News & Politics

Kliman Online: November 14, 2006

Happy at the Table and Restaurant Price Gouging, Volume I ...

Happy at the Table …

Michel Richard is so often praised for his inventiveness and whimsy as a chef (nor does his new and wonderfiul book, Happy in the Kitchen, dispel this perception of a playful mad scientist) that it’s easy to forget just how sturdy his cooking is – how well-made, how rooted in the basics, how full of depth.

And – how delicious.

A visit to Citronelle not long ago was a jolting reminder of the immense satisfactions his cooking can bring.

Case in point No. 1: a three-cheese souffle centered in a pool of cremini mushroom soup. This isn’t the prettiest dish on Richard’s menu – next to a creation called “Mosaic,” a technicolor plate of razor-thin slices of raw beef and fish that looks as though it was designed to hang on a wall, not do time on a plate – it looks downright stolid. But then you drag your spoon through the perfectly strained, velvety smooth ochre-colored liquid and take a taste, and are again reminded of the difference between very good cooking and great cooking.

One of the aims of great cooking is to take an ordinary ingredient, and make it taste more like itself  than you thought possible – in this instance, a mushroom more mushroomy than mushroom itself. The intensity is almost overwhelming – helped along by some intensely caramelized onions at the bottom of the bowl. The souffle, meanwhile, is so texturally light, it’s nearly insubstantial. You don’t chew it; it simply dissolves on the tongue. But it doesn’t go away cleanly; what lingers in the mouth is a flavor so rich and creamy, you’d swear you’d taken a huge bite out of a hunk of the ripest cheese.

Case in point No. 2: a breast of duck with a cinnamon and port wine sauce with duck confit. Lately, I’d begun to think I’ve grown tired of duck at high end restaurants. In truth, I have tired of dull preparations that simply aren’t worth the investment – dishes that either can’t deliver the almost gamy intensity that make duck so good, or are too afraid of it. This is a duck dish for duck lovers. The breast meat, served in inch-thick slices, was perhaps the single best piece of meat I’ve eaten all year, incomparably succulent, with such a deep, concentrated flavor that anybody looking to make a duck extract would be well served to take it with him into the lab. And the skin was so crispy, and so addictive, I found myself thinking a perverse thought: Richard ought to put his name and face to a brand of crispy duck skins – a sort of high-end, foodie version of fried pork rinds.

Somehow, I don’t think he’d be offended, because the man is positively fascinated by junk food. Of the two ways the Veal Two Ways is prepared, one is to turn a classic of French cooking, the braised veal cheek, into, of all things, a hilarious riff on KFC; it’s even sitting on a little pool of whipped potatoes. The inside is as soft and luscious and yielding as the outside is crunchy; the shattering sound in my mouth was so loud, I could have sworn they could hear me on the other side of the room.

Speaking of KFC … That’s the other aim of great cooking – at least among the best, most ambitious chefs in the country these days. And that’s to take something really fine and elegant and wink and nudge you to remember the trash culture you were brought up in.

The menu description doesn’t prepare you for all this, by the way – or for any of Richard’s other tricks, for that matter. Thanks to Alice Waters, a generation of chefs tells you everything you’re going to be getting in your dish. The result? A lot of dishes that read better than they taste. Richard, bless him, leaves more to the diner’s imagination.

Restaurant Price Gouging, Volume I …

The burger at Blue Duck Tavern. $25.
For a burger that costs as much as an entree, do you think they could spring for a side of the excellent duck-fat fries instead of a pile of boring old steak fries? It's a good burger; but it's not twenty-five bucks good. It’s also not Kobe, as the menu, and the staff, claims; it’s Wagyu.

Yellowtail nigiri at Oya. $8
Three pieces. Three. What are you supposed to do with three pieces? You can’t share them easily with your date, and it’s one piece too many for an individual serving. At eight bucks per order, you want to be sighing over the quality of the fish, not sighing over your willingness to be had.

Kumamoto oysters at IndeBleu. $16
Three bivalves. Three. To make matters worse, the oysters are topped with a lemon-lime sorbet that tastes like Mountain Dew.

Fennel and arugula salad at Agraria. $11
A salad. And a not-startlingly-fresh one, at that.

Sole meuniere at La Miche. $15 upcharge.
You have to supplement the $35 prix fixe dinner to get what tastes like fish cooked in a bag, with a side of canned mushrooms.

How about the rest of you?

Have you had a dish lately that made you feel cheap, used, taken advantage of? Dishes that made you shake your head in wonder and curse the moment you decided to go against your better instincts?

I’d love to add to the list …