Julie Bidwell
Brian Lewis' pizzoccheri with salt-cured egg, osetra & chives.
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Hits & Flops: November 2012

Carolyn Jung / November 2012

When all’s said and done, there’s no accounting for taste, as five chefs learn from their successes and failures. Carolyn Jung lets them vent about the wonder of it all.

Brian Lewis chef/owner
Elm
New Canaan, Connecticut
“This is the first restaurant that’s my own. We built it from the ground up. It used to be a Chinese restaurant. We’re right in the center of Elm Street, so that’s how the name came about. We wanted to do a world-class restaurant with small-town charm.”

They loved it!: Pizzoccheri with salt-cured egg, osetra & chives. “I staged with Marc Vetri for a few weeks, then happened to bump into him at the James Beard House in 2010. He was doing a dinner there, and I was doing one the next night. He was fooling around with salt-curing an egg. In true form, he told me he learned it from someone else. Rarely are you ever coming up with something brand-new. So, it was almost like a challenge for me to do it next. You bury a raw egg yolk in a mixture of half salt and half sugar for five hours at room temperature. I usually use chicken eggs, but duck eggs are great, too. The yolk is firm, but malleable. You rinse the yolk, then puree it with warm water and a little simple syrup. I turned it into a dish inspired by one I had in Italy. I made thick buckwheat pasta— pizzoccheri—and cooked it in a pan with garlic, shallots, soffritto, fresh lemon juice, and the egg yolk. There’s lardo, caviar, and beautiful chives and chive blossoms on top. The salt-cured yolk was the hero of the dish. With a little pasta water and the lemon juice, it emulsified, so the long brown noodles were glistening. It was a creamy dish without cream. It was decadent. I was surprised at how successful it was because I didn’t make any money on it, even at $28 for an appetizer portion. But I didn’t care. I first made it at the Bedford Post Inn in Bedford, New York [Richard Gere’s inn/restaurant], at Christmastime, and it’s now a signature at Elm.”

What do they know?!: Grilled “head” cheese sandwich with togarashi fries & sea urchin aïoli. “It was on the menu a hot minute at Elm. Just a weekend. No one disliked it. They just didn’t order it. People would see ‘head cheese’ and say, ‘What the heck are you trying to sell me?’ It was a grilled cheese sandwich made with house-made head cheese, house-cured lardo, and Drunken Hooligan cheese on house-baked pumpernickel bread with mustard and cippolini mostardo. It was a Reese’s peanut butter cup moment. I was snacking on some of the head cheese my sous chef had made when I came up with this sandwich with the french fries dusted with togarashi and served with aïoli made with sea urchin. My mouth still waters when I talk about it. I will take this dish to my grave. The death knell was probably putting the two together. The funny thing is we put the fries with the sea urchin aïoli on the bar menu by itself. And it’s a hit.”

Justin Smillie executive chef
Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria
New York City
“We’re a restaurant, shop, bakery, and salumeria all rolled into one. It’s like a big candy store. We have so many beautiful olive oils, cheeses, and salumi. It’s as easy as grabbing things off the shelf. It’s instant gratification.”

They loved it!: Spit-roasted short ribs. “You always think short ribs will do well. But this has taken on a life of its own. We put it on about a month after opening, and now it’s always on the menu. We just change the seasonal garnish. At first, we sold about 25 orders a night; now it’s about 90 a night. Our approach is very different. We brine the short ribs for 36 hours in salt, sugar, bay leaves, lemon peel, and peppercorns. Then, we let the meat sit on a peppercorn crush for a day. We roast it at low temperature in a wood-fired oven. On the pick-up, we roast it at a really high temperature so it gets crusty on the outside. There’s no sauce to cover up anything. The meat is still soft and unctuous, but it stays intact. It’s crispy, gooey, and fatty. People are always surprised that we don’t braise it. That’s what takes them aback.”

What do they know?!: Oxtail terrine. “It’s always hard to see something that took us three and a half days to make take a week to sell. The people who ordered it loved it. But the trouble was that not too many people did order it. We braised oxtail with half a pig’s foot for the gelatin. We picked the meat off the bones and packed it into a terrine with some of the liquid. When it cooled, it was completely set. We’d slice it thin, put it on a plate, then lightly steam it to melt the fat. You could spread it on a piece of bread. I liked the technique. The flavors were really pure and elemental. It highlighted the fatty and sticky parts of the meat. We put it on the menu the first month. When you first open a restaurant, it takes time to develop a trust with your client base. After a year now, I think we have that. If I tried this dish again, it would be interesting to see if people would be more receptive to it now. I’d like to try it again one day in the future. The emotional scars have almost healed.”

Chip Roman
chef/owner, Mica and Blackfish
co-owner, Ela
owner, Charles Roman Catering
Philadelphia
“We have a very small kitchen at Mica. We can only have three guys working in there at a time. The food is New American. We do whatever we feel like doing that day. I fish every day, and once in a while we’ll use the fish I catch. Today, I caught only a little flounder, so we won’t be using that.”

They loved it!: Oysters with carbonated Meyer lemons. “It was an appetizer I did four years ago at Blackfish—shucked raw oysters. We put lemon juice, sugar, and gum powder into a whipped cream gun charged with carbon dioxide. We were trying to do something else and accidentally put the wrong kind of gas into the canister. It came out like shaving cream, but carbonated. I think we were just trying to make an emulsion. When it came out fizzy, it just caught our attention. It’s a fairly simple dish. People really liked that sparkling feeling. We sold a lot. We’d go through 1,000 oysters a week. We still get requests for it now. The surprise to me is that it was all a mistake. It wasn’t something we tried to do.”

What do they know?!: Bone marrow & caviar. “We all loved it at Mica, but we would sell maybe 10 a week and that was few and far between. The bones were split and roasted, then topped with brook trout roe and parsley. It was kind of a playful surf and turf. A lot of people do bone marrow with parsley. We were trying to upgrade it. Maybe it was too out there. Maybe it was the fact that it was bone marrow. People who ordered the dish often noted how they loved the texture of the dish, how the hot molten marrow with the cold popping texture of the smoked trout roe was so unexpected. It might have gone over better in New York City or Chicago, where diners are more adventurous.”

Susan Feniger
chef/owner, Susan Feniger’s Street, Los Angeles
co-owner, Border Grill, Santa Monica, Los Angeles & Las Vegas
“When I opened Street in 2009, did I foresee the whole food truck/street food craze to come? Absolutely not! Honestly, street food has just been my passion since I ate on the streets of India 30 years ago. It moved me away from the formal kitchen. It shifted my career.’’

They loved it!: Kaya toast with coconut curd, egg, dark soy sauce & white pepper. “It’s the biggest selling dish, and it’s been on the menu since Street opened. People order it as an appetizer for the first time, then end up ordering it again at the end of the meal for dessert. More than one person has said they want to just rub it all over their body. It’s also known as the Singaporean hangover dish. It’s such an interesting mix of flavors—sweet and salty like Southeast Asian foods are. Basically, we make a coconut curd with coconut milk, sugar, and pandan leaves, which have an earthy grassy flavor. We toast two slices of pain de mie in a wood-burning oven so the outside is golden brown and the inside is still soft. You spread salted butter on the bread, then slather it with coconut curd. You close up the slices, then cut and serve them with a soft-cooked fried egg. You sprinkle on white pepper and drizzle on dark Korean soy sauce that’s very syrupy and which everyone thinks is balsamic but it’s not. The way we make it is not that much different than what’s done on the streets of Singapore.”

What do they know?!: Paratha with caramelized bananas. “It was on our initial brunch menu three years ago. It was sweet, almost like pancakes. How could that not go over? It’s what Americans like. We used chapati flour with water and salt to make a dough that was rolled out into small balls, then flattened. We put butter and jaggery into the center of each one, then put another piece of dough on top. The edges were crimped to seal in the butter and sugar, which would melt to become caramel when the paratha were browned on a comal or in a cast-iron skillet with a little butter. After flipping and crisping the other side, you put the pan in the oven to finish cooking. After it was done, you made a cross cut in the center, and you’d peel back the center to reveal the caramel. We put caramelized bananas cooked in jaggery and butter over the top, then a big dollop of yogurt. You got sweetness and tang, and because it’s like bread, it’s a little chewy. It was fantastic. But we never got enough orders to make it worth making. It just made no sense.

“Another one that didn’t take off was radish cake with Chinese sausage, a typical dim sum dish made with jasmine rice that’s combined with water and salt in a food processor, then steamed in a loaf pan with grated daikon, onion, and cubes of sweet Chinese sausage. It’s sliced, seared in hot oil, and served with a fried egg and soy sauce. It’s so great. But very few people ordered it. I never think about what’s going to be a hit. You do the menu because it’s what you like. But who knows if it will really sell?”

Bill Corbett executive pastry chef
Absinthe Brasserie & Bar
San Francisco
“I came into pastry without knowing the rules. I wasn’t told that you don’t put vegetables in desserts, you don’t put herbs in desserts. My first job with a pastry chef was with Lincoln Carson, and then I worked with Sam Mason at WD-50. Those experiences taught me to know where you can break the rules.”

They loved it!: Parsnip cake with parsnip/milk jam, cacao nib streusel, buttermilk ice cream & wood sorrel. “I expected it not to sell at all. It was more a dish that was for me. Sometimes I’ll throw on a dish, knowing it won’t last very long and I’ll be able to make up on sales elsewhere. I told our servers, ‘You have to sell it. It won’t sell itself.’ It was a cake that I did with Sam years ago. I’ve always loved it. It’s moist like carrot cake. We made individual cakes with parsnip grated into the batter. For the jam, I cooked down sugar, milk, cream, and grated parsnip so it was almost the consistency of dulce de leche. I pureed it without straining out the parsnip. The jam was so good that I just wanted to spread it on toast. It was one of those lucky recipes that worked on the first try. For the streusel, I mixed cacao nibs, sugar, flour, salt, and butter, then ground it all together. I baked that, then crumbled it. We put a pool of parsnip/milk jam on the plate, then nestled the cake in it. The ice cream is eggless because I wanted it to be very milky tasting with a little acidity, which you also get from the wood sorrel. It ran on the menu for six weeks in spring. It ranked third, just behind our two chocolate desserts. We have a somewhat traditional clientele. They’re not coming here for that modern food experience. To have people come in just for that cake was a nice surprise.”

What do they know?!: “PB&J.” “I tried some Niabell grapes from Hamada Farms last fall. They’re like Concord grapes but with a less tannic skin, so you don’t have to peel them. I thought I’d go for a straight shot—a peanut butter and grape dessert, a kind of peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I made a peanut financier by grinding peanuts with flour and sugar until super fine. I added egg white, brown butter, and a peanut puree made from roasted peanuts. I let it sit overnight to thicken. Then I baked them in little rectangular pans and glazed them so they looked shiny. It was kind of like white bread when you cut into it. I made a Niabell grape sauce thickened with agar-agar that was swooshed on the plate. Then, there was the cake, Niabell grape sorbet, candied peanuts, and nasturtiums for pepperiness to cut through the richness. I also made peanut butter ganache that was bound together with a little milk chocolate, cocoa butter, and some feuilletine for texture. We put it on a sheet pan in the freezer, then broke it into chunks. By the time it got to the guest, it was soft and creamy. I wanted a dish that would get people excited about these grapes. But we didn’t sell even six a night, which is pretty low for us. I thought it would be a big hit. I don’t know if it was because people didn’t know what a financier is and didn’t want to ask, or what. Heck, half of my pastry chefs pronounce it incorrectly. This year, when they come in, I’m going to try it with cashews and more creamy stuff going on. I love this grape. I’m not giving up. Every fall, it’s going to be my mission.”