Liza Gershman
Paul Canales' arroz negro
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Hits & Flops: November 2013

Carolyn Jung - November 2013

Ah, the best-laid schemes of mice and chefs go often awry. But sometimes the cooks get lucky.

Paul Canales, chef/owner
Duende, Oakland, California
“I grew up with Italian food. But a friend said, ‘You should do Spanish food. You’re always doing it and sneaking it onto the menu with an Italian name.’ Then, I was sitting in a park one day with John Zorn, a friend who is an avant-garde composer. He said, ‘I have the name for you: Duende.’ It was one of those moments where the curtain goes back, and I thought, of course, that’s the name! In folklore, duende is a naughty or nice nymph or gnome. It also is a mystical quality of when a performer is performing with complete abandon. Once I had all that, I thought, ‘This is for my dad,’ who is of Spanish Basque heritage. I knew I didn’t want to do Italian again. I had a great run with it, but creatively, I needed something else.”

They loved it!: Arroz negro. “We opened with this dish. I’ve been serving squid ink for 15 years. It was always an acquired taste, always a little challenging for people. I thought, ‘We’re not going to sell much of it.’ I thought it would never be a hit. Well, it’s a huge hit. Last night, we were super busy and sold more than 20. That’s like 40 people or more, which is a lot. We start with a sofrito and the rice, then add the squid ink that we get from Monterey Fish Market. It’s sweet, creamy, and oceanic without being fishy. We add rock fish and scallops, then scatter cherry tomatoes, aïoli, and a spicy sauce of hot peppers and lemon that’s emulsified with olive oil. It’s a really striking dish with the colors jumping off the black. Maybe people have evolved in the couple of years that I’ve been out of the kitchen. It really caught me by surprise.”

What do they know?!: Paella Valenciana. “We think of paella as this yellow hodgepodge of seafood and sausage. But that’s not really the classic one. It’s really rabbit and snails. I got beautiful rabbits from Jones Rabbit Farm, and I got these canned wild Burgundian snails cooked in a Burgundian court bouillon. They’re not even in the shell. It should have been a slam-dunk. The snails really freaked people out. It never took off. I’ve sold a lot of snails over the years, but I couldn’t sell this. I expected 20 to 30 orders a night. I got nine. I was crestfallen. I thought I’d always have a paella Valenciana on the menu like a pizza Margherita at an Italian restaurant. We kept it on only a week. I was scratching my head. I even put wild mushrooms in it, which should make anything sell. We garnished it with cipollini and an arugula salad on top. Maybe I need to sneak something into it that people need to have, like lobster. You have to admit defeat sometimes, but I haven’t yet with this. I may bring it back. I still have five cans of snails.”

Karen Akunowicz, executive chef
Myers+Chang, Boston
“We do Asian soul food. Some of it is influenced by co-owner Joanne Chang’s family and traditional Taiwanese dishes. Her husband, co-owner Christopher Myers, has a lot of influence, too. I definitely like to do more playful things. I love low, deep, funky flavors. We’re always going for a big punch of flavor. It’s what makes a dish craveable.”

They loved it!: Korean barbecue Sloppy Jo. “We had been talking about a sandwich. I was playing with using the focaccia dough that we get from Joanne’s Flour Bakery + Café in Cambridge. I had been making kimchi cucumbers at the time, and everyone was wild for them, so I thought we should use them in a dish. Because of the kimchi, I wanted to take a Korean approach to it, and I came up with bulgogi—grilled marinated beef shaved super thin. It tastes of soy, sugar, and spice. I put it on a focaccia roll, topped it with the kimchi cucumbers, and called it ‘Sloppy Jo.’ It’s a tongue-in-cheek reference to Joanne, which is funny because, if you’ve ever met Joanne, she’s one of the most statuesque and put-together women. We make potato chips out of Japanese white sweet potatoes, which fry up beautifully, and are dusted with a two-pepper salt. We are adamant in having our servers tell people that the chef would really love it if you put the potato chips in the sandwich. I think that’s how everybody should eat it. I thought we’d just bake 10 buns a day, and when we’re out, we’re out. But it developed a very devout cult following. We can’t take it off the menu. Every time I think we should change it up, my sous chef and I make one, taste it, and think, ‘Wow! This is really good.’ So, it gets to stay. Our kitchen is in the middle of the dining room. It’s one of those dishes where, as soon as guests see it come up on the pass, they look at me with a ‘What is that?’ expression, then say that they absolutely need to eat one.”

What do they know?!: Seafood stir-fry. “You toast vermicelli noodles, crumble them, and toss them in a wok with English peas, pea tendrils, squid, dried squid, and pickled mustard greens. You finish it with shaved bottarga, which gives it a little funkiness. It’s light, fresh, and green, and it looks beautiful on a plate. Before putting it on the menu, I ran it as a special on and off last spring, and people loved it. So this spring, I put it on the menu—and it didn’t sell. When something doesn’t sell, I change the name, move it elsewhere on the menu—highlight a different ingredient, or tell the servers to mention it. I’d gone through all those notions, and it still wasn’t a hit. We’d sell one or two a day. We’re a small restaurant, but we do big numbers, so that to me was definitely a flop. It breaks my heart. If you’ve done all you can and given it all the love you can, it’s just time to go in another direction. So, we’re going to try to reinvent it with lobster and roasted corn, while keeping the bottarga and vermicelli.”

Matt McCallister, chef/owner
FT33, Dallas
“The name of the restaurant is chef-speak for ‘Fire table 33’ when an expediter calls to a cook to start executing a dish. Table 33 is a counter-height table that faces the plating area for the kitchen. The whole kitchen is completely open to the dining room. It’s a very lively dining atmosphere. To me, the name reflects the fact that diners are coming along for the experience, that they’re part of the interaction of the kitchen.”

They loved it!: Smoked potatoes with maitake mushrooms, chile Kewpie mayo & savory herbs. “We change our menu all the time. This is the only dish that has stayed on since we opened. And I only made it up three days before that. We blanch small fingerling potatoes from local farms, then smoke them over cherry wood. We sear maitake mushrooms, add the potatoes to the pan with butter, lemon juice, and salt, and finish with a handful of fines herbes. It’s plated with Kewpie Japanese mayo that we spike with smoked paprika and lemon juice. It’s a great dish. On a Saturday night, we’ll get about 30 orders for it. A chef friend said it’s almost like eating meat. The maitakes have an earthy taste, and you have the smokiness of the potatoes. And we’re in Dallas, a meat-centric town.”

What do they know?!: Heirloom squash with coriander, brown butter & black olives. “We always have some vegetable-driven dishes on the menu. The previous one was pasta. Pastas always sell great, even with non-vegetarians. We did a summer squash agnolotti with fines herbes and shaved black truffles. It sold a ton. After that, we wanted to do a more intricate, composed dish. We went from selling 20 agnolotti a night to two of these squash dishes a night. It wasn’t a dish the guest got, and that sucked. I try not to make those. Sometimes, though, certain dishes just don’t take. This had several varieties of squash cut into rounds, then pan-seared until the exterior got crispy. We pureed sautéed tomato, more squash, and heirloom garlic, streaked it across the plate, and built the seared squash around it at random. I took pickled summer squashes, cut them into brunoise, then mixed them with caramelized Anaheim chiles to make a relish to put on top of the squash rounds. We made a brown butter sauce with black olives and dehydrated black olive powder. We took a spoonful of that and put it on the plate, then garnished it with coriander. There was a lot of stuff going on. It was a lot of preparation. We’re really a small kitchen. We can barely fit six people in here. The amount of space to hold our mise en place is fairly limited. If we’re not going through our product, it doesn’t make sense. We took it off after a week on the menu. But part of that dish—the seared squash—got converted into a new dish with scallops. So, it kind of worked out.”

Brooks Headley, executive pastry chef
Del Posto, New York City
“Going from a punk rock drummer to a pastry chef is pretty opposite. It happened by accident. I ended up getting my first kitchen job at an Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C., in 1999 and instantly loved it. I was a vegetarian then. With desserts, I didn’t have to deal with meat. You’re also taking flour, cream, eggs, and butter to create something that didn’t exist before. It’s like being in a band, especially a crappy punk band—and I mean that in the best of ways. You’re using the same bass and drums to create a song that didn’t exist before. So, there is sort of a link.”

They loved it!: Eggplant & chocolate. “It’s a very traditional dish from the Amalfi coast that’s been around forever. Typically, it’s fried breaded eggplant served with sheep’s milk ricotta, nuts, candied fruit, and chocolate. It’s sort of like eggplant Parmesan but sweet. It’s a gut-buster. Obviously, it sounds weird. We played around with it. We worked on it every day for nine months. Some versions were really disgusting. Others were just OK. What finally worked was when we grilled it with salt and olive oil on a George Foreman grill. We tossed it with honey, then made a flaky crostata dough that we layered the eggplant on, then brushed it with sugar and butter. When you bake it in the oven, it comes out as a luscious, pillowy tart that’s slightly sweet. We glazed it with a mixture of honey and white wine vinegar to give it a tarte Tatin feel. We tore pieces by hand so they were irregular shapes. So, if you were serving a four-top, each person’s would look slightly different. We topped it with sheep’s milk ricotta gelato studded with chocolate shards, kind of like stracciatella (Italian-style chocolate chip ice cream). At the table, it was finished with a chocolate sauce made with olive oil and seasoned with salt. We put it on the menu three years ago as the final dessert of a tasting menu. It was a risky move because it was on one of the most expensive tasting menus in New York City at the time. Maybe one person didn’t like it out of thousands who’ve had it. That was extremely exciting for all of us. I thought it would be on the tasting menu for only a week before we’d have to take it off for something more user-friendly. But it was on the menu for about a year. I loved the fact that people were so into it.”

What do they know?!: Beet creamsicle. “There’s this iconic Ukrainian diner in the East Village called Veselka. It’s open 24 hours a day. It’s a great place to go at 3 in the morning. They have borscht, both hot and cold. I was there and got the cold version. Borscht is sweet because it’s made with beets, but the rest of it is savory. I wondered if I could make a single-bite dessert that would have the same vibe. So I came up with a beet sorbet with crème fraîche gelato garnished with sweet Italian bread croutons and served in a mini sake cup. It was a pre-dessert. I’d never had much luck with beets in desserts before, but we decided to roast them in salt, then juice them, so they didn’t have that raw beet taste of dirt. It was going to be like a creamsicle. It was terrible. It really was. Beets are sweet, but they are so sweet that they require other savory components to balance them out. It becomes unpleasant. I think we made the best possible beet sorbet we could have made. But it did taste just like a sweet version of borscht, which is to say, not very good. We sent it out a few times last year. But we just kept tasting it and realizing more and more it didn’t work. I’d gone back and forth about beets over the years. I think this was the nail in the coffin. I’m 86ing beets in dessert forever now.”

Kevin Sbraga, chef/owner
Sbraga & The Fat Ham, Philadelphia

“The reason I went on Top Chef was to open my own restaurant. Winning Season 7 allowed me to do that. I wanted to create something that bridges casual and fine dining. It’s a little louder, the lights are a little lower, there are white tablecloths, and it’s prix-fixe. On opening night, we were 10 minutes from service when I started crying in front of the staff. It just meant a lot to me.”

They loved it!: Country-fried lobster tail with okra, sprouts & onion. “I need to open another restaurant just to sell this dish. It was the biggest hit ever. People still talk about it. People paid a surcharge for it, too. We always have one item on our $49 menu that has a supplement if someone wants something more expensive. I worked for a guy in Atlanta who did a fried lobster tail, so I decided to try it here. We dipped a blanched lobster tail in seasoned flour, then in buttermilk, then in flour again before deep-frying it. A lot of people don’t like okra, so we sliced it, seasoned it with salt and olive oil, then roasted it to keep the okra from getting slimy and allowing it to retain its bright green color. Shaved red onions mixed with pine nuts, Italian peppers, olive oil, and lemon juice were served underneath the okra and pureed onions. That dish broke all the rules. You never see deep-fried lobster. Then, on top of that, you add okra? And it’s a cold okra salad? It was one of our longest-running dishes—on the menu for six months—when usually we change the menu every six to nine weeks. I finally had to take it off to work on new dishes. We will be doing the country-fried lobster at my new place, The Fat Ham, but the portion will be a little bit smaller, and we’ll serve it with succotash instead of the okra salad. It was a huge hit for us, so it only makes sense to do it there.”

What do they know?!: Roasted lamb with Brussels sprouts, peanuts & corn porridge. “This dish, an option for the meat course on our four course prix-fixe menu last fall, was inspired by mole. I wanted to do a roasted leg of lamb with mole, but I didn’t want to cook mole. I think that may have been one of the issues with it. But I will fight for it to this day and say it was delicious. We took leg of lamb, studded it with garlic, added cumin, and cooked it on the plancha so some of the leg got crispy. We pulled the meat off the bone and shredded it. We cooked a puree of charred tomatoes, onion, garlic, cloves, black garlic, cumin, and guajillo chiles and chile de arbol in pork fat to get a lot of porkiness into it, with chicken stock added to bring it to sauce consistency. Finally, we added chocolate, toasted peanuts, and lime juice. The sauce was earthy, spicy, salty, and slightly sweet. The corn porridge was like grits but with cornmeal, sugar, salt, and butter. It was soft and creamy, and had corn folded into it. From where I stand in the kitchen, I can see every plate that comes back. I would see a third or half of it come back on the plate. With all of our food, people eat it all or take it home. They weren’t taking this home. It was humbling. I really liked this dish. My mouth is watering now, just thinking about it. I will try bringing it back. Maybe it will be with pork, though, and not as complicated. I like to revisit things. But you need to step away and forget about it for a while first.”