Sara Remington
Grilled Vietnamese pork with rice noodles. Mai Pham, Lemon Grass Restaurant, Sacramento, California
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Hits & Flops May 2008

Judiaann Woo / May 2008

Eight ethnically rooted chefs fearlessly bring a corner of the world to adventurous diners. Sometimes the thrill of the new hits home, and sometimes it's lost in translation.

Chris Cheung executive chef
Monkey Bar
New York City
They loved it!: Mini burgers with bao buns & curly taro fries. "I created this dish at the request of Peter Glazier [the owner], who asked for an Asian-inspired burger for the menu. Personally, I'm more of an American burger kind of guy, so I was a bit skeptical. But I'm happy to report that these took off right from the start and have become one of our top sellers. The sliders, served two per order, are a flavorful combination of braised short ribs with star anise and ground sirloin. They're served on fluffy bao buns with spicy chile/garlic mayo, lettuce, and tomato. The buns are made using the same slightly sweet dough as traditional steamed pork buns, but in this case we brush them with egg wash and bake them to order for the burgers. For the fries I use a twirling Japanese slicer to create thin ribbons, which make for a very pretty presentation. Overall, I think people really enjoy the flavor combinations in this presentation that's a little different while remaining comfortably familiar."

What do they know?!: Crispy Kurobuta pork chop with salt-blanched bitter melon & caramelized ginger. "I thought this was a very clean compact dish with a great balance of flavors, so you can imagine my disappointment when we'd only sell one order every three days. The pan-fried Kurobuta pork chop is first marinated in a traditional Chinese mixture of egg, cornstarch, oil, and baking soda, which gives it a nice crispy exterior and very tender interior. The problem was never the pork chop but rather the bitter melon that accompanied it. To the Chinese, bitter melon is the best comfort food around, but for everyone else, just seeing the word bitter on the menu can be a bit intimidating. It didn't matter that I first cured it in salt to remove some of the bitterness or that I balanced the bitter flavors with a sauce flavored with sweet chiles or that it was garnished with sweet Port-candied ginger. If customers don't like bitter melon or don't think they'd like bitter melon, they didn't order this dish. In the end, food costs prevailed, and I took it off the menu. I still think it was a great dish though."

Vikram Vij chef/owner
Vij's
Vancouver, British Columbia
They loved it!: Grilled eggplant & papaya curry with black chickpeas. "I think the highest compliment for this dish came from my father, who doesn't think good Indian food should be messed with but declared it to be an excellent dish. To him Indian food is perfect the way it is so there's no point in playing around with a classic. However, I'm always looking for ways to make Indian food fresh and modern. This dish has the feeling of a traditional baba ghanoush, but I add some nontraditional ingredients for added texture--sweet papaya and small green chickpeas, which turn black after being cooked in Indian spices. To impart a little smokiness, the eggplant is first roasted over an open flame and the papaya is grilled before being combined. The dish is seasoned with our own blend of garam masala, cumin, a little cinnamon, some tomatoes, and green chiles. I like it with a little plain yogurt on the side. It's vegetarian and vegan, and anyone who likes curry seems to really like the dish."

What do they know?!: Seared venison with spicy hot chocolate foam. "A dish can never be great if it can't be executed perfectly every time it's ordered. Sadly, this dish fell victim to not being understood by my all-female Punjabi cook staff. The women, who are typically very good at execution, just couldn't get this dish down. The foam itself was a completely foreign concept to them, and the iSi canister used to dispense it proved to be a great source of frustration and confusion to them. They never quite got the feel of it and would either dispense too much air, not enough, or end up spraying themselves or the plates with the foam. I would be in the middle of service and never know what I was going to get. Sometimes the foam would be so whipped that it looked like ice cream sitting on a plate, and other times it would be completely flat with no aeration whatsoever. Inevitably, they would always blame the canister. I think this dish lived on the menu for two months before it became too much of a headache for us all."

Nobuo Fukuda chef/co-owner
Sea Saw
Scottsdale, Arizona
They loved it!: Octopus/tomato salad. "The sushi grade octopus I use for this salad comes directly from Japan. It's still moving when it arrives, so you know it's very fresh. I scrub it for 40 minutes with salt to get rid of the sliminess before removing the skin, seasoning with sea salt, and grilling. The salad is composed of four quarter-inch-thick slices of Campari tomatoes. Each piece of tomato is topped with thinly sliced shallots, a slice of house-made fresh mozzarella, and octopus. On top of each piece of octopus is a dollop of wasabi aïoli, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil from California, and some fresh yuzu juice from fruit grown for me here in Arizona. Micro arugula is arranged in the center of the plate and sprinkled with pink peppercorns. To many Japanese, the combination of seafood and cheese sounds very unappealing, but when they taste the dish they all like it. Everyone else seems to really enjoy the dish as well. In fact, it can be hard keeping up with the mozzarella-making since we only do it in small batches. We've also had to increase our octopus order so that it's flown in several times a week now."

What do they know?!: Omdo tomago (temperature egg). "This dish consisted of a soft cooked egg placed within a triangle of three sautéed Chinese long beans with a chicken stock–based sauce enriched with powdered dried shrimp and scallops with soy sauce and sesame seeds. Black truffles were shaved over the egg, and a piece of green onion focaccia was served alongside for dipping. The sauce was intentionally made salty so that when you broke into the soft egg, the unseasoned yolk would create a perfectly balanced and creamy sauce. Unfortunately, many people still associate salmonella with runny eggs. They were afraid to eat it. When I served this dish as part of a tasting, many people would just eat the long beans and leave the egg entirely untouched. It's a shame because the egg was the best part. They came from a special Jidori chicken, which is raised under very strict guidelines so they can be the most natural and most flavorful possible. The lack of enthusiasm for this dish was also disappointing because I had spent close to six months perfecting the cooking time and temperature to get the texture just right."

Mai Pham chef/owner
Lemon Grass Restaurant
Sacramento, California
They loved it!: Grilled Vietnamese pork with rice noodles. "This wonderful dish tells the whole story of Vietnamese cuisine in a single bowl. Bouncy vermicelli rice noodles sit on an abundance of fresh whole and sliced herbs such as basil, green and red perilla, and Vietnamese coriander. On top of the noodles are thin slices of grilled pork sirloin or pork butt that's been marinated in lemongrass, garlic, soy sauce, and fish sauce. The vegetable component consists of very thinly sliced cucumber, bean sprouts, and shredded lettuce with a garnish of fried shallots, roasted peanuts, and marinated carrots and daikon. The quintessential nuoc cham [water, sugar, fish sauce, citrus juice or vinegar, garlic, chiles, shredded carrot] sauce is served on the side to add to your liking. It's all very refreshing and light yet sumptuous and vibrant enough to be satisfying. I think people like the fact that they can see all the dish's components. Nothing's a real mystery, but the flavors are just exotic enough to feel special."

What do they know?!: Mom's catfish in a clay pot. "My family is from southern Vietnam, so I really wanted to include a dish from the region. This one is my mother's, grandmother's, and now father's favorite dish. It's very rustic. The whole catfish is cut up into small steaks and cooked in a deep caramel sauce flavored with garlic, shallots, and lots of black pepper. It's garnished with thinly sliced cilantro, green onions, and Thai chiles. It's just delicious. My father likes to add his rice to the clay pot after the fish is gone in order to soak up all the tasty sauce. However, I've come to accept the fact that Americans generally don't want to see heads or tails, or any bones for that matter, on their fish and that they have an aversion to eating something served out of a little charred pot that looks like its been sitting outside on the barbecue for the last few days. I can laugh about it now since I know I can sell the same dish if I served the catfish boneless and skinless and out of the clay pot."

Jasmila Karzai executive chef
Helmand
Cambridge, Massachusetts
They loved it!: Lamb lawand. "This is a very traditional and popular dish in Afghanistan. The recipe we use has been in the Karzai family for generations, and it's become our most requested menu item for the last four years and running. Start by cooking chopped onions until they're golden brown. Add lamb meat from the leg along with tomatoes and whole small mushrooms. Add garlic, salt, black pepper, cardamom, and a little yellow food coloring; simmer until tender. Add a good amount of homemade yogurt at the end and serve over challow [Afghani white rice], which is first parboiled then baked with oil, butter, and salt to create fluffy individual grains. Also serve with spinach sautéed with onions and garlic and garnished with fresh cilantro."

What do they know?!: Gulpea shalghum (cauliflower & turnip). "This is a well loved dish in Afghanistan, but I don't think Americans are big fans of cauliflower or turnips or maybe just not turnips but definitely not a combination of both cauliflower and turnips in one dish. The two vegetables are first cooked separately then served together over challow with cilantro. The cauliflower is cooked with onions, tomatoes, and yellow split peas until tender, the turnips with onions, freshly chopped ginger, a little sugar, and yellow food coloring. It did OK for the past seven years, but maybe that's because it was one of the only vegetarian dishes available on the menu. Eventually we replaced it with a better vegetarian option and now both vegetarians and nonvegetarians are happy."

Ratha Chau chef/owner
Kampuchea Restaurant
New York City
They loved it!: Monkfish liver. "Like the French, Cambodians use every part of the animal, including fish. I wanted to do something fun with monkfish liver, and since French techniques have influenced the food in the country, I decided to play with French and Cambodian elements in this dish. The liver is sliced, seasoned, dredged in rice flour, sautéed to medium-rare, and served with a cherry/Port jus that is finished with butter. Pickled daikon, basil chiffonade, chopped Thai chiles, and a drizzle of spicy chile oil garnish the plate. My mother loves France, and we would have ended up there if it wasn't for a last-minute decision to come to the United States, so this dish is really for her. I like how surprisingly daring our guests have been in ordering it. It's not a common dish. I've had many customers say that it reminds them of a healthier and lighter version of foie gras."

What do they know?!: Green mango salad with prahok. "This is a very traditional, rustic Cambodian dish that's usually eaten at dinner along with other dishes that are to be shared. The salad consists of a fine julienne of green mango, carrots, red onions, napa cabbage, chives, basil, mint, and chopped Thai chiles dressed in lime juice, extra-virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and prahok dissolved in water. Prahok [fermented fish paste] is very pungent and pronounced in flavor. While it's a very authentic and celebrated ingredient in Cambodian cuisine, Americans have yet to fully appreciate it. They've basically said, ‘This is gross. We hate it.' Needless to say, it's off the menu for now."

Julian Medina chef/owner
Toloache
New York City
They loved it!: Grasshopper tacos. "I put this dish on my opening menu with the best intentions. Never in my life would I have thought grasshopper tacos would be a hit. But they've really taken off. The press embraced them right from the start. But I'm most surprised by the number of people who order them again and again. I grew up in Mexico, so eating grasshoppers isn't anything unusual for me. They're an authentic part of Oaxacan cuisine. Street vendors sell bags of dehydrated grasshoppers dusted with chile powder, salt, and lime. We call it Mexican popcorn. For my tacos the dried grasshoppers get a quick sauté in olive oil with onions and pickled jalapeños and are served in homemade corn tortillas dressed with a little guacamole and tomatillo salsa, with a wedge of fresh lime on the side to squirt on top."

What do they know?!: Churros with foie gras & mole dipping sauce. "In Mexico, churros [fried piped dough dusted with cinnamon sugar] often come filled with something sweet, such as dulce de leche, and get dipped in melted chocolate. They're very popular. I thought, ‘Why not fill churros with something equally rich but savory?' Using the same dough as the sweet version, I filled the churros with foie gras mousse and served them with a chocolate mole dipping sauce. I was so excited about the dish, thinking it would sell like crazy. Boy, was I wrong. Not every dish needs to sell as much as another, but it's important to me that every item on my menu be enjoyed. I tried reworking it but eventually decided that churros were best in their more traditional preparation. We now serve them filled with dulce de leche with a chocolate dipping sauce, and we sell tons."

Guillermo Pernot concept chef
Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar
Philadelphia
They loved it!: Pescado de Oriente. "Pescado means "fish" and Oriente refers to a region of Cuba with a high concentration of Chinese immigrants. This dish is a great example of how the Chinese brought big flavors and brightness to Cuban cooking. Typically the fish used in this dish might be a local grouper or snapper, but at the restaurant we use an Australian sea bass, which we marinate in olive oil with lime and orange juice. The head is removed but the tail and skin are left on. The fish is then crisped on a plancha, and a sauce of orange and lime juices, fish sauce, soy sauce, thinly sliced jalapeños, tomatoes, and sesame oil is poured on top. Fried rice with plantains, okra, roasted cauliflower, bell peppers, scallions, green peas, and carrots is served with the fish along with some sweet chile/citrus ajonjoli [sesame seed] sauce. The dish is garnished with a salad composed of baby onion, daikon sprouts, and snow peas. I think people like the mix of hot and cold and the complex but clean flavors. It's a big seller."

What do they know?!: Calamari relleno. "I thought it would be fun to stuff squid with ropa vieja, a traditional Cuban dish of shredded beef, onions, tomatoes, and poblanos. It was a nice idea, but getting people to order it was something else altogether. It was so disappointing when the dish didn't sell because it had so many great things going for it. The stuffed and grilled squid was served with roasted corn arepas and a warm salad of sautéed shiitake and chanterelle mushrooms deglazed with a red wine demi-glace and lemon juice for a nice bit of acidity. Stuffed squid isn't something that can really sit around and wait for the customer, and having to assemble something every day that wasn't moving just didn't make sense. I think I'd like to try stuffing the ropa vieja in corn arepas for my fall menu to see what happens. But I'll lay off the squid for a while."