At the new Mediterranean-inspired Tail Up Goat in Adams Morgan, a pile of smoked hen of the woods mushrooms is accompanied by a thick smear of burnt bread sauce, which looks pretty much exactly how one would expect it to.
"We burn the hell out of the bread," said chef Jon Sybert.
Sybert and his team -- the trio all are veterans of chef Johnny Monis's acclaimed Komi and Little Serow kitchens -- bake 18 to 24 loaves of several types of bread each day; the darkly colored chocolate rye is what goes into the sauce. The bread is charred twice before it's whirred together with a harissa-like paste, burnt vegetables and water from the reconstituted seaweed used in another loaf, until it's smooth and finished with grapeseed oil.
The result is thick, nearly black and probably unlike anything you've ever tasted before. An acquired tasted, some might say.
"Basically what you're going for is an umami bomb," Sybert said, referring to the so-called "fifth taste" (after sweet, salty, sour and bitter), first described by a Japanese researcher, that delivers a hard-to-pin-down savory quality.
As to the primary burnt flavor, Tail Up Goat beverage director Bill Jensen said "it can't be the only voice in there or else it comes across as acrid."
Balance is key, agreed Jill Tyler, Sybert's wife and Tail Up Goat's service director. Sybert's lamb ribs for two boast a blackened crust, which Tyler said works well in contrast with the tender texture of the meat and fat, as well as the bright and acidic elements imparted by the herbs and yogurt-coated onions that accompany them. Likewise, very crispy brown rice bread croutons are not so intimidating when dragged through a luscious pile of stracciatella cheese.
The butterscotch budino dessert is similarly balanced with elements to counteract the burnt sugar that is darkened just shy of the point where it would become unpalatable. There's fat in the pudding, and a blood orange jam delivers acidity and more sugar. And then there's a marshmallow -- burnt, of course -- on top.
At Volt in Frederick, chef de cuisine Graeme Ritchie recently introduced the "Charcoal-ate" as a meal-ender. One of the components of the dessert is a burnt caramel chocolate tuile (a thin, crispy cookie) made with glucose and cocoa powder, which helps turn it black. The accompanying ice cream is flavored with burnt Timothy hay (the same kind enjoyed by your pet gerbil) that is torched and then allowed to smolder before cream is added. The hay is steeped to infuse the cream before being strained out.
"The element of burn is so subtle," Ritchie said of the dessert. "It eats very well," though diners "are kind of freaked out by it at first."
Victor Albisu can relate. The chef said that when he was trying to get Del Campo, his South American-accented paean to smoke and fire, off the ground, he was shopping a menu that used words such as "burnt," "charred" and "smoke." Potential backers passed on the concept, he said, "because they didn't believe in those adjectives, and they thought they were off-putting."
Del Campo has been open in Chinatown for about three years.
"I try not to take a lot of credit where it's not due," he said. "It's very interesting for me to see the word 'burnt' being used as much as it is. . . . It's actually a style of cuisine, something I've been talking about for a few years now."
"I think it's great that so many people have been exploring the technique," he added.
Albisu prefers to smoke and slow-grill his meat, but he has no qualms about charring vegetables, fruit and herbs. His menu has included such items as burnt Brussels sprouts, broccoli and radishes. For vegetables especially, the chef likes to char only one side so that there are different layers of flavor and texture, from crispy to almost raw.
But why burnt? Why now? "It adds a new crisp and fun approach to the same boring root vegetables," Ritchie said, noting the relative lack of available produce during winter. Plus, it gives you a cooked-outside flavor without having to actually go outside. And with open-fire hearth cooking in vogue (locally see: the Dabney, Parts & Labor), more and more food is sporting black almost like a badge of authentic, historic honor.
Pizza master Peter Pastan, co-owner of 2 Amys, opined half-jokingly (we think) that burning is hot because "people are running out of new things."
Still, "I'm glad more people are embracing the char," he said.
When Pastan opened 2 Amys near the National Cathedral in 2001, the characteristic leopard spots on his Neapolitan pies were a novelty -- one that had people sending what they thought were burned pizzas back to the kitchen. (Similarly, baker Mark Furstenberg has heard complaints over the years that he's "baking dark" and overcooking his bread.) That's changed. "It's certainly been much, much less of a problem than it was 15 years ago," Pastan said.
To Pastan, the black is "sweetness in a weird kind of a way. It's a caramelization thing as much as a burnt thing."
Achieving the right balance can be tricky when working in a wood-fired oven. "It takes a lot of practice," Pastan said.
That applies to making burnt food in general. Tail Up Goat's Sybert recalled a recent day when it took three tries to produce an acceptable burnt bread sauce.
Along those lines, Albisu said the distinction between "burnt" and "burned" is an important one. The former is an intentional strategy, while the latter implies that something went wrong.
When it comes to burnt food, "You really need to watch. You really need to care," Albisu said. "You need to get it to the right place."