Archive for the ‘Zetired’ Category

Smoked Fish, My People’s Cured Pork

Monday, March 9th, 2009

I won’t go into why it does or doesn’t make sense to follow dietary restrictions created by some dudes thousands of years ago. And even if God created them, I can’t explain why he would care if we ate bacon. (In fact, I might say that a loving and compassionate god would want his children to experience the joys of bacon on a regular basis.) Suffice it to say though, that for whatever reason, there are at least a couple of million people in the world who choose to keep kosher. And there are many millions more who observe Muslim dietary restrictions which also mean pork is out.

For the Jews, the joy of curing and salting meat is not foreign to us. If you’re confused, go have a real pastrami sandwich and see what I’m talking about. We’re not fucking around. That said, because of additional dietary restrictions, (the prohibition on mixing milk with meat) having cured meat, even of a kosher variety, for breakfast, is just not quite right. You need butter, you need cheese, maybe some yogurt, etc. It just doesn’t work. Enter smoked and cured fish.

My grandmother use to make carp for us. My dad (and I’m sure his father) eat/ate lots of pickled herring. My grandparents (and before them my great grandparents) ran a friggin’ fish market. (And they actually sold fish and not software.) And it took me trying sushi to finally realize the joys of smoked salmon and lox specifically. I was so thrilled to realize that this wonderfulness came from my peeps. And as much as I love lox (my fave is gravlax), and a nice smoked whitefish salad, I can’t help but miss bacon.

What is salmon bacon you ask? Oh, you didn’t ask. That’s ok, I’m gonna tell you anyway.

Salmon bacon is:

  • my people’s attempt at having a bacon substitute?
  • an attempt to create a new revenue stream by a kosher fish company in Massachusetts?
  • a delicious salty component in my breakfast bagel?

Before I answer, I should offer full disclosure. I’m told that some people mistake blogging for journalism and that being honest about your influences, biases, and sources, is key to being taken credibly. More importantly I’m told that some people mistake food journalism for actual journalism — and that’s just silly. (Although in many cases over the last decade I think people have mistaken the “news” we see on TV and in newspapers for actual journalism. So who even knows what’s what anymore.) But enough of that. I was trying to come clean.

Feel free to ignore my recommendations because:

  • I am always on the lookout for new kosher products that expand the selection that kosher kitchens can choose from when trying to create really good meals
  • Because the selection kosher food (especially cured meat) is so poor, I’m likely to like just about anything that comes my way in this category
  • The nice people at the Springfield Smoked Fish Company fedexed me some free lox. I asked them for it when i read that they were trying to make a new product called Salmon Bacon and they generously complied.

This new product is called “Brekfish“. OK. The name is wacky. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Or does it. Actually, I think this name doesn’t matter that much. But the tagline of the product is “Salmon Bacon”. And I think that does matter. For some insane reason, I thought there would be some baconesque quality to the “bacon” and even though it was made of salmon, I couldn’t get the expectation of bacon out of my head. Salmon bacon does not in fact taste like bacon. However, once I got past my expectations I was free to enjoy it for what it was — a fryable, crispy, super salty, perfect addition to my bagel and cream cheese or bagel and egg sandwich. (In the faux Judaism that is Noah’s bagels – not good bagels – you would call that ‘bagel mit egg’.)

At first I was surprised at how salty the Brekfish was. Because I grabbed some of it almost straight from the frying pan and chomped on it. But in fact, I think it was not much saltier than some cuts of bacon I’ve had with nothing else. But it’s when the Brekfish is put in the sandwich that the magic happens. The couple of slices I fried brought my sandwich to life. The saltiness was muted and replaced with a smokey sharp counterpart to the smooth bagel flavor and eggy goodness. My bagel was some crap from the supermarket, but the salmon bacon made it delicious. Imagine what it could do with a good bagel. I dare to dream!

Along with the salmon bacon, I got a couple of its cousins. The whitefish spread was super oily in a good way. It especially worked spread generously on my toasted bagel. But the lox they sent was superlative. Normally I’m not a huge fan of mild flavors, but this lox had a slightly thicker cut, and the best way to describe the slices on my tongue is ‘creamy’. Just lovely.

The number of food producers trying to innovate in the kosher food space is tiny. There are many cool products that could easily be kosher, but the producers don’t take the time. The market isn’t big enough, or at least they think this. And frankly, the folks who validate food as kosher are often perceived as not much better than an extortion racket to keep certain sects of orthodox Jews in the money. A local example to Seattle:

In February, Leah’s Bakery and Café, the only kosher retail bakery in Seattle, closed its doors. Leah’s had been providing the local community with freshly prepared challahs, knishes and kugels, as well as making sandwiches and soups, for 10 years. Owner Leah Jaffee sited chronic financial concerns as the primary reason for the bakery’s closure.
“We liked making those things, but it was sort of a community service, as far as profit margins went,” Jaffee said.
The bakery had always been a money-loser, according to Jaffee. But she said that the additional costs associated with new policies recently adopted by the Va’ad concerning fruits and vegetables pushed the enterprise beyond financial feasibility.
“I just couldn’t justify having someone come in and wash one head of lettuce for $20 if I was only making six box lunches,” Jaffee said. “That’s more than $3 per sandwich just for your lettuce.” — JT News, July 2008

That said, the folks at Springfield Smoked Fish are trying. And for that, I salute them. And for the fact that they’re succeeding, I thank them and recommend that you buy some of their fish. These small specialty producers need all the help they can get and should be rewarded with your patronage. I think that once you try their products you’ll keep coming back simply because they’re excellent.

p.s. Anyone who wants to open up a company that does nothing but try to emulate fantastic pork products and create gorgeous cured meats and sausages out of kosher ingredients (I think turkey comes the closest to pork in many cases) will get my undying love and numerous biased posts recommending their products on this website.

Yes or No?

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Last night I ate dinner at one of Seattle’s newest restaurants. After the meal ended, it came time to make one last decision.  To dessert, or not to dessert?

Now, I know this is hardly an original thought. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that nearly every diner in almost every restaurant ends their meal with this thought passing through their conversations. Perhaps the answer defaults to no, or better yet, yes! Perhaps you never speak of it. Maybe you don’t have the choice. But the questions lingers, and must be answered.

At a table nearby, someone knew my friend. They stopped by our table, conversed briefly about this and that, then brought us into their own finalizing decision. Should they or shouldn’t they?

It’s only natural that in asking a pastry chef if you should have dessert, you will hear a resounding “yes.” If said question was asked within walking distance to the desserts I myself create, it’s a safe bet that I’m going to attempt to steer you towards them. So off the decided party went, suggestions made, towards their desserts at Poppy.

But the question still remained for myself and my friend. Should we or shouldn’t we?

We discussed our options. Cheese at the restaurant we were at, or did they even have desserts? Where else near by would we find tasty sweets? We even briefly discussed McFlurries and Shamrock Shakes retrieved on the car ride home, or ice cream from the store.

In the end, I made the decision I almost always make. I chose no.

It seems contradictory, for me to focus most of my time and energy providing a part of your meal that I myself don’t choose to experience. Don’t think for a second this slips my notice. Instead, I grill myself, examine the series of thoughts, feelings, emotions that lead to my own constant “no.”

It is this constant resistance to the kind of closing experience restaurant offer than helps shape my own creations. In looking deeper into my own decisions, I look for qualities my desserts need to posses to entice the diner back into the meal. When the physical hunger stops encouraging fork-fulls of food into your mouth, what other part of the psyche can I tempt?

Perhaps I can play on your curiosity, or a sense of nostalgia. Maybe I can give you another experience to share with your companion, a reason to prolong the time with friends, or even just give you a worthwhile treat for your sweet tooth.

What ever it is, examining my own motivations as a diner helps me ensure my desserts are worthy of your “yes.”

Brioche

Friday, March 6th, 2009

Despite my title, I am not well versed in bread baking. It might even surprise you to hear that two days ago I baked my first brioche.

In working on a dessert based on the established combination “bread and chocolate,” I found myself in need of a loaf or two of brioche. At Veil, I used brioche often. However, when I needed a loaf or two to appear in my pantry, I made a call to Columbia City Bakery and had them deliver a few of their outstanding loaves with our daily bread order. When Veil started serving brunch on the weekends, I didn’t even need to do that, I just opened the freezer and pulled a loaf.

Ok, I was spoiled. With wholesale prices and the attitude, “they can make it better than I can and don’t my customers deserve the best,” I hid behind the fact that I had never tried my hand at the buttery bread. Or any bread, really.

You see, in Baking and Pastry School our instructor drove into our heads that there were two kinds of people in the pastry world; bread people and dessert people. There were 12 bread people in my class of 13. Can you guess who the lone dessert person was?

It’s not that I have anything against bread. Well, not any more at least. I suppose for some reason I held fast to my status earned alone in school. I was NOT a bread person. I even made ridiculous statements like, “bread and I have issues.”

And maybe we did. Maybe I lacked a certain patience that came with age. Maybe I had other things to master first. After all, you can only fit so many things in your head at once.

Last weekend, with bread and chocolate on the brain, and knowing that Jerry, having invested in hobarts, pullman pans, ovens, and a well stocked pantry would never let me buy brioche, I searched for brioche recipes. I consulted with Google, picked a recipe with pedigree, and turned all systems to “bread”.

I first set to the task of destroying the Berlin wall, tearing down the concrete barrier I had built so many years ago, wondering what I was trying to keep out in the first place. I measured, weighed, concentrated, gauged, and did a lot of guessing. And when I laid eyes on my first loaf of brioche, I beamed like a new mother, gently touching the golden glossy crown with my fingers, pressing it to my nose and inhaling deeply. Pride swelled inside me as I thought, “I made this!”

That was Tuesday.

Today I examined brioche 3.0, critical, concerned. Now that I know I can make it work, I won’t be able to stop until I know why it’s working, and how to make it to the best of my ability. This could be a very long winding journey, but I can say with confidence the trip will be filled with golden, yeasty rewards. And who knows what else I’ll unearth along the way. Maybe there is a bit of a bread baker inside me after all.

The recipe

L’Oeuf

Friday, February 27th, 2009

A local poet, Rebecca Hoogs, whom I have had the lucky aquaintence of for a few years now, printed this little gem of hers in the Stranger today.

Since the egg is a cornerstone of the culinary world, I thought you too would find beauty in this playful look at our lovely L’Ouef.

837b/1235761301-l_oeuf.jpg

Ghosts

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Last night, I drove by Veil.  You remember, that modern fine dining restaurant I worked at until last July?  The one that closed in September?

The papers said it was one of the first casualties of the economy.  A restaurant barely in in its third year, taken down by the tightening belts of the diners in the city.

I spent exactly one year at Veil, hired alongside Johnny Zhu, who left within weeks of me.  Our small crew, who predated our tenure by a month or so, stayed on until they got the bad news, at which point they scrambled to find a new paycheck.

Towards the end of my time there, it was clear Veil was ailing.  The ownership was doing all it could to keep their business floating.  The customers came in erratically.  Brunch service was added.  Sunday dinner service was cut.

I can’t imagine too many things sadder than watching your restaurant die.  It was hard to stomach as an employee.  Watching the numbers in the book read zero twice a week.  Seeing your cooks loose half their shifts and shake their heads at paychecks that won’t cover rent.  Checks that at times bounce.

It was sad in part because Veil held so much hope for me as a pastry chef.  The dining room was modern and absolutely stunning, stark white, veiled and back lit with pinks and ambers.  It set the stage for me to bring striking modern presentations, creative flavors, new textures.  When I returned from my stage at WD-50, it was clear I needed a creative outlet, and Veil was the first place I took a resume.  It was the only place in Seattle I knew I’d have the freedom to do exactly what I wanted, no compromises.

When I drove by last night, the sun was setting, casting pinks and ambers through the windows, a ghostly reminder of the light that once illuminated Veil.  Everything is there, the marble communal table, the Philip Stark chairs, pots, flatware.  The tables sit as if in wait for their next service.

It gave me chills, seeing the empty restaurant left exactly as it was the last day it was alive, a for sale sign the only indication this restaurant wouldn’t be opening that evening.  I pulled over and pressed my nose against the glass, watching the sunset color the restaurant one last time, my memories casting shadowy figures in the kitchen, ghosts striding through the dining room.

It made me sad.

Creating within a format

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Once upon a time, I was ambitious enough to teach a 3 part series on plated desserts to a group of enthusiastic amateur cooks. After all, it’s the heart of what I do, I should certainly be able to translate that into a class.

I believe I gave it a good go, discussing plating styles, trends, contrasts and compliments of texture and flavor, pastry chefs to know.  I taught the recipes as building blocks, breaking the recipes into 3 categories; main components; secondary components like sauces and compotes; and garnishes.  For the last hour of the last class, we laid everything out, and the students took plates constructed plated desserts from the building blocks we created.

During one lecture, we touched on the creative process by which a dish is brought to life.  Every dish has to have a starting point.  It can be a fruit in season, a particular flavor you want to work with.  But often, the dish is being worked within some kind of loose format.  There are many.  You can set your boundaries within classic dishes, a season, a holiday, a culture.   We focused on the format of nostalgia, discussing traditional desserts that have been turned into plated desserts in fancy restaurants.

The students each chose a dessert they craved as children, begged their grandma for, hoarded pocket change to purchase at the corner shop.  We discussed the rules of this dessert, physical and emotional, then broke each dessert down into little pieces.  Then with their new found knowledge of how to construct a plated dessert as if the components were lego’s, they build imaginary plated desserts from their favorite childhood treats.

The example I used to walk the students through the process was T.K’s coffee and donuts.  Today in the New York Times food section, this iconic dessert was used again as an example.  This time, however, the format it exemplified was that of turning breakfast into dessert, a trend seen on dessert menus of late.

Within this format, there is only one rule; you must create a dish that the diner will recognize in some manner as breakfast.  Depending on the cultural ties, this can vary.  At The Fat Duck, a dessert mimicked  a plate of full English, a breakfast of tomatoes, eggs, bacon, baked beans, and toast.  Using the locked format of breakfast, Heston was able to stretch elements in very creative directions, introducing the diner to bacon and egg ice cream.

Most desserts are either built to appear like a breakfast, with flavor and ingredients swapped, or build to look like familiar desserts, with ingredients most commonly found in breakfast.  An example given of the former, a toad-in-the-hole made with caramelized brioche, a ring of white pannacotta, and a spherical yellow mango center.  Where as the latter may be exemplified by a pannacotta infused with the flavor of a breakfast cereal, an oatmeal creme brulee, or one of my favorite textural components, caramelized rice crispies.

I believe that tightening your boundries often forces you to be more creative.  In order to keep the dish recognizable with in a format, you don’t have as many directions to take it.  You end up inverting in a way, finding the depth of the integral parts, focusing rather than expanding, pulling and pushing at the same time.

What part of your breakfast would you translate into a dessert?  And before you say “bacon” read the last part of the article calling bacon out as the skinny jean of the dessert world, super trendy, sexy when right, but oft ill applied.

VD

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

For 270 people, love will be on a Thali at Poppy tonight.

Last year I wrote quite frankly about some of the realities of St. Valenties Day, or VD as we refer to it in the industry.

Poppy is in a protective bubble of some sort right now. And by that I mean we are busy. Trust me, we know how lucky we are.

That said, we have been booked out for weeks. We have a set menu. Well, we always have a set menu. But tonight the set menu comes with a starter, and a dessert Thali for two.

You won’t find anything too cheeky coming from me tonight. I am serving a “hot date cake,” but then again, I always do. However it does seem more fitting today. I am also making a passion fruit sorbet, which will temporarily replace my current sorbet, chocolate tangerine. This was hard for me, as I am intensely attached to this chocolate tangerine sorbet. It tastes like a decadent tangerine perfumed fudgesicle, and each bite holds an intense amount of nostalgia for me.

Passion fruit sorbet was my compromise, however, as what was really desired of me was “love potion”.

I’m just not that girl.  Don’t even get me started on the whole chocolate sex orgasm thing.

Jokes in the kitchen have chruned out fake scenarios of me looking shocked when i find out that rohypnol isn’t an ingredient in love potion, and a line of edible underwear.  Banana flavored banana hammocks anyone? And of course, the I-really-love-your-peaches-wanna-eat-that-bra-right-off-of-you peach flavored bra.

I’ll spare you jokes of the VD chocolate and chile “it burns” variety.

The romance of this day has been bled out of us cooks with 14 hour days, struggling to find things in a walk in swollen with prep and product for the evening, the monotony of making 300 of one thing, and of course the tight feeling in your chest from the 6 hours of an insane serivce like this.

But this day isn’t about me. It’s about passion fruit sorbet, hot date cakes, hearts, and love.

And I always put love in my menu.

First Timer

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

I did something today that I have never done before. I made molten chocolate cake.

I don’t know that I ever really considered making a molten chocolate cake before. It’s not that I actively avoided it, sneered at it while calling it names like “cliche”, or “washed up” behind it’s back.  No, I harbor no resentment towards molten chocolate cake.  It just never entered my mind as an option.

In fact, I can’t really remember ever eating one. Which seems odd, because for a long while they were everywhere. And for a long while, I had an aching sweet tooth, which sat in the back of my mouth, next to an aching chocolate tooth. (Thanks to my daily intake of sugar, my sweet and chocolate tooths have been quieted and given way to a potato chip tooth, and a bacon tooth, but that’s a different story.)

But this dessert is sooo cliche, and sooo over it’s prime, that it’s not even everywhere anymore.

Despite all this, today I made molten chocolate cake. Actually, I made 9 of them, at the request of a very special birthday girl. And I have to say, I can see why these things were everywhere.

Warm, gooey chocolate inside warm soft dense cakey chocolate. What’s not to love. I even garnished it with raspberry coulis, in little tear drops, and a dollop of whipped cream. If I had it on hand, I would have done this dessert right by itself, propped a sprig of mint in the top, and dusted the entire thing with powdered sugar.

When I began looking into making this birthday wish come true, I consulted my research assistant, Google.  Google led me to the original recipe, from none other than Jean-George. This recipe turns out to be in the category of urban kitchen legend I call, “fortunate misfortunes.” In other words, a blunder that turned out to be better than the intention.

Legend tell us that Jean-George pulled the cake out of the oven too early. Upon unmolding it, and cutting into it, the unbaked center oozed chocolate goodness. And they all lived happily ever after.

That is to say, the American public and the molten chocolate cake have been in love ever since.

Like I said, I get it.  It’s pretty dang good. And not only is it good, it is not hard to make. Whip the eggs and sugar. Melt the chocolate and butter. Fold together. Fold in a little flour. Bake in ramekins for 10 minutes.  Unmold and voila! Since the batter can be preset in the ramekins and kept in the refrigerator until you want to bake them, they are a dream for service.

I believe it’s safe to say that the molten chocolate cake has joined the ranks of new American classic. Desserts, like the brownie sundae, that are well on their way to being classics, but without the tenure of strawberry shortcake, or creamsicles.

And of course, this dessert will start teasing me, making me wonder how I can make it mine. How can I translate it through my present state of experience, filter it through my personality, and what would come out the other end?

It may never see my menu, but then again, I doubt I’d have a hard time selling a modern twist on the new American classic, the molten chocolate cake.

Molten Chocolate Cake

1/2 cup unsalted butter
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons all purpose flour
1/4 tsp kosher salt
extra flour and butter for coating 4 – 4 ounce ramekins

1.  Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

2.  Use your fingers to smear some of the extra butter inside the ramekins, coating the entire inside evenly. Put a spoonful of the extra flour in each ramekin, and shake it around until all the butter is coated in flour. Pour the extra flour back out of the ramekin, tapping it on the bottom lightly to make sure anything that isn’t stuck to the butter comes out.

3.Melt the butter and chocolate together. To do this, make a double boiler by setting a large mixing bowl over a medium pot of simmering water. Put the chocolate and butter in the bowl and let it melt slowly, stirring a few times to mix it together.

4.  When the chocolate and butter have melted together, turn the heat off the double boiler, and use pot holders to take the bowl of chocolate off the pot of water. Be careful of the steam from under the bowl, it could be very hot.

5.  Place the eggs, yolks, and sugar in the bowl of a mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whip the eggs on a medium to high speed. Continue mixing until the eggs become pastel yellow, thick, and glossy.

2. Pour the melted chocolate and butter into the bowl with the eggs, using a rubber spatula to scrape all the chocolate from the sides of the bowl. Turn the mixer on the lowest speed, and carefully mix the chocolate with the eggs, until it is even.

5.  Take the bowl away from the mixer, and add the flour and salt. Use a rubber spatula to carefully fold the flour into the chocolate, until it is very evenly mixed together.

6.  Divide the batter evenly between the four ramekins.

7.  Put the ramekins of chocolate batter on a baking sheet and bake them in the 450 degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes.  The outsides should start to set, but the center should feel soft when you press on it lightly.

8.  Let the cakes cool for about 1 to2 minutes, to cool just a touch.  Using a dry dish towl, hold the hot ramekin with one hand, and carefully turn the cake out into your other hand. Quickly set the hot ramekin down, and use both hands to gently place the tender cake onto a plate.

9.  Serve immediately, with raspberry sauce and whipped cream.

Raspberry Sauce

2 cups frozen raspberries
1/2 cup sugar
the zest of 1 lemon

1.  Put the frozen raspberries in a bowl. Sprinkle the top with the sugar, and grate the lemon zest over the top of the sugar.

2.  Toss the berries with the lemon zest and sugar until they are evenly coated.

3.  Put the berries in a small sauce pan, and put it over low heat. Cook the berries for about 5 minutes, until the berries release all of their juices.  You will notice the sauce start to bubble and thicken a bit.

4.  Take the pot away from the heat, and carefully transfer the berries and juices from the pot to the cup of a blender.  Put the lid on the blender tightly.  Turn the blender on the lowest speed first, just to get the berries moving around a little, then turn it up to a medium speed to puree the berries into a smooth sauce.  If you turn the blender on a high speed right away, the hot berries might splash out of the blender!

5.  Pour the raspberry sauce into a strainer set over a bowl to remove the seeds.  Let the sauce cool in the refrigerator.

6.  You can make this sauce up to 3 days ahead of time.

Siem Reap Asian Cuisine, Long Beach, California

Friday, February 6th, 2009

I’m in Long Beach for the week. The spot I’m stuck in is a concrete jungle of hotels, convention spots, chain restaurants, and bad local restaurants that are more focused on selling alcohol than making good food. I did some basic research to see what we might find on our one off night in terms of decent local fare. I read somewhere that there was a significant local Cambodian community that had their own little Cambodia neighborhood with lots of restaurants. FWIW Yelp felt that Siem Reap Asian Cuisine was the best of the bunch so off we went.

If you’re opening a restaurant featuring cuisine from Cambodia, the Philippines, Laos, or even Vietnam, it’s semi-common practice to claim to also offer Chinese or Thai food. Ethnic entrepreneurs worry that the local American population won’t come unless there’s something they recognize. Fair or not, I usually won’t go to Vietnamese restaurants that offer Chinese food. I figure, they’re kind of all over the place and their food will be too.

I am no expert on Cambodian food, despite (or maybe because of) spending a week there a couple of years ago. The country was beautiful. And finding a driver that would take me to non-tourist food establishments was difficult. In some of the poorest neighborhoods the main feature of each restaurant appeared to be the TV. Diners would sit at long tables, all on one side facing the TV so they could watch while they ate. The restaurants I finally got to eat at all shared beef as a central ingredient. It’s typically paired with some cool crunchy vegetables, and some citrus accent. This is a vast over-simplification but it’s an oft-present signature.

Siem Reap Asian Cuisine is a fine example of Cambodian cuisine. I’m a big fan of meat on sticks, and Cambodians don’t disappoint. One of my favorite Cambodian dishes, Beef Lok Lac, was probably the best of the meal from my perspective. The small pieces of beef were coated in a caramel-like glaze, all savory with hints of molasses. Pairing them with cabbage and cucumber as well as the sauce of lime juice and an enormous amount of pepper was absolutely delicious. Some of the other steak items didn’t have as much flavor on their own but my sense is that you’re expected to coat them in the various sauces you’re offered. Another highlight was a small bowl of curried ground pork meatballs. For folks used to eating some of the bigger players on the American Asian cuisine scene (Chinese, Japanese Thai) having these interesting new flavors are a nice change of pace.

Needless to say, we had a lovely meal. And the family that runs Siem Reap Asian Cuisine were kind and generous hosts. They called us a cab and it took quite awhile. We were afraid we were keeping them late but they made it clear that they wanted us to wait inside until the cab came. The said it was too dangerous to wait outside. We thought they were kidding. I’m pretty sure now they weren’t. In my quest for good Cambodian food it appears I’d led our little party into a bad part of town. Oops. I suppose that’s the cost of trying to get a decent meal in Long Beach.

Diminished Aesthetics

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

The scene at Poppy is robust. As the dining room fills, it’s cavernous nature seems to amplify the energy of the 100 plus seats we fill every night. Large floor to 25 foot ceiling windows look out onto the bustle of the north tip of capitol hill’s main drag, Broadway, allowing the twinkle of lights, the passage of traffic, and the steady flow of passer-by’s to engage the diner. It’s less than intimate, speaking over the buzz of 40 other conversations, hearing laughter flow through your space, watching servers buzz food through the dining room at a dizzying rate. But feeling the room, the people, the life, is all part of being at Poppy.

The pace in the kitchen is much the same. Varying conversations cross the kitchen between the busy cooks, buzzing around each other, laughing, hustling. It’s an energizing to say the least.  Service is a rapid stream of orders flowing in and out, tickets lining the rail from 5 to 10, plates, and the large trays that are the Thali’s a constant cover on the pass.

With the speed and volume that it requires to keep up with this style of service, adjustments had to be made to the plating style.  In fact, coming from a girl who worked predominately the world of “large white plates, tiny tiny food,” I would say the visual aesthetic at poppy is virtually non existant. This, of course, is an over statement. However, the visual aesthetic of the dishes I plate at Poppy are completely and utterly at the opposite end of the spectrum.

The expansive canvas like plates we were used to working with have been replaced with diminutive Heath ceramic bowls, smaller than those I eat cereal out of at home. Rusty earth tones, oranges, browns, took the place of the high gloss white.  And the components are snuggled into their little bowls, or tiny plates, just big enough to comfortably hold them tight.

The modern plating styles I spent years developing, so exaggerated in the plates at Veil, are moot.  It was sad at first, not being able to stylize anything. But since then, it’s become a blessing of sorts.  With the dial turned so far down on the visual aesthetic, I have been able to concentrate on texture and flavor much more. If a component is no longer cut, shaped, made to look a certain way, the shape now primarily exists for it’s appeal in the mouth, and the way a spoon pressing into the bowl will pull at the component.

My little bowls of dessert have brought me quite a bit of joy, in fact. Take, for instance, my most popular dessert on the menu now, “Hot Date Cake”, a play on stick toffee pudding. A cake made of a copious amount of dates was designed to be very moist and sticky when cut in one inch cubes. Five of these sticky little cubes are warmed and nestled in the bottom of a little bowl, and soaked in a big one ounce ladle of warm butterscotch sauce. Scattered over this are pieces of medjool dates, and salty buttered pecans, cut to be just the right size to be spooned up, and feel big enough for textural appeal, but not too big that they need more attention from your mastisizing teeth than another component. A scoop of banana ice cream sits atop sized to melt just a little providing a sauce like layer and a nice firm cold portion of ice cream.  It nearly hides everything underneath from view.

If you are wondering, I take a good three hours a week hand cutting every buttered pecan exactly in half, and the dates in exactly twelve pieces. Sure, it would be easier to just run my knife through a pile of the pecans, breaking them up into approximate sized pieces, but that’s just not quite right. Some pieces would be too big, many about the right size, and then this layer of small pecan crumbs would stick to everything else in the bowl. And honestly, with such a humble presentation, the textures and flavors have to be even more correct.

Which brings us to the flavors. Rather than stretching them out over the expanse of a 10 inch plate, where they sit aside each other, the flavors in the bowl are compacted, right on top of each other, existing nearly with in each other. That means that if every single flavor added to a dish doesn’t taste perfect together, it won’t work.  It sounds like a big “duh”. Of course everything should taste good together. But when you are stretching flavors out over a plate, you don’t always get every single flavor on a spoonful, particularly not in the exact same ratios every time. It’s not that those large plated dishes shouldn’t make an effort to taste perfect together. Instead, it’s that in these little bowls of dessert, any subtle flaw or weakness in the flavor profile has no room to hide.

What I love about these tiny dishes I work with is that they exude comfort. It’s much like you would share a dessert at a friends house, at home cuddled up in the corner of your couch, around a pick nick table. And they are just so easy to pick up and share. And with the large, communal nature of the dining room at Poppy, the casual dining style, I feel these small layered dishes are the culmination of the experience.

It has brought to mind the question to me, how well would all of my stylized desserts have fared stacked in a bowl? Were the choices I made strong enough to stand up to such close quarters or did they favor a visual aesthetic that withdrew from the flavor pairings.

Michael Laiskonis wrote recently, referencing this same subject but on the flip side of it. He wondered if some of the stylistic choices he made added anything more than a visual aesthetic, and if not, did it belong.  He argued, and I agreed, that to a point, yes.  Components that add to the visual are appropriate, when used appropriately. When working in a restaurant which does use elegant plating styles to exemplify the experience in said restaurant, then a graphic line of sauce, a few dots, a sprinkle, used in moderation, absolutely belongs.

There are times when increasing the visual aesthetic is appropriate, and indeed increases the diners enjoyment of the dish. And to deny the importance of the visual aesthetic is to do a disservice to your customers experiences, and your desserts. Of course, the flavors must belong together. But drawing a line of sauce across the plate may not add flavor to every bite of your experience, the way a covering of the same sauce infuses every bite of my little bowls, it still belongs.

Desserts plated so stylistically are eaten differently as well, tentatively, with more awareness and caution, tasting a bit here, a bit there, not wanting to destroy the visual aesthetic more than necessary. So a line or dot of sauce offers the chance to dip the tip of your spoon in that flavor alone, taking it in, building the experience of taste as carefully as the dessert itself was constructed.

Of course, this is within reason.  I am sure most of us are quite glad to see the era of the sugar cage and bland white tuilles fading.  And can we also hope for the death of the duo of a mint sprig and dusting of powdered sugar????

I am a firm believer in loving everything for being what it is. A desert at Poppy, layered, snugly in it’s tiny earth toned bowl is Poppy, and is beautiful for existing there. The large expansive graphically presented plates from high end restaurants are equal, no better, no worse, but beautiful for being what they are and existing where they belong. One is not better than the other. You might prefer one to the other.  You might have had a higher percentage of good experiences in one format or another. But when done correctly, with respect to letting each be what they are, they are both beautiful.