Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cooking at home with Roberto Donna: Vitello Tonnato

When Roberto Donna was growing up in Torino, one of his jobs in the family business was to prep the ingredients for tonnato sauce, by hand. Tuna packed in olive oil, capers, anchovy fillets -- all had to be painstakingly passed through a fine-meshed sieve. 35 years later, he is still sending up thanks for the advent of the blender -- with a flick of a switch, the savory paste is ready in under thirty seconds. "Thank you for the blender!" he proclaims, head tilted back.

We are in the chef's kitchen in his private residence, taking a cooking class covering 5 regions of Italy. This dish, vitello tonnato -- roast veal with tuna sauce -- happens to be from his home region of Piedmont. While the convenience of the blender is gratefully accepted, there are no shortcuts when it comes to the second component of the sauce: mayonnaise from scratch. We focus on it in the class, working in twos: one to slowly dribble olive oil into a bowl containing a mixture of eggs, lemon juice and salt; the other to whisk it into an emulsification. Since I have had some experience with home-made mayonnaise, I cleverly pass the task of whisking to my partner. It takes a strong biceps and patience to keep whisking without changing direction. And I am full of encouraging words to keep him going! Myself, I concentrate on learning to dribble rather than pour.

In my own childhood, vitello tonnato was my least favorite Italian dish. No, that is not accurate. I despised it.  I mean, veal and tuna -- really? I remember it as greyish meat, most likely left-overs, slathered with a garish dressing.  So while I am excited to perfect the art of home-made mayonnaise in the class, I do not have high hopes for the dish that will result. I am glad once we finish with the sauce (by folding the tuna mixture into the mayonnaise) and move on to the pasta dishes.

Unbeknownst to me, I am about to have a radical change of heart. The vitello is the first course we sit down to once the meal is ready. It is a starter, served at room temperature. The roast veal has been sliced thin and fanned out on each of our 10 plates, the sauce generously ladeled over it. It only takes one bite for me to realize that this is not the vitello tonnato of my youth. The important thing is that the veal has been perfectly cooked to a rosy pink especially for this particular purpose (not warmed up left-overs after all), and the proportions of the tuna, anchovies, capers and mayonnaise have been expertly balanced to enhance both each other and the veal. It's one of those magical moments where flavors soar above their individual components and all you can think is "genius!"

This, I suspect, is the genius of regional cooking done right. If it is true that there is no such thing as "Italian food", but only dishes from the distinct regions of Italy (as Donna has made a point of saying), then it makes sense that the best preparations of a particular dish are going to be made by chefs that grew up in the region of origin. Later, I check the other courses on offer -- and yes, Chef Donna does teach one focused exclusively on the Piedmont. I am so there!

My plate after finishing the vitello tonnato. I had such low expectations from this dish that I didn't even bother taking a picture of it before eating.

Making pasta is a team effort

Here is the recipe for Vitello Tonnato sauce, provided by Roberto Donna:


For Mayonnaise

2 Egg Yolks
1 1/4 Cups Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Tbsp. Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice
1/4 tsp. Salt

For Remainder of Recipe

1 (7 oz. Can) Imported Tuna (packed in olive oil)
5 Flat Anchovy Fillets
1 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3 Tbsp. Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice
3 Tbsp. Capers (soaked & rinsed if packed in salt, drained if in vinegar)
White Wine (to thin the sauce)

To Prepare:
Make the mayonnaise.
Drain the canned tuna, and put it into a food processor together with the anchovies, olive oil, lemon juice, and capers. Process until you get a creamy, uniformly blended sauce.

Remove the sauce from the processor bowl and fold it gently, but thoroughly into the mayonnaise. No salt may be required because both the anchovies and capers supply it, but taste to be sure.

And here are groceries coupons you can use to practice the recipe at home.

Other dishes taught in this class:

Pasta all’Amatriciana (Rome)
Pappardelle w/ Mushrooms (Tuscany)
Polpette alla Napoletana (Naples)
Torta di Ricotta (Sicily)
You can get more information on the cooking classes from Roberto Donna's website

Sunday, August 21, 2011

America Eats Tavern

Walking into the dining room of America Eats Tavern is like walking into a black and white photograph. Plastered white walls and black upholstery greet you. Look around, and the matte decor merges with photographs of culinary Americana, bending their two dimensions into three. This 3-D, somewhat dreamlike, effect is accentuated by the hanging sculpture that reaches out to grab your imagination and holds it through the meal.

The Tavern is a window onto the past from the point of view of the present. It has not been designed as a Disney set that replicates restaurants of yore; the waitstaff is not dressed in period costume. What Jose Andres wants is for us to reflect rather than relive. 

It is the same approach he takes with food. The idea of the Tavern is to explore the origins of American staples like mac 'n cheese and iconic dishes like Delmonico's Lobster Newberg. The copiously annotated menu transports you into the stories of how these dishes came to be. But rather than replicate the dish as it must have tasted then, Jose Andres keeps the story going, reinventing it one more time. He can do this because that is precisely what his restaurant, Minibar, is known for: taking familiar dishes and re-presenting them in a deconstructed form that accentuates their essence.

For all this conceptual elegance, the food itself is somewhat underwhelming. What works beautifully in Minibar with its one and two bite tastings does not translate as well into dinner portions, and some of Minibar's flaws -- like a tendency to over-salt -- get replicated here. Still, I did find a dish to die for: Vermont Sugar on Snow, on the dessert menu.

The scene is set with a snowy field:

Hot maple syrup is expertly poured:

The dish is ready to eat:

And as you eat, from bite to bite, the dessert continues to transform itself, from warm soft hard candy. A time capsule in your mouth.

America Eats Tavern on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Komi and Minibar

Komi serves a set multi-course dinner, upwards of 20 small plates over the course of two and a half hours.  Because Minibar had set the bar so high for this genre, it took me a long time to go to Komi, for fear of being disappointed. But I was not.

Like Minibar, and like El Bulli, the restaurant in Catalonia where it all began, Komi delights in the paradox of presenting you with familiar dishes whose component ingredients have been put together in unfamilar ways, while elevating their essential taste to exquisite heights. It is at once a highly intellectual culinary style and an effort to take you back to childhood delights and a sense of primal pleasure.

But Komi is also different. For one thing, it is Greek inflected.  Chef Monis grew up in Arlington of Greek heritage, and he draws both on local flavors and on time spent with his grandparents on the Greek island of Chios -- Komi is the name of a beach there. The deeper difference with Minibar is that Chef Monis allows himself a more varied palette with which to express the sensuality of food. You'll see in a moment...

Of the parade of tastings and small plates, these are the ones that have stayed with me several weeks after the meal:

Wild caught smoked salmon, creme fraiche, "everything" salt, and a lacy, black filigree of squid-ink toast; the sexiest sense of a bagel and lox, lingering on the tongue and then gone. Ethereal, but still true to its pedestrian nature.

Spanakopita with a liquid center, which we are urged to eat it in one bite. From the outside, it looks a bit like a chicken nugget. When I pop it in my mouth and bite down, a fountain of warm spinach spurts out. It even tastes green. Before it can get too far down my throat, the breading catches up with it, surrounds it, and there, you have spanakopita in its most essential form. Heightened and exaggerated and at the same time exactly like spanakopita tastes.

Chris' favorite plate is Komi's tribute to DC: the half smoke. They arrive in twos, side by side on the plate. The miniature three inch buns are home made, with fat sausages inside, puffed up and cartoonish. They are adorned with spicy tomato relish and pickled zucchini. 

Other things that stand out in my memory: bright yellow puree of corn swooshed around a salad of crunchy caperberries, pinenuts and currants. The famous mascarpone stuffed dates, sprinkled with olive and sea salt -- I like them far better than the more commonly served bacon wrapped ones.

Finally we get to the main course. It's a surprise -- Minibar doesn't have a "main course", and lots of people have remarked that Komi's hunk of goat seems out of place in the center of the more delicate morsels. But this is what I mean: the Komi experience is less committed to gadgetry (like syringes to withdraw lobster juice) and technological wizardry (like spherification) than to presenting a variety of ways to playfully reconnect with primordial experiences. Liquid centered spanakopita with essence of spinach was one way, but a hunk of spit roasted goat plunked down on a plate with flat bread is another. It's not carved, cubed or even cut into portions. We are encouraged to tear bits of it off and eat with our hands. Either way, you are getting to a kind of sensual space. 

So which is better, Komi or Minibar?

My colleague Lesly put it this way:  "...overall I think the food was better at Komi. However, Minibar was so much fun that you forget those dishes that miss the mark." I think she's right. At Minibar, I laughed through the entire evening. At Komi, I smiled and left with a sigh of satisfaction.

Footnote: If you want to eat in the six seat Minibar -- its original format -- you need to act fast. Minibar is currently housed in the same space as America Eats Tavern, which is a pop-up restaurant timed to coincide with an exhibit of American culinary history at the National Archives. When the exhibit closes on January 3, Minibar will expand into the entire three story restaurant building. To make a reservation, you need to call one month in advance to the day, calling as soon as the reservation line is open and being prepared to hit redial until you get through.

Update, December 28, 2011:  Latest intel is that Jose Andres has in mind to have 12-16 tables only, for the expanded Minibar. Those will be located on the second level of the restaurant. Guests will be seated in the center of the space and surrounded by a circular kitchen. The first floor will be a bar area, while the third level will be a library where guests can relax with after dinner drinks. That sounds a whole lot better!

Komi on Urbanspoon

Minibar By Jose Andres on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mom's Siam: Richmond Bucket List #4*

What makes Mom's Siam stand out from other Thai restaurants is its condiments. If Thai food is not already hot enough for you, you can choose from two kinds of chili pepper relishes and a fiery red chili powder. Apparently these are brought from Thailand through the kitchen's own sources. Chris was skeptical of this story. "They probably just got it from Penzey's down the street," she said.

It's an ongoing sore point between us. Chris is a big fan of global consumerism -- by which I mean, she delights in buying products from around the world from big box stores, rejoicing that they are available to her here in America. But for me, this sort of ready availability seems a little flat. Penzey's is a marvelous resource to be sure, offering spices with exotic names from every country you can imagine. But if the spices of the world are compressed into a card catalog of identical containers, aren't they drained of the hills and dips of local context? So who is more romantic: Chris, for believing that cultural finds can be had in a mass produced market? Or me, for believing that there really is a Mom behind Mom's Siam, sending little spice packets from Thailand?

Best dish: Siam Dumpling -- minced pork, shrimp, water chestnut, onion, scallion, shitake wrapped in wonton skin and served with soy sauce.

Siam Dumpling. You can see the condiment tray in the background.

*Note: As a result of "On Fumes Alone", Chris created a bucket list of Richmond restaurants for us to visit. This is the fourth of such visits. For a full list of visits, click here.

Mom's Siam on Urbanspoon