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Bite Me

The Write Stuff

It was early in my tenure here -- and in Littleton, of all places, while visiting Opus Restaurant, at 2575 West Main Street -- that my passions for the true New American cuisine were first revealed ("This Note's for You," November 7, 2002). It was one dish that set me off, a small plate, just an appetizer. Chef Michael Long's ahi tuna PB&J "absolutely floored me," I wrote at the time. "Thick slices of ahi tuna loin, fire-kissed along the edges and sashimi-raw in the center, had been stacked between tiny doughy pancakes with the mushy consistency and blandness of Wonder Bread. The pancakes were smeared with a sweet, handmade peanut butter that had just enough flavor to overcome the dullness of the bread without clashing with the tuna, and the Œsandwich' was served with an electric green dollop of wasabe jelly speckled with black sesame seeds. Although there was technical perfection in the balance between hot and sweet, dull and sharp, what really got me was the skill required to intellectualize such a dish. Fun like this does not come easy or cheap in the kitchen; it takes an original mind and a sense of humor that most chefs don't have the luxury or confidence to exercise. I don't know which muse it is that moves a cook to those occasional flashes of culinary brilliance that make or break them by name, but I'd put Long's tuna PB&J up against the best of Thomas Keller at the French Laundry any time."

To this day (obviously), I still think about that plate. I've collected stories about how, with fresh, nuclear wasabe in the coolers and a hankering to do something with roti-style pastry, Long came up with the PB&J idea on the golf course, just a few hours before service, and phoned it in to his kitchen; stories about how he took the appetizer off the menu after he read my review because by then it had served its purpose ("Someone got it," Long reportedly said). The PB&J was replaced on the board by a plate of geometric gelees (a sphere, a cube and a pyramid) all made of seawater. There are moments of pure batshit crazy in Long's work, which is why I like the guy so much.

Other plates have hung doggedly with me through the hundreds of forgettable meals I eat every year, etched forever in fire onto the big menu in my brain. The potato gnocchi in crab and lobster sauce at Luca d'Italia, mussels at Le Central, three cheeseburgers at Bud's Bar in Sedalia, sea turtle soup at Ocean City, and one perfect piece of fish in lemon and butter, mounted on a side of simple braised spinach, served to me off-menu by Tyler Wiardat Mel's Restaurant and Barwhen he knew I was there looking for comfort, not to dine.

But a single appetizer-plate PB&J, deconstructed and redefined, delicious, intellectual, whimsical, smart -- that's what I'm talking about when I refer to the necessary revolutionary spirit of New American cuisine. And Long is the kind of chef I have in mind.

In his book The Soul of a Chef, Michael Ruhlman (probably the best food writer today who's not actually a full-time food writer) writes about the month he spent with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry. He lived in a room above the office, talked to everyone, pitched in when needed, ate -- and came out with a book which was considered nigh-biblical in non-classical kitchens: The French Laundry Cookbook. I've destroyed no fewer than three copies of that tome myself, working them to death in my own kitchens before leaving them behind when I moved on. And I think it's strangely appropriate that since I'm no longer in the kitchens, I no longer own a copy, but do have The Soul of a Chef -- Ruhlman's book about the writing of the cookbook -- sitting on my shelf at home.

In one chapter, Ruhlman writes about Keller's three top guns: Grant Achatz, Greg Short and Eric Ziebold. They were young guys, none out of their twenties (two of them not out yet), working at the hip and heel of the master -- the best, brightest hope of New American cuisine. Ruhlman asked them about food and their particular passions, expecting long, flowery dissertations about haute cuisine, exotic ingredients and their own blossoming skills in response.

But that's not what he got. Achatz was prepping the Laundry standard, fish and chips (actually red mullet with Italian parsley coulis, palette d'ail doux and handmade garlic chips, but whatever), and rather than loving up the fish, the complex preparation or Keller's genius, Achatz talked about the spiritual benefits of chopping shallots for his mise en place by hand rather than dumping them in the Robot-Coupe and pulsing them into wreckage, as is the standard prep at nearly every other restaurant. The Robo can reduce several pounds of shallot bulbs to an irregular chop in about five seconds; doing it by hand takes half an hour. Which means an extra half-hour added to a prep schedule already full of things like palette d'ail doux and boning out fresh mullet, which means coming in a half-hour early every day to get it done. Using a food processor doesn't hurt the shallots, but the results are uneven, imperfect. "It wouldn't necessarily affect the food," Achatz said, "but it affects your psyche. If you take a half-hour to chop shallots, you're going to make sure they don't get wasted."

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