Peter Taylor
Berenjenas la taberna at Curate in Asheville, NC.
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Hits & Flops November 2011

Irene Sax / November 2011

It's either "they got great taste" or "these guys don't know nuthin." You see, chefs never understand why one thing turns diners on and why another makes them hold their noses. Irene Sax checks in on five chefs' real-life reality show.

Katie Button chef/owner
Asheville, North Carolina
"We're a very traditional tapas place. Unless you've been to Spain, you might not know what this is; you might think it's just small plates. But we mostly serve very traditional dishes, like gambas al ajillo [shrimp with garlic], plus a few salads and desserts. Everything here comes from Spain and North Carolina or, now and then, California."

They loved it!: Berenjenas la taberna (fried eggplant drizzled with Wild Mountain Apiaries honey & garnished with rosemary). "This dish was a real surprise. Based on berenjenas con miel de caña, a traditional Spanish dish from Malaga, it's our number one seller and probably the most talked-about item, even though it's so incredibly simple. We peel and slice the eggplant and soak it overnight in milk to take away the bitterness. Upon service we pull it out, dust it lightly in flour, and swirl it in the deep fryer until it's golden brown. When it comes out, we drizzle it with an amazing local honey and sprinkle it with a combination of kosher salt, Maldon salt, and rosemary. I can't believe the comments I get from people. They want to know what the amazing batter is, and I'm almost embarrassed to say it's just flour. One guest asked me to create something with beets because he doesn't like beets and I had just converted him from hating eggplant. Someone else described it as ‘clouds from heaven.' A definite hit."

What do they know?!: Ensaladilla rusa (Spanish potato salad with carrots, hard-boiled eggs, Spanish bonito, piquillo peppers & peas). "This is another traditional dish, a classic that's found in every tapas bar in Spain, but it doesn't get ordered that often at Cúrate because many of our customers overlook ‘potato salad' on the menu. But when someone has it, we usually get comments that it's the best potato salad they ever ate. We make an amazing version in the restaurant with a homemade mayonnaise using extra-virgin Arbequina olive oil from California. The key is the way we cook the potatoes and carrots. We cut them up, vacuum-pack them with olive oil and salt, and simmer them sous-vide so they're cooked through but don't break apart. We add julienned piquillo peppers and flakes of bonito imported from Spain. The mayo is what makes it special—we cut the fruity, peppery olive oil with blended oil so it's not so pungent. One woman from Spain teared up when she ate it, saying it was just like her grandmother's. To me, that's the best compliment I could receive. Maybe very few people order the dish, but I will never take it off the menu."

Kevin Binkley chef/owner
Binkley's Restaurant
Cave Creek, Arizona
"Binkley's is a fine dining restaurant in a funky strip mall. When we started, we quickly ran out of capital, and this was the best location we could find in the area we wanted. So it's next door to the Foothills Food Bank and a few stores away from a car rental, but we're doing great business trying to take the stuffiness out of fine dining."

They loved it!: Sloppy Joe. "One thing we do at Binkley's is send out an amazing number of amuses, so when you order the six course tasting menu, you might get 15. This is where I get people to try different things, where I branch out with something bizarre and then bring them back with something familiar. Almost as a joke I made a sloppy Joe that was no bigger than a quarter, figuring everyone loves sloppy Joes. The brioche rolls were the size of a pea before they went in the oven. To go on them, we cooked veal, pork, and beef with brown sugar, red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, ketchup, onions, and Tabasco pepper sauce for an insane amount of time, until it almost caramelized. One teaspoonful went on the bun with a cornichon sliced lengthwise, so it hung out of both ends. I'm embarrassed to say this, but it's the one thing everyone who eats here remembers, the one thing we can't drop even though our menu changes every day. It's been so popular that when we opened our ‘little sister,' Cafe Bink, there was a full-sized sloppy Joe on the menu from day one."

What do they know?!: Black cod with salsify, clamshell mushrooms & baby leeks. "I thought this dish was super cool and interesting, but it made people uncomfortable because they didn't know what they were eating. They'd stick their forks in and wonder what they'd find under all the froth. We vacuum-packed a piece of black cod with butter and cooked it sous-vide at 103 degrees. In the bottom of a bowl, we spooned a little bit of an intense ginger, lemongrass, and mushroom broth and added braised salsify, clamshell mushrooms, and baby leeks. On top of the vegetables we set the perfectly cooked fish fillet. Then I added soy lecithin to the rest of the broth and aerated it with an immersion blender so it became super frothy. We spooned that over the fish, covering it so you could just see the off-white fish through the off-white froth. I thought the flavors were exceptional and got really excited about the presentation, but I forgot that not everyone is a chef. Our customers told us that eating it was like playing a guessing game. It made them nervous."

Brad McDonald executive chef
Colonie Restaurant
Brooklyn, New York
"It sounds odd when we're in the middle of Brooklyn, but we really try to use local produce as much as possible. I used to cook upstate, and the challenges there were the same as they are here on Atlantic Avenue. The biggest difference between country and city cooking is that I now have a shorter commute."

They loved it!: Pork & beans. "Frankly, I'm surprised at how well we sell a pork chop, because to me it doesn't seem to be as exciting as other parts of the pig. We call the plate pork & beans because with the brined, then grilled, chop we serve a fresh ‘cassoulet' made up of all the beans we can get our hands on. If it's in the market, we have it—wax beans, favas, cranberries, haricots verts—all of them tossed in shallot/mustard vinaigrette and finished with a healthy dose of fines herbes. Obviously, I hope that everything I put on the menu will be a hit, but this one surprised me. On the other hand, I make a lovely head cheese because we get half a hog a week and use it all up, not just the chops. I thought I'd be able to sell the head cheese because it really is delicious, but it's not going well."

What do they know?!: Heirloom squash soup served chilled with tempura blossoms & fresh goat's milk cheese. "We thought this would be phenomenal, and I'm still not sure why it isn't. I buy Gold Bar and 8 Ball squash at the farmers' market and cook them down with onions. When they're soft, we puree the mixture with garlic, then stir in whole yogurt, olive oil, and cayenne. It's chilled and garnished with squash blossoms that we stuff with fresh goat's milk cheese whipped with olive oil, fresh tarragon, and garlic. This is dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried, so the cheese warms through. The dish is a gorgeous bright yellow, and the contrast of hot and cold is perfect. I'm still trying to figure out the problem. It could be that we haven't come up with the right wording. I'm on the verge of calling it a gazpacho and seeing if that makes a difference—squash gazpacho maybe. Or the problem could be the menu placement. We have distinct sections like Meat, Crostini, Small Plates, Vegetables, and so forth. Right now the soup is under Vegetables and maybe it should go under Small Plates. I'm going to keep trying [until the end of squash season]. I haven't given up."

Hedy Goldsmith pastry chef
Michael's Genuine Food & Drink
"Miami is a very tourist-driven city. We get people from all over the world, many of them deep in the tradition of classic European pastry. They're willing to take a risk on a local fish or vegetable that they don't know, but when it comes to dessert, they want their comfort foods—their caramel, flan, and dulce de leche."

They loved it!: Smoked chocolate cream pie with wood-roasted peaches & house-made cream soda float with Bourbon & blackberries. "I knew this had everything—chocolate, fresh fruit, and a bubbly foamy drink—but I was worried that customers would be put off by the smoked chocolate. In fact, they loved its slight tobacco flavor and couldn't get enough of it. I put bittersweet chocolate in the smoker for 20 to 25 minutes at a very low temperature so it doesn't melt. I make a very rich chocolate filling with cocoa powder, eggs, vanilla, sugar, and heavy cream, and when it comes off the heat, I stir in the dark smoked chocolate. This is poured into a pâte sucrée tart shell and covered with sliced peaches roasted with maple syrup, brown sugar, vanilla, and Bourbon. For the ‘float,' I cook down a rich vanilla bean/agave syrup, put it in a glass with fresh berries, and then spritz in cold sparkling water. At the last minute I float on a layer of Bourbon. We also make passion fruit and mango sodas, but this one is like a very adult cream soda."

What do they know?!: French butter pear/black walnut/Roquefort tart with black licorice gelato. "Nothing seemed scary to me—just a classic pâte brisée crust covered with black walnut frangipane, a second layer of salty Roquefort, and then a layer of glazed quartered pears. To the side, creamy and almost savory black licorice gelato. Whenever I sent it out, people loved it, but it didn't get ordered off the menu. I've thought a lot about why this was so. At first, I thought it might be the licorice, but the curveball, I think, was the Roquefort. I came to the conclusion that people thought it sounded too salty and savory to be a dessert. I tried to sell it as a cheese/dessert thing—which is, after all, a classic—but they couldn't get past the fact that it was a pie. My regular customers trust my judgment and will embrace bold tastes and new combinations, and the servers did their best. Generally, servers can make or break a dessert. Ours are very sophisticated and have tasted everything. They loved it, but it just didn't go."

Andy Ricker chef/owner
Pok Pok
Portland, Oregon
"Pok Pok is based on a Thai suan ahaan, or ‘food garden.' These are roadside restaurants with outdoor and maybe indoor air-conditioned seating areas and several cooking areas. We have a charcoal cooking area outside, an area for mortar-and-pestle–made dishes, and a larger upstairs kitchen, where the other half of the menu is produced.

They loved it!: Ike's Vietnamese fish sauce wings. "This is, without question, the most popular thing on our menu. We marinate natural fresh chicken wings in a simple brine of water, fish sauce, sugar, and garlic. They're then deep-fried and coated with a caramel made with the same ingredients but in different proportions, with more sugar and salt, so they develop a kind of shellac of ultra flavorful caramel. There's also a spicy version, which has hot sauce mixed in. Is it an appetizer? If you had a whole plate of them, you'd be pretty full, but in Vietnam it's considered a drinking food. I had them there at a bia hoi stand, where they sell the fresh beer that's delivered daily, a weak lager that goes for a few cents a liter. The wings were very simple and delicious, but I had no idea they would do so well in the States. We put them on the menu when we opened and went from selling 50 pounds a week to 2,700 pounds. It's just crazy—a no-brainer."

What do they know?!: Kaeng jeut. "I shouldn't be surprised, because the name means ‘bland soup.' I love it, and I thought it would do well because some customers complain about how spicy our food is. I figured this would give them an option: If you're scared of heat, you can use this soup as a foil. But whenever I put it on the menu, it underperforms. In Thailand, it's an integral part of the meal, because you're not going to eat only spicy stuff; you want variety. There are lots of versions, but ours starts with a really nice chicken broth and has different stuff floating in it, like ground pork, egg, tofu, and black wood ear mushrooms, or fried garlic, oyster mushrooms, and water spinach, or pork ribs, glass noodles, and Chinese celery. I keep changing it up, trying to get it right. I keep trying, probably because I'm stubborn."