Keller & Keller
Jessica Scott's bourbon/pecan ice cream tart
magnify Click image to view more.

Hits & Flops May 2012

Irene Sax / May 2012

The customers are never wrong when they love your stuff. But when they don’t…well that’s a different story. Irene Sax samples chefs’ perspectives of the fickle public.

Jessica Scott pastry chef
Craigie on Main
Cambridge, Massachusetts
“When the restaurant was a 40 seat bistro on Harvard Square, it didn’t have a pastry chef. Tony Maws, the chef/owner, did all the desserts himself. He brought me on when he moved to Central Square and the kitchen got slightly bigger. We work together. Our focus has always been to have a seamless transition between courses."

They loved it!: Bourbon/pecan ice cream tart. “I made this for an annual pig dinner, a special event where Tony invites regulars and industry people to eat every piece of the pig. It was a challenge to come up with a porky dessert, but I did it and everyone was talking about it. The next day, it went on the menu, and it’s still there, our top-selling dessert. The crust is a basic chocolate tart dough that’s baked off, then put in the processor with bacon fat and candied pecans. It’s like a graham cracker crust that we roll out, put into tart rings and bake blind. We spread Bourbon-infused ice cream in the shell and top it with more candied pecans. We make a dark chocolate sauce, using smoked black Mexican salt, which reflects some of the smokiness of the bacon. When the pie is plated, we spread the sauce over it and drizzle some chopped pecans over the top. It’s a great example of a dessert that reflects the rest of the menu, because we’re known for all things pork. And, of course, you can’t go wrong with Bourbon, bacon, and chocolate.

What do they know?!: Blue cornmeal crêpe with anise hyssop–infused farmer cheese & blueberry compote. “This was a collaborative effort with Tony that we all were really excited about. He found a fresh farmer cheese at the market that he just loved, so we played with the idea of a crêpe dessert. We tried different grains and thought how cool it would be to use blue cornmeal. We decided to go with blueberries and to infuse the cheese with anise hyssop that we get fresh in the summer from Eva’s Garden, a local farm. I made the crêpes and rolled them around the cheese filling, spooning blueberry compote over the top and scattering that with fresh anise hyssop flowers. We brought it to the staff, and they went crazy. They thought it was really original and totally beautiful. But the guest feedback was that they expected something different: They heard crêpes and thought it should be warm. Dessert is the only course that you don’t have to eat, and people want something familiar, like warm apple pie, or something totally luxurious. This didn’t make it.”

Massimiliano Conti chef/co-owner
La Ciccia
San Francisco
“We specialize in Sardinian food. I do the cooking, and my wife, Lorella Degan, an adopted Sardinian from the Veneto, is the front of the house. This is our house; we spend all day here. La ciccia is slang for ‘baby fat’ or ‘spare tire’ because it also means ‘meat,’ although funnily enough, we’re mostly a seafood restaurant.”

They loved it!: Baby octopus stew in spicy tomato sauce (prupisceddu in umidu cun tomatiga). “You wouldn’t think octopus would be such a hit, but the customers love it. It starts with a sofrito of diced onions and garlic sautéed in olive oil. When it’s soft, we add the octopus and let it simmer with a little wine while it gives off its juices (an octopus is about 90 percent water). When that cooks down, we add canned tomatoes, a local California brand similar to Sardinian tomatoes, and some pepperoncini. It braises for two and a half hours, and when it’s very tender, it’s spooned into a bowl and finished with a little parsley and basil oil. When you stew something for a long time, it needs something to bring out the brightness. We serve a lot of unusual things, from sardines to tripe to chicken gizzards and tuna hearts. But 75 percent of our clientele, which includes a lot of chefs and winemakers, return time and again.”

What do they know?!: Sardines in extra-virgin olive oil & pecorino (sardella a schiscionera). “Something funny happens here. We try a dish as a special and, since customers think it’s only going to be available for a few days, they feel they need to get it. Then we put it on the menu and it sells 60 percent less. They think, ‘If it’s on the menu, we can come back for it tomorrow.’ That’s what happened with these sardines. The fresh sardines from Monterey are seasonal. There are only certain times of the year when they pass by the Monterey area, and when they do, we buy them. We fillet them and sauté them in extra-virgin olive oil with garlic, pepperoncini, parsley, and a little bit of fish stock. We top them with bread crumbs and grated pecorino and put them in a very hot oven for 30 to 40 seconds. Then we finish them with another drizzle of oil. People think it’s a rule that Italians never use cheese with fish, but this is a particular preparation from Sardinia that requires cheese. It’s good, and it sells, but only when it’s on special.”

Tim Maslow chef/co-owner
Strip-T’s
Watertown, Massachusetts
“My folks opened the restaurant in 1986, and I helped out in summers clearing plates and cleaning up. After I went to The French Culinary Institute, I worked at Momofuku with David Chang, then came back to Strip-T’s last April. Our vision changes every day; we’ve got a lot of talented people here with lots of good ideas.”

They loved it!: Buttermilk fried chicken. “I put this on the menu because I asked myself, ‘What can we have that someone else can cook so I can have a day off?’ and now it’s our signature dish. We start with a halal chicken that we break into 10 pieces and brine in a salt, sugar, and water solution to keep it moist. It’s breaded with flour, paprika, garlic powder, and white pepper, then shallow-fried in chicken fat on the stovetop until a really crisp and chewy crust builds up. When customers bite into a piece, the flavored oil comes out. There are two options for service. One is white grits cooked slowly with chicken stock, butter, and cheddar, then garnished with a chicken skin jus with a splash of Tabasco pepper sauce. Or they can have a buttermilk waffle served with maple syrup. Greens, of course. Each bird serves three, and half the people who order the chicken get the foot. It’s the only part we fry without breading and the skin resembles crackling. It’s like the spicy rice cakes at Momofuku, a really simple comfort food dish that we can’t take off the menu. Everyone loves it!”

What do they know?!: Roasted apple salad. “This is beautiful, seasonal, and delicious. A local magazine featured it, and we were all in love with it. But it didn’t sell, so we had to take it off the menu. It’s a warm salad of diced Granny and Honeycrisp apples tossed with diced corned beef tongue that’s roasted until brown and crisp. For the dressing, we made a broth with the tongue braising liquid that we clarified with an egg white raft and thickened with a puree of beets, lemon juice, butter, and salt. It made a velvety, brilliantly red sauce that the server poured over the apples and tongue tableside, sprinkling grated horseradish and little pieces of dill on top. We had it first on the specials, and the people who tried it loved it, but not too many tried it. Maybe it was an aversion to tongue, or perhaps to warm salads. Maybe the problem was that it was on the line between a small and large plate. You can’t win them all.”

Josh Lawler executive chef/co-owner
The Farm and Fisherman
Philadelphia
“We have 30 seats in a 19th century row house that used to be an antique store. It’s BYOB: People who come for the food often want to bring their own wine, feeling they can drink better for less that way. Sometimes they’ll share interesting bottles from table to table, and it becomes like a family out there.”

They loved it!: IPA braised pork cheeks. “Start by searing the cheeks, removing them from the pan, and then caramelizing diced carrots, celery, and onions in the same pan. Deglaze with red wine vinegar and bitter brown IPA beer, which has a lot of body. The two liquids make it lightly sweet-and-sour. Put the pork back in, add stock, and braise until tender. That takes about two hours— less than beef cheeks, but it still needs time. Each cheek is about the size of an extra-large egg, and the plate gets two, with a spoonful of the broth reduced to a glaze and some shaved apple. We serve it with polenta, too. It’s a great cold weather dish. At first, it was a hard sell because most people hadn’t tried cheeks. We change the menu daily, and when these go on they sell out.”

What do they know?!: Roasted celery heart with rice grits. “This is vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free, and we put it on our opening menu because we thought some customers would welcome it. But it just didn’t go. I’m still not sure why. To me, celery is an underappreciated vegetable. I cleaned and trimmed the roots and cut it about three inches up on the stalks. I cooked this sous-vide with olive oil and lemon thyme, then seared it in a hot pan, so it got beautifully caramelized. We served it with rice grits from Anson Mills, and that might have been another problem. People read ‘grits,’ and they think corn. This is made from American-grown rice that is broken up, so when it’s cooked in stock, it has a nice starchiness like risotto. We stirred in a puree of blanched parsley leaves so they turned a beautiful green. Some people appreciated it, but I’m afraid most thought, ‘Why would I want to eat a giant piece of celery?’”

Richard Knight & James Silk co-chefs/co-owners
Feast
Houston
“People have asked why on earth did we open a restaurant like this in Houston? But it’s turned out well. It’s an oil town, with people coming from all over the world and Americans who have traveled a lot. Plus, there’s an enormous Asian community here, who grew up the way we did in England, eating all the unusual parts of the animal. We’re very big with those guys.”

They loved it!: Pig’s ear cake. Knight: “That’s not normal, is it? The recipe came from James’ father, who knew the kind of thing we were doing. We tried it, and it was just OK, sort of mundane. Then I thought about it and adapted the recipe. We precook the pig’s ears in water with mirepoix for a couple of hours until they’re lovely and gelatinous. Then we make a cake batter, using olive oil instead of butter and not a lot of sugar, and fold in the cooled-and-diced pig’s ears, bacon, ham, cheese, bits of dried fruit, fresh rosemary, parsley, and mint. I bake it off in a loaf pan, and after it cools and is cut, you literally have a slice of cake. At service, we slather it with mustard and cheddar and put it under the broiler till it’s golden. Add some fresh apple chutney on the side, and people go crazy. There are only so many ears to a pig, so we save them up and do a batch about once a month. I’ll make three, and in two days they’re all gone.”

What do they know?!: Steak & kidney pie. Knight: “We’re going through this right now. Because we’re known for British food, people ask us all the time about steak and kidney pie, especially since we do a deviled kidney appetizer. Steak and kidney is a classic, isn’t it? And a pie is such a great way to use up the bits and pieces of the animal. We make a lovely crust with the beef fat, flour, pepper, and thyme for individual pies. We’ve done others with snails and brains, and a lamb shank pie with the bone sticking out of the crust, and the customers loved them. But this time, we braised diced beef chuck with kidneys, onions, herbs, mirepoix, and a bit of red wine until it made a lovely thick rich deep sauce that we covered with the flaky suet crust. It was fantastic, and America is a potpie nation isn’t it? No good. We Tweeted, we did the Facebook thing, but in the end, we maybe sold one.”