Tasting the book: A modernist dinner

By Rebekah Denn
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 7:29 PM

First came the raisin course, and then the warmed blood.

Fortunately, those were just for the mosquitoes. Nathan Myhrvold houses his malaria research in the same Seattle building as his massive cookbook laboratory, and he offered a tour of the entire works before a 28-course meal this past weekend prepared from his new 2,438-page "Modernist Cuisine."

Once seated in the cooking lab, the dozen or so humans began their dinner with crispy chips of fried watermelon, pear and pickle. Subsequent courses sizzled past: salmon in a "bulletproof" beurre blanc (it helps to have a rotor stator homogenizer), beef stew in an eerily clear red broth, caramels wrapped in what looked like cellophane but actually was a gel of salty "cheese water." Between the tables and the cooking line was such equipment as Myhrvold's centrifuge, a tool that separates substances by density. This washing-machine-size model ($25,000 new, $8,000 on eBay) was so powerful, it made one guest-chef as green with envy as the vegan pea "butter" on our dehydrated toasts.

Each portion in the four-hour meal was small, artfully plated and garnished with touches as quirky as a leaf of baby ice plant. Still, somewhere between the monkfish liver, the bone marrow, the second plate featuring foie gras and the block of pastrami, it became clear that some pacing was required. Impressively, most of the men at my table, 23 courses in, still went for seconds on the barbecued ribs that had been dipped in liquid nitrogen and flash-fried.

Some dishes clearly were products of the modern toolbox of spherification gels and Erlenmeyer flasks. Others tasted as classic as a grandmotherly roast chicken, if there was a grandma who hung her brine-injected birds upside down for three days and made a dairy-free gravy from pressure-rendered chicken fat and propylene glycol alginate.

The cooking staff was rife with alums of such restaurants as England's Fat Duck and Chicago's Alinea, and guests included Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, kindly Northwest shellfish purveyor "Oyster Bill" Whitbeck, and Seattle's best-known restaurateur, Tom Douglas. But not everyone at the tables knew their way around a Pacojet, or cared. Still, the lab echoed with a standing ovation at dinner's end. And clearly we were all touched: A server replaced my coffee, apologizing for the muddy grounds that had escaped the elegant French press pots purchased for the occasion. The chef to my left, Corey Lee of San Francisco's Benu, looked up and offered a remedy.

"Centrifuge?" he said.

Some highlights of the night:

Should be patented: A bracing but virtually weightless "snowball" of green apple and fresh wasabi, a cool, dry, vacuum-aerated sorbet that melted in the mouth with none of the gumminess that some palate cleansers leave behind.

Is being patented: "Ultrasonic fries," where cooked russets are vibrated in the same type of machine used to polish jewelry, roughening the surface with minute fissures for oil to seep in. Fried up, their crunchy surface was less yielding than I expected, but the insides were super soft.

Taste-bud trickery: The subtly sweet "marinara" topping on our pressure-cooked grits turned out to be a mix of quince and pear. Any ingredient with the right acids and tannins can substitute for tomato in the sauce, Myhrvold said.

Strangest finger food: Mini cheese souffles.

Ingredient, not sacrament: That's Myhrvold's admonition about not over-babying wine. Instead, he had a bottle of red whirled through a powerful Vitamix in the conference room to "hyper-decant" it. In a blind taste test, every guest correctly ID'd the softer, looser, pleasanter notes of the blenderized wine.

Don't alert the State Fair: How to make those watermelon chips? Slice any porous vegetables or fruits, impregnate them with a starch slurry, and "you'll be able to fry things you shouldn't be able to fry," Myhrvold said.

Best in show: "Pasta" vongole, marrying technology and technique. Rather than the traditional pasta with clams, "we said . . . let's actually make the spaghetti out of the clams!" Myhrvold said. The noodles were thin-cut slices of pounded geoduck siphon, in a centrifuged broth of geoduck juice, shallots and anchovies. Briny sea beans further punched it up.

Comic relief: "Raw egg shooter," poured from a dainty halved quail egg shell. Bracing ourselves for a slimy drinking-night booster, we instead got a burst of citrus from the "yolk" - spherified passion-fruit juice - and the lime-juice "white."

Where's the bread basket?: With a few exceptions, "Modernist Cuisine" doesn't include baking and pastry. Myhrvold said that the subject could fill a book on its own, and that bakers already tend to approach cooking with a scientific bent.

"Tastes like a heart attack": That was one chef's verdict on the shot of hot "foie gras eggnog," rich as a mixture of gold and fat.

Modernist locavores: It wasn't all about the N-Zorbit. Ingredients also included fresh wasabi grown in Oregon; Washington geoduck and tumbled, deep-cup Shigoku oysters; a marbled salmon that can be legally fished only by the native tribes of the Olympic Peninsula; and hazelnuts from Bellingham, Wash. The striking strawberry gazpacho from Volume 1's cover wasn't on the menu, Myhrvold said, because strawberries aren't in season.

Quote of the night: "Here are three pots de creme. Actually, one is not a pot de creme. Actually, none are pots de creme."

Denn, two-time winner of a James Beard journalism award, was an editorial contributor to "Modernist Cuisine." This was her first time tasting the food.

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