Wednesday, April 16, 2008

experimental cuisine, sloe gin, and a really unnecessary rant about Thai food, again

April 16

Interesting week so far. On Monday afternoon I was on a panel with some pretty intense food wonks. They included braniac pastry chef Will Goldfarb; Nils Noren, the former executive chef of Aquavit who is now vice president of culinary and pastry arts at the French Culinary Institute; David Arnold, who has the unexpected title of director of culinary technology at the FCI; and chef Heather Carlucci, who owns Lassi restaurant (and who seemed very nice and probably talented, but less wonkish). Moderating our discussion was the man who is perhaps the most intense of intense food writers, Corby Kummer.
Even as he was asking us questions, Corby had his laptop up and running and was typing notes about what we said (I could tell, because I was seated next to him).
The panel was for the monthly meeting of the Experimental Cuisine Collective.
“Just call us ECC,” Will said, pronouncing it “eck.”
Oh, that Will.
Corby started out kind of hostile to all of this new-fangled use of transglutaminase and hydrocolloids and so on, and advocated a back-to-basics approach, but I think Dave, Nils and Will convinced him that the two were in no way mutually exclusive, and that people interested in using new techniques to make the food taste better were also interested in using the best of what’s already out there.
That’s true sometimes, but I pointed out that some of this experimental stuff is executed quite badly. Will countered that there are plenty of restaurants that execute French and Italian food badly, but people don't blame French and Italian cuisines for that, nor should they blame experimental techniques for the fact that some people are bad at them.
He has a point.
Oh, Will also said that his sandwich kiosk, Picnick, would be opening for the season next week and would have a beer and wine license later in the summer, so that’s exciting.
Dave Arnold’s favorite piece of equipment: a high-tech evaporator. It seems he’s all into distillates these days. Has been for awhile, but it’s all quite experimental at the moment so he doesn’t talk about it much.
He and Nils sometimes use a centrifuge, too, which they refer to as a dangerfuge. That reminds me of how my parents, to discourage me and my siblings from sampling the juniper berries that grew on the evergreen in our front yard when we lived in Aurora, Colo. (before moving to Denver), called them "poison berries." It worked.
Okay, so berries and new-fangled things lead me into the rest of the week, because last night I went to a launch party for Plymouth’s new sloe gin. It was at The Back Room, one of those secret speakeasy-like places where you have to know what you’re looking for and explain yourself, and then an intimidating looking doorman will move aside and indicate where you need to go (in this case down the stairs and into a forbidding-looking Lower East Side alley, and then up some iron stairs and into a really very grand event space).
“Alcohol’s legal now, you know,” I said to the woman who was checking names. But I have to admit it’s a fun schtick.
Sloe is actually the berry (sort of, it’s related to a plum) of the blackthorn bush. It’s inedibly sour unless you soak it in gin for several months, diluting the whole thing with sugar and water. I sampled it and drank a couple of cocktails made from it while meeting fascinating people, such as Eric Seed, the principal in Haus Alpenz, which imports things like velvet falernum and other specialty ingredients for cocktails. It turns out he went to Kenyon College and another person at the party, who also went to Kenyon, remembered Thad Camp, who studied in Nanjing with me in 1988. Neither of them remembered my friend Wade Sheppard, which means they probably didn’t meet him, because Wade’s memorable.
I wanted to ask Eric how he got into the specialty-cocktail-ingredient importing business, but instead I ended up chatting with Matt Stinton, the service director at Hearth restaurant. I shared my experiences waiting tables at Azar’s Big Boy in Denver and how men about to get lucky tip well. Matt said that men who weren’t sure how to close the deal ended up staying until late into the night, which was not the most desirable scenario. But he seems to really like his job.
And so I was running late to have dinner at Rhong-Tiam with cousins Leonard and Stephen, Stephen’s mother Pete (yes Pete; just let it all wash over you), Stephen’s friend Patricia, and Leonard’s best friend, Glenn Collins, the New York Times features writer, and his wife Sarah.
I’d had dinner at Rhong-Tiam on Friday, too. I love the place.
But I still might not recommend it to you, not merely because I don’t make restaurant recommendations in writing (as explained here and here), but also because in my experience most New Yorkers have so little understanding of Thai food that they can’t tell good from bad and have ignorant expectations. So if I recommend the place and you don’t like it, you’ll say “that Bret, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
So, I love the place, if you don’t, that’s your problem and you probably won’t enjoy the food in Bangkok.
That was illustrated to me as I was leaving the sloe gin party, when someone exclaimed her love for Thai food, particularly pad see-ew, which is actually a Thai variation of a Chinese dish, but okay. She said she also liked pad Thai, but couldn’t eat anything remotely spicy.
“Then you don’t like Thai food,” I said, which might sound obnoxious of me (it does, I know it does), but is true nonetheless.
Despite the fact that I was late to Rhong-Tiam, my dining companions were more late, and so I sat down and had a beer as an irate woman walked in and handed her takeout food back to the owner, declaring that it was too spicy.
“Would you like us to make you something else?” Andy Yang, the chef and owner, asked very nicely.
But she said no, she wanted the same food, but less spicy.
The thing is, it’s not the same food if it’s less spicy. This is problematic, though, because people really do have different thresholds of pain when it comes to spicy food. They do. And people with low tolerance for capsaicin (the stuff in chiles that causes the chemical burn on the tongue that we call “spicy”) are no more wimpy than anyone else.
Nonetheless, that burn is part of the Thai food experience. It shouldn’t be genuinely painful, but you should feel it.
I vented to a server, asking her in Thai why that customer was ordering Thai food if she didn’t like spicy food. The server was diplomatically both sympathetic and non-committal.
But to be fair, not all Thai dishes are spicy, and we ordered a couple for Pete and Sarah.
The server recommended the lemon grass chicken, and I asked her if it was good. Diplomatic again, yet accurate, she said that people who can’t eat spicy food can eat it. And it was, in fact, a big hit.
I also ordered roasted pork neck (often just called roasted pork in the States), which comes with a firey sauce that you don't have to dip your pork into if you don’t want to. Oh, and we had khanom jeep, a Thai version of Chinese shao mai (or shumai if you’re Japanese)
We also had a couple of the specials, including what they called Thai-style buffalo wings, which were in fact a variation on gai ho bai teui — small chunks of chicken wrapped in pandan leaf and deep-fried. These were lightly breaded wings (not chunks), tied with pandan and fried.
The other special was chuchee soft shell crab — served in a rich sauce redolent of kaffir lime leaf.
Then we had fluffy catfish salad, a spicy beef salad called nam tok, which means waterfall because the oil drips down from the grill and sizzles on the coals as it cooks, chicken with crispy basil, and roasted duck in red curry.
Then Andy sent out three desserts — a sort of tofu flan, which Glenn in particular loved — fried ice cream, which isn’t Thai, but okay, and bananas in sticky rice.
All of my dining companions seemed to love the food, even as they sought cures for the fire on their tongues (Glenn found beer to be the best solution, as many people do, although sweets are good, too — Thais insist that salt on the tongue works, but I don't believe it).
As for new-fangled things, they were on display this afternoon at an Italian-American Chamber of Commerce event at Cipriani (the one on 23rd St.), at which the region of Piedmont in general and the city of Turin in particular were showing off their ability to combine design and food by serving things in truly odd looking receptacles that made the food harder to eat.
Indeed, one designer — a trim young man with a spike through his left ear, long hair and a bushy beard that made him resemble a leprechaun or small troll — explained to me that I was supposed to eat the salade Russe with a spoon, not to simply up-end the plastic cup it was in. But how is one supposed to know if we’re turning the rules on their ears? He handed me a plastic spoon, which after a few bites I surmised was actually three spoons stuck together.
I wondered when it became stylish to eat things out of plastic receptacles with plastic utensils.
We were supposed to eat a lot more items, but it turns out that the products hadn’t arrived in time for most of it, so they just sort of described how all the different bowls and plates and saucers were supposed to work, amusing us with risotto, salade Russe and what they called a deconstructed omelet, which was vegetables in kind of a watery egg concoction, served in a plastic cup that was in turn held in a trapezoidal metal container stuck onto a flat metal tray. I have no idea why.
The kicker was the way in which chocolate mousse was to be served — from a pastry bag covered with a rubber breast and nipple. Diners are supposed to suck the mousse from the breast, and this is supposed to remind them of the carefree time of babyhood.
I don’t think that would work for me.


misentropic said...

I'm Thaddeus Camp - who, mysteriously, remembered me and in what context? Twenty year ago since Nanjing. Unreal.

Bret Thorn said...

Thad! Nice to hear from you. I wish I could remember who remembered you. I brought up your name, and she said she remembered you, but I don't recall anything about her. She was an old friend of Eric Seed's, if that helps.