Modernist Cuisine: Breakfast of Food Champions
Where were Martha Stewart, Padma Lakshmi, Daniel Boulud, Ruth Reichl, Andre Soltner, Tim and Nina Zagat, Wylie Dufresne, Michael Lomanoco, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Johnny Iuzzini (plus myself and Kenji) at 9 this morning? Eating breakfast at Jean-Georges and listening to Modernist Cuisine's Nathan Myhrvold—in town for a week-long whirlwind PR blitz that's drawing attention from the best culinary and scientific minds in the city.
It must have been strange and almost surreal for a non-professional chef like Nathan to be standing up in his chef whites taking questions from many of the greatest chefs in the world, which is not to say he's not qualified for the task. The man is a certified, multi-field genius. Even Martha Stewart stood up not to ask a question, but just to tell us how great Nathan and his book are.
What was for breakfast? Some modernist cuisine, of course.
Here are the items on the printed menu, with our comments underneath:
Corn Bread with Bacon JamCentrifuged juice, sous vide yolk
Ed: This tasted like really good cornbread with bacon jam. Not transcendent, I've-never tasted-anything-like-it-cornbread, but it was mighty tasty.
Kenji: I think one of the best things about the recipes from the book are the level of restraint they show. Modernist restaurants often rely on gimmicky smoke & mirror effects. This is just a piece of corn bread. Really good cornbread, that is.
Mushroom OmeletConstructed egg stripes, steamed in a combi oven
Kenji: This is pretty much Nathan's signature dish. It's the one he took on Martha Stewart, and one that he seems to take special pleasure in describing. It's a great dish. Not really an omelet per se, but tasty nonetheless. The flavor is overwhelmingly that of mushrooms and tarragon, and of the two times I've had it, the first was better. Today, the egg and mushroom sheets seemed ever so slightly overcooked compared to the first time. That didn't stop April Bloomfield from declaring the dish "incredible." She's easily my favorite chef in the city, so I'd trust her opinion more than mine.
As a side note, it was great that both myself and Ed got to enjoy breakfast with a couple of our personal heroes—April Bloomfield and Calvin Trillin, respectively.
Pastrami and HashCooked sous vide for 72 h, potatoes cavitated in an ultrasonic bath
Ed: Calvin Trillin told me not to send back the pastrami by telling my server that it was undercooked and needed a 73rd hour in the sous vide machine. (I always listen to Trillin, he is one of my writing heroes, so I didn't.) The pastrami was perfect as is: tender, beefy, beautifully marbled, smoked just enough. It takes guts to bring pastrami to a serious New York food crew, but Myrvhold pulled it off with ease.
The potatoes cavitated in an ultrasonic bath were another story entirely. They looked and tasted like tater tots, and I think if I had been given some tater tots from a frozen bag I would not have been able to tell the difference. Maybe cavitation isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Kenji: Agreed. The pastrami was as fantastic as the first time I had it at the Cooking Lab in Seattle. The new part of the dish for me was the ultrasonic potatoes. Described as Nathan as "looking like tater tots," they were potatoes that were parcooked, then placed in an ultrasonic water bath (the same thing you use to clean jewelry), which essentially roughs up the surface, increasing its area, and making the potatoes cracklier and crisper when fried. I wouldn't just say the looked like tater tots, they in fact tasted exactly like tater tots, leaving me wondering why I'd need an ultrasonic bath to make them instead of just picking up a bag of frozen Ore-Ida's. I categorize this under the "interesting, but kinda unecessary" category.
Pots de Cremes
Earl Grey posset, Meyer lemon curd, praline granola, cold-infused coffee, maple crumble
Ed: Really, really good pot de cremes with perfect creamy and smooth texture.
Kenji: This one really demonstrates where a lot of this type of cooking is headed. It's not just about creating surprising textures or "wow" moments. This is basically just a traditional pot de creme, but with a near-perfect texture. That's what cooking in a precisely controlled steam oven gets you—consistently good results for even traditional recipes, and that's what chefs are going to be most excited about. Quality control, and consistency.
On the whole, we were struck by how fundamentally delicious everything was. The man knows what good is, and that counts for a lot. I really wish they'd offered a pastrami on rye in the goodie bag handed to us as we walked out, instead of just an autographed card to stick into your $625 copy of Modernist Cuisine. The most surprising thing for me was that despite the fact that it outwardly appears like it's going to be a coffee table book, the small type along with diagrams, charts, and graphs makes it read a whole lot more like a textbook. (Albeit a beautiful one.)