Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Going The Extra Mile

Last weekend my wife and I took a little time off for a trip to New York City, my old home. I never like to say ahead of time that I won't be cooking at the restaurant because people generally automatically assume that the food will go downhill, but I have great faith in my staff to deliver in my absence. Of course, there is an unspoken rule that when someone is covering for you while you are away where you have to make sure that everything is setup and prepared so that it can be a walk in the park for the ones who you've left behind, which helps.

While in NYC we took the opportunity to dine at the one restaurant that we have always regretted not visiting when we lived there: Le Bernardin, which focuses on seafood with modern French cooking and is one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the world. I was there not only for the experience, but also for research; to find something that I could bring back to share with you and pass along the magic even beyond vicariously by attempting to recreate a portion of it myself. To be honest, each course of our tasting menu gave me insight and inspiration that will be seen in my cooking for quite some time, but there was one that stood out in both simplicity and triumph:

Midway through our meal we were presented with a seemingly basic dish that had only a piece of perfectly baked wild stripped bass topped with corn kernels, finely shaved fennel and tiny pea sprouts and was paired with a corn "cannelloni" which was more accurately described as a tiny tamale wrapped in a layer of braised leek. But it wasn't until the servers finished the plate by pouring the "Perigord sauce"; a rich blend of stock, black truffles and sherry wine. The combinations were explosive, and by the second bite I already knew that it was going to be the most memorable portion of the meal.

It's very difficult to recreate something simply by taste, especially when I don't have the ability to offer the same type of ingredients as a 3 Michelin star restaurant, but I am a classical French trained chef and have been building a career based off of being able to create fine dining caliber food at affordable prices, so I was confident that I could create a economical equivalent that could still earn the nod of approval from Eric Ripert.

First and foremost, I had to create the sauce, which to me represented the epitome of perfection and refinement, so I fortified a rich chicken stock with fresh herbs, mushrooms, caramelized onions and garlic and reduced it with an entire bottle of cream sherry, which is sweeter and more complex than the traditional dry version. Once strained, I seasoned the sauce with a black truffle cured sea salt that emulates chef Ripert's very effectively.

As a former chef of a seafood restaurant I appreciate the versatility shown in the many courses of Le Bernardin, but I am on my own path now so I chose to instead go with veal, another classical French component. Though once the center of debate, farmers have since reformed their caring of baby steers, enough for me to consciously offer it at our restaurant. The old school version would be to use the tenderloin, but to keep the costs down I opted to us the eye round, which when pounded a little with a meat tenderizer can be just as tender. To extend that earthy truffle flavor I also seasoned the meat with the black truffle sea salt before pan searing each medallion until a perfect medium rare.

The second bit of inspiration came from the tiny pea shoot garnish on top of the dish, which I had stated to be my new favorite ingredient last year in an older post. The leaves and stems of this pea plant are just as flavorful as the offshoots, and are possibly more versatile. For this application I simply sauteed them in a little butter, olive oil, spring onions and garlic with just enough white wine to wilt them down.

Finally, as all of the other ingredients are taking their turn, I have pieces of red Belgium endive that I have schmeared with whipped butter, Parmesan cheese and garlic roasting in the oven that come out as a kind of gratinee that compliments the dish with its rich flavor and bitter balance.

Another destination of our visit was Little Branch in the West Village, an underground cocktail bar that has the look and feel of a speakeasy. We have been there several times before but the place still inspires me because of the simple fact that at the bottom of their cocktail list is a selection call "Bartender's Choice" where you can leave it up to the mixologist to create something for you, which is always my only choice.

I guess that life isn't without a little irony, though, because between the two cocktails that I had at Little Branch the first one inspired this week's cocktail, while the second happened to be very similar to the Cucumber Gin Cooler that I was featuring at 219 that very same weekend... I guess that great minds do think alike!

I can't compete with their specialty shaped, purified water ice cubes and fancy glasses, but I can take a cue from the greats and focus on traditional techniques with a new way of thinking, just like with the inspired dish above.

So I made my own sour mix (which is normally full of chemicals and HFCS) but for this I dissolve lemon juice, lime juice, water and honey and shake it with ice, Pikesville Rye whiskey and a spoonful of egg white powder for froth (a traditional ingredient in sour mix but without the health concerns), and strained it into a martini glass for my own cocktail: the Honey Rye Sour!!

Maybe I don't have to travel all the way across the country to get this kind of research, but don't tell the IRS that!!!

With Love,


Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Taste of Harmony

In my eyes the perfect dish is all about balance; bringing together all of 5 tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami) into harmony along with a melange of textures. Now that the sun is showing its shiny face I can take the opportunity to introduce some lighter fare.

I have been sitting on this one for quite a while now: I started curing duck breasts into a prosciutto style a month ago, a process that requires a week packed in sea salt before hanging to air-dry in the refrigerator for three or four more. The result is a firm, salty meat that is rich with flavor but not too "ducky", a common complaint about duck.

I knew that an excellent pairing with this succulent charcuterie would be a combination of two of my favorite lettuces: radicchio which has a slightly bitter and spicy taste, and frisee with its slightly peppery or nutty flavor - both give an airiness and crunch to a salad that I find irresistible.

To continue building textures I took whole almonds and toasted them in extra virgin olive oil and Garam Masala, an Indian spice blend that usually includes black cumin, cloves, peppercorns, star anise, etc. To counter the spice and crunch of the almonds I also added dried tart Washington cherries which give a nice chew with a sweet and sour flavor.

To wrap up the dish I made a vinaigrette using meyer lemons, a sweeter version that is thought to be a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange. Blending the fresh juice with shallots, garlic and extra virgin olive oil I ended up with the perfect means to tie all of the ingredients together.

Every now and then I get an idea that I think might be too far fetched to end up being anything good, but if I stop there I'll never get outside of the box.

I had initially thought of using rose water in a cocktail for my Valentine's day menu but I couldn't get the proportions right; if I use too much rose water the drink ends up tasting like taking a swig from a grandmother's perfume bottle.

After more time and some trial and error, I came up with the idea of combining the rose water with gin because it blends well with the gins layers of aromatics, and then I used a syrup that I made by reducing down fresh strawberries. All of this became a base for a sparkling cocktail by topping it off with Spanish brut cava, a staple from our brunch.

Two light offerings just in time for the beautiful weather. What great timing!!!

With Love,


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tastes of Heaven

Now that we are finally coming into warm weather you can really start to see the transformation of my specials, not only due to the availability of fresh, new ingredients like spring onions, spring garlic, peas, fava beans and asparagus, but also because of I have to cater to the perception of a dish, which means that sure, I can serve a braised meat in the middle of summer, but no one will order it because it seems too heavy and rich to eat on a warm, sunny day. I say perception because, after all, we eat what we want when we want; many people eat ice cream in the winter and hot soup in the summer.

So, as a part of this glorious time of ingredient revival, I am going to use a combination of fresh vegetables with a simple olive oil dressing to lighten up handmade whole wheat pasta.

I don't need to reiterate my love for pasta and noodles, but it is important to note that what I am looking for when eating/making them is a certain amount of chew, and I have found that the easiest way to achieve that texture is by using whole wheat flour.

At home I buy dried whole wheat pasta not just for nutritional value, but because it is the easiest way to end up with that traditional "al dente" bite, but I cannot bring myself to feature store-bought pasta for my weekly special, so, once again, I return to the faithful Kitchenaid pasta roller-and-hand-cut technique. Maybe someday I will actually invest in a pasta cutter attachment as well, but until then...

I made a dough of equal parts whole wheat flour and all purpose flour to get the best of both worlds: the nutrition and heft of the whole wheat along with the ease and stability that refined flour offers. In between the rolling, resting, cutting and cooking of the pasta making process I gathered the accompanying ingredients.

As a simple yet flavorful sauce I began by slowly simmering spring onions and garlic in extra virgin olive oil until they were soft before adding ground Linguiça, a Portuguese sausage that is cured with paprika and garlic before being smoked. Once the sausage had infused the oil with its essence the sauce took shape with a little white wine reduction and the addition of spring onion greens and finely diced tomato.

The only problem is that, as with most pasta dishes, this one lacked texture, even with the thick-cut whole wheat noodles, so to top the dish off I took pieces of the braised pork belly that's on our menu and stewed them down until all of the fat is cooked out, ending up with a light (dare I say angelic?) and crunchy version of pork that is so fine that it melts in your mouth!!

I have to let you know that the Cinnamon Pear Martini made with my own cinnamon-infused tequila and a fresh pear sorbet that was last week's drink special was HANDS DOWN the best selling cocktail special that I have offered to date, with an outcry for menu status, and not just from Paul and Chie, some of our faithful Wednesday night regulars.

So considering that, if I had tried to match - let alone beat - last week's drink special, I would have driven myself crazy, so I simply put it out of my mind and started fresh. Once I did that, a good idea just came naturally. Funny how that works, isn't it?

To welcome this beautiful weather I am offering this concoction that is full of bright and fresh flavors to ease you into this sunny transition.

First, we muddle fresh mint in a little bit of ice in a pint glass, then add freshly juiced cucumbers, a splash of simple syrup, Plymouth Gin - a perfect marriage for cucumber - and a nice amount of club soda for added refreshment.

Hopefully we'll be opening up our patio this week; what would be a better drink inaugurate the opening of our big front doors.

With Love,


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Friends of Mine

In the spirit of the season I wanted to continue using local asparagus during this short window that it's available so I chose to do a variation of a dish that I co-created with my friend and colleague, Tommy Lee, that originally consisted of an asparagus and goat cheese flan with roasted quail and a lingonberry preserve. I really loved the way that sweetness of the preserve interacted with the rich flan, so my inspiration for this week's dish started there.

I kept with the original flan recipe by finely chopping asparagus and pureeing it in a blender with boiled cream and chevre goat's cheese. I strained the mixture before whisking it into whole eggs and slowly baking it into individual molds. As for the preserve I went with a more local variation by simmering rhubarb in sugar, lemon juice and red wine until it was thick and pulpy. The combination was as good if not better than the dish that I remember - the tart rhubarb seems to have added another contrasting flavor to the flan.

Despite being one of my personal favorite forms of poultry, quail is neither popular among the general public nor cheap so I went with something similar in size: the Cornish game hen. Though called a "game hen", it is actually just a young chicken that can be either male or female. I love roasting them whole at home because they are the perfect size for one portion, but at the restaurant it would take too long to cook them that way, so I butchered them down into quarters, leaving the first wing bone attached to the breasts for presentation and added flavor. I saved the breasts to be cooked to order, but I roasted the legs ahead of time so that I could remove the meat and shred it for another component to the dish.

To assemble the dish I sear the breasts skin side down in clarified butter and toss the pan into the oven to crisp the skin before turning them over to cook evenly through. While the breasts are in the oven I heat another saute pan with more clarified butter which I use to brown slices of steamed fingerling potatoes, hon shimeji mushrooms, chives and the reserved leg meat. When the breasts are cooked I place the cold flan in the center, representing the inspiration and focus of the dish and start building from that; lining the plate with the potato-mushroom saute on either side and layering the room temperature rhubarb compote under the breasts.

Now that I am starting to become known for my themed specials, you would think that I would jump at the chance to come up with some sort of Cinco de Mayo-inspired special, but even though this cocktail is made with tequila, it's far from anything that you'll find south of the boarder.

A couple of weeks ago I decided to take a gamble and start an infusion by combining cinnamon sticks and silver tequila. I wasn't sure what I was going to make with it let alone how well our customers will respond to it, but I knew it was going to be interesting. After poaching pears for the French toast topping last weekend, I realized the perfect pairing.

By poaching ripe pears (which I normally don't do because they are already soft) in honey, lemon juice and water I ended up with a cooking liquid that had inherited all of those flavors, which made for a excellent companion for the cinnamon infused tequila; so complex and intriguing. But then I had the leftover pears, so I thought "If you can put ice in a cocktail and allow it to melt, then why not a sorbet that reinforces the flavors as well!" By pureeing the pears in the cold cooking liquid and churning it in my ice cream machine I ended up with the perfect substitution for ice for this cocktail!
Come in an have a try - you'll be surprised how much you like it, and I can guarantee that you won't find anything like it anywhere else!!

With Love,