I went scavenging for a beer in my father's fridge the other day and made a shocking discovery. The man had a free-range chicken sitting there, right next to the arugula. This is a man who grew up in small-town North Carolina thinking gizzards are gourmet, who even today takes his lunch to work in an empty bread bag (the same empty bread bag)--a lunch most often consisting of a half-gnawed pork chop and a biscuit pilfered from Mama Dip's. But he knows his arugula from his radicchio. How did this happen?
You've got to wonder how professional chefs can compete when the gourmet food world is closing in on us. Weekly farmers' markets throughout the Triangle boast heirloom tomatoes and just-stretched mozzarella; the local Teeter carries sashimi-grade tuna; you can't drive five miles without running into an Asian or Hispanic specialty market; and we all know someone who can quote from Kitchen Confidential. Of course, the restaurants know we're learning their secrets. So they up the ante. I'll see your six-burner gas-top range and raise you a thousand-pound wood-burning grill. Hmm. With a warming drawer, you say? Well ... how about this laboratory-grade water bath? Or some liquid nitrogen? Try that at home.
When every other kitchen in Brier Creek is installing a custom-color Wolf range, when your dad can sear a pork belly just as well as the next guy, why go out at all?Part 1: Get playful
It's 6:30 on a Sunday night. So here I am driving around Durham with my husband and two best friends to the newest cuisine hotspot in the Triangle. I have directions, but they're a little vague, and it's not like I can pull over at the Citgo and ask--it's just some guy's apartment. The chef and I have e-mailed back and forth, never talked. This is all very clandestine.
And you know what? We're sitting in the car positively giggling. All of us in our mid-30s, with important jobs and (to quote Don DeLillo) important hair. When was the last time we felt this silly? Maybe that night we said "Let's drive to the beach!" and actually did it. But that was a decade ago.
Tonight I feel like I should be wearing a flapper dress, getting ready to whisper the password in the peephole of a speakeasy. So you want the password? Z Kitchen. "Have you heard of Z Kitchen?" you'll say tomorrow at the water cooler. It might be the newest rage. In Durham, in our own backyard, a college student (barely 20) is holding underground private dining "experiences." It's compelling in its mystery: You go to the Web site, e-mail the chef, and if you make the cut, he e-mails back. He has no permit on the wall, no sign out front; it's just a run-down apartment building with a wunderkind inside.
Oh, and a kitchen full of laboratory equipment.
The first thing I see upon entering is the fluorescent glow of an Aerogarden--a white, toaster-sized aeroponic herb grower--over on a side table. Most 20-year-olds with grow lights are cultivating illegal substances. Bryan Zupon grows baby lettuce.
The apartment is sparse but clean, and a four-top is set sweetly with restaurant-white china and a heavy iron candelabra. Mood music is on, and as Zupon introduces himself, he rattles off the playlist for the evening. I nod encouragingly. I've heard of exactly one band.
I get a tour of the narrow kitchen, and it's so classically collegiate with its dingy dark cabinets and ancient electric range, I have a sudden flashback to blind dates and keg lines. But this is no college student's kitchen. Snubbing the range, Zupon has brought in his own high-tech hot plate: "This induction ring cooks via magnets--the magnet causes the molecules in the metal to move fast, which generates heat." It's much more controllable than the stubborn electric cook top, it's safer, and it's very portable. He does last-minute roasting and broiling with a souped-up toaster oven, and in the far corner sits the pièce de résistance: the laboratory water bath.
It is in this bath that Zupon cooks sous vide, which, as he explains, means "cooked under a vacuum at the exact temperature that you want the meat to be done for extended periods of time." (Essentially, whatever you want to cook is sealed with a vacuum saver--As Seen on TV!--and dropped in about four gallons of water.) Zupon cooks a pork belly sous vide for up to 48 hours; for our pork tenderloin tonight, he immersed it at 140 degrees for four hours. I'm scrolling desperately through my brain for all the research I've done on sous vide: Isn't it supposed to be 146 for pork? Or 148? (Zupon assures me trichinosis dies at 135. But what if it's a hearty strain???) After the pork is cooked, he will take it out of the bag and "sear it to create the golden crust that everyone is used to, and then from there you'll have even doneness and juiciness and porkiness all the way through."
Cooking sous vide (French for "under vacuum," pronounced "sue vee(d)") was founded in 1974 in France, and popularized by Ferran Adrià at his legendary El Bulli in Spain in the early 1990s. (Adrià is known as a maverick molecular gastronomist who famously created a chicken curry in which the sauce was solid and the chicken liquid.) In the past few years it's been adopted by, among others, Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York, Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, and Citronelle in Washington (where the unsavory Katherine Harris recently had a reported $2,800 lunch with tarnished defense contractor Mitchell Wade: Did she know her salmon was likely vacuum-packed?).
Sous vide machines cost $3,000 to $6,000; thermal circulators start at $1,200. You can cook nearly anything sous vide, from a slice of tomato to a lamb shank. Thomas Keller uses it to give a watermelon chunk the crunch and consistency of an apple. With sous vide, "more than anything, the vegetables and the proteins taste remarkably more like themselves," Dan Barber, the chef and owner of Blue Hill in New York, told The New York Times Magazine. "When it comes to things like artichokes, steaming and boiling and braising are fine, but there's a great loss of liquid as it cooks--which is another way of saying a great loss of flavor because the juice of the artichoke itself, while mostly water, is very flavorful. Sous vide eliminates this loss, and hence the sensation that you're tasting a true artichoke--not just a delicious artichoke, but an artichoke the way it was intended to taste."
Chefs around the country, hunting for new methods, are finding unusual ways to impart the very essence of flavor using chemistry and physics by examining ingredients at the molecular level. It's called hypermodern cuisine, and it's very avant garde. You can think yourself dizzy with the postmodern dilemmas: If a watermelon has the texture of an apple, is it still a watermelon? If your tenderloin is plunked in a bath of water, and your chef sets a dial and walks away for six hours, who is really cooking your food? (Where's the sizzle, the clink of the pan? Where's the expert judgment?) Finally, and possibly most disturbing, if a food is altered with precise chemical ratios, is it still the same food? At what point does an emulsifier or enzyme change a food into something not itself? Chris Jackson, chef de cuisine at Raleigh's new restaurant 18 Seaboard, worked with four-star chefs David Bouley and Gray Kunz in New York and knows well El Bulli's chemistry experiments: "All their little caviar balls are '10.4 grams alginate, 2.8 grams citrate, 500 grams of water.' I did a lot of that at Bouley; it's very innovative, and he does a lot of chemicals, lecithin and alginate. ... Some people are going crazy and not doing food anymore."
Maybe it's best not to think about it. Yield to your Id. Hypermodern cuisine is fun and becoming popular. Chicago is falling for it hard. Tru, Trio, Alinea, Moto (where you can eat your menu), all these restaurants have come out in the last few years and are selling $100 a person prix fixe with dishes like "parsnip and graham cracker" (Alinea); "tapioca of roses" (Trio); and my favorite, "synthetic champagne prepared by you" (Moto). Yet your fun need not be a plane flight away; innovation is creeping southward. Richard Blais is shocking Atlanta with One Midtown Kitchen, using liquid nitrogen to make mustard ice cream, tableside. Sean Brock, formerly of the Capitol Grille in Nashville, now at McCrady's in Charleston, has studied at Tru and Trio and staged with Ferran Adrià's team at El Bulli. Brock prefers "very simple food, with maybe only two or three separate flavors, but using the most avant-garde techniques."
Speaking of fun, Wylie Dufresne at New York's WD-50 is one of the great pioneers of the movement--and you've got to believe he's having a ball. His dishes look plastic-y, almost pornographic--ovoids and spheres and bloody smears of reduction. If it sounds like it belongs in a witch's brew, it's at WD-50: essence of a pea, foam of a carrot. For $15 you can have the "pickled beef tongue/ fried mayonnaise/ onion streusel"; for $16 you can try "sake-pinenut gazpacho/ oysters/ cherries/ coffee oil." Strange? Yes. But I bet it tastes pretty good; honestly, could he afford rent on the Lower East Side if it didn't?
I am relieved to find that Bryan Zupon's food also tastes good. He is a self-professed disciple of Wylie Dufresne, though he's never worked in a professional kitchen and claims to have no aspirations beyond Z Kitchen (in the food world, that is; he's pre-law in the real world). An autodidact, he reads about food voraciously and chats on eGullet. One night last year, on a college student's budget, he and his girlfriend flew to Chicago to eat just one meal at Alinea. He credits his mother, of Japanese origin, with making him aware of the purity of flavor and the importance of presentation. As our clandestine dinner party progresses, this becomes evident.
In the spirit of intellectual cooking, Zupon's ingredients are utilitarian as well as tasty. The amuse bouche course, a beet square topped by Fourme d'Ambert blue cheese and a one-inch baby lettuce leaf, arrives on an oversized spoon. To keep the spoon from moving around on the plate, he's placed a dot of orange blossom honey underneath. This little surprise contrasts beautifully with the pickled beet and tart salty cheese. My bouche is duly amused.
The second of six courses arrives, fried béchamel croqueta with Nueske bacon on piquillo pepper aioli. It doesn't qualify for avant-garde status but it's a deeply satisfying mouthful: The texture is exceedingly creamy, and with the aioli it evokes a spicy bacon biscuit. Next comes the most whimsical of combinations, a riff on your rainy-day grilled-cheese-and-Campbell's: a tiny zen-like bowl of corn-colored soup is a completely liquid essence of corn, not a kernel to be seen; a credit-card-sized ham and truffle-cheese grilled panino is perfectly earthy and salty; and, almost as an afterthought, a single three-inch baby corn cob is stir-fried in soy for a few seconds and presented on a miniature skewer. (Chef Dufresne, eat your heart out.) Zupon shares his inspiration: "It's a take on something I used to eat a lot when I traveled in Japan, and something that I really associate with Japan. At the base of all the big shrines and temples, they have these men grilling corn on the side of the street, and instead of maybe butter or Old Bay that you'd see in the states, in Japan it's [cooked in] a soy sauce blend."
It's easy to forget we're in a private apartment, as we four lapse into our usual dinnertime banter. And it's easy to forget that it's a one-man operation, as Zupon cooks each course, plates it, and introduces it with the aplomb of a head waiter. Of course, at one point, we're reminded where we are: "The restroom? OK, you're going to go down the hall ... um, into my bedroom ... and turn left. It's a better bet than my roommate's."
The two entrée courses, a squid "tube" stuffed with braised short rib and drizzled with garlic cream sauce, and the pork tenderloin cooked sous vide with roasted fruits, are both solidly good, though they do not impart as complex a flavor as the croqueta and the soup/panino. The short rib tastes like, well, nice meaty short rib, while the squid provides a contrast in texture: it acts as a sausage-like casing and gives a clever pop in the mouth. (The pairing looks cute, too, rather like a pig-in-a-blanket.) The pork is the only disappointment: though juicy (and, thank god, cooked through), it's nearly flavorless with the presentation too understated, sitting atop a bland miso-potato puree.
The night ends with more roasted fruits and a spectacular chocolate-hazelnut foam (really just an airy mousse) piped via a nitrous can. We've had a very good dinner, a wildly fun time, and gotten to observe a young gourmand stretching his legs, for a reasonable price (secret, of course). I'd say that's the best underground deal in town.Part 2: Get naked
Is the Triangle ready for full-scale hypermodern cuisine?
"If I put together an entire menu of foams and froths and vapors..." laughs Jason Smith, chef-proprietor of Raleigh's new restaurant off Peace Street, 18 Seaboard. "I'm trying to fill 200 seats a night, and I'll freak everybody out and they'll never come back again. We're taking baby steps."
Smith's grilled-watermelon-and-shrimp skewer box appetizer is one baby step. "The presentation is fun. A lot of people walk into this restaurant and think, oh my god this is fine dining, and then all of a sudden they get a cool, funky appetizer like that and then they start having fun. They get white peach sangria and grilled watermelon skewer box and they're like, man, this place is kind of laid-back, and then they realize, I can get a great grilled piece of seafood or steak for less than $20."
We all like to control our environments, especially at the table. My 3-year-old likes to make his PBJ "by myself." My 1-year-old rejects the proferred spoon, insists on placing in her mouth one pea at a time, by herself. And well, for me, there's nothing better than picking out my own vegetable platter at Shatley Springs, the best home-cooking spot in the Blue Ridge. The meat-and-two has always been a staple of family-style, Southern cooking. Now it's entered the realm of fine dining, and judging by the way Bin 54 in Chapel Hill and 18 Seaboard in Raleigh are booking reservations, it's here to stay. The recipe is clear: Present pure, naked ingredients and let the customer decide how to arrange them.
Bin 54 lives by this. Owner Georgios Bakatsias, Durham's sweetheart restaurateur, founder of Vin Rouge and Parizade among others, headlines his Web site thusly: "Excellence is the respect of the perfect ingredient--naked." Bakatsias has adopted the classic steakhouse style that works so well for Sullivan's and Ruth's Chris, but he's added creative, modern sides to complement your prime protein. Even the menu conveys the contemporary mood, with delicately prepared appetizers written simply, staccato: "Gravlax/ crostini/ honey/ dill/ Dijon."
For the entrée course, you pick your steak or fish, "cooked low and slow" over hickory, says Doug Snyder, Bin 54's general manager, and then pair your own sides. This method can quickly run up your tab, but at Bin 54 it's worth it: Chef Andrew Bales' sweet potato puree is so creamy and fundamental that it gives a quiet nod to avant-garde froths; the wild mushroom ragout is such a savory dish on its own, forget the steak; and the white cheddar jalapeno polenta is so well seasoned it's really a vegetarian entrée disguised as a side. The trio makes for a perfect palette of minimalism: white-on-white china with bursts of pure color.
18 Seaboard is following the same naked-food trend with a bit less expense, though Jason Smith has seen what restaurants can do with pure ingredients when allowed carte blanche by their diners. Smith worked at Gramercy Tavern in New York "before the dot-com bubble burst." He remembers, "They actually had a truffle menu that was $280. It was crazy because the kitchen just smelled like truffles. They were selling like 15, 20 of them every night. Big giant truffles going out of the kitchen every night." Here, in Raleigh, that's not going to happen anytime soon. Smith knows his audience. "The people that I'm feeding from downtown, a lot of them are young professionals, work a lot, live in these condos. They walk over. Sunday through Thursday, 10 people from Pilot Mill are in here a night. I probably have 60 people from Mordecai a week. ... Oakwood same way. I'm trying to give a good experience at a good price, and make it nice enough for a special occasion, but priced so that you come here Tuesday night for a nice dinner."
Any hypermodern secrets in his laboratory? "The Vita-Prep, that's our luxury item. It's a very high-powered blender that has a huge amount of rotation, and it can basically mix things into a very smooth and very interesting consistency." But there are "a lot of luxuries we don't have. That kitchen is a quarter of the cost of JK's or NELSONS or Savannah. All those kitchens are $300,000 to $600,000. That's a $75,000 kitchen. ... I have 16 burners, the wood-fire grill, some refrigeration, and a tiny little walk-in that's packed to the gills."
Smith's wood-fire grill is a mountain-man's version of sous vide. Just as cooking sous vide compresses flavor into food, the 1,000-pound stainless steel behemoth in 18 Seaboard's kitchen does the same with a lot more heat--and fanfare. "One of the things that definitely has helped our business is the wood-fire grill." It's a new invention, super-insulated. "Ninety-eight percent of the heat goes up through the grates [so] it concentrates the flavor. It puts a great flavor on the food. We use 80 percent white oak [since] that's the smoke flavor most native North Carolinians have eaten all their life, and we use 20 percent hickory."
Well, I don't know whether it was the hickory or the white oak, but the Atlantic salmon and the 24-hour marinated flat iron steak at 18 Seaboard are fantastic--just the best, simplest, woodsiest grilled dishes I've had in years. And two sides and a dipping sauce are included in the price ($16 for the salmon, $17 for the steak). I'd recommend the very naked spinach and the goat-cheese smashed red potatoes, with the balsamic blue cheese glaze if you order the steak.
To finish your evening at 18 Seaboard, I implore you to yield to your Id once more. Somewhere on the dessert menu you will find a mint-pineapple soup. I know--you really wanted the peanut butter cheesecake. But this soup is extraordinary. In the center sits a mold of slightly sweet basil panna cotta. Between the mint and the basil, you'll feel like you've tripped and landed head-first in your grandmother's herb garden, rolling around like a tabby in catnip.Part 3: Get more
If avant-garde cuisine does catch on at local favorites like Magnolia Grill or Bloomsbury Bistro, it will likely be through slow transition, a dish here and there, like Smith's mint-pineapple soup offered amid such traditional fare as buttermilk pie and chocolate cake. Or it will come as an appetizer perhaps, like the capricious tomato-watermelon salad at Crook's Corner (the red chunks are seeded and cut so you can't tell which is which: you just close your eyes and gamble. So postmodern).
But there is a speedier way to educate the senses and transition the taste buds. One word: tapas.
Small plates, known in Spain as tapas, are sweeping the Triangle. It seems an obvious choice: more dishes for the same money, more tastes for our mouths to savor. Riviera Resto is the newest example in Raleigh, though Enoteca Vin has been doing it with great success for half a decade now. Our palates have learned much from Vin's Ashley Christensen, not least of which is that you can order tasting bowls of pure olive oil much as you'd order a flight of chardonnays, and that you can actually discern the difference. (While we're talking pure tastes, who doesn't love that at Vin you can get an appetizer of all-anchovies in case the salt on your double-fried super-skinny pommes frites wasn't enough?)
If you start counting, you can find an almost alarming number of tapas bars in about a 10-block radius of downtown Raleigh--does no one eat dinner anymore? Aside from Riviera and Vin, there's Blue Martini, Zely & Ritz, Red Room, Underground, april & george--and Humble Pie, which is so good it really puts the rest to shame. (Jason Smith counts Humble Pie as one of his top two restaurants in the Triangle, the other being the underrated Duck and Dumpling.)
Despite the apparent competition from nearby Tapas Alley (ahem, Glenwood South), Riviera's take on Mediterranean cuisine is off to a quick start. Located on Wilmington near the Fayetteville Street Mall restoration (just across from Christensen's newest tasty venture, the Raleigh Times Bar), Riviera serves both small plates and standard appetizer-entrée couplings. You can't go wrong with either option: A superb meal could be had equally with three small plates--say, the cauliflower soup with black truffle puree (a perfect, essential rendering of flavor), the pommes frites (a lovely take on the simple fry) and the torchon of foie gras (well, you need a protein)--or with an appetizer-entrée pair like marinated olives and quail paella.
With all of this Spanish influence, what does Riviera chef Steve Pexton think of the Spaniards at El Bulli? "Mad scientists!" And experimental, hypermodern techniques? "I've done them in the past, it's nothing I've done yet here. But we're only three months in."
Pexton is acting a bit coy about being new, playing it safe. He may not be freezing pumpkin juice with liquid nitrogen but he can be a bit of a mad scientist himself. When he was at the Cardinal Club, he became well known for wine dinners. "Every new guy would come along with a challenge, and one vendor wanted to do South African wines and keep it true to South African flavor. It dawned on me all the different game that are in Africa." So he found ... lion. "The cut came in as a rib eye, so I just boned that out and then seasoned it and smoked it with cumin seeds. ... It kind of tastes like sweet pork."
Riviera will start doing wine dinners in the next month or so. They will be in the stylish old-brick basement, which seats up to 48 people. But you don't have to wait for a wine dinner to increase your gastronomic breadth. Pexton will be throwing in exotic specials every weekend.
"I did kangaroo here a couple of weeks ago and it went over well. We may have ostrich in this week," he says. "We've had wild boar already, last week we did a venison flank. I try to look for exotic games first, obscure things that people either don't know how to work with or that they're afraid of."
Are those selling as well as other specials? "Oh my god, they sell like crazy. I think we sold 15 kangaroos in the first hour we were open." Normally they're sold out by end of day Friday, so go early if you want to impress your date.
I learned a good lesson this summer, not long after the chicken-in-the-fridge incident. I spent three days in the clean mountain air with my son and my father--three generations of Southern eaters. When it came to food shopping, I yielded not to my Id on this trip but to my Superego--that is, to dad. It's his cabin, after all.
And thus we found ourselves on the wooded front porch every afternoon lunching on salted tomatoes, corn on the cob, lima beans, and biscuits with sourwood honey (veggies and honey from a roadside farmer; biscuits pilfered from Shatley Springs). My 3-year-old loved it. OK, part of it was he got to throw everybody's corn cobs off the porch. But I think the other part was just the joy of eating food so simple. It was naked food, not like they do in Chicago, but like most of us do at home. It's just that now, we can get it when we go out, too--prepared in a way that we never could.