Feast Your Eyes
'Foodjects' Exhibition Shows That New Spanish Culinary Delights Are Well Served With a Dash of Design
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 17, 2009
A question for Emily Post: What is the proper dish for serving caramel popcorn, curried, compressed, then cold-cooked in liquid nitrogen? Some possible answers, in the form of suitably radical housewares, recently went on view in a touring exhibition called "Foodjects: Design and the New Cuisine in Spain."
Curated by Spanish designer Martn Aza and funded by his government, it's the latest in a series of one-country shows hosted by Apartment Zero, the design store and studio in Penn Quarter. In celebration of the shop's 10th anniversary, its standard merchandise has been pared back, making way for a huge table laid with all kinds of inventive dishes, utensils, kitchenwares and ingredients. (They were specially shipped in from Spain; only a few are for sale.)
On opening night, chefs from nearby Minibar, Washington's center for "molecular gastronomy," were serving snacks that included that frigid popcorn (a dry-ice fog drifts out your mouth when you eat it) as well as virtual olives (olive-shaped gel caps filled with fresh-squeezed olive juice) and beet tumbleweeds (fine threads of the vegetable, deep-fried and rolled into a crispy tangle).
As they ate those artworks from the gustatory cutting edge -- Minibar founder Jos Andrs is considered one of its patron saints -- visitors got to contemplate design objects that tried to measure up. A few were nothing more than old-hat modern: housewares in stainless steel or silicone that would have counted as "futuristic" back when Camembert and crepes suzette were novelty dishes. At least 10 of Apartment Zero's foodjects, however, managed to match good looks with a conceptual heft worthy of this era, when ambitious chefs are as likely to know about surface tension and chemical bonds as stocks and papillotes.
-- Enough already with fascist oenophiles who insist there's only one right glass for every wine. The "Coporrn" glass, by Martn Aza and Gerard Molin, hybridizes a standard red-wine "balloon" (you'd call it a copa in Spanish) and a traditional porrn jug, used to pour wine into your mouth from a height. The stream's contact with the air, and the way it hits the tongue, should change the taste of any beverage. Why not transform the experience of drinking a great Bordeaux? Or a cognac, for that matter.
-- Chefs today are keen to manage the order of sensations on our palates. The functional, pared-down bowl called "Apple Dome," by designers Deunor Bregaa and Anne Ibaez Guridi, is all about helping them achieve that control: You work your way through the taste in its lid before exploring what's inside.
-- Minibar's virtual olives deliver old-fashioned flavors in surprising new ways. That kind of collision of old and new -- an almost surrealist gesture -- is picked up on in a china collection called "Re-Cyclos Magical," by Bodo Sperlein. He's a German who works from London, but he was commissioned to help update the offerings of the famous Spanish porcelain firm Lladr. Sperlein has taken body parts from the company's equestrian tchotchkes and used them to functional ends.
-- The "Eggs" bowl by Antoni Arola looks standard, but is subtly subversive. It allows a chef to force radical contrasts on his guests: hot and cold, mild and spiced, fish and fruit. Imagine a bergamot and olive-oil gelato, maybe, nuzzled up against a spiced-eel stew.
-- Two metal rings turn any napkin into a bread basket by Martn Aza. His piece echoes the "instruction-set art" of famous conceptualists such as Sol LeWitt, in which the artist sets the rules and preconditions for a work but doesn't control its final appearance. Aza's bread basket lets us force the sleek modernism of his rings into a marriage of convenience with something chintzy and floral.
-- The "Spoon With Pincer," by Luki Huber, is one of the most famous objects to come out of Ferran Adri's El Bulli restaurant, near Barcelona. It allows a chef to tease his guests' noses with one substance (a sprig of mint? a curry leaf?) while filling their mouths with a contrasting taste (a capon broth? a cardamom sorbet?).
-- Remember drawing pictures with your gravy, and being told not to play with your food? By crossbreeding nib and utensil, the "Writing Spoon," by Julia Mariscal, returns us to such youthful creativity. It also evokes the distinctly literary bent of so much of today's "conceptual" cooking, in which the ideas behind the food matter almost as much as its flavors.
-- The witty "La Siesta" jug, by Hctor Serrano, Alberto Martnez and Raky Martnez, marries the form of today's ubiquitous plastic bottle with Spain's traditional botijo, a ceramic water jar that cools its contents through controlled evaporation. It's the design equivalent of a Quiznos sub made with the finest patta negra ham and cave-aged manchego.
-- The "Rebotijo" pitcher, by Martn Aza, looks sleek and modern -- almost traditional, that is, by the standards of today's design. It gets an avant-garde edge, however, by being built from the same unglazed clay as an old-fashioned botijo, and by cooling its contents according to the same evaporative principles they've used for centuries.
-- There's undeniable shock value in some radical cuisine: The fog that floats from your lips when you eat freeze-cooked popcorn doesn't alter its taste, but it sure changes the experience -- especially for those looking on. Drain the "Taz-Ah" cup, by Attua Aparicio, and you become a cartoon version of your piggish or doggy self.
Foodjects: Design and the New Cuisine in Spain runs through June 7 at Apartment Zero, 406 Seventh St. NW. Free. Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Call 202-628-4067 or visit http://www.apartmentzero.com.