Last year, I got to know the folks over at a razor, a shiny knife a little bit. They are renowned for their “black parties,” where they use molecular gastronomy chemicals to deconstruct, manipulate and restructure flavored liquids into foodlike textures, always black. What does this do? It takes food apart, separates flavor from texture and color, and reassembles it in a way that a diner doesn’t recognize. Now, I haven’t been to one of these events, but there are many other people trying to remove context from food in order to play with diner expectations of what food should look like, taste like, and feel like in the mouth. That’s kind of the MO of some molecular gastronomy.
The other week, my dear friend Martha and I went to Atelier Crenn in San Francisco. The meal was great, overall, with fresh ingredients–a springtime breath of fresh air to nudge the senses of out of hibernation. But there were a lot of foams and gels and soils and jellies going on. Overall, the feeling was slightly overprocessed, which struck an odd balance with the simple, premium ingredients. Part of me was intrigued and amused by some of the molecular touches, part of me craved to see what would happen if I took the kitchen’s carrageenan stash away and forced a spotlight onto the magnificent uni and oysters and squab that had been so painstakingly sourced and cooked. (The razor clam with paprika was a standout dish, as was a mint and pea soup with unexpected touches of coconut that provided a different shade of sweetness.)
The reason I bring up Atelier Crenn is their dessert course. We got the top shelf tasting menu (Introduction to Spring) and the final touch (before the mignardises) was this rock sculpture of cashew and lemon flavors that looked like a pile of fake boulders in an unnaturally bright white-gray color. The illusion was even more vivid because of the dry ice smoke pouring out from under the desert platform itself. The cashew flavor had been turned into a gray and porous sponge with a moist texture, while the lemon flavor sprung out of a crunchy gray meringue. There was another flavor rendered in gray sorbet but, for the life of me, I can’t remember it. The menu isn’t much help…each course is the line from a poem. (I really would’ve loved to have something more specific to take home, to remember what that delicious fish had been, for example, or the third wine pairing.)
Anyway, I was eating this dessert volcano and wondering what a gray meringue had to do with lemon. Or what boulders had to do with dessert, or springtime, for that latter. (If we’re getting figurative, shouldn’t springtime be about sprouting and growth, not barren rock?) The lemon flavor was there, but it felt weaker to me. Was that because I didn’t have the visual/textural reinforcement of “lemon” on the plate, or because the flavor transfer into the meringue wasn’t quite faithful to the original? Either way, mission accomplished, because I am still thinking about that plate and what I expected from it, what new insights it showed me, and where it perhaps fell flat.
I’m certainly no traditionalist, and I know sometimes flavor out of context works. We’re a good decade into the idea that food doesn’t have to look or feel like what it is in order for a diner to recognize it. A lemon doesn’t always have to remind us of a lemon to be a lemon. But some of these experiments are more effective than others. At the end of the day, both the new food and its inspiration flavor have to be evocative and satisfying.