Friday, September 6, 2013

Blanca - Brooklyn, New York

"People take pictures of each other
Just to prove that they really existed."
A couple years ago, reports began to emanate of a second kitchen at Roberta's, a funky "third wave" pizzeria in deep Brooklyn. Roberta's chef Carlo Mirarchi was already turning out acclaimed pizzas. But this was something else - delicate fish crudos and composed dishes, "fantastical tales of aged birds and beef." Soon the mainstream media caught up, and word was out on these extremely limited edition tasting menus.

Demand ultimately led to a separate venue inside the Roberta's compound for these dinners, dubbed Blanca. Since opening about a year ago, Blanca has become known for a number of things: its artful, extensive, and expensive (currently $195pp) tasting menus; its extreme dry-aged meats program (not "fantastical" after all); its location in Bushwick (Roberta's is on a "grim street" in "basically a frontier community," according to Alan Richman, though Ruth Reichl didn't find it nearly so desolate recently); its extremely limited seating (12 spots, two seatings a night); its obtuse reservation "system" (since fixed);[1] and its no-photos no-cellphones policy.

Some of these are more important to me than others. I'll travel pretty far - even Bushwick[2] - and navigate a pretty tricky reservation system if there's something great to eat at the end of the ordeal. And as someone who started off this blogging venture with very ambivalent feelings about photography, I never really imagined that not being able to take pictures would have any impact on my enjoyment of a meal.

And yet I find myself now with ambivalent feelings about our meal a few months ago at Blanca, and I wonder if the no-photos policy has anything to do with it. I have vivid recollections of only a handful of the 20-ish courses we were served. Many others are only fuzzy vague memories; and some I don't recall at all.

Do people take pictures of their food just to prove that it existed? Does a dish no longer exist to me if I don't have a picture of it? Have I so externalized my own brain functions that I can no longer clearly remember something if I've not digitally recorded it somewhere? Or was it something else about the Blanca dining experience?

Here's what I do recall:

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

gastroLab Dinner with Chef Jeremiah

There's a difference between "clever" and "smart."[1] Clever may make you giggle. Smart makes you think. The difference is sometimes overlooked in what was called "molecular gastronomy" five years ago, then was redubbed "modernist cuisine" a couple years back, and now, according to ponderous dipshit shnorrer John Mariani, is already passé. Some of the criticism is fair: in manipulating form and texture, and disregarding flavor, some chefs were more clever than smart. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do something - in particular, it doesn't mean it tastes better.

Going back to one of our first Cobaya events, I've enjoyed several dinners with Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog (perhaps better known as the pilot of the gastroPod food truck) over the years. His latest "gastroLab" dinner was the smartest meal I've had with him - one where everything on the plate had purpose and focus, one where the thought behind each item translated into flavor.

(You can see all my pictures from this meal in this gastroLab flickr set).

The site for the dinner was the new location of GAB Studio Art Gallery in Wynwood, and Jeremiah pulled the gastroPod right inside to serve as the kitchen.

The meal started with a procession of snacks, served communally on a big wooden plank. Crispy chicken foot chicharrones used the skin from deboned chicken feet - someone must have doing a lot of chicken toenail trimming. Toast squares were topped with a creamy, rich duck liver mousse. And morcilla and eggs - something of a recurring theme with Chef Jeremiah - came with the blood sausage in two forms - in puffy, chicharrone-like morcilla-tapioca crisps, and more traditionally in the meaty, creamy, loose sausage that filled them, dabbed with a rich egg yolk jam.

Borscht has always seemed like something of an oxymoron to me - a cold, refreshing soup, but also a hearty meat stew. Jeremiah's "Watermelon Borscht" played off both those angles but focused mostly on the former. Cubed watermelon was compressed with beet juice to yield a cool, juicy bite with an undertone of the earthy root vegetable, as well as a stunning ruby hue. Meanwhile a ribbon of whipped bone marrow and a "rare beef jus" (rare because the beef was cooked sous vide to keep its color) dropped the meaty bass note onto the plate, with strands of pickled cabbage and dehydrated beet "streusel tied into the theme too. A multitude of textures instead of a simple puréed soup, but with the same happy interplay of flavors. (More complete explanations of several dishes are on Jeremiah's blog - the watermelon borscht is here).

Next, the South meets the Tropics with fried green carambola. We've all heard of fried green tomatoes. Well, unlike the rest of the country, summer isn't tomato season in South Florida. But we do still get carambola a/k/a starfruit, and often they're less than perfectly ripe.[2] So Jeremiah took the unripe carambola and treated it like a green tomato - compressed them with ricotta whey, coated them with semolina and fried them, yielding a similar texture and tartness to the classic southern staple. This was paired with house-made goat's milk ricotta (wherefrom the ricotta whey), Georgia peaches pickled in rice wine vinegar and then charred, and a radish green for a little zing. Entirely unexpected - entirely successful, the kind of dish that sounds unlikely until you taste it.

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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).

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