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John Horne's Yarmouth lobster with watermelon, licorice mascarpone & pickled rind.
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Hits & Flops: May 2013

Irene Sax / May 2013

Two great creations, but one hits the bull’s-eye and the other gets ignored. What gives? Irene Sax listens as chefs try to figure it out.

John Horne, chef de cuisine
“At Canoe, we are strictly Canadian, coast-to-coast, with suppliers from Newfoundland to British Columbia. I’ve worked in London and France and always felt I was cooking someone else’s food. So it makes me super happy to be making Canadian food here.”

They loved it!: Yarmouth lobster with watermelon, licorice mascarpone & pickled rind. “Every few weeks I do a themed tasting menu, featuring a food that’s in season. This time it was watermelon, which people don’t relate to Canada. However, we get beautiful melons from Saskatchewan. I started messing around with the idea of infusing watermelon with licorice, which led me to compress watermelon and Pernod in a vacuum-sealed plastic pouch. I love licorice with lobster, too, so I rubbed Yarmouth lobsters with brown sugar, star anise, allspice, and salt, then torched them to caramelize the surface. When the watermelon came out of the vacuum-sealed plastic pouch, it was dense enough to slice thinly. I paired the slices with slivers of pickled watermelon rind. I felt I needed some fat on the plate, and remembered that mascarpone carries flavors well. I called one of my wild suppliers in B.C., who told me he could supply me with wild licorice root, which I grated, squeezed, and then whisked into the cheese. I grated the rest of the root over the top of the dish like horseradish, added tiny cucumbers that look like watermelons, and scattered on plucked fennel, coriander, dill weed, and edible flowers. Of course, people love lobster, but I had no idea this dish would be so popular. I think it reminded them of that picnic-table thing where you inject a watermelon with vodka.”

What do they know?!: Cold poached Cornish hen with woodland mushroom salad, chestnuts, bacon jelly & campfire sauce. “This, too, came off a tasting menu, one based on camping and campfires. I’m a big outdoorsman, and to me this dish was all about going into the woods, gathering chestnuts and wild mushrooms, getting a bird, and cooking it over a campfire in the bacon fat left over from breakfast. Thinking of that, I poached the breasts in a rich campfire broth seasoned with bacon, smoked cardamom, veal jus, and soy sauce. When the meat cooled down, we sliced it and paired it with chanterelles and morels from Saskatchewan simmered in mushroom broth, and then sparked with some apple cider vinegar. Around the plate went oven-roasted chestnuts. I thought people would relate to ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire.’ We made a powerful broth using bacon from a local producer who does amazing charcuterie. As it cooled, it jelled naturally; we helped it along with a little gelatin. It was intense but refreshing. Finally, we reduced the chicken poaching liquid to make a sauce for the plate. To me, it was simple and beautiful, but to customers it was just a poached chicken salad. Maybe when people heard ‘campfire,’ they expected a hot dish. They didn’t get my story of walking through the woods.”

Jason Franey, executive chef
“Canlis has been around for 63 years, always in the same family. I took over the kitchen four years ago; before that, I was with Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park in New York City. At Canlis, the food is both modernist and easy to love. I call it ‘comfort geek.’”

They loved it!: Smoked cured salmon with Blis maple syrup, caraway seeds & smoked steelhead roe. “In this dish, we made something from nothing, using bits of fish that people usually throw away. We took the salmon skeleton and scraped off the meat clinging to the bones. This we put into a bag and pounded out into a plank. After it was chilled and firmed up, we cut it into three- or four-inch slabs that we cured with smoked salt. We put one of these slabs into a bowl along with a lemony crème fraîche quenelle and a gel made of Blis maple syrup. The garnishes were a sprinkling of dried and powdered egg yolk, oven-roasted rye bread croutons, smoked roe, and a spoonful of clear broth—like a dashi—made from the roasted fish head. This was my take on breakfast: bacon and eggs and maple syrup. It was the second course on our tasting menu, and the bowls always came back scraped clean.”

What do they know?!: Potato panna cotta with baked potato gelée, osetra, gaufrettes & chives. “My idea was to make something with a pure creamy potato flavor but surprising texture. We baked Idaho potatoes, set aside the skins, and soaked the insides in cream seasoned with nothing but salt. When we added gelatin to the strained cream, it became a loose panna cotta that we put in a glass. We made a gelée from the potato water with the skins and poured it over the panna cotta, then placed a spoonful of osetra on top. We criss-crossed chive bâtonnets on top to form an “x.” Over the top of the glass, we laid a crisp potato gaufrette that we had baked between sheet trays to keep them straight and perfect. I thought this was a winner. I had the staff taste it, and they all thought it was amazing. It went on the tasting menu, and the first day, when I sent it to a seven-top, they all sent it back, saying, “We don’t eat caviar.” After that, it was all down hill, so it never even made it onto the à la carte menu.”

Pajo Bruich, executive chef
Enotria Restaurant & Wine Bar
Sacramento, California
“I got my start doing pop-ups, making dinners for family, friends, and even friends of friends in my home. When my wife said, ‘This has got to stop,’ I did pop-ups in restaurants and other commercial spaces. That experience taught me the value of word of mouth.”

They loved it!: Sturgeon, horseradish, apple, caviar. “This is as local as you can get—even the caviar comes from Sacramento. We break down a whole fish from a Sacramento sturgeon farm, cure the sides with salt, sugar, herbs, and peppercorns, and, after three days, we smoke it. We serve pieces of the cooled fish in a bowl on a bed of crème fraîche seasoned with horseradish. Over the fish we dispense a warm zabaglione of smoked sturgeon from an iSi canister. Next come bits of sturgeon tartare and caviar. It’s garnished with green apple, olive oil, a squirt of lime juice and, for texture, puffy fried chips made from a dough of sturgeon mixed with tapioca flour vacuum-sealed in a plastic bag. The dish is beautiful, and I knew it would be delicious, but you never can be sure how customers will respond. You wonder, ‘Are they going to be scared?’ But they went crazy for this one.”

What do they know?!: Caviar, sea urchin, banana, turnip. “I thought this was a striking composition, with beautiful, balanced flavors, but customers said, ‘What were you thinking?’ The base was a turnip puree lightened with crème fraîche. On it we set a quenelle of sea urchin mousse made with lobster stock and thickened with whipped cream and a little gelatin. Over this went shiny black grains of caviar. Around it we scattered a “soil” of charred cauliflower crumbled with dried banana chips and roasted banana pudding. Customers laughed when they read the description, and said it sounded like dessert. I will revisit it because to me it worked so well.”

Patrick and Michael Sheerin, co-chefs/co-owners
Patrick: “My whole thing is using familiar flavors in unfamiliar ways. Since my brother Mike and I don’t use long descriptors on the menu, we give the servers a chance to start a discussion. Explaining the menu gives them cards to play at the table, a way to make the guests feel they’re being looked out for.”

They loved it!: Heirloom tomatoes with white balsamic ice cream & apricot pits. “This was a riff on a Caprese salad: tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, and the ubiquitous balsamic. We bought up every kind of tomato we could—including seconds, the stewing tomatoes that would be used for canning. These we peeled, seeded, and confited, cooking them very slowly with maple syrup. A lot of love went into the confit, which became a sauce we served over the sliced fresh heirlooms. Acting the role of mozzarella in the dish was a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream to which we had added white balsamic vinegar at the last minute. Pickled tinkerbell peppers gave the dish a little heat, and lots of different basils, with the flowers and seeds, added an anise-like flavor. Finally, we scattered toasted apricot pits over the dish to add crunch and a touch of bitterness. We knew it was tasty, but we didn’t know how well it would sell. Customers complained when the seasons changed, and we explained that we had to take it off the menu because there were no more quality tomatoes on the market.”

What do they know?!: Chilled zucchini soup with coconut/horseradish sardines & buckwheat. “We’d love to know why this one didn’t go. A cold soup should have sold out every night during a really hot summer. It was my riff on gazpacho and also on the tradition of cured fish with sour cream and horseradish. We started with gorgeous market zucchini that had a raw green flavor with a touch of bitterness. That went into a base of cooked onions, garlic, and vegetable stock with olive oil for body that we pureed. Next we made a thick creamy foam of coconut milk and horseradish: I knew they’d work together since chiles work with coconut, and horseradish works with sour cream. On the side of the bowl we layered horseradish, buckwheat crisps, and meaty silvery sardines from Spain. I’d order it for the sardines alone, but we couldn’t give it away. What are you going to do? Next time I may use the word ‘gazpacho’ on the menu. ‘Zucchini gazpacho’ sounds even better.”

Jeremiah Bacon, chef/partner
The Macintosh
Charleston, South Carolina
“Is The Macintosh a Southern restaurant? Not if you mean tourist-Southern. On the other hand, we use local greens, local fish, country ham, and Carolina Gold rice, so you could say it’s Southern with a big-city feel. I like to tell people it’s an upscale tavern, and they say, ‘What the hell is that?’”

They loved it!: Bone marrow bread pudding. “This has been on the menu since day one. It’s not beautiful—it looks like French toast, but it has a savory, punchy, salty beef flavor, and it flies out of the kitchen. To make it, we render out the marrow from beef bones, strain and filter it, and then fold it into a rich custard. We soak slices of brioche from a local bakery in the custard, layer them in a pan, and bake until the top is brown and crisp. When the pudding is cool, we cut it into squares or triangles. At pickup, we brown both sides in a small nonstick pan until it’s caramelized and it’s good to go. On the dinner menu this is a side, and on the brunch menu it’s part of the Mac Attack plate, where it comes with eggs, pork belly, and greens. That’ll put you on the couch.

“I know I’m only allowed one ‘hit’, but I also could have tabbed our spicy pork belly soup, which our customers really connect with because of its Southern ties with the pork and the consommé-like broth made with pork stock, smoked pork shanks or hocks, and hot chiles. Once strained, it’s seasoned with rice vinegar, brown sugar, and Worcestershire sauce and garnished with pork belly lardons, rice, bok choy, and kimchi puree.”

What do they know?!: Grilled beef belly. “Right now we have grilled beef belly on the menu, and we sell maybe one a night. I don’t know why. Pork belly sells well when we have it on, and this dish has some really nice flavors. We cook the meat sous-vide for 24 hours, then cool it, press it, and portion it out. At pickup, dress grilled slices with a gutsy puttanesca puree made with olives, anchovies, capers, fennel, red onions, jalapeño, and, of course, tomatoes. With a fennel garnish, this has some really nice flavors and is hearty enough to be perfect for late winter, even in Charleston. I’m not giving up on this one, though. My experience is that if the servers like something, you have a chance, and they loved this dish.”