June 22, 2014
When Nathan Myrhvold invites you to dinner, you'd be a fool to refuse. Even if it means flying across the country for the evening. I've been wanting to experience a dinner cooked by the wizard of modernist cuisine for years, and when an invitation arrived saying he was honoring women chefs at his Seattle lab, it was absolutely irresistible.
I'll admit there were a few moments during the 35-course six-hour marathon when I wondered what the hell I was doing there. Most of the time, however, I was too busy paying attention to what was on the plate – and in my mouth – to think about anything else.
Dinner began with this little cocktail:
Basil of astonishing intensity, Everclear, olive oil. A pure whoosh of flavor, dancing across the palate … and quickly gone.
Elote: something cold, something new, much is borrowed…. nothing blue. One little bite that fizzles into the mouth and vanishes.
Gazpacho reimagined as an icy cucumber sorbet in a sweetly tart puddle of berries.
Chicharron reconsidered. A little cloud of gluten that's been microwaved until it puffs itself up into a fluff of pure texture. On top, icecream. Underneath, a deep dark dab of mole. This was completely charming, utterly delicious.
The stunning texture of this tofu stopped me cold; it was so smooth, so… well, creamy. I kept taking another bite, thinking "is there cream in here?" Turns out there was. A lot. Fantastic idea; the fat and sweetness of the cream tempers the slightly plastic taste of tofu.
Totally loved this "Thai squid salad." A smooth orange pillow of sea urchin custard hides a salad of something that look like bits of squid. And yet the flavor of the translucent white bits says…. coconut. Still, this salad of young coconut does have an emphatic flavor of squid. See those little tendrils on the top? They're strings of spicy squid jerky scattered beneath the cilantro.
Looks like a piece of binchotan, the enormously expensive Japanese charcoal that burns super-hot. But it's actually……
The Modernist's take on steak frites. A single fat french fry, starch-infused until it makes a deep growling crunch when you take a bite. Paired with a little bit of steak pudding.
Give Peas a Chance. Peas (Green Giant, we're assured), centrifuged until they've separated into a smooth, sweet pea puree and….
this wonderful clear green liquid. They call it "pistou" and it sings a song of spring. (In the photo at the top Nathan's holding the centrifuged peas.)
Green and white asparagus.
"Baked potato." This is made in some fashion that involves torturing the potato skins until they turn into an entirely new substance, then recombining them with various ingredients so that they taste like baked potatoes with sour cream and feel like nothing so much as a cloud. Eating this I have a little moment of rebellion: baked potatoes, all by themselves, are among the world's most satisfying foods. This, on the other hand, is extremely interesting.
These are the sweetest carrots you will ever taste. I love the coconut cream in there, and the crisp little curry leaf.
Nathan's notion of cappuccino: a porcini broth so potent that one sip lingers in the mouth, resonating, a musical chord that's reluctant to die. The foam on top is dusted with dried porcini. And yet, as you sip this elixir, marveling at the flavor, the strong scent of coffee suddenly hits you, flooding all the senses, causing utter confusion. "It's a drop of coffee butter," Nathan exults. For me, it's the most memorable moment of the meal.
Brassicas in various states of crunch and crumble.
Lobster. One intense little bubble of liquid bisque.
"Spaghetti alle vongole." No spaghetti. No vongole. Totally great.
Geoduck neck cut into pasta, with the minced belly below. Afterward Nathan walks around the table holding out a geoduck, seeming slightly disappointed that most of the chefs are completely familiar with the strange, enormous mollusks with their laughably phallic necks.
France in a bowl. Frog's legs. Snails. Garlic. Ramps. Wait… aren't ramps an American vegetable? I am just about to mention this when I have a swift memory of eating at Pierre Gagnaire 20 years or so ago, and asking him about a flavor that was new to me. "C'est l'ail des ours, Madame," he said. I'd never heard of the garlic of the bears, but I looked it up. Definition: wild leeks, ie. ramps. France in a bowl indeed.
Quail egg in a nest. Except there's no quail, no egg. Inside that shell is a stunning replica of an egg that was constructed out of passionfruit.
Nathan calls this "omelet," and I've had it before. I've never understood the urge to make food that's more decorative than delicious.
Basically a consomme made with beef and blood which has been flashed with carbon monoxide to set the color. "So cool!" said Ashley Christensen, who was sitting next to me. Add beef marrow. Enoki mushrooms. Vegetables. Result: pure flavor. Loved this
All through dinner we'd been looking at four fat chickens, hanging there, obviously waiting rto go back into the oven. We stared at them, eager to see what the Modernist Cooks were going to do to the chicken.
Suddenly the chickens were in the oven. And then they were being carved with great ceremony. The skin was crisped to the crackling point. The flesh was soft as velvet.
The process: the skin had been pulled away from the skin, as if it was a Peking Duck. Then the bird was injected with brine, chilled for days, roasted upside down in a slow oven – and finally finished in a flourish of intense heat.
It's great chicken. But is it worth all the trouble?
Rye pasta. Butter. So good.
Pastrami on rye. The pastrami is brined, smoked, cooked sous-vide. It's pretty amazing.
My phone ran out of juice at this point, so I missed photographing the end of the meal. We had a wine course, which involved adding salt to red wine. Didn't work for me. There was a posset of tea, which tickled me: ending the meal on such an old fashioned note.
But then there was this: Nathan calls it "Breaking Bad," and it was so interesting I cajoled another guest into sending me a photograph.
I'm trying to wrap my head around this meal, but it's not like anything I've encountered before. The food lab isn't a restaurant. They're not offering you a performance, or an all-encompassing experience, as restaurateurs like Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz, or Wylie Dufresne do. This is food in a different mood, food in the service of science. Much of it is about let's do it because we can, rather than let's do it because it's good. (The omelet, for me, falls firmly in that category.)
But we're lucky that someone – Nathan Myrhvold – is doing this. There's been a long history of scientists with an interest in the chemistry of cooking. It seems particularly wonderful that at this moment, when science has made so many fascinating new discoveries, we have someone who's applying these new techniques – and enormous imagination – to food.
I left the table thinking that this was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the best meal I've ever had. But it may be the one that gives me the most hope for the future.
Joanne Chang: Flour and Myers & Chang
Ashley Christensen: Poole’s Downtown Diner, Beasley’s, Chuck’s, and more
Amanda Cohen: Dirt Candy
Dominique Crenn: Atelier Crenn
Lauren DeSteno: Marea
Kerry Diamond: editorial director of Cherry Bombe
Sara Dickerman: writer for Epicurious.com
Renee Erickson: Walrus & The Carpenter, Whale Wins, and more
Elizabeth Falkner: formerly of Corvo Bianco, Krescendo, and Citizen Cake
Katie Hagan-Whelchel: ad hoc
Maria Hines: Tilth, Golden Beetle, and Agrodolce
Carolyn Jung: writer for Food Arts
Anita Lo: Annisa
Emily Luchetti: Farallon and Waterbar
Carrie Nahabedian: NAHA and Brindille
Melissa Perello: Frances
Naomi Pomeroy: BEAST
Iliana Regan: Elizabeth
Ruth Reichl: author of Delicious! and much more
Karen Shu: ABC Kitchen
Nancy Silverton: Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza
Ana Sortun: Oleana
Christina Tosi: Milk Bar
Anne Willan: founder of Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne
Claudia Wu: creative director at Cherry Bombe
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