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,