Hits & Flops November 2010
Irene Sax / November 2010
Some dishes are in constant demand, while others have no takers. Six chefs puzzle over their customers' whims.
They loved it!: Fried boudin with ravigote sauce & caramelized onions. "I grew up in New Orleans and Lafayette, Louisiana, and one of my first food memories is eating boudin with my father. In those days you could buy them at grocery stores and gas stations, which I guess is why I had no idea they would take off the way they did at the restaurant. We make the boudin true to its roots, with braised rabbit, rice, and all the bits of the pig nobody likes to talk about. It's flavored with green onions, celery, salt, and cayenne, and, of course, the pork liver seasons it a lot. We cut the links into two-ounce pieces like little drums, bread and fry them, and serve them with our own ravigote sauce, which is made with mayonnaise, Creole mustard, horseradish, and lemon juice. On top go a heap of sweet caramelized onions and a stack of fried sage leaves. It turns out that to my customers, just like to me, boudin tastes like a celebration."
What do they know?!: Fried sweetbreads with aged Gouda, shiitake mushrooms & asparagus. "Memphis is the barbecue capital of the world, where people will eat any part of the pig you put in front of them. They certainly don't object to the offal in the boudin. But I couldn't sell them sweetbreads. We poached them in water with lemon juice, thyme, and onion till they were medium-rare. Once they were cool we pressed them under a half sheet tray with the heaviest thing we could find in the walk-in--usually a #10 can of tomato paste. Then we peeled them, cut them into nuggets that we dredged in flour, and fried them up. After that it was just a matter of sautéeing the mushrooms and asparagus, adding the cheese and sweetbreads, and rolling it all in a French-style omelet. This is a very cheffy dish. I love it, and the staff loves it, but whenever it goes on the menu, sales lag and we have to take it off."
Santa Monica, California
They loved it!: Maine lobster Bolognese with fresh cappellini, black truffle & basil. "I came up with this to use up what you might call leftovers, and it took off right away. That was seven years ago. Now if someone comes to Mélisse just once a year, it's the dish they ask for. I was cooking lobsters at the time and had a lot of claws, so I thought, ‘Let me do something with them.' I decided to make a Bolognese sauce, but instead of red wine I'd use white wine and lobster stock. I cooked them down with onion, tomatoes, the lobster knuckles, and diced black truffles. We change that from time to time: in season I'll add white truffles or we'll grate them on the top for an extra charge. At the last minute we chop up basil and fold it into the sauce before tossing it with house-made pasta. It's not a rustic dish. We twirl it with a fork, place it on a very good china plate, and spoon brown butter truffle froth over the top. People tell me it's the best thing they've ever tasted. I think the appeal is that it's comfortable and different at the same time."
What do they know?!: Japanese unagi with Spanish onion, fennel, mango/papaya salpicon & green peppercorns. "We worked very hard at perfecting this, and I thought it was great, but it just wouldn't sell. I marinated unagi [eel] in white balsamic vinegar, basil, and the fresh cayenne that we get at the farmers' market and dry ourselves. First, we cooked the eel sous-vide till it was tender, then pan-roasted it under a lid of Moroccan feuille de brique until the pastry was crisp and caramelized. With it, we served fennel and Spanish onion cooked down till they were tender, a sauce made of the marinade whipped with extra-virgin olive oil, and a salpicon of finely diced mango and papaya. We sprinkled green peppercorns over the top, and you had that heat with the richness of the eel, the sweet acid of the balsamic vinegar, and a floral note of the basil. Beautiful. We'd get one order a night and then none for three days. Maybe it was because it was eel, but all those people eat sushi. That's why I called it Japanese unagi, so they would associate it with something they knew and liked. It was great, but it just didn't work."
Eleven Madison Park
New York City
They loved it!: Milk & chocolate. "Chocolate mousse is a great dish, but over the years it has been overused. This is still chocolate mousse, but crunchy. I start by swiping dulce de leche on the plate and dotting it with crème fraiche for a little acid and brightness. I scatter on brown butter solids that we make by cooking milk powder in butter. Over that goes dehydrated milk foam, a cappuccino-like foam that's been spread in a pan and dehydrated in the oven overnight. This is covered with a classic recipe for chocolate mousse that's also set in the oven overnight, making it light, crisp, and airy. Then dark chocolate pieces, then a layer of dark chocolate foam frozen with liquid nitrogen, and over that a quenelle of white chocolate sorbet. When we finish it with a sprinkling of Maldon salt, the whole thing looks like something you'd find on the moon. It's been a crowd-pleaser from the beginning and stays on the menu year-round. I knew it would be popular--who doesn't love chocolate?--but I didn't know just how popular it would be."
What do they know?!: Summer melons. "At Eleven Madison Park we're committed to seasonality to the point where we'll offer a cherry dessert for just the two or three weeks local cherries are at their peak. Summer melons began with me loving watermelon and thinking you never see it on a dessert menu. We put cubes of watermelon on the bottom of a white bowl. Over that, little balls of cantaloupe and honeydew compressed via vacuum-packing to intensify their color, texture, and flavor. Then multicolored balls of yuzu tapioca, like the ones you get in Asian bubble tea, but larger and chewier so they look like the melon balls. When this was brought to the table, the server poured on honeydew consommé, which had a beautiful green color, and finished it with Maldon salt and a tuile made with crushed melon seeds. It was the closest thing we had to a fruit plate, which may have been its problem: It was probably too simple for a restaurant where people go for special occasions and want to celebrate with something indulgent."
They loved it!: White cheddar popcorn crusted Hawaiian walu with Louisiana crawfish, sweet corn maque choux, wilted Asian greens & sour cream/onion butter. "We have very sophisticated customers who come to us looking for an element of surprise, which leaves me free to try things out. I had a bag of cheese popcorn on my desk, and as I ate my way through it, I thought, ‘This is so good, how can I take it to a higher level?' First, I put it in the Vita-Prep, turned it to powder, added egg and flour, and made pasta. It was good but not wow. Then it hit me. I made a coarser grind of the popcorn, crusted a whole fillet of walu with it, seared it in clarified butter, and served it with corn maque choux and crayfish. Over it all went a light snow of popcorn in powder form, so what you had was corn corn corn. I didn't expect it to be such a hit, but then I realized that people connect food with memory and this one had two comfort food tastes, popcorn and sour cream/onion dip. It was actually a no-brainer."
What do they know?!: Medusa's cocktail: Live Maine baby glass eels with spicy shellfish shabu-shabu. "This was a hard sell, so much so that I had to go to the table to introduce it to people. When they saw the eels still moving about, their spines just pushed against the back of their chairs. We put micro greens in the center of a glass bowl and tiny live baby glass eels around it. They'd be swimming up the bowl until the server ladled in the piping hot broth, and it was as though they were instantly electrocuted. The table would be silent, and I'd say, ‘Stir the broth with chopsticks and eat it Japanese-style.' It was definitely the live part that freaked people out, but I like to think it exemplifies how fresh our products are. I'm already dreaming of serving live lobster sashimi, as they do in Japan."
They loved it!: Lamb shank. "Sweetness often finds its way into savory dishes in Morocco. When I opened Aziza I wanted to introduce that idea and also show that we're known for our luscious beautiful lamb. I marinate a lamb shank in sweet spices like coriander, fennel, cinnamon, bay leaves, and garlic. It's cooked sous-vide for 36 hours, then glazed with a sauce made of the reduced marinade sweetened with honey and prunes. Also, a few tablespoons of that sauce seasons cooked barley. When you cut through the meat, it's still pink because of the sous-vide, but it melts in your mouth. I like it a lot, but I didn't know. I thought maybe this isn't so interesting but I'll try it on the menu anyway. But from the first day it's been a huge hit. I thought it would go away, but people keep asking for it. People love a big piece of meat, and sometimes we can't get enough shanks to satisfy the demand."
What do they know?!: B'steeya. "This was a flop because I couldn't leave well enough alone. B'steeya is a phyllo pie filled with braised chicken and almonds and topped with confectioners' sugar; it marries sweet and savory and epitomizes everything about Moroccan food. I served it for 10 years at Aziza and then decided to make it lighter, less sweet, and more interesting. So I worked out a version that was shaped in tubes, like spring rolls, instead of one cake. More than that, I took out all the sugar and instead spooned cherry preserves on the plate so people could add sweetness or not as they wished. But customers who were used to the old version actually said they wouldn't return until we brought it back. They got really vocal about it, so we switched it back to what it was. I still don't get it. The new version was wonderful--moister, more intricate, and elegant--but they had a romantic attachment to the classic b'steeya."
Brasserie Beck, Marcel's & Mussel Bar
Washington, D.C. area
They loved it!: Beef carbonnade enhanced with Kasteel beer, demitasse-spoon quenelle of Ghent mustard. "I've learned that brasserie customers don't want innovation; they want to have the same steak au poivre or choucroute garni that they loved last time. It never occurred to me that carbonnade would be one of the top sellers at Brasserie Beck, but it turns out that if you're not having moules frites in a Belgian restaurant, you're having the carbonnade. It's a great tasting stew, a very Flemish dish, even better when I can use grass-fed veal from Randall Lineback steer raised in Virginia. It's very clean meat, not raised for marbleization, and it braises beautifully. First, we take the haunches and neck meat, season it, and sear it in a pan. When it's got a good dark crust on it, we add a mirepoix with garlic, thyme, and cracked black peppercorns and deglaze the pan with beer. When this is reduced by half, we add a couple of ladles of intense veal stock. It cooks slowly for hours--anywhere from eight to 20--until it's tender. When the meat is soft and succulent, we lay chunks over a puree of turnips, carrots, rutabaga, celery, and potatoes--like mashed potatoes but with more color and flavor. With it we serve a quenelle of Ghent mustard, a specialty of that city since Napoleon's time. I'm half Belgian, and I've been eating carbonnade all my life; I love it, but I didn't realize that so many of my customers would too."
What do they know?!: Carpaccio of wild sockeye salmon. "This was a beautiful cold appetizer, a thin silky slice of bright red salmon from the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest. First, we made a perfect circle of the fish by laying a slice on a plate that had been rubbed with garlic, salt, and oil. We covered it with plastic wrap, then massaged it with the back of a spoon to spread it out. When the fish was paper-thin and had filled out the center of the plate, we pressed down on it with the bottom of another plate the same size. This cut off the edges so what was left was a perfect round of fluorescent red fish. We garnished it with fines herbes, shallots, micro celery, and brioche croutons and two sunny-side up quail eggs. The plate looked gorgeous, but the color was a problem. People are used to paler salmon. The server would bring it to the table and some customers wanted to send it back because it didn't look right to them. One guy actually asked if it was dyed. Even after we explained to them that that was the way it was supposed to be, they'd look uncertain and might just pick at it. Too bad."