Dining in the Petri Dish
The revolution in experimental, deconstructivist, "molecular" gastronomy was over before it began in South Florida.
If we'd hoped the surreal culinary high-jinks of chefs like Ferran Adria the half-mad Spanish genius of El Bulli, whose favorite ingredient is liquid nitrogen (he's been known to serve parmesan-scented "frozen air" as a party hors d'oeuvre) would someday trickle down to our little burg, we're still waiting. Jellified mollusks? Atomized shrimp cocktail sprayed from a canister? Still waiting. True, brainy superchef Thomas Keller may have been raised here in West Palm Beach, getting his start cooking at the Palm Beach Yacht Club, but when he left us, he never looked back. You have to trek to his New York Per Se or across the continent to Napa Valley and the French Laundry to sample his amusing concoctions "oysters and pearls," "green eggs and ham."
Keller and Adria have influenced a generation of nerdy young chefs around the world to laboratorize their food. Forty years ago, these were the dudes with ink-stained pockets and slide rules; today, they're celebrity chef bad boys and, it must be said, atomic cooking is almost solely a guy thing. Female chefs seem to be considerably less starry-eyed over the kind of culinary alchemy that produces mozzarella bubbles filled with tomato foam.
We have Adria, Keller, et al. to thank for the ubiquitous "tasting menu" (in fancy-pants French, the menu de dégustation) a four-, six-, eight-, or 30-course culinary parade costing anywhere from $50 to $300 per person that's turning up everywhere miniplates, sometimes no more than a bite, that ideally appear in a carefully choreographed sequence with lots of pomp and circumstance, designed to show off the chef's best, or weirdest, work. Several servers may be required to explain the rules for eating your peanut-butter-infused grape, your powdered crème brûlée. Diners at Grant Achatz's Alinea in Chicago, Food and Wine cautions, can expect "disorientation, confusion, and intellectual vertigo."
"The menu de dégustation is the finest expression of avant-garde cooking," Adria has said. I'd only add... "depending upon which chef is doing the degusting." In my travels around two counties in the past couple of months, I've noticed a disturbing trend toward "experimental" flavorings and pairings that have gone sadly, sickeningly wrong: dishes badly conceived and poorly executed but with a sheen of creative weirdness sweetness where you might expect savory, softness of texture where you thought to find crunch. Or just too many ingredients entirely, as if piling on disparate flavors automatically creates excitement (rather than, say, nausea). If these local chefs down at the beach hotel and neighborhood café are the scientists toiling away in their experimental kitchens, guess who's standing in for the lab rats?
"I am against new things," Adria has also said, "when the person trying them does not know the great dishes [of] history. My advice to new chefs: Before inventing new dishes, learn the classical recipes by heart."
Ah, yes. And then maybe your customers won't feel as if they're hopping around on an electrified cage floor or learning to press the correct lever to avoid being poisoned when they tuck in to dinner at your restaurant. Can we, please, please, get back to basics?
I had the weirdest meal of my life at Café Sharaku last week. The restaurant, open only a bit over a month on Federal Highway south of Oakland Park Boulevard, is tiny a mere six tables. I'd learned from its website that it was owned by a Japanese chef and served "French food with Japanese ingredients." The place definitely has pretensions its menu de dégustation ($68 per person, with dessert) includes such highlights as sea eel risotto and pork feet gallette with cornichon vinaigrette; the à la carte menu offers cold local golden-crab soup, homemade smoked salmon with fennel and sour cream salad, and foie gras terrine.
The description of these concoctions, along with the high prices (a $15 soup, a $30 plate of lamb), tends to raise expectations, although I did pause for a nervous moment to wonder why we were the only customers in the restaurant at 7:30 on a Friday evening. Our waitress had no idea how to explain anything on the menu, and we could have used the help. We ordered the cold crab soup ($15) to start and a fluke and scallop soufflé ($12).
But a pall of impending doom had begun to settle over our first few bites of bread (cheese toast with pepper) and butter (containing the myriad, mysterious, and unpleasant flavors of long refrigeration in a non-airtight container) and liver "mousse." My partner and I had come up with a 99 percent foolproof rule "Any meal will be only as good as the bread it follows" (meaning, if they start you off with stale, tasteless rolls, fold up your napkin and run!), but I'd been bedazzled by the intriguing promise of duck in port wine. Surely this disgusting butter, this weird toast, was just an accident?
Our waitress brought us a complimentary starter two bowls of cold golden tomato soup, each with a little goat cheese tart a nice gesture, but overkill, considering we'd ordered cold crab soup as an appetizer. The broth had hints of fresh tomato flavor. But here was our introduction to two notes that sounded through every course of this long dinner its color was orange (as was everything that followed), and its foundation was a chicken-stock soup base (my guess is, powdered) so intense, so salty, so metallically bitter, it was impossible to taste anything around or beyond it.
Presentation at Café Sharaku tends toward the exquisite, the third theme of the evening. Soup bowls (the crab soup came in a kind of clear, off-center globe), place settings, and the decorative aspects of every dish showed care and artistry. But the baroque prettiness of the food just exaggerated its flaws for the most part, nothing we ate that night tasted good.
Our crab soup was fishy and oversalted, and all you could say about those slippery clear crab eggs were that their texture was "interesting." My fluke and scallop soufflé was another case of failed expectations the "soufflé" was in fact a miniature quiche, a fairly tough one at that, floating in a strange, soupy amalgam of sauces in various shades of orange and cream. These tasted (and looked) strikingly like the crab bisque and tomato soup we'd had earlier, with subtle variations in the spicing. So far, not inedible but not delicious either.
When our waitress appeared with our entrées we'd ordered lamb cooked two ways ($30) and skirt steak with braised short ribs ($26), she couldn't identify what they were. One dish, which she set down in front of me, was something wrapped in a green leaf and decorated with a side of steamed clams. "This is lamb?" I queried.
"Hmm. The lamb is inside the leaf," she said tentatively.
"Lamb with clams? That doesn't sound like what I ordered."
She went away, and I bit into one of the gritty, shriveled steamed clams. Cutting into the cabbage leaf, I found a block of white flesh that looked and smelled identical to a fish fillet.
Our waitress came scurrying back. "We made a mistake," she said. "That's not lamb; it's fish."
The plate of lamb a piece of "roasted California loin" and a couple of chunks of "braised leg" had been set down in front of my partner, who thought she was eating skirt steak and short ribs. Success! We were definitely feeling "disorientation, confusion, and intellectual vertigo."
We were their only customers; how could they screw this up? My partner obligingly handed over her lamb dish; the waitress rushed off to reenter the order for skirt steak.
I went ahead with my rapidly cooling dinner. Have I mentioned it was orange? Both loin and leg had been rubbed or cooked in something like paprika. The leg meat was unpleasant and dry think leftover pot roast and the loin was set over a platform of what I'm guessing was supposed to be mashed potatoes. Thankfully, a few fresh vegetables had been arranged alongside a fresh baby carrot, some sweet onions because they were the only edible morsels.
At length, out came the skirt steak. It was hot on one side and ice cold on the other, marinated to the flavor of Good Seasons Italian dressing. The baffling "mashed potatoes" appeared here too. If they'd been cooked by a space alien who'd never seen or tasted a spud, they couldn't have been odder.
After the entrées, the chef sent us out a refreshing (orange!) interval tangerine granita served inside the fruit's carefully hollowed-out skin. But the skin was old, shriveled, as if long frozen or, worse, re-used, and the granita was bitter, probably from long contact with pith.
Honestly, it saddens me to trounce this chef he's just a guy trying to make a living with his little restaurant, right? And Sharaku is only one example, if possibly the worst, of an aesthetic that has reached a dead end in incompetence and misunderstanding. You can visualize the line of influence the playful pairings and wild creative splurges, the interest in the local and organic that marked a culinary movement petering out like an unsuccessful gene down the generations. Café Sharaku would be the last gasp of an evolutionary line. And that's the definition of decadence.
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