Fun With Molecular Gastronomy
Shortly before New Year's, I went back to O's at the Westin Westminster with some of my most trusted dining compatriots, where we put away several bottles of Piper Heidsieck champagne and had chef Ian Kleinman ("Mr. Wizard," October 25, 2007) cook us a mind-altering meal. I'd arranged this foray into the wilds of molecular gastronomy personally, telling Kleinman to just go nuts (and keep the per-head tab under a certain number). He responded with an eight-course circus act of pure freak cuisine — all smoke and science fiction, jerry-rigged miracles and dishes that made my hardened brigade of gastronauts giggle like schoolchildren and lapse into moments of babbling reverie, struggling for words to describe the indescribable.
We had shots of mango-vodka purée served in hollow spheres of frozen vanilla water, and wild rice puffed like popcorn and seasoned with black truffle dust, then tossed in liquid nitrogen so that when you ate it, you breathed smoke. There were vacuum-compressed tomatoes with a flavor like an entire summer condensed down into one perfect day served alongside Kleinman's 65-minute soft-boiled egg; ethereally thin slices of blue marlin, cold-smoked in an icebox and dusted with frozen wasabi oil; plates of twisted snails, razor-shaved and mounted over a perfect, snow-white cotija risotto with murderously expensive Japanese matsutake mushrooms that taste like one of those pine-tree air fresheners you hang in your car — resinous and sickly strong. The sous vide organic chicken juiced with mustard and vanilla had spent eight hours in the kitchen's jack-leg thermal circulator (not yet having a thermal circulator of his own, Kleinman had suspended thermometers in a pot of water on the stove which he then stirred — constantly — for eight hours), then was sliced and laid delicately across a muscular hash of potatoes and pancetta and topped with a froth of rosemary air.
And then there were the dippin' dots, one of Ian's new obsessions. Carrot-cake-flavored this time, served over cream-cheese ice cream made with liquid nitrogen and chased with pieces of homemade pineapple bubble gum rolled in toasted curry.
Like my first meal at O's, this one was groundbreaking, bizarre, wildly original and, believe it or not, delicious. That's what separates Kleinman and his crew from some of the other practitioners of the molecularly gastronomical arts: His food actually tastes like food, thanks to his training, his deep passion for food and ingredients, his years as a working chef and (my opinion here, not his) his anger with the bland, broke and risk-averse cooking scene circa 2004. It might not look like food, might not have the temperature you're expecting, or the texture, the color or even the flavor. But every plate that he makes is inarguably food.
Back when Hunter Thompson was still working steadily, he'd call the last few paragraphs of any piece "The Wisdom." He used them to sum up, to tie off loose ends and bring home whatever kind of twisted moral or knowledge he wanted to impart to his readers. I do the same thing sometimes, getting preachy and didactic, expressing the need to find some final truth in everything. But the strangest things can sneak up on your blind side and cold-cock you, leaving you wondering if everything you ever thought you knew was just wrong. This time last year, I hated the molecular gastronomists — not merely disliked or mistrusted them, but flat hated. To my mind, they were culinary nihilists at best, upending generations of knowledge and canonical faith solely for the dubious pleasure of shooting cornstarch with lasers and calling it popcorn. Like vegans and raw-food enthusiasts, I saw the food geeks in Chicago and Miami and New York as anathema to my classicist predilections and love/hate French bias, as terrorists bent on tearing down the pillars of cuisine while offering nothing to raise in their place but freeze-dried bacon and vaporous nitrogen smoke.
I was wrong. I was completely, totally and 180 degrees wrong, and I can see that now. So if I have any wisdom at all to impart, it is simply this: Always be willing to be amazed. Stepping fresh into 2008, I have a feeling like the first man on Mars — seeing things that no human eyes have yet seen, experiencing emotions for which no terrestrial analogs exist. The food world is fresh and brand-new now, and this year, I'm not going to fuck it up by presuming that I know anything.
Trickle-down gastronomy: One of the very cool side effects of molecular gastronomy — or any culinary revolution, for that matter — is the way that, in a trickle-down fashion, it reinvigorates the entire industry. I remember, years back, seeing an immersion blender in use for the first time. I was working in a straight French joint then, had seen an immersion blender on some PBS cooking show or other, and had asked my chef to get one. "No," was his answer. "Absolutely no."
Why? Because we already had a Robo (a Robot-Coupe, an industrial-strength food processor introduced to professional kitchens about a million years ago and the only piece of equipment, other than the occasional microwave, let into the rigid, French batterie de cuisine in the last hundred years). And if the Robo had been good enough for blending soup until now, it would continue to be good enough for blending soup forever. Needless to say, today it's a rare kitchen that doesn't have an immersion blender. And in the next couple of years, I think it's going to be a rare kitchen that doesn't have a vacuum sealer and a thermal circulator — two of the more pedestrian gadgets used regularly by molecular gastronomists and proponents of cutting-edge prep.
I talked last week with Stephan Frye, owner of Sobo American Bistro, which opened a couple of months ago at 657 South Broadway in Boulder (and should not be confused with the Sobo Bar on South Broadway in Denver). He was trying to explain his cuisine to me — calling it "Modern American," but then struggling to define exactly what "Modern American" meant within the confines of his bistro in particular. "We do a lot of American food," he said — but the American food that Sobo does is heavily informed by immigrant cuisines and European technique. There are Greek flavors, Asian flavors, Eastern European flavors — each of them distinct on the plate. "It's not a fusion," Frye said. "That's the way Americans like to eat these days, we think. The days of pot roast are over."
A bold statement, so I started asking for menu specifics, at which point he handed the blower to his chef, Scott Clagett, who once cooked with James Mazzio at Fifteen Degrees back when Fifteen Degrees was the hottest restaurant in the state. In the years since, Clagett has been everywhere — cooking in the Caribbean, in D.C. and on the West Coast, traveling through Hungary, Greece and Asia. But now he's back home again, doing interesting things with a menu that changes pretty substantially about once a month.
He has a Szechuan peppercorn-crusted tuna with a kumquat chutney, served in an anise-shot, pho-style broth, and a seared veal chop over carrot spaetzle and sweetbreads doused with a sauce of pure red bell pepper. His braised beef short rib is done sous vide, packed in a vacuum bag, ultimately sauced with honey and balsamic and roasted cipollini onions. The sous vide made me think of Kleinman, but when I asked Clagett about the influence of molecular gastronomy in his own kitchen, he laughed. "I know that stuff," he said. "And I like the guys who use it. But I wouldn't call anything I do molecular. I'm not into the chemicals. I'm more into using my juicer, my smoker, my vacuum sealer. Sous vide is about as far as I go."
But that's the thing, I argued: Five years ago, sous vide was way too far out for most guys. Clagett responded by reminding me that sous vide is a French term that's been around for a hundred years, that there's nothing at all new about it.
Clagett is predominantly a classicist. In his words, everything he does is in service to the food: the battle cry of the dedicated, ingredient-driven professional chef. And yet his menu at Sobo is a million years more advanced than what I was doing in Frenchy-ville ten years ago — a place where I couldn't get an immersion blender because it was too newfangled, too insultingly modern. Back then, his food would've been blasted as "bitch nouvelle" — a wonderful phrase from the chef's lexicon that meant too girly, too effete and too fussy all at the same time. Fusion-but-not-fusion, Asian flavors on a classical French plate, sous vide? He would've been the rebel then — whereas today he's defending the flag of the old guard.
Leftovers: Good news for fans of Mara Soutiere's restaurants, Magnolia in Louisville and Tahona in Boulder. She and her crew are hunting for a location in Denver where they can open a third restaurant, and are looking to multi-unit operators like Dave Query for inspiration. "These guys, they know that you have to keep your staff excited," she said. And one way to do that? Open another restaurant so there's room to promote from within — which is precisely what Soutiere is looking at now, scouting spots on both 17th Avenue and in the Highland neighborhood.
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