Tuesday, November 20, 2007

molecular gastronomy, deconstructed


as a cook and artist and connoisseur of anything over the top, i've been in awe of the recent "molecular gastronomy" trend, spending hours poring over the beautiful photos from Ferran Adria's El Bulli cookbooks. bizarre presentations, wild flavor combinations, throwing out all the rules and creating the culinary equivalent of dadaism. While I'd love to eat at El Bulli, it's in Spain and reservations need to be booked a year in advance. also I think dinner there is something in the range of 5 million dollars a person.

so the next best thing is Wylie Dufresne's wd-50 in new york, probably america's most reputable example of this type of cooking. after browsing wd-50's website - beef tongue with fried mayonnaise, corned duck with purple mustard, lamb loin with pretzel consomme - i was ready to take the plunge.

after ordering the 12-course tasting menu and a lemongrass/beet/sake cocktail, came the anticipated first course and the first huge disappointment.

surf clams with radish in watermelon vinaigrette or something, honestly don't remember because it didn't taste like anything. Maybe the 19 year old culinary school extern forgot to add salt?

next came the pizza pebbles with pepperoni, shittake chips and oregano. the plated looked good, the freeze dried pizza powder pebble had an interesting texture, and tasted exactly like... combos. the combos balls and pepperoni cream overpowered the shittake chip which I tried seperately, and it tasted... like a mushroom. next.

the knot foie plate was beautiful, a terrine of foie gras that is cut into a ribbon and somehow arranged into a knot, covered with mini rice krispie balls, baby tarragon and dots of sauce. definitely a wild texture and flavor combination, and this one really worked. thumbs up.

next is hamachi with grapefruit-shallot relish, tahini dressing and sea beans. the hamachi was just barely seared, enough to add some charcoal but not actually cook the fish. interesting play between the different flavors, definitely a winner.

the eggs benedict .. i was excited to try this one. looked beautiful and the fried hollandaise cube squirted delicious sauce out when you hit it with a fork. but the slow-poached egg yolk was cold and the texture was kind of gross. and for a deconstructed eggs benedict there was a lack of bread, except for the english muffin breading on the fried hollandaise.

I have no problem deconstructing or modernizing classic american food like this, it's actually one of my favorite things to see done and do myself. and while the flavors were right on here, the balance was way off. it was all egg yolk, not enough bacon chip - these fancy little crisps and tuiles that topped almost every dish look great in magazines and on tv - but paired with larger amounts of other elements, you can't taste them at all.

next up was the french onion soup. again I was excited to see Dufresne's take on a classic. it looked awesome- a small bowl of broth, gruyere cheese 'capsules', bread chips and caramelized onion paste. the gruyere cheese capsules exploded in your mouth, and everything together on a spoon tasted great.. although the broth was a bit salty and seemed to have a hint of soy, not too pleasant to eat after all the garnishes were gone. with a more traditional french onion soup broth this dish would have been damn near perfect.

cuttlefish with roasted squash and orange zest. the most disappointing dish of the whole meal. the finely diced squash was undercooked. the butternut squash puree that I make at work tastes better. couldn't taste it anyway, because the whole thing tasted like bitter orange rind. like taking a big spoonful of orange peelings out of the trash and chewing on it for 10 minutes . i honestly don't know how you can let something that tastes like this out of a kitchen.

next up- lamb belly with black chickpeas and cherry cucumber.
this was ok. presentation not as exciting as the others. cucumber shaved to look like noodles and soaked in cherry juice or something. probably a very complicated process that the server would have been thrilled to spend 10 minutes explaining to me. same problem as many of the other dishes, the balance of flavor was way off.

after two hours the whole novelty of hearing about the 'innovative' techniques is getting pretty tedious. seriously, making cucumber look like noodles isn't that clever.

dessert - first of three courses. poppy seed ice cream in a poppy seed tuile with cream cheese, roasted red peppers and more poppy seeds. at this point I'm noticing that everything from the dried powders to the ice cream has the same chalky texture. poppy seeds, big deal.

next is fried butterscotch pudding with smoked hazelnuts, mango and taro root. this was actually awesome. good textures, good flavors. thumbs up!

finally, last dish, white chocolate with white beer ice cream- great presentation on this one. it was pretty good, kind of a lot going on this plate with chips and powders and crumbs that didn't all go together. the fried butterscotch would have been a better finish.

then some petit fours, sweet potato pie and marshmallow, and we're out.


the overall experience makes me doubt the whole molecular gastronomy "movement" because the first rule of cooking, especially fine dining - should be that everything has to taste good, delicious even. doesn't matter if it's indian food, a hot dog from the street, fried chicken , thai-cuban-alaskan fusion or beef raised by branch davidians, fed champagne and lobster, dehydrated into a fine powder and downloaded into your tongue with nanotechnology. It should taste GOOD. and if it costs hundreds of dollars, it should taste AMAZING.

at the restaurant where i cook, there's a psychopathic drill-sargeant sous chef that makes sure everything we make is absolutely perfect, and tastes good. if it doesn't, well, that's when the pots full of scalding hot english pea risotto start flying past your head, and you might spend the rest of the night scrubbing the rotting, crusted week old saffron sauce off the side of the dumpster in the back alley. too bad he wasn't at wd-50 the other night.

while there was a few dishes that I liked, and everything looked gorgeous- probably more attention payed to the presentation of the dishes than anywhere I've ever eaten - the whole experience reeked of style over substance and horribly overrated hype. thinking of these guys prancing all over the food network while we work our asses off every night in a crazy, crowded kitchen makes me furious. possibly this "molecular gastronomy" is the silly fad that many of my fellow line cooks think it is.

maybe it was an off night.. possibly chef Dufrense is busy with other projects and his flagship restaurant is suffering. because I hope his rave reviews and acclaim came from food that tastes much better than what I had. I don't regret going, but wouldn't go back.


Anonymous said...

Okay, a little bit late to post a comment, but I will do it anyway because your post helped me. I was looking for explanations of what exactly is deconstructed food.

I've been watching Top Chef for a few seasons and I became annoyed enough to see what's all the hype as I'm hearing "deconstructed" any episode now. As I suspected is nothing. It's just what I do when I'm hungry and while preparing a tuna sandwich I take a bite of tuna, one of mayonese, one of bread and bite the celery. It's pretty much the same idea, but it never feels like the real deal. To me these plates look like someone did not bother to do the actual cooking, just put the ingredients together, hoping it will get a pass.

Verdict: hype and hope it will be over soon.

hawk krall said...

I'm not really against it at all, I just haven't eaten a meal yet that lives up to the hype.

And I've watched a lot of cooks worship and attempt to recreate the trend, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

the problems come when you are so enthralled with the cleverness of the idea or the dish that you overlook the basics.

cooking (at least in my opinion) is about pleasing the guest, not about showing off how innovative you are - unless you are REALLY GOOD, and people flock to eat whatever you put in front of them.

I've done it with food - and artwork - where you sort of step back from something that you think is so amazing and realize, shit this doesn't work AT ALL.

I'm sure if ferran adria peronally cooked me a 15 course meal it would blow my mind. But the realities of the restaurant industry and me not being rich will probably prevent that from ever happening.

jax said...

Hmmm, it's a pity that you had an iffy experience. In South Africa there are some chefs doing similar things and I have been amazed.. Just one small thing from a photographer's point of view - have you tried playing with the white balance settings on your camera? If the colour balance is better it'll give your readers a better idea of what the dishes really looked like.

hawk krall said...

Yes, this is an old post, I have since then learned how to use my camera!!