By now, molecular gastronomy is no longer the “new thing” in foodie circles.
First coined by Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti and French chemist Herve This in 1988, the intersection of science and cooking has grown up, entered the public lexicon and become popularized by famous chefs like Jose Andres.
At its base, molecular gastronomy is, simply, a deconstruction of traditional methods of cookery, in which heat or cold is applied to various ingredients to create a palatable result in a form of food we all recognize (because it’s always been done that way, for millenia). In this new age system, both the basic ingredients and the way they are prepared are turned upside down, and often reduced down to their molecular levels to create entirely new forms of food: fuzzy, foamy, steamy, icy, tender, crunchy, sweet, savory, edamamic tidbits that delight the palate as much as the eye.
Imaginative chefs around the world and across the country have adopted and invented these new technological techniques in highly successful restaurants, some of which are described below. Before going, be forewarned: in addition to upending the techniques of cooking, these chefs have also blown up traditional restaurant customs: there are no traditional “courses,” but instead a steady stream of things to try, in no discernable order. Presentation varies from restaurant to restaurant, sometimes with the chef doing the “cooking” at your table. And while wine, as always, is the perfect complement to a good meal, the rules about what goes with what are still being written.
If all that is too confusing, stick with your tried and true steakhouse. But those with a taste for adventure unafraid to live on the cutting edge will embrace this brave new world with gusto.
Here is a short list of restaurants in the USA which specialize in this brave new world.
Alinea, Lincoln Park, Chicago
Founded by chef Grant Achatz in 2005, this restaurant has garnered three Michelin stars, a basket of James Beard awards and annual inclusion on any best restaurant in Chicago list. The dining room is dramatically barren and the service is unbelievably responsive. Expect anywhere between 18 and 24 courses, brought out in no particular order, rhyme or reason. The staff will suggest a wine pairing if you wish. Highlights: an edible helium balloon that tasted of green apple, a truffle meringue that looked like a piece of concrete “spray painted” with a balsamic reduction, and a tabletop firepit to roast a piece of fish on, with one of the “logs” being a piece of porkbelly wrapped in seaweed and parsnip. Expensive, of course ($300-400 for two) but worth it. (312) 867-0110.
Atelier Crenn, Fillmore St., San Francisco
Chef Dominique Crenn purposefully kept the decor of his room plain, not to distract from the 18 or so courses his kitchen will send to your table during the prix fixe (around $220, wine pairings extra) meal. Don’t rely on the menu for hints on what you’re about to eat: it’s mainly a nice long poem. The food? How about a dehydrated and roasted stick of salsify, embedded in a mousse of cauliflower and white chocolate? Follow that with a black slate slab holding rice crackers stained black from squid ink, along with a puff of smoked potato puree, a piece of squid, newly sprouted greens, a dash of Iberico ham lard powder and a squirt of squid ink, upon all of which is poured some luscious ham broth. This goes on and on throughout the meal. Mind-blowing. (415) 440-0460
Dish Creative Cuisine, Palm Springs, CA
Joanne Garcia-Colson and Michelle Heinrich are all-in with their molecular offerings. Start with the arancini made with cauliflower, Reggiano-parmesan cheese custard, breaded and served with a paprika yogurt sauce. Next up: miso-glazed pork belly on a bed of cous cous with pickled apple and carrot, topped with caramel foam. After a lemon-basil parfait push pop to clean the palate, move on to the wild boar chop with a butternut squash puree and a cherry red wine reduction, or seared scallops with a white wine and shallot reduction with grapefruit and crispy leeks. Leave room for dessert: liquid caramel popcorn and carrot macaroons. (760) 322-7171.
1515, Market Street, Denver, CO
Chef Joseph Arena presides over a room that looks traditional (white table clothes, wood panelling) but serves food that is anything but. Loved the “Predator and Prey” appetizer of rabbit and rattlesnake smoked sausage with black mustard dijonnaise, fried pickled onion and a quail egg. Or the Maryland blue crab cakes, infused with watermelon and orange gel. For mains, try the smoked prosciutto-wrapped duck breast, served with wild mushroom gnocchetti, duck confit, golden raisins, tarragon, and watercress, or the stinging nettle cavatelli, with Calabrian chilies, asparagus, spring onion, black garlic and smoked hollandaise. (303) 571-0011.