have a dark glaze on the outside while still being red within, so maybe this was a play on the American steakhouse order of "black and blue" (though I kind of doubt it) [edited to add: an astute reader has relieved me of my ignorance on "azulón" and "perdigones" - check the comments below]. In retrospect, the shape of the duck was interesting, more like a thick-cut beef tenderloin than a duck breast, perhaps it had been re-shaped with Activa. Surrounding the duck were several spheres (the "perdigones dulces," which I believe translates to "sweet pellets," presumably like some sort of candy) again with just sensational colors - a couple a soft shiny pink, a few others an even shinier silver. The pink ones tasted predominantly to me of sherry vinegar, while the flavor of the silver ones was somewhat indistinct. The duck itself was just a bit tough (though Mrs. F ordered this medium, a degree more than I would have). A delicate little salad of baby frisee, topped with a little crispy cracker flecked with pine nuts and sesame seeds, was served alongside.

foie con "tejote" - several triangles of nicely seared foie gras, plated with several little "lozenges" of a jelled raspberry along with some crispy little chocolate bits, then supplemented tableside with a vibrant yellow corn sauce. I loved the combination of the foie with the crispy chocolate bits, but this really sung with all of the components combined. A glass of Sauternes was poured to accompany. Another of my favorites for the meal. (Can anyone help with the "tejote" reference? The only translation I can find refers to a "molcajete y tejote", or mortar and pestle).

From here, we shifted over to the sweet side of things:

sopa y chocolate "entre viñedos" - (soup and chocolate "among vineyards") it seems Arzak has been doing variations on this dish for some time. This particular version took the form of six chocolate spheres, arranged in a triangle like billiard balls in a rack, in a bowl with a sweetened red (wine, I presume) soup, along with a scoop of a vibrant green basil ice cream. The item that really jumped out, in a good way, here was the basil ice cream, whose flavor matched the vibrancy of its color. I would have liked a more potent chocolate flavor in the chocolate spheres, particularly to hold their own against the ice cream.

esmeraldas de chocolate con láminas de rosquillas - three disks of an incredible dark, slightly iridescent green were plated within a ring of lightly golden powder (presumably a powder of doughnuts, which it seems is the translation for "rosquillas"). The disks contained fluffy chocolate within and the emerald color of the outside casing was, we were told, derived from spinach (always nice to get some vegetables with your dessert). While these were beautiful to look at, I thought they were - like the chocolate spheres in the other dessert above - somewhat muted in flavor. A sidecar of a chocolate ice cream infused with rosemary, on the other hand, was just fantastic, providing an interesting reiteration of the chocolate and green (herb, this time) combination.

bizcocho esponjoso de yogur - another absolutely beautiful dessert,this one was composed of yogurt sponge cake (I'm guessing this was made using a variation on the Adria microwave sponge cake method described, among other places, here), along with pools of coconut pudding and shards of thin dried pineapple, along with little branches of chocolate, all arranged to look like a coral reef. Just stunning, and great flavors too.

dulce lunático - what looked like three caramel turtle candies in fact were just a thin candy shell enclosing a brightly tart gushing liquid center. Served on a plate with several round darkly colored, slightly jelled discs of sauce, and a white powder, however, I had trouble making out the flavors of these. Didn't fully "get" this dish. However, I did love the calabaza ice cream that came as a sidecar, further enhanced, I believe with mace.

At some point, one of our servers heard Mrs. F mention that this was something of a 15th anniversary dinner for us (though not actually our anniversary, we do try to take our "sans kids" trip every year around our anniversary, and it was reasonably close) and they brought out a beautiful box constructed of milk and white chocolate sheets, enclosing within them a lovely layered chocolate cake, topped with a chocolate "15". An incredibly thoughtful and unbidden gesture, and delicious too. No gripes here about lack of flavor, this restored and revived my love for good milk chocolate.

A nice selection of petit-fours closed the meal, including chocolate candies with finely chopped corn-nuts, chocolate shards layered with caramel, cubes of pineapple jellies, and very nice little white bean truffles.

The wine list had a broad selection of young and old wines, we went in the latter direction and had a 1982 Bodegas Lan Rioja Viña Lanciano Reserve, which was absolutely beautiful, still with lots of life in it. Also a couple glasses of muscatel to accompany the desserts.

It is impossible to describe the experience of dining at Arzak without mentioning the gracious hospitality of Juan Mari Arzak and daughter Elena Arzak as well as all of the restaurant staff. From the moment you walk through the front door, you feel welcomed as a guest, not simply a customer. Both Juan Mari and Elena walked through the dining room and greeted each table, but it was not merely a quick cameo appearance. Indeed, both of them came back and visited again multiple times throughout the meal, making sure everyone was happy, and gladly answering questions and providing explanations of the dishes. And not to take anything away from Juan Mari, but Elena Arzak is quite simply one of the most gracious, graceful, warm and endearing people you will ever meet - as well as prodigiously talented. The future of Arzak seems to be in good hands.

Avenida Alcade Elosegui 273
San Sebastian 20015
943 278 465

*We were, despite being non-smokers, seated in the smokers' dining room as the non-smoking room was already fully booked. Ironically, there was only one table of maybe a half-dozen seated that I noticed lighting up, and while it was a brief and unwelcome distraction, it wasn't that big of a deal.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Spiceonomics - Navigating Miami Spice, 2013 Edition

With August upon us, it's that time once again: Miami Spice. Now in its twelfth year, Miami Spice remains something of a culinary version of Russian Roulette: you might have a very good meal that's a great value at a restaurant that's excited to offer it to you; or you might have a mediocre meal that's not very different from the restaurant's regular prices, served by a resentful and begrudging waitstaff who are not impressed by your 15% tip on a $33 per person tab.

How to tell the difference? Over the years I've repeatedly proposed and refined three basic rules by which to approach Miami Spice:

(1) there's no reason to bother with restaurants where the Spice menu is not a meaningful discount from their regular prices (though, by all means, go to them if you like them; just don't do so because they're offering a Miami Spice menu);

(2) the infamous chicken breast / farmed salmon / churrasco (or substitute short rib) "trifecta" is usually a tell that a restaurant doesn't have its heart in it; and

(3) look for food that actually interests you. If a restaurant doesn't excite you the other ten months of the year, it is unlikely there's going to be something really inspiring on their Spice menu.

To those three basic rules I would add a couple corollaries:

(a) Tip on the value of the meal, not the price. If you're dining at a place where the Spice menu is a meaningful discount from their usual going rate - i.e., if your $33 meal would normally cost $50 - be a sport and drop a $10 tip. The servers are working just as hard as ever.

(b) There's no rule that everyone at the table has to order the Spice menu. (Well, except at some places like Pubbelly where they assume everyone is sharing and offer multiple small plates) Consider it an opportunity to do a little splurging and dollar-cost averaging at the same time, so you can eat at a high-end place without completely breaking the bank.

Last year, rather than just say "Here are 10 places to go for Miami Spice," I plotted out a "Week of Spice" - seven actual lunches and dinners that I'd want to eat from the universe of Miami Spice menus. Even though I didn't actually eat all those meals, I still like the format, and will do it again here. Once again, these are not the complete menus of any of the places listed, only the things I thought sounded most interesting. And once again, I've not actually tried any of these menus yet, so caveat emptor, etc. (though for the most part these are restaurants I know and would generally trust).

(continued ...)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Eating House - Coral Gables

eating house

A month ago I had no idea who Giorgio Rapicavoli was. It had been a couple years, and a couple chefs, since I'd been to the Angler's Resort where he was last working. I can't stand watching "Chopped," the Food Network cooking competition show where chefs with varying degrees of skill are asked to prepare dishes from mystery baskets of ridiculously incongruous and often unappetizing ingredients; so the fact that he had won an episode did nothing to put him on my radar.

But then I caught word that he was opening a pop-up restaurant to be called Eating House in a hole-in-the-wall café on the outskirts of Coral Gables. And then I took a look at his preview menu. It read like no other menu I've seen in Miami, all sorts of unexpected combinations and flavors.

I went to Eating House a week after they opened at the beginning of the month. I've already been back twice in as many weeks. I know who Giorgio Rapicavoli is now. And at risk of hyperbole, I will say this: at Eating House, he's putting out some of the most exciting food I've had in Miami in some time.

eating house

Tuesday through Sunday nights, Eating House takes over Café Ponce, a non-descript breakfast and lunch place near the corner of Ponce de Leon Boulevard and 8th Street. What atmosphere there is - and there's not much - is contributed by some graffiti artworks hanging on the walls and a soundtrack dominated by '90s hip-hop. But it's a pop-up, the point is the food not the decor. Service is also a minimalist but efficient affair - if it's not general manager Alex Casanova, as often as not it'll be Chef Rapicavoli himself bringing your food to the table.

eating house menu

(You can see all my pictures in this Eating House flickr set or click on any picture to enlarge).

The menu is tight as a Snoop Dogg blunt - typically ten items, mostly "small plate" sized, plus a few dessert options. It's changed around the edges each time I've been in, with dishes coming and going or morphing from one visit to the next. The influences are as much Slow Food as Ideas in Food - lots of local ingredients, lots of creative preparations.

homestead tomatoes

A perfect example: local Homestead tomatoes. But instead of a typical salad, Rapicavaoli takes them to Thailand, with lime, ginger, fish sauce, peanuts, fresh herbs, nasturtium flowers, and frozen coconut milk. It's a perfect rendition of the flavors of Thailand in an unexpected format, the frozen coconut milk in particular lending an intriguing icy creaminess to the composition.[1]

baby eggplant

Even better - indeed, one of best dishes I've had in recent memory - were the baby eggplants, topped with a banana miso, vanilla salt, yuzu kosho, sesame seeds and baby greens. Here, the starting point was a classic - nasu dengaku, or Japanese miso-glazed eggplant - but with multiple added layers of complexity. The banana and miso echo back to each other in both texture and flavor, a salty-sweet creamy richness, while the yuzu kosho adds the bright contrast of both citrus and spice, and yet another note brought in by the vanilla salt. This is really virtuoso stuff.

(continued ...)