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Smoked trout with lemon/dill potato salad & grain mustard. Lee Richardson, Ashley's, Capital Hotel, Little Rock, AK
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Hits & Flops November 2009

Beverly Stephen / November 2009

There's no accounting for taste. Four chefs ponder the mysteries of customers going wild for some dishes while roundly rejecting others.

Tyler Wiard
Elway's Cherry Creek
Denver
They loved it!: Lavender grilled lamb loin with smoked Haystack Mountain goat cheese, beluga lentils, quince confit, chanterelle mushroom conserve & aged Sherry jus. "For obvious reasons, Colorado lamb is very popular with people in this area. I chose a loin over, say, a rack because it's boneless and a little more elegant. Marinate the lamb in a mixture of grapeseed oil, roughly chopped fresh lavender, minced garlic, and black pepper for about 24 hours. We grill it to order. Cook lentils in lamb stock and let them cool. For service we reheat them and top them with goat cheese, which will start to melt from the heat of the lentils. To make the quince confit, put sliced quince in a mixture of melted duck confit fat and melted butter; roast in the oven at 225 degrees for between an hour and an hour and a half; cool it down; sauté in a pan until browned. The conserve is one of the coolest things I do with mushrooms: steam cleaned chanterelles; toast julienned garlic in extra-virgin olive oil; add it along with Sherry vinegar, fresh thyme, and smoked Maldon sea salt to the mushrooms; cool; store in Mason jars in the refrigerator. They last for months. For the sauce, add reduced BLiS Double Solera Sherry Elixir to reduced lamb stock. A little Elixir goes a long way; I use about a tablespoon for a gallon of sauce. To serve: put some sauce on a plate; arrange the lentils topped with goat cheese in the center of the plate; top with sliced lamb; garnish with quince and chanterelles."

What do they know?!: Goat tacos with refried Anasazi beans, Haystack Mountain queso de mano cheese & smoked smooth avocado. "This is completely awesome, but it hasn't been going over very well. You can put goat cheese on anything and it will sell, but people have a hard time wrapping their head around goat meat. It's like rabbit. That's another hard sell. Maybe people think they're cute or they're pets. It's funny how people won't try something new. I'm not saying I'm going to be the first guy to try monkey brains if somebody serves them, but that's way out there. Colorado goat is delicious, nutritious, lean, and high in iron. We braise fresh legs to make the tacos and sell like one order a night. We'd have to sell 20 or 30 to be successful. Probably the next step is to call it cabrito."

Ron Mendoza
Aubergine, L'Auberge Carmel
Carmel by the Sea, California
They loved it!: Milk chocolate ganache with compressed strawberries, caramel & popcorn ice cream. "This accounts for about 75 percent of my dessert sales. It's really good and it sounds a little different. You don't just go to an ice cream store and get popcorn ice cream. It's sweet and buttery. It's really more of a sherbet because it's made without eggs and just a little cream. Make a base with milk, milk powder, sugar, and a little bit of cream. Microwave a bag of Orville Redenbacher butter popcorn, add to the base, and let it steep for about 20 minutes. It almost dissolves. You hear it sizzle. Add a touch of salt. Blend, strain, and chill for 12 hours. Freeze base in a Pacojet canister; spin once frozen. Make a milk chocolate ganache with a little gelatin and put it in a jelly roll pan lined with plastic wrap; let it set up in the refrigerator; fold it up; cut it into ribbons. We get amazing strawberries here, so I go to a farmers' market twice a week to get them. Clean and stem the strawberries; place in a plastic vacuum-sealable bag with about an ounce of simple syrup; seal on the highest setting. The pressure from the machine extracts the air from the fruit, replacing it with the syrup--it's like blanching but without added water and extreme heat. The result is a sweet, al dente berry with a vibrant color that hasn't been ‘cooked.' Make a caramel with just dry sugar; deglaze with cream; add a little water and agar-agar; let it set; blend it into a thick puree. Then make caramel tuile shards: cook sugar and glucose to make a dark caramel; pour onto a Silpat nonstick pad to harden; grind to a powder; sift the powder onto a Silpat sheet; warm in the oven to melt back down into a thin, transparent sheet; remove from oven; let it cool; break into irregular shards. To serve, arrange some chocolate ribbons on a plate; slice the strawberries and arrange on a plate free-form; dab the plate with dollops of caramel sauce; stick the caramel shards into the ganache ribbons and strawberries; add a scoop of the popcorn ice cream to the plate; garnish with micro basil. This is very fun and whimsical."

What do they know?!: Caramelized apple tarte Tatin with sour cream ice cream & foie gras. "Foie gras. That's where I went wrong. Personally, I think this worked. But whenever anyone ordered it, they asked for it without the foie gras. It was a take on a traditional tarte Tatin. I made puff pastry and cooked apples separately sous-vide in caramel. I assembled it to order and drizzled a caramel sauce on top and around. The chef had a lot of foie gras trimmings so I just slowly rendered the fat out of them and added tapioca maltodextrin to make it a soft powder, which I sprinkled on top as if it were streusel. I thought it tasted good. Foie gras goes well with apples. But I guess it frightened a lot of people. I learned my lesson not to add foie gras to desserts."

George Mendes
Aldea
New York City
They loved it!: Arroz de pato (duck rice). "This is an interpretation of a classical Portuguese rice dish I've refined with some additional components. When I opened Aldea, I wanted to explore my roots more. I felt Portuguese cuisine was underrated. My mother made a lot of rice dishes. She made this one with rabbit. This is the top seller on the menu, but it's in a close race with baby goat. Quarter a duck; remove the skin from the breasts; crisp the skin in the oven. To confit the legs: sear seasoned legs in duck fat in a casserole until golden brown; remove; add onions, carrot, celery, and garlic; sweat until tender; add coriander, white peppercorns, star anise, and herbs (rosemary, thyme, and bay leaf); add duck legs and duck fat to cover; cook in a slow oven six to eight hours until meat falls off the bone. Vacuum-seal the skinless breasts with some duck fat in a plastic bag; cook sous-vide for about 20 minutes at 65 degrees Celsius [149°F]. To cook the rice: make a sofrito of sweated onions, garlic, tomato, saffron, and smoked paprika; add rice; cook until lightly toasted; add duck stock; cook over medium heat until half the stock is absorbed; add thinly sliced cured smoked chorizo, pitted kalamata olives, duck confit meat, salt, and pepper; remove from oven; add chopped parsley and cilantro, scraping the pan to get the socarrat [toasted rice cracklings that stick to the bottom of the pan]. Make apricot puree from dried apricots cooked in white wine, with Sherry vinegar added just before it's blended. To serve, neatly arrange a pile of rice on the plate; top with a few slices of medium-rare duck breast; sprinkle with small bits of duck skin; decorate the plate with a few dots of apricot puree. Grandma would be, like, ‘Wait a second, that's too much work.'"

What do they know?!: Pork shoulder steak with littleneck clams. "I just can't believe how this became the worst selling item on the menu. We'd sell one, then none, then maybe three. I had to take it off. Maybe the name ‘shoulder' threw them off. The inspiration was taken from a classical Portuguese recipe from the Alentejo region for pork stew with pickled vegetables, deep-fried potatoes, and clams. But I didn't make a stew. Instead, I marinated pork shoulder, cooked it sous-vide, then seared it in a cast-iron pan until caramelized. I steamed the clams in vinho verde [green wine]. I pickled cauliflower, carrots, and French breakfast radishes and combined them with roasted fingerling potatoes and plated them with the sliced shoulder and clams. I fell in love with it."

Lee Richardson
Ashley's, Capital Hotel
Little Rock, Arkansas
They loved it!: Smoked trout with lemon/dill potato salad & grain mustard. "Very rarely will you find something that will outsell a cup of coffee or a green salad, but this is one of the things that has remained on the menu since we opened. The thing I like about it is that it reads very simple, like it almost sits on a church picnic table, but presentation-wise it's very elegant. The combination of textures and flavors is divine. It's a three component layered dish. Start with a brunoise cut of potatoes, blanched and dressed with lemon/dill vinaigrette and fresh mayonnaise. Then I cut a potato on a Japanese turning slicer like they use for ‘bird's nest' things, which turns the potato into threads. Fry the threads and crush them; it's basically potato chip crumbs. Cut a cold-smoked trout into fine brunoise; dress it with capers, finely minced red onion, and chives, as for beef tartare. Take a biscuit cutter and layer in the potato salad, the potato chip crumbs, and the smoked trout; remove the biscuit cutter; top with the yolk of a raw quail egg and some micro greens; finish the plate with a horseradish and grain mustard vinaigrette."

What do they know?!: Seared foie gras with cucumbers, blackberries & local honey. "More than half the plates came back when we served this to 55 people at a wine dinner. The cucumbers killed it. I was uncertain about how the cucumbers would fit in, but I thought it was amazing. This was one of the most surprisingly wonderful combinations when we paired it with a very unusual Pinot Noir blanc. It was sublime, the most exquisite wine pairing I've ever experienced. I just can't say enough about how extraordinary it was, but people wouldn't give it a chance. We did leave it on the menu a while but it didn't sell, so we had to take it off. We made a sourdough crouton to use as a pedestal and put very thinly sliced but not peeled seedless English cucumbers and foie gras on top of that. You could see the cucumbers hiding in there. We garnished with nasturtiums and with vinegar-macerated blackberries stacked on more cucumber slices drizzled lightly with honey. It was beautiful but still turned out to be the most plates I've ever had come back untouched."