Hits & Flops May 2010
Irene Sax - May 2010
When you're good, you're good. So how can you be bad when you're really good? Six chefs muse about why good dishes succeed while other worthy (or better) efforts languish.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
They loved it!: Fried Fickle Creek Farm chicken with chile/garlic sauce & warm potato salad. "Long before the fried chicken explosion hit I ate some Korean fried chicken in New York City and Los Angeles and thought of adapting it for the restaurant. It's so popular that it's hard to prep enough. We brine the chicken with scallions, onions, and garlic, then air-dry it in the walk-in. Then we dip it in a slurry made of cornstarch and water, so when it's fried, the crust is very crispy, not thick and crunchy like floured chicken. We serve it with warm potato and cucumber salad with Korean chile, super ripe sliced tomatoes, and homemade garlic mayo. It's like a Southern church picnic plate with Asian flavors, and it was a hit from the start, which surprised us because, for the most part, we're an Asian restaurant. Not fusion, in the wasabi mashed potatoes sense, because we don't meld cuisines. When a dish is Thai, we stay in the Thai zone."
What do they know?!: Braised Pamlico Sound porgy with Edwards smoked ham, Savoy cabbage & oak-grown shiitake mushrooms. "It breaks my heart that we can't sell porgy. I love to use it because it's local and it's not overfished. We've tried it several ways, with tamarind and mint or with local smoked ham, cabbage, and mushrooms, but it never sells. People here have a notion that all fish should be flounder or cod, that fish shouldn't be about flavor but about its lack of flavor. That's just not a realistic approach to the ocean. Not that porgy is strong-tasting like Spanish mackerel or bluefish--it's actually quite mild--but it also has bones, which is another issue, especially when we serve it whole. We had the same kind of problem with sweet local brown shrimp, which we served with the heads on. People were just horrified. I have to remember that when we first put pork belly on the menu, we had to call it fresh bacon. So maybe a taste for heads-on shrimp and even porgy is right around the corner."
They loved it!: Porchetta alla Romana: Roman-style roasted Swan Creek Farms pork with garlic sautéed greens. "This dish is developing a fan club. I got the idea when I was in Rome, where in one piazza I saw two little kiosks not 15 feet apart, owned by two families, and both of them sold porchetta sandwiches. Remember in La Dolce Vita, where Marcello Mastroianni rides around on his motor scooter and stops at a porchetta stand? The trouble is that most people don't understand what it is. They think it's just roasted pork and don't know it starts with a whole suckling pig. We thought customers might be squeamish about that, but they love it. We have a standing order for two to four pigs a week from Swan Creek Farms, where we help to feed them with the restaurant leftovers. When we get the pigs, we bone them and marinate them with olive oil, fennel, rosemary, and garlic. After the meat is rolled and roasted, we slice it and serve it with a natural reduction, local potatoes, and seasonal greens like Tuscan kale. It sells so well that we highlight it during Restaurant Week."
What do they know?!: Guanciale di vitello: braised veal cheeks with semolina pudding, soffritto &local greens. "People love braised veal, so we thought they'd love this, but it hasn't been popular at all. Certain people always ordered it, and we have it as a special sometimes, but basically it was a miss. It's a beautiful dish, with meat browned in a soffritto of carrots, celery, and red onions, then braised with veal stock, white wine, rosemary, and dried porcini mushrooms. I think the problem is the word ‘cheek.' If we sold it as braised veal over soft semolina pudding with escarole or mushrooms, I bet it would go like crazy. The funny thing is that we cure pork cheeks to make pancetta for our version of sugo all'amatriciana for spaghetti or bucatini, and nobody objects to that. Maybe they just think of it as cured pork."
They loved it!: Slow roasted bison served with dried red fruit stewed in brown butter & juniper berries. "Commis is a small restaurant, and I'm right there behind the counter, so I see what people's responses are instantly, and everyone who ordered this loved it. I was playing around one day, thinking about a winter dish, and this combination of juniper berries and dried fruit just made sense to me. While I roast the bison in its fat cap, I hydrate dried cherries and cranberries with red wine and vegetable stock. Then I add brown butter to the fruit, along with juniper berries, chopped shallots, black pepper, and allspice. We garnish the plate with parsnip puree, cabbage leaves, and florets of purple Graffiti cauliflower, making a very colorful presentation. We have a limited menu that changes all the time, and while we offer a lot of non-meat dishes, we also have meat-centric customers. A lot of them had never tasted bison, but the people who already knew they liked venison ordered it and said it was leaner and less gamey."
What do they know?!: Grilled Humboldt squid in squid broth with pureed apple & watercress. "I thought this was simple and elegant, but it didn't go. Humboldt squid are enormous, starting at 15 pounds and going up to 40 and more. We cleaned them like any squid, then diced them and grilled the pieces on the plancha with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper. I made a broth of the trimmings, reduced it, and seasoned it with anchovy, Sherry vinegar, and lemon juice. We served it in a bowl with apple puree in the bottom of the bowl and a watercress salad scattered on top as a garnish. I'm not sure why people didn't take to it. Maybe they couldn't get the combination of squid and apples; maybe they heard the word ‘anchovy' and got scared; maybe they didn't know what Humboldt squid was and didn't care to ask. Or maybe it was too plain, too austere. But it taught me that you can't please everybody."
They loved it!: Berry Hill Farm veal variations on parsnip with Brussels sprouts & petite red ribbon sorrel. "I like to play around with textures. When I was a kid, I used to put potato chips in my sandwiches. This is a very meat-and-potatoes dish--I guess that's why people are so into it--but with a difference in the vegetables. The veal loin is from Randall Lineback cattle, a purebred remnant likely to have originated in New England from cattle brought by the early colonists. A few breeders are now bringing it back. It's grass-fed and then aged, which gives it a beefier taste. We just baste it with butter, rosemary, and thyme, and then I get to have fun with the vegetables. I use the parsnips three ways: a puree that's paddled onto the plate; caramelized diced parsnips; and parsnip bark that's roasted, reduced with Bourbon, and then dried out until it's like tree bark. The parsnips are sweet, so with them I serve glazed Brussels sprout leaves and sorrel for a lemony aspect. This is a dish that really took off, probably because it's a classic comfort food but with a modern feel."
What do they know?!: Caramelized onion consommé "noodles" with frozen foie gras powder. "My feeling is that you're not pushing the envelope unless you have a flop now and then. We might love something, we might think it's great and perfect, but then the guests don't like how it's written on the menu or the combos. This dish was created as part of our 21 course Table 21 tasting menu, and its problem was its texture. I made a caramelized onion consommé, set it with agar-agar, and cut it into noodles that I served with frozen powder of foie gras. Even though people enjoyed the flavors, they told us it was hard to eat. It looked like pasta but they couldn't wrap it around a fork, and if a dish tastes good but is difficult to eat, it's just a tease. We stripped it off the menu, and since then we've used that experience to do other ‘noodles' with improved elasticity that are easier to eat. Right now we're doing Parmesan noodles with a crisp chicken wing that's a take on chicken Parmesan, and everyone loves it."
Asiate, Mandarin Oriental
New York City
They loved it!: Pan-roasted monkfish, baby bok choy & butter-poached langoustines in a Thai basil infused broth. "I don't sit down and consciously try to invent a dish, but, like most chefs, I'm constantly thinking about food. The idea for this one came to me when I was traveling. Eating street food is part of the great experience of Southeast Asia, and at a stall in Vietnam I had a fantastic coconut soup. When I got back to a kitchen, I started working on it. What I do now is make a broth of coconut milk, fish sauce, lime juice, and seasonings like Thai basil, cilantro stems, galangal, and red chiles. Then I pan-roast monkfish and langoustines, put them in a plate that's deep but not a soup bowl, and add vegetables like morels and bok choy. The broth is spooned over it, and it's garnished with some Chinese Jujube dates. We don't use a lot of broth: it's there more for the aroma than anything else. People just love it, probably because it feels light but it's very flavorful. You eat it and you know you've had something."
What do they know?!: Grilled quail wrapped in hoja santa with celery root puree & black bean jus. "This was one of those dishes that the customers just didn't get. They had no clue what it was. The inspiration was Vietnamese packets of ground meat wrapped in grape leaves. I took quail, boned it out, and marinated it in Chinese flavors like soy sauce, honey, cloves, and star anise. Then I put the pieces of quail together, forming a sausage-shaped cylinder that I wrapped in the aromatic Mexican herb leaf hoja santa. I'm from California so it's a taste that comes naturally to mind. I thought the anise quality of the hoja santa leaf would work with the Asian ingredients, and it did. The staff loved it, and we put it on the menu with celery root puree and black bean jus. It didn't stay long. Maybe we'd sell two a night if we were lucky."
Pastry Chef Yasmin Lozada-Hissom
Duo Restaurant, Olivéa
They loved it!: Fleur de sel caramel/chocolate tart with milk chocolate & nougatine gelato. "It doesn't surprise me that it sells; what surprises me is how well it sells. It all began because my husband [Olivéa chef John Broening], who has a wicked sweet tooth, asked me to create a dessert based on Cadbury Caramello bars. Also, for a while I had an idea in the back of my mind about an amazing dessert I used to have in a tea salon in Peru, where I grew up. It was scoops of homemade milk chocolate ice cream in a sundae glass with tiny buttery cookies between the scoops and a pool of rich salty caramel sauce on the bottom. For the opening of Olivéa I decided to fuse the two ideas. I made a tart with a very delicate short crust, filled it with chocolate ganache, and inside this put gooey, lightly salted caramel. It comes with small scoops of milk chocolate/crunchy nougatine gelati. It's a very clean little plate--I don't like fancy presentations with 20 million frills and sauces--and it outsells all the other desserts two to one."
What do they know?!: Guanábana meringue cake. "This is the flop that remains with me, the one that still hurts. When I presented it to the front of the house, they raved about it, and we were sure it would be a huge hit. But I guess it was too hard to sell to people who had never heard of guanábana and didn't even know how to pronounce it. I had just returned from a vacation in Venezuela, where I had a cake made with layers of crunchy meringue, whipped cream, dulce de leche, and guanábana, a tropical fruit. I thought I'd make an individual version for the restaurant, starting with a disk of delicate meringue and topping it with cream and sorbet made with frozen guanábana puree. It was delicious, but it hardly moved. We decided that at the end of a meal, diners are tired of making choices, and since they didn't know what guanábana was or how to say it (guah-NAH-bah-nah), they didn't order it. It had to come off the menu, but I'd love to bring it back."