Grant Kessler
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Hits & Flops May 2009

Judiaann Woo / May 2009

Ah, fickle diners: they love your food when it's great; they dislike your food when it's great. What gives? Six chefs tell Judiaann Woo their highs, lows, and woes.

Steven Devereaux Green chef/owner
Devereaux's
Greenville, South Carolina
They loved it!: Beet poached Tasmanian salmon with citrus-braised fennel, tarragon, sunflower seeds & tangerine/Gewürztraminer emulsion. "I love beets in just about any form as long as they're cooked properly. I have a local farmer who grows red, yellow, and candy striped varieties for the restaurant, and we always have a beet salad on our menu. For this dish, typically served as part of a tasting menu or as first course, I poach a square of Tasmanian salmon to medium-rare in a reduction of red beet juice with salt and a little orange juice for acidity. The resulting color is the most vibrant red that, when sliced, reveals a pretty orange interior. In addition to the color, the beets add a wonderful earthiness, a nice complement to the salmon, which I find really good. The salmon is served over a citrus-braised salad of thinly shaved fennel with suprêmes of orange and grapefruit, topped with frisée, tarragon, micro Swiss chard, and sunflower seeds for crunch. The sauce is a reduction of late-harvest Gewürztraminer, ginger, shallots, garlic, and tangerine juice mounted with butter. It's a really beautiful presentation. I liked the dish a lot from the beginning, but I never thought it would be liked by so many others, too."

What do they know?!: Seared ahi tuna with charred octopus, grilled pineapple, pickled honshimeji mushrooms, broccoli & yuzu/miromi jus. "I had just gotten back from Greece, where I had eaten a lot of great octopus, so I was excited to put some on my menu. A chef friend of mine had recommended a great source for fresh baby octopus from Maine that comes pre-tenderized. Apparently, they put them through the tumble cycle of a washing machine without the water. Sounds strange but the result is the most tender octopus you ever laid your lips upon. For this dish, the babies were marinated in olive oil, garlic, and basil before being charred on the grill. They were trimmed and served atop seared, rare ahi tuna from Hawaii with grilled, pressed pineapple. Both the pineapple's texture and flavor were made more intense by the compression of the sous-vide vacuum. Also on the plate were pickled honshimeji mushrooms, blanched broccoli, and a julienne of curled scallions. The sauce was a reduced emulsion of yuzu juice with lemongrass, shallots, ginger, garlic, sake, chicken stock, yuzu miromi [a condiment of fermented barley with dried yuzu skin], finished with a little butter and yuzu mitsu [yuzu juice mixed with honey] for a touch of sweetness. I thought this dish was one of my finest creations. It was as close to perfect as perfect could be, yet nobody ordered it because they were too scared of the octopus. On the rare occasion that someone did order it, they asked if they could get it without the octopus. Really, what was the point? They were missing the best part!"

Gabriel Rucker executive chef
Le Pigeon
Portland, Oregon
They loved it!: Duck nuggets with spicy plum/mustard dipping sauce. "My sous chef, Erik Van Kley, and I share a fondness for playing around with popular American foods. Our duck nuggets, a riff on classic chicken nuggets, were a huge hit when we opened three years ago. We were selling so many orders, and with the restaurant getting busier every night, it became harder and harder for our three man crew to keep up with demand. They were really delicious to eat but a real pain in the butt to make. The prep alone was a three day process of curing, confiting, and shredding the duck legs before they were shaped and breaded. The nuggets, deep-fried and tucked into a cloth napkin, were served with a dipping sauce of prune juice, vermouth vinegar, sun-dried Angelino plums, brown sugar, and mustard powder. We're always changing our menu, so for me it wasn't a big deal to take them off. We followed them up with lamb tongue fries, which were also a big hit for us. People still ask for the duck nuggets all the time, so for our anniversary this June we're bringing them back for three days only as part of our Greatest Hits menu. Maybe we'll even put a sign on the door announcing their return."

What do they know?!: Chicken, dump­lings, duck hearts & aru­gu­la. "We have a very small restaurant with only 35 seats, 10 of which are at the bar, so we see everyone who comes in and they see us. Customers will ask me all the time what they should order. When this dish was on the menu, I would say ‘chicken,' but they never thought I was being serious. I think they thought I was trying to get rid of it or something, but I was recommending it because I thought it was really delicious. The chicken breast--actually a poussin--was pan-roasted, sliced, and served with dumplings made of spooned spaetzle dough crisped up in the same pan to catch all the flavors of the chicken fond. The ragoût consisted of ground duck hearts seasoned with onions, garlic, Sherry, duck stock, and dry mustard, which got tossed with wild arugula for a little woodsy flavor. For me, a really well prepared chicken dish is something quite exciting, but I think our customers thought it wasn't adventurous enough for a night out. Our customers come in to eat the freaky stuff. I thought throwing in some ground duck hearts would do it, but they were obviously looking for even more adventure than that."

Dominique Crenn chef de cuisine
Luce Wine Restaurant
San Francisco
They loved it!: Le jardin d'hiver (winter vegetable garden & its own "soil"). "The idea for presenting vegetables in an edible landscape of ‘dirt' came to me this summer when I wanted to find a different way to show off all the wonderful tomatoes from the garden. People loved the presentation so much that I did a variation this past winter with different varieties of carrots, parsnips, breakfast radishes, sunchokes, and small potatoes. I cooked the vegetables separately, starting in cold vegetable stock and allowing each to rest in its own juice before peeling and finishing with a little butter. The colorful vegetables were then arranged on a rectangular plate tucked between clumps of dehydrated black olive, basil, and bread ‘soils,' with onion sauce and a garnish of roasted baby beets, pickled beets, edible flowers, and micro greens. People loved the visual immediately, but they also told me that they never expected the vegetables to taste so good. I think that if you start with local, seasonal vegetables and don't abuse them, they're going to taste good."

What do they know?!: The rabbit. "I think it must be an American thing, because people just weren't happy to see rabbit on the menu. People were very kind and gracious, but they didn't like the idea one bit. But for me, having grown up eating rabbit as a child in Brittany, I didn't understand the apprehension. My mother used to make a delicious whole braised rabbit with prunes, mushrooms, and potatoes that she'd give a shot of Madeira. My favorite part was the rabbit's head. I used to suck on it. The brain was the best part! Listen to me, my customers would freak out if they heard me talking like this. This dish was inspired by my mother's braised rabbit, but I also included some other preparations to create different textures. There was a pâté-like rabbit terrine, a braised whole rabbit, a crépinette of wild mushroom-stuffed rabbit breast, and rabbit's legs prepared like chicken wings. It was a simple but delicious presentation, but after a month of rabbit tacos for staff meals, the food costs got to be too much. I've learned my lesson. I will leave Bugs Bunny alone. No more rabbit. No more freaking people out."

Giuseppe Tentori corporate chef/co-owner
Boka
Chicago
They loved it!: Pork belly with Moroccan barbecue sauce, semolina croquettes, sunchoke sauce, pickled red onion & bok choy salad. "People love the flavor of pork belly, but the fat can be a little intimidating. It's one thing to have fat incorporated into a dish and another to see it staring up at you from the plate. This dish holds on to the rich flavors of the pork belly without the intimidation factor. The pork is braised for four hours in a rich caramel sauce with fresh ginger, jalapeño, and rice wine vinegar. After it's cooked, I let it rest for a day before pulling off the fat and trimming it into a neat six-by-one-inch rectangle. The braising liquid is then reduced and the pork is returned to the jus to soak up all the intense flavors. It's served with a crispy semolina croquette with a Moroccan-style barbecue sauce flavored with cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves along with 23 other fragrant spices. A creamy sunchoke puree is blended with olive oil and a touch of yuzu. A salad of julienned bok choy, pickled red onions, orange suprêmes, and sesame seeds finishes the dish. It's just the right blend of sweet, savory, sour, and spicy. If pork belly could ever be light and refreshing, this is it."

What do they know?!: Grilled hamachi with kalamata olive puree, lobster gnocchi & broccoflower. "When I worked at Charlie Trotter's, we used to serve a beautiful grilled hamachi on the tasting menu. For Boka, I sourced my hamachi from the same purveyor, who gets it from Japan. I was so excited to serve it on our opening menu. Unfortunately, it wasn't met with the same excitement from our customers. In fact, the dish got so many complaints that I had to take it off the menu after just two weeks. People complained that the fish was too fishy, or too dry, or too greasy. The texture just wasn't what they were expecting even though it was cooked perfectly. I guess they were more used to their hamachi served raw and sliced thinly for sashimi or sushi. The hamachi was served with reduced veal jus, a puree of kalamata olives cooked with sweet corn and red wine, pan-seared gnocchi made in the style of a fish dumpling with lobster, shrimp, and sturgeon, and lovely green broccoflowers sautéed in olive oil. I was so proud of the dish, but it wasn't winning me any points with my customers. When it comes to hamachi, our customers don't want to see it anywhere near the grill. I just couldn't win with this dish. Customers 1, Restaurant 0."

Craig Koketsu executive chef
Park Avenue Spring
New York City
They loved it!: John Dory with black truffles & brioche-crusted poached egg. "If I had to name a signature dish for the restaurant, it would be this one. Ever since I put it on the opening menu two years ago, it's been a perennial best seller without fail. The popularity of John Dory is growing, but you still don't see it listed on very many menus. The fish has a nice mild flavor with a firm, meaty texture. I cook it simply, on one side, on a plancha and just barely kiss the other side so it's not overcooked. The sauce under the fish is a take on soubise flavored with garlic, shallots, bay leaf, and peppercorns, finished with crème fraîche. Around the perimeter is a broken vinaigrette of reduced balsamic vinegar and black truffle oil. Shaved on top are some fresh seasonal truffles to reinforce the truffle flavor. Served with the fish is a watercress salad dressed in red wine vinegar and grapeseed oil with a brioche-crusted deep-fried poached egg. The egg's crusty exterior with the still-soft center is the key to the dish's success and the element that brings everything together. As the yolk breaks into the sauces, it creates a whole other level of richness and texture. People love the egg. I think people always like it when they get a little breakfast with their dinner food."

What do they know?!: Spiced-seared lamb loin with fresh chickpeas. "At the restaurant, we get a breakdown of how everything sells. I know this dish was a flop because the numbers told me so. It was on the bottom of the sales report the entire time it was on the menu. This dish was actually much more complicated than the title suggests, so maybe it would have done better with a more jazzed-up name. It was also competing with two other lamb dishes at the same time, as part of our spring lamb selections. Between the leg and the chop, the loin lost out. The dish itself consisted of multiple components: slow-roasted lamb loin crusted in a spice mixture of cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, and black pepper; pine nut/parsley puree; chickpeas and peas warmed in a little olive oil; Middle Eastern labne [a soft cheese made from goat's milk yogurt]; fresh pea tendrils; ginger/lime gastrique; a julienne of turmeric onions; sumac powder; and crispy fried chickpeas. It sounds like a lot but all the flavors really worked well together. People just weren't ordering it. I'm still a little upset because it was one of my favorite dishes. In the end, the food is for the people and not preserving my ego. I still put it in the tasting menus though. Sometimes people need to be directed a little."

Mindy Segal chef/owner
HotChocolate
Chicago
They loved it!: Chocolate soufflé tart with salted caramel ice cream & pretzels. "In planning my restaurant, I knew it was going to be dessert focused. Knowing that I needed a signature dish, I created this chocolate dessert. Over the years, that's exactly what it's become. The soufflé base consists of a 64 percent DGF bittersweet, a beautiful chocolate from France, which gets baked to order in a pâte sucrée shell. The soufflé is light and crisp on the outside and warm and gooey on the inside. Salted caramel was just busting out on the scene at the time, so I created a rich and succulent ice cream as a counterpoint to the warm tart. Maybe I was dreaming about Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby or maybe it was just because I was making pretzels at the time, but I knew I wanted to get pretzels in there, too. I pressed traditional pretzel dough through the spaghetti attachment of a pasta machine to create a crunchy pretzel garnish. This dessert really has become a part of me. I still eat it all the time. About a year ago, I added a layer of caramel inside and a layer of Muscovado meringue on the outside for even more texture."

What do they know?!: Port roasted pear with gingersnap soufflé, red wine ripple, blue cheese ice cream & honey/oat streusel. "This was a great idea that failed in execution. I know Rome wasn't built in a day, but we worked and reworked this dessert and still couldn't get it to work properly. The idea was to get a gingersnap soufflé to puff up, popover style, within the hollowed out core of a Port poached pear. It could have been so cute! The Bart­lett pears were poached with honey, vanilla, and warm spices until they were a beautiful ruby red color. The poaching liquid was then reduced to a syrup that I folded into blue cheese ice cream to get a rippled effect. The streusel was more like a nice granola made with old-fashioned oats and sunflower seeds baked together with brown sugar and butter. All the flavors worked well together, but I just couldn't get the damn soufflé to bake the way I had envisioned. Maybe the pears were too wet or maybe the soufflé base wasn't quite right. After a week of soggy soufflés, I decided it was time to move on. As for my red wine ripple/blue cheese ice cream, I don't want to say anything bad about it, but I'm sure some people could. Sometimes things work better in my mind and it's best just to keep them there."