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RESTAURANTS : FOOD FOR THOUGHT : Checkers Chef Thomas Keller Sculpts Food That Wants to Be Taken Seriously

June 16, 1991|Ruth Reichl

Chefs who consider themselves artists traditionally have thought of the plate as an empty canvas. Food is the paint they use in the creation of their masterpieces, and they spend a great deal of time considering color and composition.

Nouvelle-cuisine chefs were so enamored of this idea that they demanded the enormous plate; Villeroy & Boch, plate-makers to the chefs of the '70s and '80s, made plates that topped out at 13 inches.

"This plate doesn't look like anything important," said Michael McCarty when he introduced the plain, big plate at Michael's in 1979, "but it's bigger than anything else, it's flat, and it has that nice wide band that shows off the color and texture of the food." That nice wide band was, of course, the frame around the picture.

Thomas Keller has other ideas. This chef, who came from New York's Rakel restaurant to take over the kitchens at Checkers, does not have painting on his mind. Dimension is more what he is after; his plates are not canvases but pedestals, and what they support are not paintings but sculptures. The result is that his food--with flavors that tend to be clear and rather uncomplicated--is some of the most exciting in the city. Even the plainest dish comes piled up in interesting shapes.

Consider something as simple as soup. Wild-mushroom broth with roasted Maine scallop arrives as a single large scallop sitting in the bottom of a bowl surrounded by ruffle-edged strips of shiitake . The bowl itself is perched upon a folded napkin, its edges dusted with mushroom powder. As you admire the effect, an intense puree of mushrooms is poured into the bowl, and you watch the scallop disappear. It's a sort of mini-site-sculpture--with the added attraction of flavor, which is both delicate and delicious.

Keller is not above his own brand of performance art. He likes to send out little amuses-gueules while patrons wait for their meal, but his are a far cry from the sedate toasts and mousses served in most high-end restaurants. One night the waitress announced "shrimp cocktail" and proceeded to pass martini glasses around the table. These were empty but for bits of shrimp and a sort of confetti of diced vegetables. The waitress then took a cocktail shaker and poured a clear liquid--a fabulous concoction of roasted tomatoes, with an astringency that hinted at vodka--into each glass. If this was a joke, it was a delicious one.

In Keller's hands, the salad that comes with grilled tiger prawns is a small frizzy ball of frisee. This ball has a bite; it is dressed in a vinaigrette made with tomatillos and chiles, so when you spear a piece and put it in your mouth, there is a sharp shock of flavor. And while carpaccio by anybody else would be a flat slice of something raw, Keller's carpaccio is a sort of chopped salad molded into a cake. Made of diced tuna, potatoes, beans, corn, avocados, cucumber and tomato, it's topped with little waving flags of lettuce leaves and herbs. It's a carpaccio with crunch--and it is completely appealing.

When Keller serves foie gras , he turns his back on the current sear-and-sauce trend. A flimsy slice wouldn't interest him; he wants it to have a shape. So he makes a terrine and hacks off hefty hunks, marinates them in Armagnac and constructs a sculpture on the plate. The foie gras towers over a really wonderful white-onion salad sitting in a pool of red-onion marmalade.

But Keller's most impressive sculptures are reserved for the main course. A tower of tuna slabs arranged around a small hillock of bright-green spinach tastes as startling as it looks: The tuna is coated with peppercorns and served with lemons preserved in the Moroccan style. The combination of flavors imparts an interestingly exotic edge to a familiar fish.

You might expect someone as obsessed with shape as Keller to leave lobster in its shell. But no. For his most spectacular presentation, lobster is served naked on a plate and splashed with a shocking-pink sauce made of beets, one claw resting in a little puddle of potatoes.

Keller undoubtedly didn't want the mess of the lobster shells. This is not an elbows-on-the-table kind of restaurant. In a time when we have been seduced by peasant cooking, when so many restaurants are charming us with hearty warmth, there is a coolness to Keller's cooking that might put some people off. This is not simple stuff; this is food that wants to be taken seriously.

You could just eat, without contemplation, the squab served with shallots and Savoy cabbage and enjoy the taste immensely. But if you thought about it, you'd realize that both the cabbage and the shallots are cooked two ways: Some of the cabbage is baked in the oven; some of it is caramelized on the stove. And the shallots come pureed (beneath the bird) and fried (atop it).

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