Posts Tagged ‘Culinary Innovation’

NEXT: El Bulli

Posted 03 May 2012 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Food Alert Trends

Next week, I predict that NEXT restaurant in Chicago will win “Best New Restaurant” at the 2012 James Beard Foundation Awards and that Chef Dave Beran will win “Rising Star Chef of the Year”. My rationale for this prediction is based primarily on the incredible success Beran, Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas have had launching what I consider to be one of the most innovative and technically successful new restaurants in American history.

If you follow NEXT you already know that to dine there you have to buy tickets for the menu being offered, that only sixty four seats are available each night and that tickets for each three month run sell out in minutes. Pretty innovative huh (albeit old news now that Kokonas and Achatz have proven the model). The food community also knows that Beran and his team execute each menu flawlessly (there have been three menus to date: Paris 1906, Thailand, Childhood and now El Bulli (Sicily and Kyoto are soon to follow). Each time NEXT offers a new menu the creative team at the restaurant completely reinvents the experience, resetting the entire table top, service ware, menu, production and service. That these guys can shift themes every three months from Paris 1906 to Thailand (including a rave review by the N.Y. Times), turn the corner and take on Achatz’s and Beran’s memories from childhood in the 70’s and 80’s in menu form and then run a 29 course El Bulli menu three months after that (to extreme accuracy) is unheard of; a feat of super-culinary capacity and sheer determination. NEXT is the best new restaurant in the U.S. and, probably, one of if not the most innovative restaurant in the world today.

NEXT Restaurant Kitchen

Recently, I had an opportunity to enjoy the El Bulli menu and visit with sous chef Rene Deleon (Beran and Achatz were in Kyoto conducting research for that future menu). Deleon and the rest of his culinary crew are all fresh faced, young and of fighting weight. They hustle with kinetic energy in the kitchen while performing their roles with precision. They love what they do and covet the experience. Deleon in particular praises the opportunity to work at NEXT and the incredible leadership provided by Beran and Achatz. He relays his perspective while filling his purchase order for the following day’s comestibles, sitting at a table at 1:10 am in the morning as though it’s 4:00 pm in afternoon (his work day is nearly done). He lives the nocturnal life, the life of a cook where daylight is for sleeping (it off) and nighttime is for work and play; where you go home when the sun is rising not when it sets. A life the public rarely ever sees but one that serves as the basis for an underground culinary culture that we all love or have learned to love to be successful.

And that’s my point. NEXT thrives as a restaurant, a business, an art-form and aesthetic within the culinary realm. And it delivers. Beran, Achatz and Kokonas will receive the recognition they deserve at the 2012 James Beard Foundation awards. Kudos and congratulations in advance, I know of no other team that could pull off such a wonderful launch as these guys and the women and men who work for them. What an incredible American culinary and cultural asset. I can’t wait to see what’s NEXT.

Nitro Caipirinha with Tarragon Concentrate

Dry Snacks: Puffed Rice Black Pudding, Nori Cracker, Black Olive Butterflies, Puffed Coffee Polenta,

Puffed Saffron Tapioca, Parmesan Crackers, Lotus Flower Chips, Pork Rinds

Hot/Cold Trout Roe Tempura

Spherical Olives

Coca of Avocado Pear, Anchovies and Green Onion

Iberico Sandwich

Golden Quail Egg

Black Sesame Spongecake and Miso

Chicken Liquid Croquettes

Orange and Cardamom Bitters for Malaga Moscatel

Smoke Foam

Carrot Air with Coconut Milk

Cuttlefish and Coconut Ravioli with Soy, Ginger and Mint

Savory Tomato Ice with Oregano and Almond Milk Pudding

Hot Crab Aspic with Mini Corn Cous-Cous

Mas de Daumas Gassac Blanc

NEXT Diningroom

Cauliflower Cous-Cous with Solid Aromatic Herb Sauce

Suquet of Prawns

Potato Tortilla by Marc Singla

Trumpet Carpaccio with Rabbit Kidneys

Red Mullet Gaudi

Nasturtium with Eel, Bone Marrow and Cucumber

Civet of Rabbit with Hot Apple Jelly

Rabbit Civet up close

Gorgonzola Globe (Gorgonzola bechemel siphoned into a balloon, frozen via rotation in liquid nitrogen),

topped with fresh grated nutmeg tableside

Foie Gras Caramel Custard

Spice Plate (guests play a game of identifying each of the 12 flavors placed around the perimeter of the plate)

Mint Pond (Mint Powder, Muscovado Sugar, Macha Tea Powder)

Chocolate in Textures

Chocolate Donuts

Creme Flute and Puff Pastry Web

Morphings:

Jules Verne Lollipops, Chocolate and Puffed Rice, Yogurt Croquant and Raspberry Lolly, White Chocolate, Lemon and Coffee Lolly, Star Anise and Mandarin Lolly, Raspberry Kebab with Balsamic Caramel Cloud

Passionfruit Marshmallow – The Farewell

NEXT Restaurant

953 West Fulton Market

Chicago, Illinois 60607

(312) 226-0858

Spur ~ Seattle

Posted 24 Sep 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

It’s a Wednesday night and I am sitting at a table in the dining room at Spur in Seattle with Chef Dana Tough, a true culinary professional and rising national star. Tough, whose boyish looks betrays tremendous talent, and co-chef Brian McCracken opened Spur in Seattle’s Belletown neighborhood in 2008 and have never looked back. Within the first year they built a reputation for an innovative approach to modern American gastronomy.  As I sit with Dana, a black and white image of the canals of Amsterdam is projected via an LCD projector on a whitewashed interior wall. The room is dimly lit and the projected image casts a classic European tone in the room. It makes me feel cool and jazzy, relaxed and hip. Dana laughs and tells me that on other nights he projects black and white spaghetti westerns on the screen much to his customers delight. I am here to eat and to talk innovation and we are off to a good start. Staring at Dana I wonder if, perhaps, the most innovative thing about Spur is its leadership model.

It’s About Leadership

Spur has two head chefs. It’s very rare to find a restaurant where two chefs, side by side, ply their trade and achieve greatness without a train wreck of ego and rivalry. Sitting here I am subtly observant, seeking evidence whether the two chef model works at Spur. Halfway through our meal Chef Brian McCracken comes in and stops by our table. He is smiling because it’s his birthday. Dana smiles back and shakes his hand. The authenticity in his smile and genuine professional regard between the two leaves me amazed. Having two chefs in one restaurant is unprecedented. Most restaurants have a hierarchy with one chef at the top serving as pack leader and a bunch of followers below. Spur thrives because McCracken and Tough collaborate and the restaurant bubbles with a positive atmosphere and happy yet hardworking staff. That McCracken came into the restaurant on his birthday to say hello and have a drink suggests that Spur is more than just a business, it’s a passion. I can tell he loves the place and that Dana and he respect the hell out of each other. Real collaboration is
innovative in the restaurant business.

It’s About People

If innovation is about problem solving, one problem Spur has is that it is extremely busy with no room for growth. In turn, McCracken and Tough talk about the launch of Coterie Room, a new restaurant venture adjacent to Spur. The “McToughen” team as they are known in Seattle have three restaurants (Spur, Tavern Law, Coterie) with no expectation of slowing down. Both speak about the need to find pathways for advancement of their talented staff members and expansion provides new opportunities for all. Innovation not only includes outright rejection of the old-school brigade system for a higher form of collaboration, it includes a concern for growth and personnel, quality of work life and advancement.

It’s About Food and Drink

Dana heads back to the kitchen and I start down the path of nine courses randomly selected from the menu. Spur defines the modern American Gastropub and may have in fact invented it. Each dish that arrives is perfectly portioned, and dynamic with a modernist aesthetic. I start with a beautiful foie gras terrine with rhubarb, rose and sorrel. What follows includes eight additional masterfully prepared courses and several fresh, craft made cocktails. Execution is excellent save one protein that may have been in a thermal circulator for a bit too long. Flavor progression is nice even though the items Dana selected are a mix and match of the a la carte menu. This tells me that the overall menu is thoughtfully designed. The food exceeds my expectations and Dana and Brian do as well.

~~~

Foie Gras Terrine, Rhubarb, Rose, Sorrel

 

Tomatoes and Melon

Big Eye Tuna Crudo, Caviar, Avocado, Radish

 

Veal Sweetbreads, Bing Cherry, Corn, Lemon Verbena

 

Corned Duck Breast, Stone Fruit, Chanterelle, Leek

 

Parisian Gnocchi, Turnip, English Peas, Truffle

 

Waygu Sirloin, Cauliflower, Baby Artichoke, Almond Gremolata

 

Strawberry, Vanilla Cream, Rhubarb Ice Cream

 

Chocolate Torte, Bing Cherry, Peanut, Sorrel

~~~

Spur

113 Blanchard Street,

Seattle, Washington, 98121

206.728.6706

Canlis Restaurant, Seattle

Posted 29 Jul 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

It’s nearing sunset on a crystal clear blue-sky day in Seattle and I need to relax.  My meetings required traversing the city at  morning and evening rush hour and a good part of the day was wasted in traffic. I hate traffic. Now that’s all behind me and I am on my way to dinner. After a few wrong turns (as usual) I find Canlis restaurant and pull up to the front entrance. The building is a dark brown wooden gem with a modern mid-20th century “Frank Lloyd Wright meets the North West” aesthetic including large exterior walls of pitched glass facing Lake Union down below. I step out of the car and the valet opens the double glass door entrance for me and takes my car keys. Before I can turn around, he is gone with my car and I walk away wondering why he didn’t provide a claim check prior to departing. Shrugging it off, I head for reception to check in and after a very short wait find myself sitting in the lower dining room facing the windows and a magnificent view.

Peter Canlis founded his namesake restaurant 1950 when he was 69 years old after a career in the hospitality industry that spanned the globe from Greece to Cairo to New York, Hawaii and, ultimately, Seattle. According to family history Peter is credited with being an expert restaurateur and innovator and was one of the first in the country to employ team-style service n the dining room. He also understood how to create a niche for the restaurant and, in addition to excellence in the kitchen, employed  kimono-clad waitresses in his dining room; a likely influence that travelled back with him from his stint in Hawaii. Stunning photos of these waitresses serving the likes of Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior and Frank Sinatra line the wall along the back stairwell to the restaurant. Peter was a genius and Canlis was a definite “A-List” restaurant from the very beginning.

Incredible as Peter’s story is the leadership displayed by third generation owners Mark and Brian Canlis (Peter’s grandsons) is equally impressive. Talent is woven into the genetic fiber of this family. After taking the restaurant over from their parents (Chris and Alice) in 2005 Mark and Brian came to a point where they had to either sell the restaurant or double down, go all-in, and reinvest in the restaurant to bring it back to its former glory. The boys had a great opportunity to cash out and sell to a developer who planned to construct condominiums. They didn’t sell out.

Like many restaurants in the U.S. that have more than 20 years of history, Canlis’ food and service had gradually diverged from contemporary preferences and, from what I hear, the restaurant had become a bit threadbare and dated. What makes this story so different and so inspiring is that Brian and Mark took on the challenge of redirecting the restaurant and never looked back. Both displayed the courage and leadership required to wipe their approach to food and service clean and start over, something that scarcely happens in restaurants like theirs. Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that the most adaptable (fittest) organisms survive the test of time and adapt the restaurant did!

This is where Chef Jason Franey comes in. A friend at Eleven Madison Park in New York raved about Franey, her former colleague who served as executive sous chef at the restaurant prior to taking the helm at Canlis. She suggested that I visit Franey and have the chef’s tasting menu. It was excellent advice. Franey joined Canlis in 2009 after Brain and Mark conducted a national search for what would be the fifth executive chef in the restaurants history. He took on the role of executive chef with full confidence and commitment and hasn’t looked back. His kitchen, much like Eleven Madison Park, works like a Swiss watch with an ergonomic design (Brian and Mark rebuilt the kitchen for Franey) and sequence of production nothing short of perfect. I stood to the side in the kitchen as Franey seamlessly organized and expedited each order while carrying on a conversation with me. To say he is comfortable in this kitchen is an understatement. Franey is of medium height and build, wide around the shoulders, and radiates pure confidence. He is a culinary athlete in the major leagues just about to hit the top of his game. Delighted, I head back to the dining room.

Soaking it in, I begin to relax as the setting sun casts an orange glow through the long row of windows. Several smartly dressed couples from Seattle’s young, urban and wealthy community hold hands and chat while leisurely sipping cocktails and sampling Franey’s fare. In the distance I spot a single-engine sea-plane taking off from Lake Union below. The plane makes a wide circle around the lake gradually gaining altitude until it floats level with the restaurant, a bright flash of yellow paint passing between the tall evergreens just outside the window. My amuse bouche magically appears in front of me (I didn’t even notice the server who brought it) and I forget the day, the stress, the traffic, the early departure in the morning and feel wrapped in comfort and care. Canlis has grabbed hold of me and I feel a depth of professional and authentic hospitality rare in the world today.

I have no way of gauging the quality of today’s Canlis compared with the original operated by Peter in the 1950’s but I bet Peter would be delighted and the Canlis of today could very well be the best yet. As my time at Canlis comes to an end I find my car waiting right outside the front entrance. Peter Canlis believed in anticipating the needs of his guests and surprising them by staying one step ahead with service. Having your car ready when you exit is one of the traditions preserved along with many others – no claim check required. Congratulations to Brian, Mark, Jason and the whole Canlis team! I leave relaxed, sated, and truly inspired.

 Chef’s Tasting Menu

Amuse Bouche: Melon and Dungeness Crab

 

Peas and Carrots, Farm fresh goat cheese and a morel mushroom crumble

Duck Egg Slow poached with asparagus, watercress, and uni

 

Black Cod Pan seared, with fava beans, nettles, and fermented black garlic

 Short Rib Braised for 48 hours, with ramps, broccoli rabe, and smoked bone marrow

Strawberry Fizz

Rhubarb Tart Strawberries, fennel ice cream, and Champagne espuma

Canlis Restaurant, Est. 1950

2576 Aurora Avenue North   •  Seattle, Washington 98109

www.canlis.com

Fruition Restaurant: Chef Alex Seidel is Inspired in Colorado

Posted 28 Oct 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Full Service

Fruition’s Pasta Carbonara

I love that Denver chef Alex Seidel of Fruition Restaurant was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef 2010. His elevation nationally offers further proof that Denver is becoming a real fine dining restaurant town worthy of mention, not just a hot-bed for quick service restaurants and full service chains. Many of us in the biz know that the city is a proving ground for innovative quick service and full service restaurants destined for multi-unit greatness. Noodles & Co founder Aaron Kennedy started in Cherry Creek in 1995, Qdoba was started in Denver in 1995 and, best of all, Steve Ells started his 1000 store Chipotle Mexican Grill empire in Denver back in 1993. Even Quizno’s traces its origins back to Denver in 1978. Denver invented the fast casual genre and Steve Ells has proven that you can serve fast food of outstanding quality and integrity. However, for many years the fine dining segment of the market in Colorado lagged. Today, this is not the case.

Denver has emerged over the past five years as a great restaurant town. Food & Wine’s nod to Seidel has added another fresh face to the small number of elite chefs in metropolitan Denver and confirms that the fine dining trend is building. Seidel now joins other local chefs that have made their mark on Denver such as Jennifer Jasinski, Kevin Taylor, Radek Cerny, Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, and, of course, Frank Bonanno the king of Denver chef/restaurateurs.

Seidel earned his street cred working for Bonanno at Mizuna before striking out on his own in 2007. Accolades soon followed and by 2010 he had earned multiple awards, a great write up in the New York Times and the Food & Wine distinction. As has been the case at other restaurants, Seidel is known for several dishes including his pasta carbonara (photo above), a dish that he will probably have to keep on the menu forever. The dish is composed of a base of fresh cavatelli with peas, a slab of locally sourced pork belly, a sous-vide egg, and home-grown pea tendrils grown at Seidels Fruition Farm (yes, he has a wonderful farm pumping out ingredients for the restaurant, what a dream!). This is a fantastic dish, sensual, full of texture and flavor.

Another dish that a few locals suggested I try is the potato wrapped oysters Rockefeller. Seidel takes a fresh shucked oyster, wraps it in a thinly sliced raw potato chip and fries the cylinder until crisp. Served with bacon lardons, spinach, and a parmesan leek emulsion, the dish is a play on contrasts of flavor and texture. It really doesn’t resemble oysters Rockefeller at all but the concept is good and it’s innovative, not to mention the fact that I love fried oysters in any form.

The Pan Roasted New Zealand Bass is another strikingly beautiful dish and I love Seidel’s interpretation of risotto using diced potato and broccoli puree. He serves this with truffled cauliflower salad, additional broccoli florets, shaved carrots and micro greens. When asked whether the bass was farmed or wild caught from New Zeeland, my server went blank and had to run to the kitchen. This was disappointing but understandable since the autumn menu had only been out for a week. Still…

What do you think of Buttermilk Fried Chicken Confit with Crème Fresh whipped potatoes, haricots verts, glazed baby carrots, and button mushroom gravy? I know fried chicken is in. Both Art Smith (of Art& Soul fame) and Thomas Keller (at Ad Hoc) have fried chicken nights that require reservations a week in advance. Fried chicken is in and has been for a couple of years. However, who would have thought to confit the chicken before frying it. This dish is right on all levels. I love it! What a great idea.

 

My final dish of the night was a nice bread pudding with Colorado peaches and raspberries with ice cream. Desserts at Fruition are emerging but still a work in progress. They are very good but the savory cooking shines brighter and offers more innovation as noted earlier. Having eaten many of the other great restaurants in Denver, Frution is in the top five and Alex Seidel has the culinary chops and vision to bring even greater depth to the Denver dining scene. Three years in and Fruition is absolutely fantastic.

Fruition Restaurant

1313 E. 6th Avenue

Denver, CO 80218

303-831-1962

 

Rasika ~ Washington, D.C. Indian Fine Dining

Posted 12 Oct 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

Last month during one of my trips to Washington D.C., I made a point to trek over to Rasika at 633 D. St., NW in Penn quarter on for a meal. Being a fan and follower of great Indian food, I had been meaning to eat at Rasika for months but never had the time. This trip the timing worked so I made a reservation with high anticipation. What excites me most about Rasika is that it’s pushing the limit on Indian fine dining in America and earning rave reviews along the way including one of the highest scores for food in Washington D.C. by Zagat. Rasika also has talent in the kitchen. Executive chef Vikram Sunderam, one of the few Indian chefs to be nominated for a James Beard award (best chef Mid-Atlantic 2010), has a refined yet authentic touch when creating menu items and produces food as elegant as the stunning décor and service at Rasika. This is a serious Indian restaurant with a serious, talented, professional Indian chef.

Sunderam was hired away from the Bombay Brasserie in London by Rasika owner Ashok Bajaj. With Sunderam at the helm, Bajaj opened Rasika in 2006 to compliment his collection of restaurants in the Washington D.C. metro area. It’s telling that Bajaj had to recruit talent from London when opening Rasika. There’s no one else in America pushing the limits on Indian food the way Bajaj is at Rasika and, other than from India itself, London is the only place with an Indian culinary community mature enough to provide Rasika with this level of back-of-the-house talent. Reflecting on the restaurant décor, website, food, service and style, it is clear that Ashok Bajaj is a man of vision.

Bajaj’s first restaurant, Bombay Club, opened in 1989 and is now a Washington institution. After arriving in Washington in 1988, having completed stints with the Taj hotel group in India and London, Bajaj scraped together the resources to open Bombay Club with a partner and, sans partner, has added another restaurant to his empire every 2-4 years since. While dining at Rasika Bajaj stopped over to my table to say hello. He’s a distinguished looking, well dressed gentleman with great presence. He departed my table after a minute or two and I watched him walk away. As he walked he shifted his head from one side to the other, eyes darting around the restaurant to each table. Bajaj has the intuitive ability to “sense” when a restaurant is running well that all great restaurant owners have and his vision drives the progressive Indian fusion cuisine Rasika is known for.

Rasika represents the steady evolution of Indian cuisine in the U.S. Twenty years ago it wasn’t uncommon to find one or two good Indian restaurants in major cities but the cuisine was less prevalent in suburban areas and the food was tame compared to Indian food in the U.S. today. Even Bajaj agrees that the American dining public is shifting toward a wider acceptance of Indian cuisine. Perhaps we are headed into an era where Indian flavors and cooking techniques will become as common in America as Latin and Mediterranean flavors have been in recent years. If this happens, we will have Sunderam and Bajaj to thank, in part, for showing us the way.

My meal at Rasika was served family style for a table of seven. The photos below reflect this (FYI).  

Chili Garlic Scallops $12 Ginger, lemon juice, poha

Barbeque Shrimp ($12) Fresh mint chutney

Entrée (l-r) Bhindi Amchoor (sliced okra with dry mango powder), Dal Makhani (lentils, tomato, garlic, fenugreek), Chicken Tikka Masala, Basmati rice

Rasika Bread Basket $8 Assorted Naan/Roti

Gulab Jamun ($8) & Apple Jalebi Beignet with Cardamom Ice Cream ($8)

Rasika 633 D St. NW

Washington, DC 20004-2904

 202-637-1222

Science & Cooking at Harvard

Posted 12 Oct 2010 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends

It appears that the culinary arts and sciences are alive and well in Cambridge, MA. Last week on the 7th, the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences launched an 11 part series on science and cooking. The last time I was in Cambridge (other than for an outstanding meal at Craigie on Main) was for the TEDx Cambridge

Jaleo ~ Alexandria, VA is Latin Flavor

Posted 03 Oct 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Full Service

My first trip to Jaleo was four years ago. I was staying at the Mayflower Hotel with some hospitality industry friends and on short notice, was put in charge of finding a restaurant where three of us could dine without a reservation. Talking with the hotel concierge, I was reminded of Jaleo as an option and quickly recalled the press Jose Andres was generating at the time. Jose’s connection with Ferran Adria and his ongoing role as translator for this uberchef had garnered tremendous attention from the press, trade publications and the professional culinary community.  The concierge’s suggestion of dining at Jaleo intrigued me and, after sharing the idea with my fellow diners, we decided to make the trip.

Andres, chef owner of Think Food Group (TFG) along with partner Rob Wilder, is widely accredited as the source of the Tapas (small plates) movement in America, most notably at Jaleo. According to Andres’ TFG web site, Jaleo means “revelry” or “uproar” in Spanish. The site credits the John Singer Sargent painting “El Jaleo” as the inspiration for the concept. Andres’ inspired small plates, most between $8-$10, came while the U.S. economy dissolved. Customers seeking value without compromising quality or flavor intensity instantly embraced Jaleo. Within months the notion of “restrained fine dining” was born. Knowing these things, we departed for Jaleo curious about the food and attracted by the hype like a moth to a flame. All I can remember from that meal was how simple, affordable, and delicious the food was. I had a perfect Serrano ham with béchamel gratinée that still makes my mouth water when I think of it.   Jaleo was the real deal: simple, well executed, affordable with no pretense. It was entry-level fine dining, the prices were restrained, and I left sated without an ounce of guilt. The next time in Washington, I vowed, Jaleo would be on my list for a drink and quick meal.

This past summer, I was in Washington again and bumped into Jose Andres at the “Chefs Move Schools” event at the White House. It was a busy visit and time didn’t permit eating at Jaleo. However, I did meet the one of Andres’ Jaleo chefs on the lawn of the White house. I shared my fond memory of the Serrano ham with her and she went on about where it was sourced, her technique for making béchamel (onion clouté and all) and thanked me for the compliment. She asked it I had visited any of the other Jaleoo’s and described how thoughtfully designed the newer outlets in Bethesda, Maryland and Crystal City, Virginia are.  This got me thinking about how perfect Jaleo is for expansion as an upscale, full-service, multi-unit restaurant. It would compete in the same bracket as Legal Seafood, Ted’s Montana Grill, and Cheesecake Factory, with lower prices on a plate cost basis, and better food. She agreed but didn’t confirm whether Andres had plans for expansion. As we parted, the thought of visiting one of the newer outlets of Jaleo suck with me.

You can imagine my delight when I wound up in Crystal City, VA recently and had the chance to visit the Jaleo there. One thing is obvious at the Crystal City location; it’s new and thoughtfully designed compared to the original. Being new, this store doesn’t have the obvious wear as the original D.C. outlet and is more modern and bright in its design. The color palette is spot on contemporary, and the facility has high ceilings, clerestory windows, custom light fixtures and a huge mural just above the long curved bar. The interior colors are burgundy, gold, green, and natural wood giving the restaurant a contemporary feel with a slight undertone of Moorish/Iberian influence. It’s gorgeous.

After the hostess seats me, I relax for a couple moments taking in the room and making a mental note of my first impression. Within a couple of minutes my server arrives smiling and offers to take my beverage order. I stick with water. She asks the usual “tap or bottled”: tap for me thanks. Nice kid. She’s authentically warm, smiling and unconcerned by the camera on the table. I usually place my compact camera on the table in plain view of my server when first seated to give subtle notice that I am likely to take pictures. Off she goes as I open the menu and contemplate my order.

The menu at Jaleo is daunting with over 80 items listed. Andres divided the menu into 12 categories including meats, cheeses, vegetables, fried foods, fish, and salads while reserving a full page for a listing of made-to-order paellas that take 25 minutes to prepare and serve 2-4 people. Although drawn to the paella, time is short so I skip to the tapas menu. My server arrives with water and I ask her what the three most popular items on the menu are. Her response is delightful. She knows the menu well and immediately describes three items that she likes that are popular with customers. I also ask if she has octopus on the menu and she confirms stating that it was just added back to the menu. Noticing my hesitation, she takes off for a couple minutes while I contemplate a final decision. She’s back and I order four items; three that she recommended plus the octopus.

Gambas al ajillo

Shrimp Sauteed with Garlic $9

Manzanas con hinojo y queso Manchego

Sliced apple and fennel salad with Manchego cheese, walnuts and Sherry dressing $8.50

Patatas Bravas

Fried fingerling potatoes with spicy tomato sauce and alioli $6.50

Pulpo a la Gallega “Maestro Alfonso”

Boiled octopus with fingerling potatoes, pimenton and olive oil $8

Today, TFG operates seven restaurant concepts with plans for opening a large scale Jaleo and new Chinese Mexican fusion restaurant called ChinaPoblano at the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas this December. The Las Vegas outlet will mark the first Jaleo outside of the Washington, D.C. metro region. Perhaps Andres is planning for a wider expansion of the concept. Such an expansion is a great idea and one I hope he pursues. Jaleo is a great concept that has held up over time and is suitable to any major metropolitan area in the country.

Jaleo

2250 A Crystal Drive

Arlington, VA 22202

703-413-8181

Flavor Forecast 2010

Posted 23 Sep 2010 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends, In Case You Missed It!

After talking with several culinary folks today about emerging food trends I notice from time to time I have decided to add a new category titled “In Case You Missed It” as a holding pen for quick posts about current events, trends and happenings in foodservice. The individuals I was speaking with were not aware of these trends and were interested in them and my take on what they mean. As always, I am happy to share.

Today’s post is about McCormick’s Flavor Forecast 2010. Not only do I love the list of flavor pairings this year but I also love the press that Kevan Vetter, McCormick & Co’s corporate chef is getting for his decade long run of predicting some of the most popular and culture shifting flavor combinations in America. Vetter is a kind hearted, collaborative, and sharing guy who goes about his work in a professional yet understated manner. He epitomizes the “open source” approach to food and food ideas that has taken hold over the past five years. To get a sense of the guy, you have to watch his video forecast…it’s a must see. He is joined in the video by the funky Richard Blais, and the delightful Rachal Rappaport, a fellow food blogger from Baltimore.

My two favorite flavor parings (ones that I have used all summer) are Thai basil and melon and toasted cumin and chick peas. In case you missed it, check it out!

Future Foodservice Innovation: Look to Where Food Sucks and Establish Integrity

Posted 18 Aug 2010 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends

I have a theory about culinary innovation that’s pretty simple but worth talking about. If you want to find the next area of innovation in foodservice, look to where food sucks. It’s not hard to do; there are lots of places where food is sold without regard to quality or integrity. When entrepreneurial chefs find these pockets of low food quality they transform them for the better and find success along the way. The food truck revolution of the past three years is an example. Food trucks used to suck. So are the phenomenal success stories of Chipotle Mexican Grill in the fast casual segment, Stonyfield farm in the yogurt category, and Amy’s organics in retail. Each of these companies established integrity within a category where it was lacking. The list of places where you can find food with integrity is long and getting longer. However, there are still some dark spots out there that present an opportunity for innovation and need fixing.

Recently, I had two food experiences while traveling that confirm my point. While riding the Amtrak Acela to Penn Station in New York I visited the dining car to check it out and get a snack. The set up was nice with approximately one third of the car dedicated to a small pantry, service counter and cashiers station and the rest of the car set with a small counter with seating and places to stand with food. It was nice enough except that there wasn’t a single item on the menu worth eating. Like an airliner, the dining car was outfitted to transport cold food cold and hot food hot but was ill equipped for fresh food preparation. Out of desperation I ordered a turkey sandwich and went back to my seat and unwrapped the sandwich. The turkey slices were compressed into a solid clump centered in a soft roll with a slice of tomato and a limp and bruised lettuce leaf. Needless to say, I didn’t eat it. It seems to me that the Amtrak folks and their designers and consultants place convenience over quality when it comes to food. Amtrak should be able to deliver a high quality turkey sandwich on board with very little fuss and a reasonable price. What a shame they haven’t taken the time to do things right. My prediction: someone’s going to figure out how to bring some credibility to Amtrak’s dining car or the dining car will die a slow death. Integrity with proper control yields financial success, convenience over quality yields failure.

My second example comes from a recent Southwest Airlines flight. That both these bad-food examples occurred while I was trapped on a moving vehicle is noteworthy. Travelers like me become captives with no other food options while on a train or plane. Is this what allows the people in charge of foodservice at these entities to set the bar so low? It pains me to bash Southwest, I actually like the airline on many levels and think they provide tremendous value to travelers. However, the food options on board their flights are weak. I avoid eating the crap they serve in most cases but couldn’t avoid it on a recent trip. By the time I deplaned at the connecting airport on this trip I was starving. The airport was small and regional with no quality food options (captive again!). Sullen, I walked to my gate, boarded my flight and was sitting in my seat before hunger surpassed my idealism. I pulled a Southwest menu out of the seat-back pocket and read it to see if there were any real options. Aside from peanuts, pretzels and Nabisco snacks, there were none. The flight attendant allowed me to select one of each and I sampled.

Studying each of the small packages, I notice that none make any kind of statement about food integrity. I wonder where the peanuts are from, whether they are conventionally sourced, whether my crackers are free of transfats, and whether my pretzels are organic (no) and lye-free (no). For more than five years researchers have been working to genetically engineer the allergens out of peanuts. Are these peanuts modified? I would love to know. No need to open the peanuts, my stomach is turning.

Studying the Nabisco Cheese Nips I notice the product has nineteen ingredients. All of them are generally regarded as safe (GRAS) but if given an option I will pass when it comes to eating the partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, monosodium glutamate (flavor enhancer), sodium caseinate (casein neutralized by lye), and acetic acid (flavor enhancer) in these nips.

My view is aligned with Professor Kelly Brownell at Yale and Professor (and rock star author) Michael Pollan at Berkeley when it comes to foods with more that a few ingredients. Pollan recommends only eating processed foods with five ingredients or less and Brownell questions whether foods with as many ingredients as my Cheese Nips are actually drugs or controlled substances in disguise. Again, I am left searching for food integrity. At this stage I toss all three packets into the trash when the flight attendant passes by. Southwest has made famous their meager food options as part of their cost containment and low price strategy. This is fine. However, if you serve a snack of any kind, make sure it has integrity. Find a sustainable, scalable source for these types of snacks with high food integrity or ditch them all together.

So that’s my strategy; I look for where food sucks and consider the discovery a revelation. If you are an entrepreneur, seek out where food sucks and you will find your next great opportunity. If you are a major manufacturer, develop products with true integrity and ditch the engineering. It is only a matter of time before the wave of integrity that is washing over American foodservice cleans out these last remaining pockets of bad food. Serve us food with integrity and we will come!

Inspiration and Innovation: One Chef’s View

Posted 20 Jul 2010 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends

Tim Ryan, President of the Culinary Institute of America, starts his presentation by stating that 1946 is a seminal year in American history. He flashes several photos of events that occurred in 1946 across the screen to prove his point; the founding of McDonalds, the launch of Tide Detergent, the founding of the United Nations, the release of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart. He has selected 1946 as the inflection point in the development of modern dining and foodservice in the United States as part of his presentation today titled “Inspiration and Innovation.” Dr. Ryan, one of the brightest men in foodservice and the only master chef (ACF) on the planet with an earned doctoral degree (University of Pennsylvania), smiles subtly and also states that 1946 was the year that the CIA was founded on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. A wave of quiet laughter rolls through the room.

Dr. Ryan transitions in preparation for the topic of innovation, to a discussion about trends vs. fads. He asks the audience to describe the difference between a trend and a fad and one bright woman replies “a fad shoots up quickly in popularity only to drop just as quickly.” Dr. Ryan agrees and shows a slide with an animated trend line shooting up, then down rapidly over time (a fad) along with a trend line that rises and remains steady over the same period (a trend). Implied is the fact that trends are a product of innovation, remain intact, and produce change over time, and fads don’t. To make his point in the context of foodservice, he also compares the current black garlic fad to the sun dried Tomatoes fad of the 1980’s as an example (one that most of the forty-and-older crowd in the room can relate to) and people nod with agreement. Fermented black garlic isn’t going to change foodservice, perhaps the overriding Asian flavor trend in the country will.  

CIA Greystone

At this stage, Dr. Ryan shifts the audiences again by asking two questions: 1) where do you go to get great food, and 2) where do you get great ingredients.  This makes me (and the rest in the room) ponder the questions. My first though is that great food can be found at home, but that’s probably not the case for most people. Analyzing where great food has been served, according to public opinion, over the past 50 years is another way to answer this question and Dr. Ryan indulges us. After WWII in America, each decade had its own famous restaurant that defined fine dining (a place where great food could be found). He starts with what was arguably the most famous restaurant of the post war era, Le Pavilion in New York and famous chef Henri Soule. Jacques Pepin, Pierre Franey and others worked there and the restaurant maintained “best in America” status from the mid 1940’s to the mid 1960’s. Four weeks ago when I spent three hours on a plane with Jacques Pepin, he mentioned what it was like to work for Soule and how, at the time, chefs were no where near as important as they are today. The celebrities of the day were the front of the house maitre d’s, and many had regional if not national reputations. Ryan’s belief that La Pavilion was the best restaurant of its era was validated by Pepin just weeks earlier during our discussion.

Le Pavilion was replaced as “best in America” by Lutece in New York in the mid 1960’s and chef Andre Soltner maintained that position from the mid 1960’s until the 1990’s when he closed the restaurant. Ryan gives other examples including Café Des Artists but then he shows the dining counter at Momofuku in New York. He follows with a picture of the Kogi food truck in LA and notes that in recent months the New York Times has gushed over David Chang’s restaurants and that Kogi has met with tremendous success and critical acclaim. He reveals a startling change in what and where America dines and where good food can be found. His juxtaposition of the photos of Le Pavilion and Kogi Food truck reveal a major shift.  Kogi food truck is a source of great food, has found financial success and critical acclaim as well, but looks nothing like the grandiose surrounds that composed Le Pavilion and Lutece. Point made: good food can be found anywhere and in some of the most surprising places.

CIA Kitchen

Where do you get great ingredients? Dr. Ryan’s discussion didn’t quite answer this question the way it was stated. Instead, he answered the question “what are great ingredients?” by comparing what he referred to as the “holy trinity” of ingredients consisting of foie gras, truffles, and caviar to modern ingredients like pork belly, which David Chang  is known for, and pork shoulder, a Kogi food truck staple. Today, great ingredients are commodities (pork belly) instead of rarities (caviar, truffles, foie gras). This implies that demand is driving our perception of great ingredients downscale putting greater pressure on preparation, flavor and integrity instead of rarity.

This isn’t to say that old-school fine dining is dead. Fine dining has a great future if not a short term struggle due to the economy. Ryan showed a photo of great chefs including Bolud, Keller, Trotter, Ripert, Coliccio, Mina, and Achatz to name a few. By showing these photos, he proved that the number of great American chefs has grown exponentially since the time of Soule and brought tremendous renown to fine dining in the US. One glaring observation is that Ryan didn’t show one photo of a female chef during his presentation, not even a female CIA graduate of high regard like Melissa Kelly of Primo restaurant in Maine. With so many great female chefs in the U.S., I am surprised. Much can be gleaned from what is not said but I predict that the future of fine dining in America will include an increasing number of female chefs.

As Dr. Ryan wraps up his presentation he offers to answer questions from the audience. One attendee asks what he thinks of molecular gastronomy and Dr. Ryan, after a thorough response suggests that the molecular gastronomy movement is a fad that will eventually expire in the coming years. On this point I smile with slight disagreement. Molecular gastronomy will fade away eventually but the cork is out of the bottle with chefs when it comes to food science. Food science, as a culinary content area in training, will expand out of necessity and chefs will continue to develop expertise in science (the why of cooking) in addition to technique (the how of cooking).  Molecular gastronomy will forever be credited with catalyzing this trend. Our profession will continue to professionalize and become more technical.

That foodservice is such a remarkable industry where a professional can go from dish room to boardroom in the course of a decade remains a fact.  The profession has evolved to such an extent over the past two decades that the public’s esteem for chefs and culinary professionals is at its highest point ever. Today, chefs are entrepreneurs, celebrities, thought leaders, agents of social change among other things.  Dr. Ryan is an example of this.

There are very few people in culinary education and the foodservice industry as a whole that are smarter or better informed than Tim Ryan when it comes to food and cooking. The industry is lucky to have a guy like Dr. Ryan leading the Culinary Institute of America which, in my mind, is a national treasure and key cultural change agent in America. I agree with much of what he said though not everything and he still has me thinking…that’s a good thing.