Dining

Bits and Morsels: Pushing the Boundaries

Tiramisu, espresso financier, Kahlúa crémeux, and sunchoke/Bailey's ice cream at Beautique where chef Carlos Letona has started experimenting with fermenting the chocolate in his award-winning dessert.
by Erin Frankel

Pushing the Boundaries: Theater, Bugs, New Veggies, Fermentation, Japanese Tasting Menus and Ramen

New Yorkers spend a lot of time eating, thinking about eating, talking about eating, and now, increasingly, chronicling what we're eating. As spring finally finds its way into our lives, it brings with it renewed inspiration for novel dishes, flavors, and dining trends. We're seeing restaurants with both risque entertainment and ingredients (think burlesque and grasshoppers), vegetables taking center stage (think cauliflower), experimentation in fermentation of all forms, the upscaling of Japanese cuisine, and the predominance of the Korean staple.

To start, the confines of what we traditionally deem appropriate at the dinner table has broadened.

Scenes from The Paramount Hotel's Diamond Horseshoe "seductive, fearless and outrageous" performance.
We have ditched the belief that the dinner table is a place reserved for eating, drinking and civilized conversation. The latest trending dining genre is a union of radical circus performance, mystical burlesque, contemporary dance, and communal fine dining. And whether you like it or not, it's the city's hot ticket of the moment.

Producer Randy Weiner spent over $20 million renovating The Paramount Hotel's Diamond Horseshoe, the '40s- era legendary supper club, into an opulent space that's both dinner theater and nightclub. Upon entering, cast members lead guests to the subterranean bar where they are at once transported to a world of acrobatics and innovative custom cocktails. Guests are encouraged to explore side rooms (including one skillfully coated with melted wax and another with knives) and indulge in sensual mischief that pushes the boundaries and delights the senses.

Once seated at your communal table, the "seductive, fearless and outrageous" performance begins. Out emerges an artfully-clad Gaga-like queen on stage surrounded by acrobatics from the 7 Fingers circus troupe. The entire experience is immersive, including the food you choose to eat. If the leather-clad butlers brings to the table a cage of lobsters in lieu of beef spare ribs, you are encouraged to barter, beg or steal from nearby tables for your food of choice.
Queen of the Night can best be described as a captivating theatrical dining experience that fuses circus elements with tantalizing performance, music, design, and cuisine. Oh yea, and your most sensual gala attire is required.

Tickets are available for 7:30 p.m. shows, Tuesday-Sunday. For more information, visit www.queenofthenightnyc.com.
Laugh if you will, but my food adventures have led to me to discover that not only are insects delicious, but they are a sustainable source of protein. You'll be seeing these eponymous ants, called "chicatanas," pop up on menus, most notably in tacos. But some chefs are incorporating the creepy crawlies into more adventurous concoctions. Black Ant's Chef Mario Hernandez (formerly of La Esquina) uses the critters to salt the rims of his margaritas, sprinkles them on guacamole, and really pushed the boundaries at last week's Lucky Rice Festival by serving these "chapulines" (grasshoppers) on a stick with cotton candy. I devoured the entire thing and it was absolutely delicious.
Black Ant's Ceviche de Jurel: Yellowtail, green papaya, cilantro, serrano black ant ponzu, long beans.
Black Ant's Tacos Enchapulinados: Shrimps with chapulin crust, tabiche aioli, avocado& micro carrots salad.
Eating Black Ant's grasshopper cotton candy at The Lucky Rice Festival.
Aside from critters, chefs are looking for nutrient-dense foods in all the unlikely places, experimenting with more veggie-centric menus and micro-local ethos. In the wide world of veggies, kale is being kicked to the curb for the once-unfashionable cauliflower. Cauliflower is quickly making its way on many a menu ranging from cauliflower steak, most notably seen in former Gramercy Tavern alum chef David Craine's grilled cauliflower steak with apricots, currants, almonds and couscous at BLT Bar & Grill; and chef Carlos Letona's warm cauliflower soup with quinoa, hazelnut and black olives as well as his scallops within a creamy cauliflower deduction topped with turnips, brassicas, and a chorizo dashi at Beautique.
BLT Bar & Grill's grilled cauliflower steak with spiced yogurt, apricots, currants, almonds and couscous.
Truffle risotto, wild mushrooms, smoked butter, pecorino and gooseberries wild herbs at Beautique.
Scallops, creamy cauliflower, turnips and brassicas, chorizo dashi at Beautique.
Cod, roasted spaghetti squash, apples, kumquats, butternut squash, jalapeño and pepita consommé at Beautique.
The new cruciferous go-to veggie is not only low on carbs but has recently been praised for its anti-inflammatory properties. As awareness about our bodies becomes more and more ubiquitous, we're confident that we'll be seeing even more veggies on our plates this spring.

And as chefs experiment with new vegetable-centric staples that aid in digestion, fermentation is at the top of the list. Humans have been fermenting ingredients in virtually every culture for millennia — ever since we discovered the flavor of food is so incredibly influenced by natural airborne yeasts and bacteria (although fermentation was born as a preservation method).

Now, we truly understand the benefits of good bacteria on our digestive systems. "We saw chefs start to experiment with fermentation in 2014," says Top Chef's Tom Colicchio. "But 2015 will be the year of fermentation. From kimchi to pickles to salumi, every restaurant will be doing some sort of in-house fermentation."
When Mr. Colicchio speaks, it's best to listen.
Beautique's Chef Carlos Letona has already started fermenting many of his dishes, including the carrots in his roasted carrot salad with kale, yogurt and harissa vinaigrette as well as the blood orange infusion in his slow roasted octopus with avocado mouse and grilled heart of palm. Most recently, Letona has even started experimenting with fermenting the chocolate in his award-winning dessert: a tiramisu, espresso financier, Kahlúa crémeux and sunchoke/Bailey's ice cream.
Roasted carrot salad, kale, yogurt and harissa vinaigrette with toasted almonds at Beautique.
Slow roasted octopus, avocado mouse, blood orange infusion, grilled heart of palm at Beautique.
Not only does every culture have some version of fermentation, fermented foods (like vinegars, shrubs, kimchi, and sauerkraut) have live cultures that are good for gut health and full of "good" probiotic bacteria. Useful for beating that post-Christmas bloat, for instance.

Our forefathers have been fermenting ingredients ever since they first discovered the impact that natural airborne yeasts and bacteria had on the flavor of their food. That led to the creation of some of the world's most popular dishes, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and even simple yogurt. Now that science has made us even more aware of the benefits of good bacteria to our digestive systems, items such as tempeh and kombucha are becoming staples not only on restaurants menus, but even in your local deli.
You can never have too much kimchi.
Fermentation is most notably seen in a variety of Asian cuisines, and in particular, Korean staples like kimchi. And, within the past few months, we've since a transcendency of Korean & Japanese cuisine. Ramen, for example, the quintessential Asian street food, has been given an ultra-luxe facelift to appeal to New Yorker's upscale tastes and diverse palates.

We are seeing this most notably in the toughest-to-score tasting menus in town: Brushstroke, Sushi Nakazawa, and En Japanese Brasserie.

At Brushstroke, acclaimed chef David Bouley has teamed up with Japan's premier culinary school, the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, to bring the tradition of Japanese kaiseki cuisine to New York. Expect uber-scrupulous attention to detail and micro-seasonal changes to the staggering 10,000 dishes that change on the multi-course menu.
A joint venture between Chef David Bouley and Japan's top culinary school, The Tsuji Culinary Institute, Brushstroke offers a brilliant modern interpretation of kaiseki cuisine.
Restaurateur Alessandro Borgognone and his four-star chef Daisuke Nakazawa, most notably featured in the the "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" documentary, arguably may still retain the prize for hardest place to get in.

Sushi Nakazawa is most renowned for the chef's special 20-item omakase tasting menu, lauded by the New York Times as the best sushi in New York City.
The sushi bar at Sushi Nakazawa.
The Tamago (sweet, fluffy egg custard) at Sushi Nakazawa. Tamago is what made Nakazawa famous.
Poached blue shrimp at Sushi Nakazawa.
And then there's En Japanese Brasserie, which consistently redefines the status quo of modern Japanese comfort cuisine in America. Mimicking what is done in Japan, the restaurant's multi-course izakaya tasting menus are altered seasonally, accenting the character of each season, respecting and savoring the natural flavor of ingredients of the moment. EN Japanese Brasserie introduces New Yorkers to kaiseki, a Japanese version of a multi-course tasting of dishes both hot and cold. It's safe to say, all things Japanese are very much in vogue.
EN Brasserie.
Freshly scooped tofu served with wari-joyu.
Chef's sashimi selection at EN.
Saikyo miso marinated grilled black cod.
Stone grilled organic chicken with garlic shoyu.
Warm soba buckwheat noodles in dashi broth
Noodle fanatics, hold onto your seats. If you've ever consumed ramen in New York, chances are the noodles traveled across the Hudson from New Jersey's Sun Noodles. The New Jersey-based company not only manufactures savory noodles for other ramen outlets, like chef Esther Choi's MokBar (where she serves a variety of Korean-American ramen fusions like Kimchi Ramen, Spicy Tofu Ramen, Bulgogi Ramen, and Vegan Miso Ramen), but the company has also partnered with chef Shigetoshi Nakamura to build Ramen Lab, a place where visitors can learn how ramen is made and sample different styles.
Ramen Lab NYC.
And now, Ramen Lab has finally opened in Manhattan, serving a dual purpose. For starters, Ramen Lab has mirrored Sun Noodles' pledge as an education center, offering seminars and "ramen flights" on different noodle styles and broths. Ramen Lab is also offering a regular menu that will focus on unique styles of ramen that aren't as well known in New York, like vegetarian miso and assari shoyu, which is, in fact, the oldest style of Japanese ramen.
Chef Shigetoshi Nakamura is in the house almost every night.
Ramen Lab is open to the public from noon to 10 p.m. on Tuesdays through Saturdays, serving a simple menu of torigara shoyu ramen, vegetarian miso ramen, tsukemen, mazemen, and gyoza. The rest of the time, the NYC venture will be devoted to hosting seminars and meetings with other New York ramen shops. Eventually, the Ramen Lab team will offer reservation-only tasting flights on Friday nights and and guest appearances from Japanese ramen shops.

We even went to Sun Noodles to learn the process of how ramen noodles are made. Check out the Potluck video below: