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Although I had vowed to take a “vacation” from food-writing this summer, a recent dinner at the new R Cuisine restaurant in Aspen, Colorado, convinced me to break that vow. I’ve written before about chefs who “push the envelope” too far and this column extends that argument. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, a little history.
In my admittedly revisionistic reading of culinary history, food was relatively simple until the great classic French chefs came along and did each dish in “3’s;” that is, (1) take something, (2) do something to it and then, (3) add something. As in: take a slab of beef, cook it in wine and then top it off with butter.
Then along came the Gault/Millau boys who mixed things up even more; now chefs took several ingredients, not usually associated with each other, did something strange with them and then topped them off with a real surprise. As in: take some kiwi fruit and almonds, steam them in coconut milk and top them off with catsup.
But just to throw everybody off kilter, the Americans, like Alice Waters, suddenly appeared on the global radar scene, buying fresh meat and fish and serving dishes with local, read “Chino Brothers,” produce. As in: steak with French fries and sliced tomatoes.
Finally, incremental change, a la Bernard Loiseau, wasn’t enough: Ferran Adria and Herve This and their disciples and influencées, “deconstructed” food down to its molecules. As in: a sauce described as creamy, that actually contains tofu and gelatin, but no cream. And folks like Gilles Choukroun created items on the menu that one had to read backwards. As in: Granny Smiths with catsup and fish soup, and oh, by the way,…..scallops.
I thought, silly me, that the chefs who were involved in such kooky cooking were all living and working in Paris or at least in France, although the epicenter of the new wave is certainly somewhere between Roses and Girona/Gerona, where Adria’s former sous-chefs have spun off to establish their own places, often with wonderful results. I thought this because time after time in Paris, someone who tried to push the envelope, like Choukroun, Aizpitarte, Barbot et al, usually did so successfully at first (e.g., respectively at Le Café des Delices, La Famille (at the start) or Arpege) and then fell under the spell of the bad fairy who advised them to keep pushing. But this phenomenon is not just present in France and Catalonia, it’s come to the U.S.
Aspen, Colorado has its own example of Ferran gone bad, in chef C. Barclay Dodge. As reporter Stewart Oksenhorn, the most informed of food critics in Aspen, recounts in last week’s Aspen Times, Dodge was born and grew up in Aspen but spent time at El Bulli and returned to Aspen to start the now-defunct and sometimes inspired place Mogador, and when that didn’t meet the locals’ total approval, toned it down to a place that served simpler, “more Americanized” food, the Restaurant Barclay, which also failed. Now he’s opened R Cuisine, whose website says it serves ”Casual Elegant Cuisine: Contemporary American, Continental” food, whatever that means – perhaps that he’s trying to do El Bulli meets Aspen’s popular grub – “mac and cheese, crab cakes, the BLT salad” according to Oksenhorn. The guy is certainly talented but once again is trying too hard to be like his idol Adria.
We tried to test his inventiveness by essentially sampling the kitchen, ordering four starters: braised artichoke that was very, very strange-tasting with olive oil, aioli and toast; burned/crusted watermelon with watercress, feta and curried almonds; cold, cold pink trout topped with two tough sliced carrots; and crispy-skinned pork with a side of microtomed parmesan and celery. While each dish was interesting and very nice looking, the combination of startling temperatures, strange tastes and failed ideas (for instance, the pork skin was like that of a suckling pig cooked for hours over an open spit, but the pork meat underneath was blah-tasting) made me suspect that R Cuisine was going to go the route of his last two places.
Why can’t these guys leave well enough alone? It was said (wrongly) that the pressure to continually innovate killed Loiseau. But incremental innovation is one thing; taking crazy leaps another. Why, for instance, did Choukroun not stick with his winning formula at the Le Café des Delices, instead of abandoning it and pushing too hard at l’Angl’Opera? Luckily, he’s pulled back a bit with his second-newest place in the Tuileries, Le Café Véry, and may have seen the light. On verra.
My recommendation this week is:
Le Café Véry
In the center of the Tuileries, on the Concorde side, 1st (Metro:Tuileries)
Open everyday, lunch until 10:30 PM
A la carte about 25-40 €
©2007 John A. Talbott