In Defense of (Occasionally) Going to Restaurants

For all my bitching about restaurants (most of you haven’t heard it, but you will eventually), we know there are compelling reasons to go. One of those reasons is that occasionally you’re going to get stuff you’d never dreamed of before it was put in front of you.

My partner Kathleen and I were in southern California recently. We stayed at the Lido House in Newport Beach (a swell hotel, by the way) and were invited to eat at Mayor's Table, the hotel’s restaurant. Presiding over an impressively large and beautifully designed open kitchen was chef Riley Huddleston, who has worked at The Aviary (with Grant Achatz) and other jazzy joints. (Yes. Jazzy joints. My colleague, Daniel, read this post and said “Ha! Happy 95th birthday, MB”).

We ordered more or less intuitively, but one thing that appealed was the simply labeled "raw crudité," described as "amazing local vegetables & fun surprises from the garden. Given our location, we figured this was worth a shot.

It came out looking kind of glamorous:

I’d call it a plateau de fruits de terre, but since almost nothing was as it appeared, I’m not sure that works either. I mean, crudité is a bunch of raw vegetables, I guess, but each of these had received a different treatment, all of which usually left the vegetable looking like it was in its original state—but tasting like anything but.

Celery was “compressed” and topped with black olive caramel. Delicious, but what does that mean?

“We compress the celery with pistachio milk,” Huddleston told me later—“we just put it in the cryovac machine, under the highest pressure, and that pushes out some of the liquid from the celery and not only tenderizes it, but swaps out some of its juices for the milk. Then we shatter Kalamata olives with liquid nitrogen and dehydrate them, make a caramel that we turn into a gel with agar agar, and blend in the olives. It’s like a tapenade and it reads simple, but almost nothing is simple here.”

A couple of things actually were simple, like beets marinated in beet juice (“A zero-waste product,” said Huddleston), and, my favorite actually, kumquats “compressed with nothing.” Pure candy.

Blueberries were pickled with sugar and cinnamon and vinegar; little gems were nicely charred and served with a green goddess dressing (everything was, since it was in the center of the platter, but it was best with the lettuce) that’s essentially crème fraiche with herbs; carrots got a couple of weeks of pickling with carrot juice, salt, sugar and strong spices; and melon was compressed with strawberry juice that was clarified with centrifuged jalapeño (it was pretty hot, but not overwhelmingly so).

I mean, even if you gave me the right equipment, I wouldn’t have a clue about how to get started making this stuff. But that’s the idea: “You could use a vacuum saver and cold-pressed juice from the store for some of these techniques,” says Huddleston, “but mostly they’re the kinds of things you don’t want to mess with, and that’s what we’re trying to do. Since most of what happens at restaurants you can do at home, we’re trying to present things in a way that makes you want to come in and get something different.”

This worked: We went in and got something different. And the rest of the food was damned good, too.

As for me, the following recipes (veggie-centric, kind of impressive, and perfect for this time of year) are about as complicated as I get. If you make either of them this weekend, let me know how it goes; if you stumble on something truly surprising and wonderful at a restaurant, I’d love to hear about that too. And if you compress some celery, bless your heart. See you next week.

— Mark


Photo: Burcu Avsar & Zach DeSart
A twist on the usual potato gnocchi, these are loaded with flavor. The Parmesan and extra flour help hold the dough together and make dense, rich gnocchi. Play up their richness even more by browning them in some butter in a pan.

PARMESAN PARSNIP GNOCCHI


Photo: Burcu Avsar & Zach DeSart
Somewhat more elegant than its more famous French cousin. This is good hot, but perhaps even better warm or at room temperature.

TORTA DI PORRI


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Questions, comments, brilliant suggestions? Just want to share the recipe for your grandma's potato salad, or your mom's meatloaf, or your uncle Drew's three-day 100-percent rye loaf (yes, please)? Don't hesitate to reach out anytime.