A Dinner and Two Cookbooks

Had a nice birthday dinner at Sushi Yasuda. This was the first time for me eating at a three-star restaurant. We ordered omakase, something I've always wanted to do, and got toro, hiramasa yellow tail, sea trout, white king salmon, Tazmanian trout, Spanish mackerel, orange clam, anago, and a toro roll. Then we asked for a few more pieces and got some different varieties, including a freshwater eel called shirayaki that was really delicious.

For me the interesting question was, how would this differ from the ubiquitous new york sushi restaurant? For one, there is the greater variety of fish. It's not so much that there are crazy creatures you've never heard of (or maybe those are left off the menu), just more types of the species you already know, such as five different types of salmon, five of yellow tail, blue fin or big eye tuna, and five types of eel. Secondly, the rice is wonderfully soft, fluffy and seasoned, justifying the quote from Yasuda that in nigiri sushi, the fish is just a garnish for the rice. Thirdly, where lesser establishments sometimes produce unpleasantly tough cuts of some fish, at Yasuda it's always very thin and soft, never an overwhelming amount.

Probably a more knowledgeable person could go on, but this is what I thought most apparent.

* * *

Maya gave me two recently released cookbooks as gifts, both of which I had requested, but only after looking at them side by side did I realize how diametrically opposed they were. One is Alinea by Grant Achatz, and the other is Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin. Both authors are well-known characters that have been profiled by The New Yorker, and both books contain essays as well as recipes. At least at first glance, the similarities end there. Alinea is a six-pound behemoth containing recipes, ingredients and techniques so abstruse and complex that I doubt I will ever be able to make even one of them as written (but please don't dare me to try). It contains a lot of closeup, backlit "food porn" style photographs of gelees, spheres and emulsions. Eat Me contains a lot of creative comfort food, and Shopsin espouses a philosophy of being happy with whatever you have around you. The photos are very straightforward and unembellished, with bright construction paper backgrounds. He is known for kicking at least one party a day out of his restaurant for breaking his rules and endangering the atmosphere he wants to maintain, something I doubt happens much at Alinea. Also, the introduction contains a photo of Shopsin's naked rear end.

But after reading a bit of each, I think there are actually some similarities lingering under the surface. Despite what he says, Shopsin is not innocent of special techniques, ingredients, or equipment. It's not his fault, it's just that any restaurant cook finds ways of getting efficient and predictable results that are not always readily translatable to the home kitchen. Furthermore, Shopsin believes you can make the most workaday dishes into something special by taking the trouble to elevate them just a bit. He orders Lefses, Norwegian potato crepes, from a guy in North Dakota. When making a cheese steak, he slices the meat semi-frozen on a deli slicer to get it as thin as possible. He has modified his griddle to get ridiculously hot, and says not having that will pose a challenge to making good pancakes. But both books have chosen to present the recipes verbatim so that the reader can at least make informed decisions about compromises and substitutions.

Both of these books also display a lot of creativity and innovation. It's perhaps more obvious at Alinea, where they combine flavors in unpredictable ways, manipulate the textures of common foods, and try to evoke memories with scents. But in the first half of Eat Me Shopsin has already dispensed some serious thought about a dozen different topics. A big one is his approach to soup: he completely rejects the near-universal method of slow-cooking all the ingredients together because he doesn't think each piece should taste the same no matter what it is. Instead he cooks the broth separately from the other ingredients, and adds them just before serving, so they retain their own taste and identity. The casual style of the book allows Shopsin to really get across these ideas, rather than relying on the reader to figure them out from the recipes alone.

If you need any more convincing, Shopsin actually describes his method as 'deconstruction.' He takes a dish that he's curious about and makes it a whole bunch of times until he starts noticing what it's really made of. Then he takes it apart and finds ways it might be made better or more efficient. He has a lot to say about burgers, eggs and other stuff in this regard (and he's not a fan of Shake Shack's burgers, although he did perhaps take some insight from their example).

I suspect that in the end I will use these books in similar ways, as jumping off points to try new things, and as a reference for techniques to achieve certain desirable effects.

Comments (3)

jv:

lol! what kind of pancakes is he making?

Jay:

Lots and lots of kinds...peanut butter and jelly pancakes and macaroni and cheese pancakes are two of his most well-known. But I think the crazy-hot griddle has more to do with getting the cooking process and molecular-level reactions right. And it also helps him get the dishes out very quickly.

jv:

sh**, dude - i know a think or two about pancakes ('flapjacks' i believe they call them where you're from), you want a pretty warm griddle - 'hot' i suppose - but if its two hot, they arnt going to cook through, and a half-raw pancake is rather unpleasant. also if its too hot, the outside of the pancake becomes too tough or even brittle. but if its just plain 'hot' (not anywhere close to 'crazy' hot) its still going to cook right quick.


 

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