Cafe Society

O's Steak & Seafood

It begins with a cheese plate.

One large cube of Point Reyes blue cheese, well marbled with veins of blue-green mold, nicely cut. A small bunch of grapes. A single breadstick dusted with sea salt and black Tasmanian pepper. A little balsamic vinegar. The elements are laid out in a line on an austere, square white plate: first the cheese, then the grapes, then the vin. No garnish, no wrap. But the balsamic vinegar has been caramelized — whipped up into a stiff, peaked foam and given five seconds of love from the Bernz-o-matic blowtorch on the line. Each grape has been individually wrapped in a soft jacket of peanut butter. There's a thin doodle of Alsatian grape syrup sketched across the plate and then a tiny pile of caviar on top of the Point Reyes made of that same syrup plus a little algenate, a little calcium chloride.

Still, it is recognizably a cheese plate, that most easy of first courses on any menu — except this one. With its several culinary impossibilities (or at least improbabilities), its magical elf powders and industrial chemicals and artful trickery, this plate took about fifteen years to create and cost tens of thousands of dollars. It required the obsessive, after-hours work of dozens of stone-crazy chefs scattered around the globe with the kind of minds that think of things like caramelizing a liquid or wrapping a grape in peanut butter when most normal chefs are concerned only with finding new ways to make soft things crispy — the simplest and most basic description of what a chef does for a living, every day of his working life.

Sitting in the main dining room of O's Steak & Seafood at the Westin Westminster (easily the least likely location I can imagine for a transformative culinary epiphany), I stab a shrimp fork through one corner of the cheese, use the edge of my thumb to add a few beads of glistening grape juice caviar, spear a peanut butter grape and drag the whole bite through the cloud of balsamic foam that has the consistency of a ridiculously light and airy mousse. The smells are powerful: astringent vinegar, funky cheese, the blood of grapes. I put the fork in my mouth and the balsamic foam collapses instantly, flooding my mouth and coating my tongue with its thick sharpness. I bite and the grape explodes, mixing with peanut butter, carrying the Alsace sweetness on its back. Then I reach the cheese — earthy and sour, smooth, delicious.

Tasting all of this is one of the strangest, most amazing sensations I've experienced. Never mind that I've spent the last three hours in the kitchen with Ian Kleinman, O's chef de cuisine and the mad scientist responsible for this plate (among other, even weirder things). Never mind that I've followed every step in its construction, been in on the testing and tasting, watched him make caviar out of grape slurry and turn vinegar into a cloud. Knowing all that, I also know that I will never be able to fully describe this single bite — and that I will never, ever forget it. It will be with me for the rest of my life, because this is the moment when everything changes for me.

This is the moment when it all makes sense.

Like the cheese plate, I've spent many years and unconscionable sums of money to get me to this point. I've read books, lots of books, on molecular gastronomy, the clunky, catch-all name given to the intensely science-driven reimagining of cuisine that covers everything from the use of immersion blenders and thermal circulators to an atoms-up revising of the chemical laws of cookery. I've consulted with chefs over the phone and over many beers. I've flown to Chicago to meet Hervé This — the guy who literally wrote the book on molecular gastronomy, called Molecular Gastronomy — and ask him just one very important question: Why?

Even getting to O's to see Ian in action was a long road. It took months for him to get the menu ready for launch — time spent ordering crazily and broadly from Le Sanctuaire (basically getting one of everything from this boutique Santa Monica food company that exists to feed the jones of rich gourmets and chemical enthusiasts everywhere), then experimenting to see what would happen if he mixed this with that, if he overheated carrageenan (it causes cancer) or froze a glass full of olive oil with liquid nitrogen (it explodes). He and I traded e-mails filled with gossip and experimental data and speculation about Iron Chef, and then news of Ian's pure genius move: a miso soup that called for taking a big bowl of broth, adding capsules full of freeze-dried or dehydrated ingredients, then injecting noodles into the broth from a fat syringe, with the combination of crème fraîche, togarishi and a high-gelling methocellulose forming up and solidifying as it came into contact with the hot soup. Essentially, Ian had made food pills — that old-fashioned sci-fi conceit that, like the flying car or personal jet-pack, had never come true.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan