Jen Munkvold
Jordan Kahn's lamb belly with salsify, sunflower seeds, hibiscus onion, hoisin sauce, star anise & pink lady apple.
magnify Click image to view more.

Hits & Flops May 2011

Irene Sax - May 2011

Love and rejection, rejection and love—the couplet all chefs have to deal with when diners read their menus. Seven chefs descrive their "wows" and "no thank yous" to Irene Sax.

Jordan Kahn, chef/partner
Red Medicine
Los Angeles
They loved it!: Lamb belly with salsify, sunflower seeds, hibiscus onion, hoisin sauce, star anise & pink lady apple. “We had no idea what to expect when this went on the menu because it’s light and herbal, not your usual lamb rack with potatoes. Turns out they love it. I chose lamb belly to keep the price point low. It’s like pork belly but leaner. And the lamb fat is delicious. I brine the belly six hours, then cook it sous-vide with star anise and cinnamon for 24. We chill it, press it, slice it thin, griddle it on a plancha, then glaze it with house-made hoisin sauce, and finish it in the oven. Everything else goes on top, including lots of fresh herbs, Vietnamese style. Why Vietnamese? Noah Ellis and I opened six restaurants in one year for Michael Mina (see Silver Spoon). We worked a million hours a day and got off at 2 a.m. starving. No matter where we were, there was always a Vietnamese joint where we could get a bowl of pho. It became symbolic of the kind of place we wanted for ourselves: a local watering hole with great food that was always open.”

What do they know?!: Calves’ tongue with Chinese mustard, pickled daikon, salted quince & preserved young walnuts. “We haven’t been around long enough to have a real flop, but this comes close. Industry people love it, but that’s pretty much it. We cook a veal tongue sous-vide, then we peel it, chill it, and shave it very thinly on the meat slicer. We overlap the slices and roll them up like a cigar, which makes it nice and easy to eat. It’s brushed with Chinese mustard and garnished with bright pink quince that’s been poached in a salty syrup such as one containing Japanese plums, house-pickled daikon—there are lots of pickles in Vietnamese cooking—and whole walnuts that we confit in syrup till they turn black and look like the lousy canned black olives you get on pizza. You’re eating the shell, meat, and everything. Then we garnish it with an unbelievable walnut oil from the farmers’ market. Because we’re open late, we get lots of industry people coming in after work. One night I looked out and saw three of the top chefs in L.A., who all arrived separately. They’re not afraid to order tongue.”

Bryce Caron, executive pastry chef
Custom House Tavern
They loved it!: “Butterscotch” panna cotta. “The name is a joke: It’s not really butterscotch but white chocolate cooked at a really low temperature—around 180 degrees—for a really long time, until the milk solids caramelize. When it tastes like dulce de leche or butterscotch, we add milk, cream, and sugar and set it with gelatin for a panna cotta. I was on a Nordic kick when I thought it up, so I added puffed rye berries, spruce powder, quince syrup, and cubes of house-made aquavit gelée, and at tableside the waiters poured on a screaming-red lingonberry consommé. It was gorgeous. I thought, with all that going on, it might be a little out there for a dessert, but the customers loved it. I can push a few more boundaries than the savory people can. In Chicago, if you’re doing 50 percent on desserts, you’re doing well, which means that the people who order dessert are willing to go out on a limb.”

What do they know?!: Fresh chèvre sponge cake with cajeta ice milk, strawberries & black licorice. “For about five minutes this was called ‘strawberry cheesecake.’ Then we had to change the name because, when customers read it, their hearts got set on traditional strawberry cheesecake, and when they saw it, they were disappointed. Even the name change didn’t rescue it. This is another example of running with an extreme idea. One of our farmers had a supply of raw goat’s milk, so I made a pound cake using goat’s milk butter and cheese instead of cow’s milk products. The cake was tart and a little funky. To go with it I made a sherbet of cajeta and goat’s milk, cured unripe strawberries in sugar and salt, rehydrated freeze-dried strawberries in Hendrick’s gin, and a ‘soil’ of black licorice. We thought so highly of this dish that we served it at a big media event last spring, where 110 people ate it and loved it. It sold well for a few days, but after the recommendations died out, customers started thinking about strawberry cheesecake again. The dessert on the plate was too far from their emotional expectations.”

Jesse Schenker, chef/owner
New York City
They loved it!: Salt cod fritters with lamb sausage ragoût & curry aïoli. “I love every element in this dish but didn’t know if they would work together. I made a classic brandade de morue with cod, potato puree, lemon, and parsley, then shaped them into small balls, rolled them in bread crumbs, and deep-fried them. Everyone loves fried food, right? Then I thought about a Bolognese sauce made with lamb sausage to spice it up, and I love vinegar, so I used Sherry vinegar, which gives it a Spanish taste. It needed something creamy, so I thought, ‘Let’s do a mayo.’ But then I saw the Madras curry tin on the shelf and thought, ‘That’s it. Done. Perfect.’ I honestly didn’t know if it was going to work. It did for me, and the staff thought it was amazing, but it sounded so strange that our waiters had to say to people, ‘Trust me! Just try it.’ Then the plates started coming back empty. It’s by far our best seller.”

What do they know?!: Roasted squab breast with braised leg, Anson Mills grits, date puree, sous-vide hen egg & Parmesan cracker. “I love fancy food but not stuffiness. My style is rock ‘n’ roll, cold air, crammed seating. We pack them in but serve them surprisingly elegant dishes like this. The legs are frenched, roasted, the pan deglazed with stock made from the carcass, and then braised in the oven. The breasts are seared medium-rare and garnished with a puree of dried dates that we steep in water, Sherry vinegar, and aromatic herbs. It’s very French except for the grits, which are enriched when you break the egg yolk into them. I’m really shocked it didn’t go. People who ordered it loved it, but after two days we were eating it for family meals and I realized it wasn’t working. What’s weird is that when I put it on the tasting menu, the plates come back clean. Someone said that squab sounds funny to New Yorkers because they have so many pigeons on the streets.”

Edward Lee, chef/owner
610 Magnolia
Louisville, Kentucky
They loved it!: Sorghum-glazed goat shoulder with robiola grits. “My guess is that 99 percent of the people who order this are eating goat for the first time. They try it out of curiosity and find that they love it. Rub a goat shoulder with smoked paprika, ají amarillo, pasilla chiles, and cocoa; sear in a Dutch oven; add mirepoix; cover; cook three to four hours. After it cools, brush with a glaze of sorghum thinned with chicken stock and a little coffee. At pickup, slice the shoulder, reheat in a hot oven, then drape over a bed of grits blended with robiolo cheese and seasoned with a local soy sauce that’s aged in Bourbon barrels so it has a rich truffle-like aroma. I like to say we’re not a Southern restaurant but instead a contemporary restaurant that happens to be in the South. We take Southern staples like grits and put a new lens on them.”

What do they know?!: Chilled corn soup with lobster carpaccio & fresh uni. “Last summer I made a chilled corn soup, like a chowder, and over the top I laid strips of raw lobster and uni, both sliced super thin. The taste was sweet from the corn and lobster, and briny from the uni. In a white bowl, the soup was pale gold, the lobster and uni were red and yellow-orange, and there were drizzles of bright green basil oil and sprigs of fresh mint. Beautiful. The people who ordered it loved it, but not many did. Customers would ask, ‘What’s uni?’ and when you explained, you’d see their faces fall. I grew up in New York City, and one of my passions is fresh seafood. I love it raw, the funkier the better, but this showed me that that’s not necessarily true in inland cities like Louisville.”

Christopher & Veronica Laramie, co-chefs/co-owners
Berkeley, California
They loved it!: Potato. “This jumped from being ‘the vegetable plate on the menu’ to being ‘that fantastic potato/leek dish’ that was ordered by omnivores as well as vegetarians. I wanted to do a play on vichyssoise, with its perfect combination of leeks and potatoes. I started by making a really big Spanish tortilla that I cut into cubes. I remembered in Spain eating leek-like calçots that had been charred over vine clippings and served with romesco sauce. So we made a bright red romesco sauce with piquillo peppers and almonds and covered the plate with it. Over that went cubes of the tortilla, two kinds of leeks—Japanese and traditional—black olive aïoli, and blossoms of Romanesco broccoli. Just through kicking around ideas we turned the main flavors of vichyssoise into a Spanish dish, a meatless entrée that shined as much as a beautiful steak. In a lot of kitchens the vegetarian entrée is the kitchen leftovers thrown together. That just doesn’t fly in Berkeley.”

What do they know?!: Tuna. “We get absolutely beautiful California albacore tuna, and I had the idea of prepping it like very high-end tuna confit packed in jars. I brined it slightly—just 20 minutes—then cooked it sous-vide in olive oil at 132 degrees. What happened was that the tuna had the appearance of fish that was cooked through, but the melt-in-your-mouth feel of excellent sashimi, with the flavors of olive oil and a slight brine. The accompaniments were smart: earthy sunchoke puree, vinegary disks of compressed black radishes, salty capers, and a kumquat compote that was sweet but had the bitterness of citrus rind. I tasted it and thought it was perfect, but people couldn’t wrap their minds around the texture. It was one of those dishes where the eyes and the mouth didn’t work together. Customers kept asking us to take it back and cook it more. Once someone called it ‘squishy,’ I knew it was finished.”

Mike Lata, chef/owner
Charleston, South Carolina
They loved it!: Crispy Caw Caw Creek pork trotters with sunny side-up farm egg & marinated heirloom peppers. “Who orders pig’s feet? Men, women, kids, old people, and even the most dainty little foodies. That’s because we work with local pig producers, whose loins and chops were really expensive, so we thought, ‘Let’s start with the feet.’ We got a bunch of hocks, brined and braised them, and then picked out and diced the meat. We seasoned it with Dijon mustard, chives, and white pepper, then rolled it up tight in plastic wrap, and put it away in the fridge. At service time, we’d slice off a portion, brush it with more mustard, and dredge it in fresh bread crumbs. We’d sauté it till it was crisp and put it out with a beautiful poached farm egg and whatever vegetable was seasonal. We went from selling a few a day to 20 or 30 a day. It was groundbreaking.”

What do they know?!: Keegan-Filion Farm’s chicken/foie gras boudin blanc. “I was looking for great hors d’oeuvre ideas when I tasted chef Barbara Lynch’s boudin blanc. I did lots of R&D and finally came up with my own recipe using chicken legs, which we all have in-house because there has to be a chicken breast on the menu. Once the sausages were made, we seared them, sliced them in half, and served them very simply and elegantly with potato/chive mousseline and chicken jus. Nothing heavy, no hot seasonings to give you heartburn, and the staff says it’s one of the best things they ever tasted. But we can’t sell it. We have one of the most educated staffs on the planet; they can make anything sound delicious. But I’ll make 30 orders and sell one, none, or two, in a restaurant that does 150 to 200 covers. One week we sold four on my day off, and I said, ‘What happened?’ We even added foie gras, thinking that would create interest. Nothing. But I’m sticking to my guns. Sometimes it takes a while.”