When I reviewed the Squeaky Bean nine months ago, I was amused and delighted by what Max MacKissock was dreaming up in his tiny kitchen, playing with classic American dishes and making them into something new and unexpected. A reimagined shepherd's pie, light enough for a summer evening. Sweetbreads made with Shake 'N Bake. Spinach and artichoke dip devoid of gloppy cheese.
After that review, I found myself stopping by the Squeaky Bean frequently: I love the vibe, the neighborhood and, of course, the food. And during these visits, I've watched the menu evolve as MacKissock pushed himself further and used the restrictions in his space to remove all restraints.
And where he's going has MacKissock headed in the same direction as some of the most inventive restaurants around.
When Copenhagen's Noma dethroned El Bulli last year to nab the title of the best restaurant in the world, it also signaled a wave of change in modern cuisine. Molecular gastronomy, was on its way out -- and replacing it was something light, seasonal, simultaneously deconstructed and reconstructed, fitting foods together in unimaginable ways while giving plates abstract aesthetics.
Kind of like gargouillou, a dish credited to French chef Michel Bras that plates thirty seasonal vegetables in tiny portions with other accoutrements meant to mimic soil and earth. The point is to capture seasonality, deconstructing and reconstructing a garden for dinner.
Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic at Westword's sibling paper, the LA Weekly, recently reviewed Red Medicine, and described gargouillou as "an improvisational framework" for a new breed of chefs, a basis for thinking when designing dishes. While gargouillou really refers specifically to that vegetable dish, this new breed is rethinking cuisine in terms of that lens, breaking down the familiar into its most elemental form and then using those elements to tell a story on the plate.
There are two clear examples of this on the menu right now at the Squeaky Bean: the pork chile verde and the chocolate and sugar.
The pork chile verde takes the details of traditional green chile and recombines them in a completely new way, stuffing cornbread with pork, pureeing the chiles to serve as the base, garnishing with coriander blossoms. The chocolate and sugar takes about twelve different ingredients that might go into a rich, chocolatey-caramely dessert and breaks them into individual bits, plating them all together and going so far as to plate the dish with "dirt": onyx powder, which is intense, pure cocoa, cut with powdered sugar.
They're dishes that re-imagine, that tell a story and that fall in line conceptually with those at Red Medicine and with Noma.
Taken in the context of the chef's considerable canon, those dishes display MacKissock's immense creativity and vast potential. The chef doesn't nail it every time; constructions fail and dishes don't turn out quite right.
When he gets it right, though, his cooking is a window into an entirely different echelon of talent.
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Denver is full of capable chefs. But MacKissock is challenging the parameters of this city's dining scene and redefining what's possible for restaurants in this town.
I can hardly wait to see what he comes up with next.