Friday, December 28, 2007

The Front Lines of Weirdness......

The front lines of weirdness is where we like to be....

Weird is challenging. At one point in our careers we were just trying to get the people to stop talking and put down their cigarette long enough to notice what was on the plate in front of them. God forbid they should THINK about what they were seeing and tasting.......

Jeez, I am old. Does anyone else remember when people used to smoke in the middle of fancy dinner parties? I didn't think so.

Back in the day, raspberry mousse with white chocolate anything was weird: "I thought mousse was chocolate? What is wrong with chocolate mousse? And how can it be chocolate if it is white? You guys are weird. Can I get an ashtray?"

Still, we have always resisted weirdness for its own sake. There was a time (which is now returning, sadly) when hip restaurants' menus looked like they had been prepared by throwing magnet words at a refrigerator: Rack of Yak with Pomegranate Aioli, served on a bed of Chizo and Chipotle Cream.

Brendan and his friends are pursuing the molecular gastronomy trail left by Heston Blumenthal, Wylie duFresne and Feran Adria. And Quique Dacosta and Andoni Aduriz....and old fogeys like Pedro Subijiana and Juan Mari Arzak and Michel Bras. If you don't recognize any of those names.....stay off Jeopardy for a while....Michel Bras is old school, and his new cookbook is in enough demand that it runs $350.....if you can find it.

The New Crew has harnessed a bit of the lab, helped out by scientists like Harold McGee and Herve This. Juan Mari takes it one step further and has a gifted art loonie in the lab as well: Xabier Gutierrez. Xabi wanders around the city..... and the forest.... gathering visual concepts that he brings back to the lab. Juan Mari bangs all their heads together.....Xabi, chefs and science geeks....and out come strange and wonderful dishes that float and crunch and explode and sing. And taste wonderful. Feran and his boys, and Quique, and Andoni do the same.....with the possible addition of psychedelics and South American stimulants.....and they all are missing some important neuro-transmitters.

Still, the New Crew's dishes are not just weird for weirdness' sake.

Melon caviar.....made from melons and moves the melon flavor out of the melon texture and lets it sit conveniently and visually strikingly next to a jamon iberico cracker thing that looks like Frank Gehry designed it..... and nestles next to a frozen lime oil shard of glass. Melon and prociutto....but more Famke Janssen then Bette Davis.

Or paper thin hibiscus brittle that catches the light like mother of pearl versions of the previously mentioned South American stimulants.....and shatters at a touch to fall on the pigeon breast......where its tangy bright crunch perfectly cuts the richness of the bird. Canard Montmorency, but more Robert Mapplethorpe than Yusef Karsh.

Or, how about a salad that is designed like a musical composition.....built to be eaten from the outside in to the center, with the flavors and textures changing ever so as the diner enters the piece. And the waiter pays attention to whether the diner is right-handed or left-handed and sets it down so the poor schmuck has a fighting chance at eating it properly.

Anyway, in America.....and especially in California....we are way downstream from these springs of creativity and study. Only David Kinch at Manresa wades in these waters. French Laundry? Exactly named. Rewashed, albeit perfectly presented, dishes from a hundred years ago. Plenty of bleach and starch, thank you very much.

Right now everyone is working on trying to make hot ice cream. Calcium alginate helps make a room temperature dish hold its form. Brendan has been making mango caviar and mango vermicelli to go with his ceviche lately using alginate.....and a Meyer lemon/dill/yuzu caviar for the smoked salmon....and a mignonette caviar for the oysters......but the mango ice cream won't stabilize when warmed. Yet.

Interestingly enough.....calcium alginate, which comes from local the main ingredient in K-Y jelly. That neatly ties in that whole Robert Mapplethorpe allusion, don't it!


Even us mondo/modern/weird guys can be taken aback. Witness: the genetic scientists have finally mapped out the entire genome of the Pinot Noir grape. (Well, the work was done in Italy so really it is the Pinot Nero that has been fully sequenced).

It develops....(for those of you who care......GEEKS!) that the two sets of chromosomes that make up the parent varieties of pinot noir are radically different from each other.....11.2%. This is far more variation then there is between apes and humans, for instance. I knew I liked Pinot with an element of viniferous bestiality involved....very sexy.

Anyway, there is guy in Florida....Dr. Dennis Gray....who is all aflutter. Florida has no wine grapes (well, ,one tenth of one percent of US grapes), and can barely grow muscatine table grapes. Dr. Gray is all set to change that. You see, now he can manipulate the genetic structure of Pinot Noir and introduce other components. Something to fight mildew, something to fight fungus, something to fight bacteria....Something to fight real estate developers, perhaps. Maybe slip a little gooseberry gene in there to raise the acidity....or a chocolate gene to generate that "chocolate box" aroma that Ben Edwards is so kooky about and spends all his money looking for in Burgundies.

Dr. Gray says the tree huggers have nothing to worry about. All the genetic manipulation will take place in the seeds, stems, roots and leaves.....the wine will be just fine for you. No, really.

My old friend Dr. Konstantin Frank is spinning in his grave right now.

Dr. Frank was the first guy to get vitis vinifera....European wine grow in the Eastern US. Native Amerian grapes are vitis labrusca, and are nice to eat but taste like crap in wine. Think Concord or Catawba. Mmmmm. The industry term for the off flavors is "foxy" in the Aesop fable "The Fox and the Grapes."

Doc Frank had a vineyard.....his son still runs Upstate New York. He had a living library of varietals from all over the world planted out back, and made wonderful Rieslings back in the 70's. We Piglets from L'Auberge would drive over and help out with the harvest, cutting, bottling....and especially.....drinking the wine.

Doc Frank was a character......a refugee from Hitler AND Stalin from somewhere Slavic. His wife was straight out of the fields of Byelorussia or some such....a true, wrinkled, hunched babushka complete with apron and scarf. He built a small farmhouse outside Watkins Glen, and gradually grew vineyards.

Doc taught us Piglets many lessons. To "Doc Frank" your glass at a wine tasting is to finish the previous wine and pour a tiny splash of the next one and swirl it around to clean the glass. Of course, there was no spitting: "Why should I make a wine for you to spit in a bucket?"

Doc Frank loved America. His standard monologue after a few bottles ran like this:

"Who lives.... in America.... in most BEAUTIFUL of houses?"


"Who has in.... America.... the most BEAUTIFUL of wifes?"


"Who can eat TURKEY every day of the week in America.....if he wants to?"


At the time, the wine geneticists were creating hybrids of European and American grape varieties....stuff like Baco Noir. The Doc thought this was horrifying. He was convinced that hybrids caused cancer....and these hybrids were not genetically engineered, just bred conventionally in nurseries...... not labs.

I once made the mistake of dropping by and asking if he knew where I could buy some Baco Noir grapes for my home wine project. The Doc became quickly enraged and literally grabbed me by the ear and dragged me out into the vineyard.

"Now you are in France! This is Chardonnay! This is Pinot Noir! This is no shit hybrid. This no cause cancer!"

Doc dragged me further into the vineyard.

"Now you are in Italy! This is Sangiovese! This is Pinot Grigio! This is no shit hybrid. Pinot Grigio no cause cancer!"

We continued on through Germany, Greece, the Ukraine, Switzerland,Portugal, Spain, Hungary......and on to countries I never considered to be wine countries.....all the while Doc kept the GI Joe Kung Fu grip on my ear and dragged me like a sack of flour, shouting all the while.

Doc had helped us make a batch of wine which was still in a big 500 gallon tank......Doc dragged me into the winery and, still shouting about hybrids and cancer.....opened the cock on the bottom of the tank and jumped back as all our wine poured out onto the winery floor. He stomped through the gathering lake of wine and actually kicked me in the ass and threw me off the property. My ear was swollen for a week.

Meanwhile, this week in news the Editors of The Economist.....being Europeans, and not overly focussed on Jamie Spears pregnancy.....have as its lead editorial the ramifications of the Pinot Noir genome sequencing: "Unleash The War on Terroir"......

I will not explain the joke.

The editors suggest that Dr. Gray and his crew in Florida not stop at disease resistant gene splicing for Pinot. Put Ben's chocolate gene in there, and the cassis.....and that hint of melon for the Viognier.......

(For the opposite genetic view, check Harold McGee's recent visit to Cornell's apple research vineyard......)

The editors then have a brilliant further inspiration......slip in a little willow bark gene for the acetylsaliccylic acid (aspirin) to get a jump on the hangover.....and take care of that heart prevention the doctor is always whining about at the same time. Caffeine could go in to keep the party going....and why not a little sildenafil (Viagra) to give it and the drinker a little body, and "prevent the ultimate wine-induced humiliation......."

The mere thought of it all makes my ear throb.......

I love you, Doc!


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