Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Simplicity, simplicity

While French and American haute cuisine has embrace a culture of complexity when it comes to food- reductions, confits, exotic ingredients, strange parts of an animal you didn't even know you could eat- there's been more than a few place that I've visited recently where what has prevailed is simplicity over engineering. Among them Momofuku Milk, Egg, Una Pizza Napolitana, and even 11 Madison Park, although the latter isn't as clear-cut as the others.

Momofuku is a dessert restaurant in the East Village that is part of the other Momofuku restaurants including Ssam bar (rated one of the top 50 restaurants in the world), Momofuku Noodle bar, and Ko. At Momofuku milk you have a wide range of desserts from cookies to cakes and pies, bread, milks, and if you're looking for savory, pork buns and beer. The kitchen is visible from the standing-only tables and the smell of sweet dough and cookies slowly baking is thick in the air. In the evening the line rivals that around Magnolia during the summer tourist season. The first two things I ever tried there set the tone for me and established it as my favorite dessert restaurant: cornflake and marshmallow cookie and cereal milk. I'd heard about this new trend that was happening among the pastry chefs in New York of incorporating breakfast flavors into desserts and breakfast being my favorite meal of the day, combined with a massive sweet tooth, this was heaven. The cereal milk was the remnants of a satisfactory bowl of Frosted Flakes and the cornflakes cookie was perfectly crispy around the edges and gooey and thick in the middle. They somehow manage to do this with all their cookies. But the cakes pushed it even further. Each is a three story affair with a distinctive identity- chocolate cake, chocolate chip cake, banana cake- but it's the small layer of filler in between each of the layers that demands to be heard. The banana cake, which my friends got, almost made me cry it was so good. The cake itself is soft and in between the layers of soft banana cake were gravelly sweet layers of cinnamon and brown sugar. This was repeated in the chocolate chip cake where layers of passion fruit offset the classic vanilla cake with chocolate chips embedded. Their most successful pie, though, is also one of the simplest things: crack pie, or just pie, the kind of pie people made when you couldn't afford to mix fruit and frills in with the butter and sugar mix. A sweet oat crust with a simple filling. Works every time. I could go on about their soft serve (last time I went they had Sour Gummy and Fireball as flavors) and the rest of their repertoire but I think the examples say it all. These are classic simple flavors reinvented within another very recognizable and accessible form. 

Egg is a variation on the idea of simplicity because unlike Momofuku Milk it doesn't strive to reinvent so much as excel. Their food is classic Southern cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients produced locally (like their cheddar cheese and brioche) or grown upstate. While their dinner crowd is still rather (thankfully) thin, their breakfast and brunch crowd waits almost an hour for a table in their narrow dining room. I hate waiting for table. It makes me irritable and generally makes me more aggressively critical of the food. But Egg although always a wait in the morning is entirely worthwhile. The Egg Rothko (brioche with an egg cooked inside a hole in the middle and smothered in cheddar cheese with a side of either meat or seasonal vegetables and some roasted tomato) and the Grits and Eggs (also with a side of either vegetables or meat) astound because of their precise, fresh flavors that are so simple their natural complexity is brought out. This is even true in the coffee they serve, always in a french press with lots of grounds, the coffee is very flavorful and rich, even thick if that can be achieved with french press. During lunch their half-pound, grass-fed beef burger is pretty much the best burger I've ever had. When you ask for medium rare that's what they give you and the seasoning of the meat complements it rather than overwhelming the flavor of the meat itself. Skip the french fries, though you probably won't be able to. Recently they've also started serving wine and beer. They stock some local brews including Brooklyn One which gives continuity to their philosophy of fresh and local. For dinner, the duck and dirty rice still haunts me, although I can't say they have the best corn bread (Peter's takes the award for that) butvtopped with kale it becomes something else. Their mac and cheese is excellent (anything with cheese you have a good shot with) as are their biscuits. You will never leave Egg hungry and you will never regret having a meal there. As one chef put it when asked how he taught his child to eat well, if he made a macaroni and cheese with four cheeses and bread crumbs, it may be more fattening that your out of the box M/C but the ingredients are real, it is more wholesome. That's Egg in a nutshell. Basically you know you're eating something good.

I've already discussed Una Pizza Napolitana in my previous posting so take a look, it's a similar idea to Egg's just boiled down even further.

As for Eleven Madison Park, you could almost say the simplicity of their food is relative. Relative to other restaurants of their caliber that use more complex ingredients and preparations (and I'm sure 11 MP does too in certain dishes) but their was a great deal of simplicity in a lot of the dishes. Slow-poached egg with asparagus was bright and interesting, the Atlantic Halibut tasted like halibut with lemon and capers, even the duck had a simple symphony of lavender, honey, and rhubarb to offset the fattiness, but the red, soft meat still stood out among the undertones. The best dessert was the Tahitian Vanilla Souffle with Passion Fruit that beat out the intensely chocolatey Symphony No. 2 and the Cherry Crumble (that one was interesting, the cherries were sour and intensely sweet, almost like candy except for the texture). But their were little things served aside that really stood out for me. A bite-sized roll of cucumber and salmon that simply jumped out at you, the cucumber wet and sweet with a blast of salmon flavor packed into a pink square one square inch in size. An olive and rosemary bread, smaller than a normal rolls, served with either goat's milk butter and unsalted cow's milk butter with salt on the side (the separation of the salt and butter made a huge difference in the flavor). And finally, these small cookies you get at the end, with a flaky crust and a half inch layer of creamy filling, with flavors ranging from rose to peanut butter and jelly, those two in particular being the stand outs of the crowd. They're very small and anything but one note. The rose in particular was complex and unexpected, sweet with a flavor you're not used to, unlike the violet that definitely tasted of chocolate. I can't even talk about the wine.

Flowers might seem like something you wouldn't categorize as "simple" but they're as simple as it gets. Like when you have breakfast for dessert, the difference is you're experiencing something familiar in a different way. This is the testimony of complex culinary experimentation but the foundation of that is simple, fresh ingredients with classic preparations that take something ordinary and push it further, done especially well when it's an almost obvious direction you wouldn't have expected it to go in.

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