Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Keeping up with the conversation

Last week, Daniel put up a post where he discussed his feelings on garnishes. Apparently at some point he was lambasted for using lemon wheels on a plate he made for a competition - a story that most chefs have a version of their own that they can relate to.

He went on to - for lack of a better word - criticize Dominic for the use of a lemon wedge as a garnish on a plate of grilled Sardines. He said;

'if the stated goal is to “use more intelligent garnishes” then this one falls short of the mark.'

I think that garnishes - and using them intelligently - is a much more complicated thing than most people realize. What makes the use of a garnish intelligent? I think most of us would agree that above all else, it needs to serve a purpose. Now, with that being said - what is purpose? Is a garnish not okay if its only benefit is visual? If good food is the ultimate goal, what makes it good? How important is the aesthetic quality of a dish? Is flavor really the only important function? 

In this specific instance - I don't really agree with Daniels assessment on Dominic's use of a lemon wedge. Heres why:

Yes he could have just put a squeeze of lemon juice on the fish and foregone the wedge - and I would wager that he did, in fact, season the fish with lemon before sending it. He also could have used lemon zest rather than the wedge - though it would mostly just add the flavor of lemon, rather than the bight hit of acid that lemon juice would lend. Lemon supremes also may have worked, but they are tricky to use as they often completely overpower your palate - and this is why you seldom see them being used this way. The idea of shaving the lemon is an interesting one - that may be worth exploring. It reminds me of a Shaker Lemon Pie, where the whole fruit is shaved and macerated and finally baked in a pie crust. 

But the reality is that the use of a lemon wedge on this dish goes beyond just seasoning or flavoring the food.  There is a certain quality - a je ne sais quoi - to the actual act of squeezing a lemon over grilled sardines - that I feel strongly is a key part of the experience when it comes to enjoying this dish. There is something instinctual about it - something primordial. The fish is served, Im guessing head off, but otherwise whole. Its thrown over fire - its skin blisters and chars, its fats soften and begin to render. Its judiciously seasoned with flaky salt and that final step to enjoyment - crushing that wedge between your fingers. The aromas permeating through the air - the oils absorbing into your skin. When you put your hand to your mouth later in the evening you are reminded again of the whole experience. So - while the lemon wedge is not the experience itself, it is an important part of it. And without it - the dish is just becomes grilled fish. 

So, in some cases a lemon wedge is fine. Sticking a sprig of rosemary through a habanero and into some roasted garlic, now thats just stupid. 

I am a very visual thinker. Its not unusual for me to just see a finished plate in my head, and then go about creating it. Most times the original idea does not come close to the finished product - but my inspiration is not some obscure flavor, or some new technique or ingredient. Its a picture. This is why I look at art publications and frequent museums when I travel just as much as I read cook books and eat out at restaurants. I can find just as much inspiration in a painting, or photograph, or sculpture, or building as I can on a plate or in a cookbook. So it should come as no surprise that the aesthetic quality of a plate of food is just as important to me as the actual flavors. I say that with a little bit of exaggeration - because I do know that above all else your food has to taste good - but I am trying to convey the point that flavor is not the only factor to consider. 

Just like any medium - there is good art and there is bad art. Its all in the eye of the beholder.  So my poking fun about the rosemary/pepper/garlic thing at Prime - may be unfair of me to say. Its simply not something that I find attractive, or relevant or whatever.  I've encountered people that feel the same way about the way I plate my food. Recently I overheard a woman proclaim 'That doesn't look like any cheesecake I've ever had' - with a very negative intonation, as she sat up and slid her plate back. 

But I also put some thought into my garnishes. I don't use nasturtiums on a dish where their peppery bite would detract from the flavor. Often times you can find pansies or marigold petals on my plates,  which  impart a very mild, sweetly vegetal flavor that really doesn't do anything good or bad. I just like the way they look on the plate. I don't put sprigs of mint on every plate (like I have been told to do at previous jobs) but I do put a few young mint leaves on my mint brownie dessert which indicate and enhance the flavor while looking attractive. I use things like basil, salad burnet, wood sorrel, and lemon balm on my cheesecake not just because they are all complimentary to the composition of flavors but also because they add a nice visual element. 

I also like the idea of a garnish forcing interaction with a plate. I loved that when I had a vacherin on my menu people were forced to peel away slate like shards of crispy meringue to expose the frozen core. I like that our servers suggested they eat the whole thing like chips and dip. I like that people played with my food. 

An early version of the vacherin

My Sous Chef, Bryan, has been helping enormously. He used to work at one of my favorite restaurants, Woodberry Kitchen, which I would frequent when I lived part time in Baltimore.

I had my first CSA pick up of the season this week - I cannot believe I haven't got my shit together in the past and purchased one. The quality is exceptional, all the stress in figuring out what to buy is taken away and its fun to spend the evening prepping, preserving, and planning what to do with everything. 

'The wall is the artwork' Vic Christopher. This is something he said in passing during conversation and really resonated with me. 

Currently we are going through roughly 30 pounds of rhubarb a week at the restaurant. Its been tricky getting local strawberries through our regular channels - meaning I usually only pick them up at the market on Saturday mornings. Since we are closed Sundays - Tuesdays...well like I said, its been tricky. I have some plans for processing them so I can use them throughout the week. Frozen desserts are just around the corner.  

Dominic - since my last post, you have put up two - and they're both great. I loved the stream of consciousness in, 'More or Less' - and hope to see more of that format from time to time. 

We are eating a LOT of tacos, and making a lot of tortillas - both wheat and corn. Its amazing how - even a poorly made tortilla is delicious when it is fresh. 

While doing some...lets call it ...'r&d' - I rehydrated some Chipotle Moritas with a lot of vinegar, brown sugar, oregano, cinnamon, and thyme and let them cook and reduce to a molasses like consistency. This...'stuff' is earthy, spicy, sweet, beautifully smoky and utterly delicious and am pretty sure I will use it to make an ice cream sometime this week. 


  1. I love your soliloquy on the act of squeezing a lemon over grilled fish. Great stuff. Very evocative. Very true. You make a great point.


    Put me in a rustic coastal mediterranean restaurant, and I'm sold. It's not that I mind eating with my hands. I don't. But there's something to be said for a consistency of vision across dishes at a restaurant.

    Judy Rodgers wanted everything at Zuni to look and feel rustic. And that informs lots of decisions about what goes on the plate and how it gets there. The Wine Bar is shooting for a higher level of refinement, which is why I think Dominic agreed with me that the garnish on his sardines could have been smarter.

    Man. You and I barely can agree on anything. It's so funny. But I'm glad you enjoy the CSA. Could that be the first thing I've liked that you think is good?

    1. Well after a half dozen visits, I think I've figured out the secret to enjoying la Mexicana - go on a Sunday - as it seems that's when they are prepping their food and they are their busiest - and have 'what he's having' (haven't had the menudo yet, after a bad experience with tripe a few weeks ago in NYC - but had some ok tacos, one ok Torta, and really enjoyed the tylauda. )

      At some point you mentioned to me that it's important to remember where you are when deciding if something is good or not. I go back and forth but ultimately I'm not sure how much I agree. Why does a taco have to be good for this area, rather than just plain good? And how good can one be with shitty tortillas?

      There may be some refinement at the wine bar but it's important to remember - it's still a wine bar. And it's still a plate of grilled sardines.

      I also see you've tried (and enjoyed) scubbers mozz sticks - which I was raised on - and think are superior to all others (including Ralph's!)

      Maybe enough fodder for another post here

    2. I am also curious - what if Dominic was serving a taco and put a lime wedge with it - would that be ok?

  2. I loved the lemon squeezing image. I always want to do just that before eating a fish dish. Sometimes when you ask for lemon, you get a measly thin slice or two, not enough for a good squeeze. But then I'd probably not need the extra squeeze over fish coming from Dominic.