Mies van der Rohe, the legendary mid-century modern architect once said, “God is in the details.” He was talking about buildings, of course, but the same is true of food. It’s particularly true on restaurant menus where details of preparation and presentation transform the food from ordinary to exceptional.
These chef-devised details not only express the personality of the kitchen and the restaurant but separate the memorable from the mundane. They’re the things that bring patrons back again and again.
After all, the so-called center of the plate (the protein in the parlance of the trade) can be much the same from restaurant to restaurant. The branzio, shrimp, chicken breast, salmon, or mussels don’t vary that much when they come in the back door. (This is not the case for high-end beef. More about that another time.) And they’re not that much different than what we can get in a good quality retail store.
It’s the creative chef that finds innovative ways to bring out flavor, texture, and even some surprises to often-seen entrees. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve based my order on how the food is presented, not what it is. Common choices seen on almost every fine-dining menu (salmon, scallops, chicken breast, strip steak and the like) find their appeal in the chef’s original approach.
Recently at Washington Prime in SoNo, the scallops were labeled Au Poivre Rouge ($36) with a description that included sunchoke purée, blistered tomatoes, toasted breadcrumbs, basil, pickled asparagus, and sunchoke salad. A bit of a mashup perhaps, but I couldn’t resist that symphony of flavors.
The well-browned scallops sat shoulder to shoulder on a hillock of the purée, tomatoes, and sunchokes topped with a tangle of microgreens for color. I couldn’t find the pickled asparagus and was puzzled by what appeared to be noodles stretched across the lineup of scallops. In the real world, substitutions can happen — oh well.
Working my way through the flavors, I tried a bite of the assumed noodles and was rewarded with a zing of bright vinegary flavor accompanied by the grassiness of asparagus. The stalks had been thinly sliced lengthwise and then pickled. What a remarkable surprise and a perfect tangy foil to the rich scallops. My taste buds were wide awake and the chef had my full attention. It was more interesting and creative than the usual squeeze of lemon and served the same purpose.
I immediately thought of WP chef Armando Sanchez conjuring up this idea, testing it till he was satisfied, and then training a cook to make those paper thin lengthwise slices of asparagus and pickling them just so. Pretty impressive.
Marsha’s beautifully presented seared Ahi Tuna (34) came with the typical Asian accents of miso, soy, and ginger, but this time the fresh ginger was mixed in with the rice for a new and refreshing take on familiar flavors. Sometimes chefs just have to take a different tack on tried-and-true presentations.
Many of the dishes at Washington Prime have a unique twist like cumin in the nachos, masa breading for fried seafood, dried kalamata olives on the salmon, and lemongrass with the mussels. It’s the kind of menu that brings me back for more.
At Match in SoNo they rely on their wood-fired oven for added flavor, but that’s just the beginning. Blackened swordfish comes with a sultana-pine nut glaze. Caramelized scallops are presented on smooth corn purée and covered with slow wood-oven roasted fennel and grilled corn off the cob. Wood-oven roasted half chicken has a summery basil-lemon marinade. Ubiquitous fried calamari is made unique with spicy black olive tapenade and sriracha-tomato aioli. Not for nothing is Chef Matt Storch’s restaurant recognized as a top food destination in the county.
It was the branzino (33) at the Tavern at Graybarns in Norwalk that got me started thinking about chefs’ artistry. The moist and tender whole fish was finished with a generous spoonful of a lively, finely-chopped salsa verde.
The accompanying vegetable was smokey bbq cabbage — a don’t-try-this-at-home preparation unlike anything I’ve had before. It too was dressed with salsa verde, this time mixed with pine nuts. Award-winning chef Ben Freemole must have had his thinking toque on when he came up with this delicious and original combination.
Freemole showed creative flair on just about everything that came out of the kitchen: a perfectly grilled slice of bread on the tuna tartar (22), roasted oysters with snail butter (20) on a beachy bed of empty shells, and ribbons of zucchini with the chicken la plancha (32).
You don’t find this kind of originality in every restaurant. There are plenty of well-established eateries with good food where the kitchen “colors inside the culinary lines”. I like to eat at those too.
Sometimes skillful cooking with well-chosen ingredients enters the area of creative artistry. It can (but not always) come with a hefty price tag. For my money, that level of originality deserves to be rewarded.
Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.
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