Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Wednesday carnage

December 20

I spent the early afternoon at Varietal, a new restaurant on 25th Street, with young pastry chef Jordan Kahn, who was showing me some stuff for an article I'm working on.
He was explaining different gelling agents and acids that he's using — and that his favorite kitchen tool is acetate sheeting — pointing out, when I used the term "molecular gastronomy," that in fact all of those things are merely tools to make dessert taste good and not nearly as kooky as people imagine.
And it's true, a lot of the hydrocolloids (or gums as regular people like to call them) that the kids are cooking with these days are actually just as "natural" or more so than gelatin, and many of the hydrolyzed soy proteins and other emulsification agents they're working with have been used in food manufacturing for years. All that's new is what's being done with it.
So we were having a nice time as he plated up a pain d'épices with 10-year-old Banyuls vinegar powder, taro puree and lychee ice spirals. Then he mentioned today's article in the New York Post that condemned his "wacky" food. Jordan was saddened that the writer, long-time critic Steve Cuozzo, didn't, in his opinion, know much about food.
Indeed, in the article, Cuozzo did call mizuna and maitake obscure ingredients, which of course they are not. Jordan pointed out that McDonald's uses mizuna in its salads.
(Cuozzo called mastic obscure, too, but mastic really is obscure)
I suggested that Cuozzo perhaps was targeting his readers, believing that they would find mizuna and maitake to be obscure.
Still, Jordan admitted to a feeling of sheepishness as he came into work on the subway this morning, looking at how many people were reading the Post.
And he pointed out that most of the article was in fact not about the restaurant but about a controversial bean that tastes a bit like vanilla. The tonga bean (actually, tonka bean, see comment #5 below) is not quite approved for consumption because it contains a blood thinner called coumarin, but chefs have in fact been using it in small quantities for years (I first had it in, oh, probably 1993 at the Mansion Kempinski Bangkok, where Rafael Neitszch was chef at the time).
Cuozzo's comments on Jordan's lime curd and macaroons didn't make it into the Post article, but he told Jordan that it was "awful."
"It's lime curd and macaroons," Jordan said to me. "How can it be awful?"
He had me and photographer Michael Harlan Turkell, who also had dropped by, sample the lime curd.
Indeed, it tasted just like lime curd. If you don't like lime curd, then it would be awful, but it seemed to Jordan that as a critic it is not fitting to condemn something as bad just because you don't like it.
Now, if you've never been a critic, that might sound strange to you, but in fact he has a point. In my opinion, critics are consumer advocates whose job is to describe what something is and whether it is a good one of those.
The one type of food I really can't stand is raw tomatoes, but back when I was a critic, I still had to sample dishes that had raw tomatoes in them. I had to taste the raw tomatoes. If I didn't mind them, I knew they were bland, flavorless tomatoes. If they tasted toxic to me, I knew they were full of flavor.
Anyway, Jordan Kahn was kind of bummed out.

And now I will try, for the first time, to post a picture here on my blog. I'm not anticipating any problems with that, since I have at least half a brain and it's nearly 2007.

This is Jordan's whipped absinthe with black sesame puree, sesame nougatine, liquid sablée spirals, tarragon puffs, ricotta, green apple sorbet, fennel and tarragon.
Jordan says he's inspired by abstract expressionists and sometimes thinks of the color he'd like a dish to be before creating it.
Stop reading now if you don't want to know what all this stuff is.
The whipped stuff near the top of the plate is the absinthe which has been added to hydrolyzed soy protein, water, sugar and salt and then whipped. The largish greenish chunks are the tarragon puffs, made by adding a gum called methylcellulose (specifically Methocel F50) to tarragon water (made by blanching and pureeing tarragon, straining it and saving the water). He seasons it with salt and sugar, pipes it into divinity shapes and then dehydrates it.
Methylcellulose, unlike most other gums, gels not when chilled but when heated, you see.
The streaks that look like they might be chocolate are in fact made by cooking black sesame seeds with water in a pressure cooker for a couple of hours and then puréeing them and flavoring them with sugar and salt.
The spiral is a sablée cookie that has been pulverized, mixed with an unsaturated fat (which is to say oil), spread between parchment paper, refrigerated to let it temper a bit, cut into strips and then looped around strips of acetate.
The ricotta's curd is broken up with a paddle and seasoned with lactic acid, salt and sugar. That's the white glob at the end of the cookie.


Anonymous said...

I also wondered about mizuna's lack of obscurity, and thought that article was a bit off. I ate at Varietal this week, and though it seems they have a bit of work to do still, logistically, it's very promising.

dad said...

What an exquisite abstract! Jordan has a marvlous eye. Thanks for the picture.

Bret Thorn said...

You're welcome, Dad,
I'm sure Jordan will be glad you liked it.
By the way, that sablee tastes a lot like your mother's cookies.

Michael Harlan Turkell said...

Thanks for including me in the Varietal write-up. I love lime curd!

Anonymous said...

for arguing that most of the ingredients are not in fact obscure, i find it ironic that you don't know that it's called a tonka bean.

it's plainly obvious to me that jordan is extremely ambitious and had high hopes for his career in ny york. this, combined with his young age, leaves him highly susceptible to being hurt by critics. but if he truly understood the provocative nature of his work he might have seen it coming. it's the post, for god's sake.

also, i think it's obvious that with the exception of wd~50, the climate in ny right now doesn't exactly foster so-called avant-garde cuisine. it's slowly changing through the work and vision of pastry chefs, so lucky for him. but for the time being he's going to have to expect as many negative reviews as positive.

Bret Thorn said...

Right! Tonka bean it is. Sorry for the typo, anonymous.

Anonymous said...

I went to Varietal last week and it was a wonderful experience.
Food and service were great!!!