Cirque Du Saute
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
After 35 years of reviewing restaurants and writing about food, every New Year I first make resolutions that inevitably feature Diet and Exercise, then I take stock of what's been happening in high-end restaurants over the year.
The very notion that something is "happening" in restaurants is a new one. In centuries past, people cooked what they had, in whatever ways they knew. Changes were dictated by nature: season, climate, abundance or shortage. Even the most influential foreign restaurant in 20th-century America, Le Restaurant Francais at the French Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair, didn't bother to put the chef's name on the menu. In the 1950s, one British exchange student I knew drove across the country and declared, "I came to discover America, but all I discovered was hamburger."
He should have stayed longer.
At midnight on a cold, rainy Wednesday in Chicago last October, I sat with my daughter-in-law, Sue, at an unadorned matte black table as the waiter delivered the eighth course of our tasting menu. It came not on a plate, but suspended in a stainless-steel contraption described as a bow (as in bow and arrow). I would have called it a trapeze. Hanging from the crossbar was half a strip of bacon, in a tangle of pale yellow ribbons that made it look like a package being unwrapped. I unhooked the bacon and took a bite, then another. With no restraint, an immediate third. Too quickly it was gone. I hoped I'd never forget it.
Bacon glazed with butterscotch. Butterscotch! How had I lived so long without it? The unruly ribbons were shreds of apple and snippets of thyme. No wonder Gourmet magazine had chosen chef Grant Achatz's Alinea the best American restaurant of the year.
How far we have come, so quickly, in our computer age. A mere half-century ago we were calling it the machine age, and chefs didn't yet consider themselves artists, let alone celebrities. Our values shifted. We had disposable napkins, then disposable plates and now disposable restaurants. In a society where restaurants open and close in droves, chefs dare not make just dinner: They make news.
So was born the restaurant trend, which turns out to be more contagious than the flu. As soon as someone finds a way to make money from the idea, I expect chefs' vintages to be charted like wines'. (I'd like a case of that '06 Achatz.)
Long after the nouvelle cuisine movement in the 1970s and '80s introduced big white plates, fanned-out portions of meat and pan sauces rather than stocks, the Next Big Thing in cooking concentrates on the small. At Alinea, the large white plate has been replaced by a wax bowl the size of a salt cellar, which will be melted down and reshaped after my dinner. In the meantime, it is filled with a spoonful of white broth. Poised over it like a diving board is a tiny stainless-steel spear poking through a hole near the bowl's edge. It's a skewer for a walnut-size round of hot potato draped with a slice of truffle, a shard of Parmesan and a small cube of butter. Pull out the skewer, and these garnishes plop into the cold potato soup. Then you sip from the little bowl as the potato warms it.
With today's top chefs looking for laboratory precision, sous vide -- which dropped out of sight after a small flurry of interest during nouvelle cuisine -- has made a comeback. It allows slow, slow, slow and even cooking. And when kitchen space is a problem, it allows precooking in the quiet hours. At the highest levels of avant-garde cooking, meats are routinely brined, marinated or slow-cooked for long stretches, then stored for days until they are needed. And as with the amateur excesses of nouvelle cuisine, a new generation of untrained or uninspired chefs is serving spongy, bouncy meats and entire meals where you need not chew.
The best chefs, though, are changing the way restaurants cook. This free-spirited inventiveness is so new it is still struggling for a name: Molecular gastronomy is the catchiest so far, and it gives you an idea of the challenge, but it is not really accurate. Deconstructionism, borrowed from the literary world, might fit, if we could actually understand what that means.
Whether it's named or nameless, you'll know it when you see it. First clue: Chefs such as Spain's Ferran Adria of El Bulli set up laboratories as well as kitchens. Their equipment goes well beyond stoves and mixers to instant-freezers, aerators, emulsifiers and centrifuges. Their ingredients come from the hardware store and pharmacy as well as the grocery.
In Washington, Adria's former student, Jose Andres, has carved out part of Cafe Atlantico as his own El Bulli. He calls it, more aptly, Minibar and runs it as a kind of six-seat laboratory. The food is in the spirit of a fun house, where olives are liquid and the meal starts with cotton candy, albeit stuffed with foie gras. Andrés is enamored of syringes and trompe l'oeil, addicted to fun. But pork rinds with maple syrup will never displace bacon and butterscotch.