Ryan McCaskey's lobster pie
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Hits & Flops: May 2014

Carolyn Jung - May 2014

Chefs don’t need reviews to let them know what’s hot. All they have to do is check the ticker for what’s being ordered—or not. Carolyn Jung asks a few chefs to tote up the score.

Ryan McCaskey, chef/owner
Acadia, Chicago

“Am I prouder of the Michelin star or of being voted as having one of the best burgers in town? I’m torn. As a chef, I’ve always wanted a Michelin star. I want people to know about the tasting menu and the high-end food that we do. I take it very, very seriously. At the same time, as a businessman, when the bar is full of people eating the burger and lobster rolls, I know it pays the bills. If I had a choice between being open for 10 years or having two Michelin stars, I’d rather be open for 10 years. It’s really about longevity. That’s where you leave your mark in the industry.”

They loved it!: Lobster “pie.” “We’ve had different versions of it since day one. We’ve gone through 200 pounds of lobster a week, and we’re only a 65 seat restaurant. My fish cooks hate me because their hands are bleeding from breaking down all the lobsters. We get one-pound lobsters flown in almost every day from Maine. Pour boiling salted water over the lobsters, then shock them in cold water. Extract the meat and poach the claw and tail in emulsified butter with a little sugar and salt at 138.5 degrees. For service, place it in a bowl with red pearl onions, heirloom carrots, pommes dauphine, and a seasonal vegetable such as baby Tokyo turnips, fava beans, morels, or chanterelles. A pastry disk made with butter, sour cream, flour, and cold water sits on top; we knead it and fold it seven times so it bakes up with thousands of flaky layers. At the table, we pour a creamy lobster bisque mounted with butter into it. This is a dish I’ve worked on for years. When I was 17, I tried Jean Joho’s lobster bisque at an event. It was one sip of awesomeness. Then, a few years ago, I was helping Thomas Keller at an event in Maine and he told me how he makes his lobster bisque. The one I do now combines Keller’s tips with what I’ve done in the past and Joho’s version. The bisque has legendary status in the city now. I tried to take it off the menu for a stretch in the first year. People would come in and say ‘We’re here for the lobster pie.’ We’d explain we didn’t have it, and people would walk out! We literally lost 30 percent of our business. So now there’s a lobster dish on the menu and there will always be one.”

What do they know?!: Chicken pressé with chicken mousseline, braised chestnuts, braised celery, black trumpet mushrooms, parsnip puree & crispy chicken skin. “This was on the opening menu. It’s a dish I conceptualized as an homage to Keller, who’s a chef who really inspires me. I have never forgotten how he has said that the gauge of a good cook is how well he can cook chicken. Everyone loved the flavor of the dish. But the number one gripe was that the chicken tasted processed, even though it wasn’t. Make a mousseline in a processor with chicken white meat, cream, egg yolk, and herbs; press through a tamis. Brine boneless chicken thighs overnight. In a loaf pan, place a layer of chicken thighs, then a layer of the mousseline, then another layer of chicken thighs. Press with bricks until it holds its shape; cook sous-vide at 165 degrees for 75 minutes; cool; cut into small squares; then roast until heated through. Place on a plate with chicken jus, braised chestnuts, sautéed black trumpet mushrooms, celery braised in celery juice, parsnip puree mixed with a little xanthan gum, and crispy chicken skin that’s dehydrated before frying. We also served it with a black truffle bread pudding made with king trumpet mushrooms. I tried to bring back this dish three times, using chicken once and twice using pheasant. The last time I tried to bring it back was during Restaurant Week. If you look at our Yelp reviews, a lot of the bad ones were about this dish. As much as I love it, I realize that, in the end, it has to sell and people have to like it.”

Cory Bahr, chef/owner
Restaurant Cotton and Nonna, Monroe, Louisiana

“My style of cooking is North Delta cuisine. It’s what I grew up with. I use ingredients near and dear, not because it’s cool, but because it’s who we are and what we do. I started cooking when I was young. You don’t have a choice. I was raised by my grandparents and everything we did revolved around the kitchen. It was all about campfires and eating whatever we caught that day. My grandfather, who is now 90, still fries the best damn catfish in the world. I can’t replicate it. When I eat his catfish, it’s like I can’t cook.”

They loved it!: Chicken-fried rabbit leg. “I’m a big rabbit fan. It’s a highly underutilized product with a lot of history in the South. I found wonderful farmers in Alabama that raise beautiful rabbits. Rub hind legs of rabbits with ginger, allspice, parsley, tarragon, shallots, olive oil, and house-made herb salt (just salt with any kind of green herb); hold in a vacuum-sealable bag for 24 hours. Take the legs out and cook in a combi oven with duck fat, bay leaves, and roasted garlic for one hour and 40 minutes at 240 degrees. Allow the legs to cool in the fat for another day. Then, take the legs out and bring them to room temperature; dredge them in seasoned flour and an egg wash—the flour has to absorb the moisture from the egg wash in order to create a really good crust. Fry the legs. They come out like the best damn fried chicken you’ve ever had. It’s really slamming. We braise collard greens in pepper sauce, which is what you usually put on top of the greens when eating them. Make the pepper sauce by cooking down ham hocks, onions, garlic, jalapeños, salt, and cider vinegar. Finish the collards with cane syrup to mellow their inherent bitterness. Toss whole rutabagas in olive oil and a lot of salt, then roast to extract as much moisture as you can; peel by hand; place in a bowl with butter, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and mascarpone; mash with a fork. Make a Bourbon/mustard jus by rendering down some tasso, then adding pickled yellow and brown mustard seeds and shallots; sweat it all down; add some good Bourbon; cook off the alcohol; finish with chile flakes, a touch of cane syrup, and rabbit stock. Place the vegetables and rabbit on a plate and spoon some of the jus around. I first ran it as a special one night, and it sold out. So I ran it again a week later, and it sold out again. I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I love the dish, but I thought it was never going to sell. Let’s face it: how many times do you see rabbit legs on a menu, right?”

What do they know?!: Slow-cooked pork cheeks with whipped local sweet potatoes, charred okra, put-up green tomatoes & fennel. “A pork cheek is God’s chicken McNugget. We salted the cheeks overnight, slow-cooked them in duck fat and lard in a combitherm for 90 minutes at 190 degrees, then added them to a sauté pan with duck fat and butter to get them crispy. You end up with this jewel of pork meat that’s as soft as a pillow inside and with a crunchy exterior. We roasted local sweet potatoes, then pureed them with vanilla bean, butter, brown sugar, and ginger. We can a lot of things, including green tomatoes, which we pickle with vinegar, sugar, and pickling spices. Add that to the plate with grilled okra and a freshly shaved fennel salad mixed with parsley leaves, lemon zest, olive oil, salt, and pepper. You get only two cheeks from a pig. They are so special. If I’m on death row and going down tomorrow, give me pork cheeks. This is the latest iteration of pork cheeks I’ve tried. It’s probably number 30 of the different pork cheek dishes I’ve done. I’m not giving up. If it doesn’t work, we back up and punt. But we try again later.”

Grant van Gameren, chef/owner
Bar Isabel, Toronto

“My trip to Spain deeply affected me in a good way. It’s very social there, very family-oriented, very late night, loud, and focused on drinks. There’s no division between hipsters and grandmothers. They’re just all there together, enjoying pintxos. I had been thinking of doing an Italian restaurant, but this trip inspired me so much that within two months of getting back, I signed a lease for the spot and decided to do Spanish-style food. When I had my first restaurant, Black Hoof, it was strictly nose-to-tail. Everything was offal—brains, heart, tongue, all that stuff. People thought I was a one-trick pony. With Bar Isabel, I wanted to concentrate more on seafood.”

They loved it!: Smoked sweetbreads with raw albacore tuna, persimmon & dill. “This is a twist on vitello tonnato. I co-created this dish with my chef de cuisine, Brandon Olsen. It’s our biggest seller. We’ve sold thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth in the past 10 months. It’s turned out to be the dish that everyone thinks sounds weird, but just has to order. Even for staff meal, our employees constantly order it. We’re known for our smoked sweetbreads. Sweetbreads can be so hit-and-miss with quality. I’ve racked my brain to source them. We have to throw out so many of them because they have to be light as pillows on the plate. Soak sweetbreads in water and salt for 24 hours, brine for four hours, then sous-vide for an hour at 60 degrees Celsius [140˚F]. Press them overnight, too, so they relax and tenderize. Then, cold smoke them for 25 minutes over applewood. We don’t want them to taste like bacon but do want just enough smoke to penetrate. Slice raw albacore into thick pieces; season with lemon juice and sea salt. Place tuna on a plate. Deep fry the sweetbreads and put them on top of the tuna to slowly start warming the fish. Make a spicy mayo with smoked paprika and cayenne, and put dabs on the plate. Thinly slice an underripe Fuyu persimmon on a mandoline, spritz with some lemon juice, and add to the plate. Caramelize shallots with capers and spoon over the sweetbreads and tuna. Pick fresh dill to garnish the top. It’s a very-out-there dish. When you think of raw fish, you think it should be cold, but this dispels that notion.”

What do they know?!: Roasted Japanese eggplant with house-cured whitefish caviar. “We were making our own caviar, which is quite a process. It takes two people to do it. You open up the sacs and go through each and every egg, removing all the sinew. Soak the eggs in warm salted water, then in cold salted water. Then hang them in cheesecloth for two days to dry them out to the right consistency. The caviar is very salty and fishy. It reminded me of anchovies. I started thinking about a very traditional Italian eggplant dish with anchovy vinaigrette. I came up with the idea of using a whole eggplant and studding it with slivers of garlic as you would with a roast. We slowly roast the eggplant until it’s so soft in the middle that it practically melts. Slice the eggplant lengthwise, but keep the halves attached. Loosen up the caviar with a little Spanish olive oil. Spoon heaps of it onto the eggplant. Season with sea salt. You don’t eat the skin of the eggplant. You just scoop out the middle of the eggplant with the caviar and eat that. The flavor is so interesting—slightly mild but also very intense. For me, eating it was like a super romantic moment. I imagined chefs around the world thinking it was so brilliant. We put it on the menu and maybe 25 percent of the customers loved it and the other 75 percent thought it was odd or weird or they just didn’t get it. It’s still one of my favorite dishes. But I’ll live.”

Michael Sindoni, executive chef
CBD Provisions, Dallas

“We do modern Texan cuisine, which takes its inspiration from the Mexican and Southwestern influences here, as well as barbecue and German food. We take inspiration from all of that and do it in a fresh way. We cook with a lot of the odds and ends of animals, too, which is unique for diners in a steakhouse city.”

They loved it!: Berkshire pig’s head carnitas. “This was the biggest surprise. I thought the foodies would come in for it, and we’d sell two or three a night. But we do 16 on a weekend night now. I didn’t think it would be embraced like this. People come precisely for this, even requesting it ahead of time when they make their reservations. It’s been on the menu since the opening day. Just like the belly, the head has the best ratio of skin to fat to meat. When it’s done right, you get a great layer of crispy skin, then a thin layer of fat, and then really succulent meat underneath. We get in halved pig’s heads, which we brine for several days. Next, they’re steamed for 12 hours until the skin is completely soft and the meat is really broken down. We used to do it sous-vide, but we can do more at a time using a combi oven. Chill them down, then make a few hundred pricks in the skin; place in a 300 degree oven for an hour to let the fat render, basting it often, before cranking up the heat to 500 degrees until the skin crackles. After it rests, we score the skin with scissors to make it easier to eat. Each order is half a head, so you get one cheek, the ear, and half the tongue. It’s served with a roasted tomatillo salsa made with chile de arbol, corn tortillas that are made fresh every day by a small local company, and a radish/cippolini salad. When tomatoes are in season, we also add a roasted tomato salsa. It all comes out on a big wooden board. People just dig into it and devour it.”

What do they know?!: Broiled gulf oysters with absinthe whipped lardo. “I was really excited about this dish and was not happy to take it off the menu. It was on the opening menu and lasted a couple of weeks. It was one of those things that people either loved or hated. I think it was a little assertive for some. With shellfish, I think of classic flavors such as mussels with Pernod and tarragon butter. The absinthe made me think of the cocktail culture. In my head, this dish made sense. When we get in really large pigs to make our cured meat products, we make lardo, using salt, juniper, rosemary, garlic, and black pepper. Cure for a couple of months before grinding it finely, then whipping in an equal amount of butter; add absinthe to taste, along with a tarragon/parsley puree. Shuck oysters, place a slice of the lardo-butter on each one, then place under the salamander. When it melts, it’s bright green and so cool looking. Top with bacon bread crumbs and serve on a bed of rock salt. It’s oysters Rockefeller-ish. The dish got a mixed bag reaction, which is not what you want when you first open a restaurant. Of course, after I took it off, the restaurant critic for the Dallas Morning News wanted to write about the dish.”

Johanna Ware, chef/owner
Smallwares, Portland, Oregon

“I call my food ‘inauthentic Asian cuisine’ because it has roots in Asian cuisine but is done a little differently. Some Koreans think my kimchi is a little sweet. It doesn’t taste like it was made by a Korean mother because I didn’t grow up with one. I was influenced by my time working in restaurants in New York City and eating at the ethnic restaurants in Queens. I love spicy food. There’s something really exciting about flavors that are so aggressive.

“We had a slow start. We were empty for the first eight months. I thought I might have to close. We’d watch people come to the door, read the menu, and wonder what it all was. But once people came in and were convinced to eat it, they understood.”

They loved it!: Fried kale with candied bacon, fish sauce & mint. “It’s a tempura dish. I started out using butternut squash for this, even though I hate butternut squash. But we opened in the winter. When spring hit, we tried it with zucchini. When you have a fryer, it’s amazing what you try putting into it. So, I tried kale. People can’t believe we’re frying it. I think it’s because it’s Portland and kale has become a staple. Blanch stemmed lacinato kale; squeeze dry. Make a dressing of fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, garlic, serrano chiles, water, and rice wine vinegar; add to a bowl with candied bacon, chopped cilantro, and chopped mint. Make a tempura batter with rice flour, eggs, and sparkling water. Dip the leaves in the batter and put into the fryer. It’s a tricky dish in that so many things can go wrong, like the leaves sticking together in the fryer—you need to break them up with a spoon. Toss the leaves in the bowl with the dressing, then plate. We tell all our new cooks how important this station is. Probably 70 percent of our diners order this dish.”

What do they know?!: Grilled pork chop with pickled cherries & ramp salad. “We don’t do a lot of big protein mains. But once we got a great rack of pork from a local farmer. We cut it into chops, pounded them, and grilled them. It was the height of summer, so we garnished them with a mixture of pickled cherries, pickled ramps, and grilled porcini tossed with a little Chinese mustard, aïoli, rice vinegar, soy, mirin, and cilantro. We couldn’t sell it. It was really strange. “After two days, we decided to try deep-frying the pork like tonkatsu. We couldn’t sell that, either. Maybe people thought they could get a pork chop anywhere. Maybe people here are not crazy about pickled ramps like they are on the East Coast. When we do a dish, the cooks taste it, and I put it up for the front of the house to try. I watch their reactions, and I can tell when they really like something. They were really excited about this. We started it on a weekend and sold only two or three a night. I don’t have patience, so if it’s not working, it’s a quick decision to take it off. We had 18 pork chops, so the rest became staff meal.”

Carolyn Jung, who blogs at FoodGal.com, wrote San Francisco Chef’s Table cookbook.