Jim Scherer
Cocoa-rubbed ostrich fan fillet over roasted summer vegetables and creamy fingerling potatoes.
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Hits & Flops November 2007

Irene Sax / November 2007

The yin and yang of creativity as counted by seven chefs' POS systems. Irene Sax chronicles how they view the mood swings of fickle clientele.

Don Letendre, executive chef
Elixir & Opus Bar, Opus Hotel
Vancouver, British Columbia
They loved it!: Crispy rice-coated barbecued pork belly bites with Asian slaw. “I make this for Opus Bar, where we serve small plates of mostly modern cuisine heavily influenced by my years in Japan. Cure a trimmed middle to end piece of pork belly 24 hours in a mixture of kosher salt, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, black peppercorns, Sichuan peppercorns, thyme, star anise, yellow mustard seeds, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, juniper berries, fresh ginger, caraway seeds, and garlic. Braise the meat in a Chinese master stock—chicken stock with soy sauce, rice wine, mirin, Demerara sugar, cardamom pods, star anise, coriander seeds, Sichuan peppercorns, orange peel, fresh ginger, dried red chile, and kaffir lime leaves—which gets stronger every time you add more meat. When the pork is cooked through and cooled, press it, and then cut it into nice bite-size cubes. Reheat the cubes in a glaze made from reduced master stock, then skewer, and coat them in milled rice flour that puffs up like Rice Krispies when roasted. You get crunchy rice with tender meat underneath. Serve with an Asian slaw made of daikon, radishes, carrots, and pickled onions dressed with a rice wine vinaigrette seasoned with preserved plums. It’s easy to eat, and it’s great with cocktails.”

What do they know?!: Crispy curried squid on a scallion/Korean shrimp pancake. “I thought this would be the ultimate beer snack, but for some reason it didn’t go. The idea came from a Korean sous chef at the restaurant, where I’ve been fortunate to hire cooks from many different ethnic backgrounds. Cut squares and then strips from large Humboldt squid, which swim up to Vancouver from the south. Toss them in flour seasoned with Japanese curry powder, which has a very bold distinct taste, not at all like Indian curry powder. Deep fry, and serve in a heap on a Korean pancake made from batter packed with scallions, chiles, and Korean shrimp.”

Joseba Jimenez de Jimenez, chef/owner
The Harvest Vine
They loved it!: Pulpo a la Gallega. “I actually didn’t think this would do very well, because people in the States are used to calamari but not octopus. But the customers really went for it. We serve small portions that are bigger than a tapa but smaller than an appetizer. First, boil water and put a wine cork in it for tradition, which claims it helps tenderize the octopus. Add the octopus and turn off the heat; when the water cools, take the octopus out. Bring the water back to a boil and drop in the octopus again; let it stand until cool. The third time, leave it in to cook 35 to 45 minutes. Now it’s tender. Cut it into pieces, and season with paprika, olive oil, and lemon juice. Serve with boiled yellow or red potatoes. It’s very classic—a very typical dish from Galicia in northern Spain.”

What do they know?!: Sesitos con ajete. “I’ve put tripe, kidneys, and liver on the menu, and they did all right, so I thought I could try brains. Nobody ordered them. This is again a very simple preparation. Clean lamb or pork brains (not cow because of mad cow disease) and then parboil them until they’re soft. Slice the cooled brains, coat with flour and egg, and pan-fry until crisp. Serve over a very simple sauce made with olive oil, garlic, lemon, and fresh parsley. When I could get someone to taste the dish they liked it, but they still wouldn’t order it.”

Daniel Bruce, chef
Meritage at the Boston Harbor Hotel
They loved it!: Cocoa-rubbed ostrich fan fillet over roasted summer vegetables & creamy fingerling potatoes. “The fan is the roundest of the four cuts of the ostrich wing, shaped like a beef tenderloin, and you need to cook it rare, because it has no internal fat. When it was first on the menu—I don’t remember the garnishes—the waiters couldn’t sell it. I thought, ‘Let me give it another chance with a different prep.’ Make a wine-friendly mole with cocoa, red wine, cardamom, cumin, and a touch of honey, and then roast the meat. Serve it rare, glazed with the mole, over baby zucchini, beets, turnips, and tiny Maine potatoes. The very first week, it became the second biggest seller on the menu, and it’s been on ever since.”

What do they know?!: Black pepper–crusted roasted Sonoma squab. “I can sell ostrich, rabbit, and kangaroo in this restaurant, but not squab, or at least not enough of them. I use fresh squab from California. Rub them with black pepper, pan-sear them, and then roast them to medium-rare. Serve with fresh fava beans and a Parmesan cheese risotto. It was gorgeous, but maybe I’d sell one a night. I suspect people thought that squab was the same bird as a street pigeon.”

Patrick Feury, chef/co-owner
Berwyn, Pennsylvania
They loved it!: Crunchy wild mushroom sushi roll. “This has been a huge success. People will order one, and then another. If it’s off the menu for a few days, I get calls asking if it’s back. To make the rolls, marinate fresh seasonal wild mushrooms—morels, chanterelles, or oak wood shiitakes—in sake, soy sauce, mirin, lemon juice, and dried kampyo gourd from Japan, so they get a nice spongy, tender texture. Then make an inside-out roll with the wild mushrooms, cucumber, rice, and sesame seeds. To serve, halve large wild mushrooms, deep-fry them in batter, and place them on top of the rolls so you get warmth and crunch and, inside the roll, the taste of the marinade. We have both Western and Asian dishes at Nectar, but we’re not fusion, we’re eclectic. You won’t find any wasabi mashed potatoes. I like to keep the classics separate.”

What do they know?!: Quince strudel with Époisses. “I can’t sell cheese at all. I don’t know what it is. They’ll eat the same number of calories in crème brûlée or chocolate cake, but they won’t order this wonderfully semi-savory dessert. Roll house-made pastry dough around cut-up quince, butter the top, and bake it like an apple strudel. Serve it with slices of Époisses from Burgundy. For a while, I thought it was the pungency of the Époisses they didn’t like and tried it with a Robiola from Italy, but even that didn’t go over. Food critics loved it, but I couldn’t give it away. My partner and I finally ate it all ourselves.”

Serge Madikians, chef
Serevan Restaurant
Amenia, New York
They loved it!: Branzino fillet with chickpea salad, cumin-scented hummus, dill/seafood broth & preserved lemon. “I created this at Chez es Saada in New York City. They loved it there, but I wasn’t sure if my customers in Amenia would understand the textures. Who knew? It took off like crazy. First, make the hummus by pureeing chickpeas with olive oil and seasoning with cumin. Then, make the chickpea salad by mixing chickpeas with black olives and fresh dill. Use mussel and clam juices to make a seafood broth, and emulsify preserved lemons with olive oil and saffron in the blender. For service, place the chickpea salad in the center of the plate and make a mound of hummus to the side, smearing it down with the back of a spoon. Sear a large fillet of branzino so the skin gets very crisp, and place it on top of the chickpeas. Ladle some broth over the top and drizzle with the preserved lemon emulsion for acidity. The colors are beautiful; in the summer I can’t take it off the menu.”

What do they know?!: Orange blossom panna cotta with heirloom tomatoes, pineapple soup & fresh pineapple sage. “I still think this was one of my best creations. Some adventurous people liked it a lot—more women than men—but most customers just didn’t get it. Make a panna cotta with half milk and half cream and a little orange blossom water; gelatinize it to the point where it just holds. When it has set, dip it in warm water and flip it out of its mold. Garnish with beautiful small heirloom tomatoes marinated in simple syrup to make them even sweeter. Serve with a chilled soup of pureed and strained pineapple, vanilla, and sugar on the side, and at the last minute add a chiffonade of pineapple sage. This dish was light and refreshing, but it didn’t go.”

Sai Viswanath, chef
DeWolf Tavern
Bristol, Rhode Island
They loved it!: Sweet potato gnocchi with cumin/Coca-Cola braised short ribs, toasted pecans & Maytag blue cheese. “I knew this would taste good, but I didn’t know if people would get the cumin and Coke. They loved it from the start. Mix cooked white and sweet potatoes with egg whites, salt, pepper, and flour. Cut into pieces, drop them into boiling water, cook them until they float, and set them aside. Sear the short ribs, then remove them from the pan; sauté onions, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, and cumin in the same pan until the onions are brown. Add Coca-Cola, red wine, veal and chicken stocks, and return the meat to the pan. Braise five hours. Then, while the liquid reduces, pull the meat, then return it to the pan with the sauce. At service, sauté the gnocchi, toss it with the pulled meat and sauce, and garnish the dish with toasted pecans and crumbled blue cheese. This dish echoes the Southern traditions of pulled pork and ham braised in Coke, plus it shows the two sides of my background. I grew up in India, but I think of myself as an American chef, and the Tavern is in an 1818 stone warehouse.”

What do they know?!: Cod/squash/buttermilk stew. “I still think this was a great idea. Squash is an end-of-summer vegetable, and buttermilk to me means lighter and cooler. Customers just didn’t get the buttermilk/fish combination, even though Rhode Island is known for its chowders. Sauté mustard seeds, chiles, onions, and fresh ginger in vegetable oil. Add grated coconut for sweetness, and buttermilk. Simmer 10 minutes, then ladle off some of the liquid for poaching the fish, and drop diced summer squash into the remaining broth. To serve, poach a cod fillet about 10 minutes, place it in a shallow bowl over basmati rice, and ladle the buttermilk broth and squash over the fish. South Indians like to eat their rice soft, a bit mushy, and the rice absorbs some of the liquid. I loved it. Maybe I’ll try it another time.”

Deborah Racicot, pastry chef
Gotham Bar and Grill
New York City
They loved it!: Frozen tiramisù. “This is basically an ice cream cake, and it really took off. I won’t say I was surprised, because my goal is always to make something that’s going to sell. Start by making two ice creams: Marsala and espresso. Then, bake a three-layer chocolate sponge cake. Cool it, and spread the ice creams between the layers. You wind up with a pretty tall cake. Cut it into squares and freeze. The dessert actually goes to the table frozen, topped with a big round tuile holding a quenelle of mascarpone whipped with Marsala and garnished with little scoops of mocha granita. They say that every­one’s tired of tiramisù, but this obviously spoke to people. Of course, it wasn’t a classic tiramisù. My take on food is that it’s continuously evolving, and you have to stay with the times.”

What do they know?!: Canta­loupe Charlotte. “One summer I did a cantaloupe dessert, standing bâtons of fresh melon upright in a cylinder placed in a shallow bowl. At pickup, pipe in a cream cheese mousse seasoned with vanilla; top it with a bit of melon and watermelon/raspberry soufflé. Remove the cylinder, and, at tableside, pour in a chilled canta­loupe/Sauternes soup with little melon balls. People who ordered it just loved it, but it never flew. It was the saddest thing in the world.”