When Bad Science Meets Good Food

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Photo by Terrence Henry

Behold, the Molecular Gastronomist!

Marvel as he whips, gels, foams, and deconstructs your food, much as he would his own hair. Admire his sullen expression as he leans over, tweezers in hand, to artfully apply grains of black pepper and dehydrated orange peel to your spoonful of Jellied Olive Oil and White Truffle Powder. And soldier on when you realize that all you are eating, really, is a slightly-gelatinous bit of olive oil, whose concentration mutes all the other flavors around it, and reminds you of forced dosages of cough medicine as a child.

The McG has to try (and fail) to elevate food. He can't simply comfort or nourish you with his food, his mission is to surprise, unsettle and astonish.

But there are more tricks up this Molecular Gastronomist's--let's shorten that to McG--sleeve. Perhaps a reworking of "Surf and Turf," with Scallops and Lamb's Tongue?

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Photo by Terrence Henry

Okay. But, sadly, the Molecular Gastronomist doesn't have time to adequately sear your scallops today.

Maybe something has gone wrong with the circulating water bath and your 12-hour short ribs were in the tub just a little too long. And you are a little concerned with the butternut squash baby food on your plate (was this seasoned during cooking, or only after?). What's worse, that broken, unctuous sauce on the scallops and tongue is rapidly expanding its territory.

Wait a minute. The McG seems to be losing you.

Know hope! This McG, Alejandro Digilio, worked for a season at El Bulli before opening up his molecular hotspot, La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

Besides, you are only two courses in, and every McG must have at least fourteen thousand courses on their menu. Onward to Egg Pocket with White Truffle Powder and Black Pepper Creme Fraiche:

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Photo by Terrence Henry

Ahhhhh... maybe you had this place wrong, for here is a dish that gets it right. Sure, there's that same truffle powder from before, which reminds you more of packing foam than truffles.

But inside that buttery, flaky pastry is a perfectly cooked egg, its runny yolk just waiting to be mixed in with the creme fraiche. You would have this for breakfast every day if you could.

But the satisfaction will be fleeting. For the McG has something in mind for you, a special dish to show off his molecular prowess--Braised Short Rib with Apple Jelly and Salt Foam.

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Photo by Terrence Henry

I know what your gut is telling you: Eh, should a short rib remind me of something that washed up on the beach?

But this is the McG's world. It isn't enough to properly braise, season, and sauce a short rib--it has to be evolved. It has to entertain. It has to look like an extremely sunburned Portuguese Man-of-War with a stick of gum next to it.

And that stick of gum (the apple jelly) has to taste like a jolly rancher, in case you might be thinking about actually enjoying the (admittedly delicious) short rib on its own.

Do the critics have it wrong about this place, you wonder? La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar has won ecstatic reviews from Time Out, Ask Men, and it even made Food & Wine's 2009 list of Twenty Rising Stars. And the salivating hordes at Trip Advisor are on board:

The tasting menu reflected a lot of the innovative cooking style that El Bulli has become famous worldwide for, but without the six month wait for a reservation and at a fraction of the price!!

You agree with the "fraction of the price" bit, but remain unconvinced of the rest. Perhaps dessert will show you the true skills of the McG, a Trio of House-Made Gelatos:

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Photo by Terrence Henry

Why, yes, this is nice. On the left there, covered in crunchy cocoa, is yogurt gelato, and next to it is a goat cheese helado, and the last on the right is a chocolate gelato. That crown of chocolate ice milk on the top is annoying (and tastes watery), but the gelatos are delightful: the yogurt is bright and just barely sweet, the goat cheese tangy, the chocolate rich.

But on second thought, you realize that these are simply house-made ice creams, which are being ruined by a melting chip of watery chocolate. Again, the gelatos on their own aren't enough. The McG has to try (and fail) to elevate them. He can't simply comfort or nourish you with his food, his mission is to surprise, unsettle, and astonish.

It's unfortunate, you think. Maybe underneath the foams, powders, jellies, and bubbles there is something good here, but it's awfully hard to see that as it is now.

And so you walk out of La Vineria with one thought in your mind: Why can't more chefs just serve food that is simply comforting, and comfortingly simple? Not all of you are meant to paint a canvas on the plate.

La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar
Bolivar 865, San Telmo
11-course tasting menu 160 pesos per person, or about $43 U.S.
More photos from Vineria de are available on our Flickr photostream.