October 24, 2014
I’ve known about David Chang’s food lab for some time, but I've never really known what takes place behind those closed doors. It seems that unlike other flavor companies (Givaudan comes to mind), who are asking “how can we mimic real food with synthetics?" Chang and his team are moving in the opposite direction. They're trying to tease even more umami out of ordinary raw ingredients. It’s a tantalizing project.
When I heard about Kaizen Trading Company, the food lab’s first real product line, I was eager to find out more. They've been introducing koji, the natural fermentor used to make miso and soy sauce, into other grains and legumes (chickpeas, sunflower seeds and rye). The result? Miso-like pastes of astonishingly depth called hozon, and a rye bonji (in the style of soy sauce) that has a tantalizing sweetness; I would gladly drink it straight from the bottle.
But what to do with hozon? My first attempt (after simply gobbling it up by the spoonful), was to substitute it for miso in one of my favorite Japanese dishes, nasu no dengaku. I ended up with that same seductively soft flesh infused with something more complex than ordinary miso.I can't wait to try hozon in other dishes: I've been thinking about that misobutter corn I've always loved so much at Saam Bar.
Hozon isn’t yet available to consumers (except via Quinciple), but I'm hoping they'll hurry this great product into production.
(I used small italian eggplants for the photograph above, but only because I couldn't find any Japanese eggplants. They'd work better.)
4 Japanese eggplants
2 Tablespoons hozon or miso
1 Tablespoon sake
1 Tablespoon mirin
1 Tablespoon sugar
Preheat the oven to 425.
Halve the eggplants. Using a sharp knife, score each cut side deeply, making sure not to cut through the skin. Salt well and let sit for 15 or 20 minutes.
Dry the eggplant thoroughly. Brush a fair amount of vegetable oil on all sides of the eggplant and arrange them, cut side down, on a baking sheet. Roast until the flesh is completely tender, which should take 15 or 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare your glaze by mixing together the hozon, sake, mirin and sugar.
When the eggplant is perfectly roasted, turn it over in the pan and brush on the glaze. Turn on the broiler.
Broil the eggplant for one minute and then pull out to check. You want a golden color–for the glaze to be lightly caramelized; if it is not quite golden, return it to the broiler for another 30 seconds or so.
October 21, 2014
If we had stopped to put gas in the car, we would have missed it. But it was almost sunset, and I wanted to get to one of my favorite produce stands before they took everything in for the night. Et Cetera Farm is just a little cart by the side of the road, but on it you can find ginger, greens, purple carrots, tomatoes and eggs. They make their own kimchi and grow what must be the only rice in Columbia County.
We were thumbing through nubs of resplendent young ginger when an old truck pulled up next to the stand and the driver emerged holding something the size of a baseball; from far away it looked like coral or sheep’s wool. As he drew closer the wind wafted toward us, sending out the unmistakable scent of mushrooms.
“It’s called lion’s mane,” he said.
“Where did you find it?” I asked, stupidly.
“In the woods somewhere.” The man gestured around at the landscape, his eyes shifting. I blushed; I'd forgotten the first rule of mushrooms: never ask a forager where he finds his treasures.
As the man traded the mushroom for vegetables, the farmers glanced my way. "Have you ever tasted this?" they asked. When I shook my head they broke off a little piece and shyly handed it over.
At home, a little nervous, I looked it up. Apparently this is a safe and easy mushroom; nothing poisonous remotely resembles its shaggy beauty. I brushed away small bits of dirt with a mushroom brush and tore the lion’s mane into pieces the size of a fingernail. Melting a little olive oil and a bit of butter, I gently sautéed the mushroom until it turned golden. By the time it hit the table, our fantastical mushroom had shriveled to fifteen micro-bites. I savored each one, amazed at the whoosh of forest flavor filling my mouth.
My problem now: where do I get more?
October 18, 2014
Beautiful, right? Maybe it's because Anne-Sophie Pic is the only woman chef in France with three Michelin stars, but her food is the loveliest I've seen. Hard to imagine a prettier way to present seasonal vegetables in a green tea- infused broth – or a more delicious way to conceive an essentially simple dish.
This was equally delicate, and equally delicious. Squid, tenderly cooked, and served with two kinds of tomatoes. Some were real, others spherified into an intense vanilla-laced liquid. Served in a rum-laced consomme, it had a tropical intensity so profound you instantly imagined warm breezes wafting through the rather staid Maison Pic.
Those were two of the dishes on the daily lunch special, which began with this marvel – foie gras creme brulee, topped with lemon cream and a tiny crisp of apple. I could have stopped right there and gone home happy.
Other hits in a long lunch included these "berlingots" (the little leaf-wrapped dumplings take their name from a pyramid-shaped classic French candy) filled with Banon cheese in a watercress broth spiced with ginger and bergamot.
Chef Pic has a penchant for floral flavors – rosewater and jasmine abound in her dishes – and these tender little langoustines luxuriate in a buttered broth with hints of apple, cinnamon, celery and anise. It made me wonder if there is perfume in Pic's future.
The cheese cart is encyclopedic, and so wonderful I wanted to taste every one of the 25 cheeses. With great restraint I limited myself to these:
The wine list is impressive too, especially if you're eager to try local vintages. The viognier was fresh, and so delicate it reminded me of how little the viognier made in America resembles what is made here in the Rhone. A wonderful food wine – as were a few of the inexpensive Village wines we sampled from the list. Afterward there were a couple of gorgeous desserts:
The famous white millefeuille, and this lovely large cookie, each bite different than the one before.
From Valence it's a mere 35 minutes on the TGV back to Lyon. You might opt for one of the many bouchons, like the hip, raucous Bouchon des Filles, which is run by women. Here you indulge in hearty meals that are the polar opposite of Pic.
It will begin with a hefty slab of pate de foie gras:
Then the waitress will plunk a series of bowls on the table. Help yourself to lentil salad, to carrots with mackerel, to head cheese and leafy greens – as much as you care to eat.
Then, if you're smart, you'll go on to quenelles – pike mousse in a rich shellfish cream sauce:
Or kidneys. Or the local andouille sausage. Afterward there will be cheese, including the local speciality tete de canut (silkworker's head) with its many herbs. And there are still desserts – many of them – to come.
Too much? The 25 euro prix fixe meal at Bouchon des Filles is a terrific lot of food. Perhaps you'd prefer to wander along the Quai St. Antoine until you come to one of the seafood restaurants along the river. We had this wonderful array at Jols.
It's not a celebrated restaurant, but it made us very, very happy.
October 13, 2014
If I lived in Paris I'd be at Au Passage a lot. Casual, comfortable, raucous and delicious, this little wine bar/bistro is the perfect place to fall into when you're hungry but not in the mood for an enormous, expensive deal.
The menu, as you can plainly see, is written on the blackboard. What you can't see is that it changes throughout the night. Order fast – or what you want will have disappeared, replaced by who knows what. Toward midnight (they're open late) there may be very few dishes still on offer.
What the food shares is a basic simplicity. The chefs – one Brit, one Aussie and a young woman from the Phillipines – have worked with chefs like Fergus Henderson and Heston Blumenthal, so it's an informed simplicity that gives you dishes like this superb little rectangle of cod served with carrots two ways:
These excellent shrimp (the oysters are also superb)
Raw scallops, sliced and topped with homemade XO sauce:
or just a plate of excellent saucisson seche, with bread, butter and pickled banana peppers.
There are a couple of larger dishes, including a hefty shoulder of lamb and one of the most irresistible little chickens it has ever been my pleasure to eat:
The little coquelet was gorgeously cooked, still moist, with a bowl of tiny potatoes and that wonderful aioli to slather across it.
Different potatoes – floppy fresh frites – came with a square of pig's head, steamed to creamy softness, boned, breaded and fried into delirious deliciousness:
Lovely vegetables too, like this plate of chard with a gently poached egg:
There's an affordable winelist, filled with wines from small producers. And graffitti like this to pass, as you walk home, through the 11th arrondissement.
October 11, 2014
Napoleon, it is said, met Josephine at Ledoyen. I don't know if that's true, but it certainly could be. For years I've stared longingly at the lights of this grand old building, set in a park just off the Champs Elysees, and thought it looked like the most romantic restaurant in the world.
Then I heard that Yannick Alleno, whose food I've always admired, had taken over the three-star kitchen. When a celebrated chef takes on an institution – as the reviews are coming in – is always the perfect time to go. The entire establishment is on its toes.
They certainly are. The service, from the moment you enter that gracious building, could not be more welcoming or solicitous. You walk up a regal stairway into a large windowed room of extraordinary calm, the tables widely spaced, looking out at tree level. It is like entering a stage set: you instantly feel as if you have become, if just for the moment, a person of great privilege.
And then the food begins to arrive. A few highlights:
One of many precise little bites: an interpretation of oyster (that's oyster leaf, which truly tastes like an oyster), a leap of textures and flavors that plays with your head. This is a small savory ile flottante that announces, right from the start, that this chef is using classic techniques in wildly inventive ways.
Pillows of beef tartare: the wagyu is from Gunma, the prefecture in Japan known for the sweetest, tenderest beef. Scattered throughout are little explosions of black sesame. On top, cool curls of cucumber and burnet leaf.
Gorgeous, isn't it? Mackerel sashimi stuffed with a puree of shiso and set in a gorgeous hibiscus aspic. Japan filtered through a French sensibility. One of the things I love about Alleno's cooking is the way he gives humble ingredients – mackerel, squid, butternut squash – the same attention as luxurious ones like lobster, wagyu beef and foie gras.
The polar opposite: France filtered through a purely French lens. This extremely unattractive dish was all about the mouth, but I have never had better foie gras. A huge, soft, rich cushion, poached in Riveslates (a sweet fortified wine), and paired with an equally unbeautiful (and equally delicious) sugar-crusted poached pear. "I can't possibly eat this much foie gras," I cried when the plate was set before me. It turned out I was wrong.
Who could resist a dish called "crab wrapped in calamari leaves"? The "leaves" turned out to be a kind of pasta made of pureed calamari, wrapped around crab and set in a potent grapefruit chutney whose bitterness had been tamed by almond milk. It wasn't my favorite dish of the night, but I was intrigued by the flavors.
I would not have missed this dish for the world; it is a real triumph. Eel souffle in a watercress coulis, accented by little bits of beet and onion. The rich softness of the eel was underlined by the edgy green flavor of the cress, then echoed by the combination of sweet, slowly cooked beet and strong onion confit. Again, Alleno offers a textural waltz: air and liquid circling around each other with each bite.
Cepes en civet – it's cepe season in Paris, and this was surely the most impressive presentation we had in any restaurant, the silken mushrooms cooked with orange peel and juniper that coaxed out the deep forest flavor of the mushrooms. Close your eyes: it's a walk in the woods.
I've always been a lobster purist: in the past I've merely wanted lobsters boiled and plunked on the table in the shell. After this, I'm not so sure. This lobster arrived in three takes: the tail so gorgeously grilled in a vinegar made of the coral that it was still tender.
Then there was one claw pureed and stuffed into cabbage:
the other served with the tomally and a sauce made of the shells pressed with vinegar:
Lobster has never been so gracefully deconstructed.
Chicken poached in vin de jura: so simple, but so good. The golden mushrooms a lovely contrast.
Ask for a salad, and this is what you get, a beautiful bowl of leaves and flowers. Vegetarians are well cared for here: there is a lovely plate of cepes in parmesan, a fine dish of butternut squash.
Afterwards there is the elegant cheese cart and a parade of desserts.
The food is intriguing and exciting, but three star dining is about much more than food. It's a performance, and Ledoyen doesn't let you down. The ambiance is so luxurious, the staff so convincing that by the time you leave you expect to find a coach and four waiting to whisk you home.
Alas, real life is just outside the door. Here comes your taxi.