Friday, February 25, 2011

the art of culinary simplicity

I have talked to several friends who felt their dining experience at Chez Panisse to be…underwhelming. While I have loved both of my two meals there immensely, I think I know why some feel a letdown. Most of us expect a high-end restaurant to mean “fancy” food—complex sauces, brightly colored emulsions, unusual flavors paired together and whatnot. At Chez Panisse, you don’t get that. You get what is actually quite simple food—dishes that are prepared in a way that seeks to bring out the essence that each ingredient naturally contains. The idea being that fresh organic produce and meat do not really need much added to them to taste flavorful and delicious. Most dishes don’t feature very many ingredients—the idea is less to sample something tasty but potentially unidentifiable, and more to experience a few high-quality in-season items in their natural form of perfection. This experience wouldn’t be necessarily if we didn’t have an agricultural industry constantly shoving pesticide-coated watery vegetables and oversized under-flavored boneless skinless chicken breasts down our throats, but the fact is, most of us have no idea how good a single carrot can taste on its own when given a chance to grow in a natural, healthy environment. They’re almost like candy! And so Chez Panisse tries to open our eyes to the wonders of what the land can produce for us if we let it, by plying us with fruits, vegetables and animals that have been seasoned and cooked just enough to bring out their inner goodness. It all reminds me a bit of the scene in the movie “The English Patient,” when Juliette Binoche feeds Ralph Fiennes (the patient) a plum from the garden and he says, between juicy bits of it dribbling down his chin, “Mmm. It’s a very plum plum.” I imagine the Chez Panisse staff say these sorts of things to each other all the time, as they decide which of the day’s freshest ingredients to incorporate into their daily set menu.

Why am I talking about Chez Panisse? No, I was not lucky enough to go there recently, but I was lucky enough to spend my birthday weekend in Hawaii (actually I think that beats out a dinner reservation at CP). On top of that, I was there with a handful of my favorite people in the world and I got to run around the island with them for a few days, sharing some of my favorite spots and discovering some new ones as well. As always, cooking dinner together featured as a main event. I had described our local fish market to my friends but I don’t think they had fully understood what I meant when I said the fish comes fresh off the boat until we arrived at the shop. Quite literally, an elderly Asian man sat pulling off his boat galoshes while his wife arranged the large tranches of fish, practically still wriggling, in the glass window display. To make a long story short, we selected ahi (to make fresh poke!) and ono to grill, and took note of the owner’s suggestion that we keep our ono preparation simple—a little olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon was all it needed.

And boy was she right. Our most culinary friend Charlie prepared the fish as recommended, and after a short spin on the grill, topped it with a mango salsa. Et voila. It makes total sense to me now why ono means “delicious” in Hawaiian—with barely any additions, it made for the most tasty and satisfying meal. I think Alice would have been proud.

onion about to be grilled

sweet potato, feta and arugula salad

Ono--fresh enough to eat as sashimi (like our ahi poke) but we chose to grill

1 comment:

  1. oh that ono looks divine! you know, your first paragraph reminded me of a comment i just heard regarding how the fact that the typical american diet of high sugar/salt/fat has transformed the expectations of eaters tastebuds so that they think simple fresh and naturally flavorful food is bland. i'll take a fresh sweet carrot any day!