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Tapas Molecular Bar (Part I), Tokyo, Japan, tasted on December 13, 2005  There is a rap on the latest wave of experimental cutting edge food. It's more about technological wizardry than flavor. It's not based in any culinary tradition. It's more chemistry than cooking. It's not timeless. It's about being cute and clever instead of delicious. And if that's not damning enough, the critic will finally add: "and it's not even original. They're just copying Ferran Adria of El Bulli." I have varied opinions on each of these criticisms. I've spent plenty of time writing about the state of innovation in cooking before. Really... take a minute to check it out. At least the first four paragraphs. I'll wait.

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OK, now that you know where I'm coming from, what I ultimately care about is whether the food tastes great. Flavor, temperature, and texture are king in my world. I didn't really know what to expect in this regard of the Tapas Molecular Bar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. But it was recommended by the same concierge at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong who recommended Shui Hu Ju. Given my deep and abiding love for Shui Hu Ju I had major trust and confidence in his recommendations. I wasn't sure what tapas molecules were but I meant to get me several helpings (said with this accent).

I could go on for hours describing my love for Tokyo. It's not just  the food. Though that's certainly a huge component. How cool are amazingly beautifully designed hotels with their lobby on the 38th floor of a 60 floor skyscraper? Very very cool. And yes, I am in the habit of answering rhetorical questions. My destination wasn't even a restaurant per se, it was the bar in the lounge. Eight seats, two servings a night. A set menu. That's it. I was lucky to get a place. And did I mention it's a 25 course meal? Granted they are 25 small courses. And unlike other restaurants who typically count multiple items on one plate as one course, in this meal each was counted as a separate course. I honestly don't care about the accounting either way. It was definitely 25 different tastes, and that sounds like a good thing to me.

We had a heads up as to what was coming when we saw the metallic menus at each of our places at the bar. Very cool menus. The bar was pretty nice too. Think sushi bar (which is what it originally was going to be before Jeff Ramsey got involved). Chef Ramsey is an American who has many years experience as a chef under his belt. When he tells you of his experience, including the years spent as a sushi chef, it's in stark contrast to his youthful appearance. But his experience is evident throughout the meal.

Personally I wonder if significant experience as a sushi chef isn't something every chef should have to go through. The attention to detail, focus on freshness,  and minimalist discipline are things that most chefs could learn to appreciate even more.

The meal was so extensive that we're going to have to cover it in two entries. This of course is the first. Overall the courses were divided into three sections: Snacks and Cocktails, Degustation, and Desserts and Petits Fours. We'll make it most of the way through Degustation in this post, and then continue with our next post to the end of hte meal.

The first item up in Snacks and Cocktails was a drink. A Sidecar to be specific. I've never had a sidecar before, but it was quite delicious. And the pineapple froth on the surface was quite yummy, sweet, and sour. This was followed by an Olive Cloud. If there's one thing about today's cutting edge cooking that you could giggle at, it's the need for Roget's Thesaurus to come up with all the synonyms for foams and other ephemeral flavor containers that seem to dot the landscape of this cuisine.

Speaking of flavor containers, the Salmon Roe and Passion Fruit Slurp came in a sort of bottomless test tube. Again, par for the course in this genre of food. That said I was less concerned about the shape of the container than I was about the flavor was. You basically sucked the whole layered item down out of the test tube. First you tasted the fruit. Then you got salmon roe on the finish. It was a delicious fresh clean fruit sour salt sea combination.

Bar snacks were next. Crispy Beets and Nori Risotto to be specific. The crispy sour beet was bursting with sour flavor and ultra crispy. The nori was like a salty gourmet funyun. If these snacks were offered at the convenience store in bags they would both be my immediate new favorites. I could eat a billion of these.

Enough snacks at this point, we were moving on to the main section of the meal - Degustation. We started off with Pineapple and Salmon Ravioli. This was another riff on the fruit and sea theme but even better. It was topped with a scallion avocado sauce. Excellent. The next dish was called Glass of Wine. White wine to be specific. This was like a yummy jello treat in a petri dish with a puzzle. Each little item resting on the surace of the gelee represented some aspect of a deconstructed glass of white wine. I couldn't identify all the components, though there was definitely some vanilla, cinnamon, lemon zest and a floral melon. I know some people dismiss these kinds of dishes as novelties. It was definitely cute. Likely not something I might order again unless perhaps there was more gelee.

This next dish is really emblematic to me of what separates insecure chefs from the ones with courage - Melon Tenderloin. It takes courage to serve a piece of melon as the anchor for a dish. In its center there was some almond mousse. And on the edges there was a micro green salad. But essentially the melon had to make or break the dish. And this dish had the same depth you would expect from ordering a steak. The main ingredient featured, naked almost without a lot of messing around and trying to dress it up. The warm melon and solid almond flavor were a really new and enjoyable combination for me.

Back to clever for a bit, imagine a Linguine with White Sauce that includes no pasta. It was parmesan linguini. Basically a pasta made from cheeze. Damn sam! I'm not entirely well-versed on the process but basically through some combination of melting the parmesan into water that contained agar agar and gelatin he was able to produce these strips of linguine that had the identical texture to a semolina-based pasta, were translucent yellow, and had a deep parmesan essence. No flour. No eggs. Just very good. I could eat this again and again.

Chef Ramsey definitely has a thing for beets and I have to say that even though I realized their inherent greatness late in life, I am deeply appreciative of them now. This instance was Frozen Beet Soup with Scallops. The sour beet sorbet had a clean and bright flavor profile with a looooooooooooooong finish. It served as a foundation for the soft scallops and pistachios. Delightful.

This next dish is an answer to those who criticize the novelty of this cutting edge cuisine. Lauren, a veggie friend of mine, hates zucchini. She thinks it has no flavor, is generally gross, and without redeeming qualities. This dish was Deconstructed Zucchini. Deconstructing things is definitely a tool in the cutting edge cuisine arsenal. This was a combination of carmelized zucchini puree, seeds from poached zucchini, and a warm gelee of poached zucchini juice. 600 grams of zucchini were combined with 20 grams of butter to make this dish. Frankly, it was mind-blowing. Yes, the range of flavors you got from a simple zucchini butter combination was shockingly wide. But the enjoyability of those flavors was also extremely high. The combination had an amazing and deep buttery flavor with a subtle spicy quality. There was also a tanginess. It almost tasted like a sharp cheese. Almost. Complex and fantastic, this may have been my favorite dish of the evening.

At this point in the meal the chef and another cook brought out a contraption that looked like it was from an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy. The device was used to inject droplets of carrot juice with seaweed gelatin into water with calcium. What resulted from this little science demonstration? You'll see below.

After show and tell we were served Foie Gras with Cotton Candy. Essentially it was foie gras with sesame seeds wrapped in vanilla cotton candy. I couldn't tell whether it was a cold cube of foie pate or just even raw or somehow poached. The flavor was savory and deep. The slight tang on the finish was delicious. The sesame and vanilla notes were just wispy context. Really only flavor traces. The foie was clearly the star.

Back onto the injection theme, the next dish was a Lobster Injection. The foundation was a lobster tail seared perfectly with olive oil and salt. It was like warm sashimi. Beautiful really. The injector was a plastic tube (not a moderately more dangerous glass like I initially thought). The tube was filled with a deep, rich, and almost thick seafood sauce.

Finally the result of the science demonstration arrived - Carrot Caviar. It was beautiful to behold. Little perfect bubbles of fresh cold carrot lightness. Really quite good.

While the meal continued at a brisk pace so a break wasn't really necessary, we're not quite as accomplished. Stay patient for our next  post where we'll finish writing about this exciting meal. Stay tuned!

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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