When a Trendy Dinner Disappoints

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Photo by xmatt/Flickr CC

A commenter on my review of La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar asks,

Why is this about "molecular gastronomy" and not about bad cooking? There are plenty of lousy restaurants making "traditional" food, but the reaction when someone experiences one is not "Why aren't they using an immersion circulator and a pacojet?"

And they have a point. I feel much the same and said so toward the end of the review when I noted, "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."

There are many traditional restaurants that cover up poorly executed food with heavy sauces or pretty garnishes, of course (as there are newer places that do the same with foams and gels). But these traditional restaurants don't get the buzz or accolades that places like La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar do, and they certainly don't tend to charge the same prices.

What concerns me is chefs diving into "molecular gastronomy" and ignoring what they do well.

And with the restaurant in question, it wasn't necessarily a case of badly-executed cooking (although that was a part of it). Those short ribs were wonderfully done, as I noted, but marred by the salt foam and Jolly Rancher jelly. The egg pocket was delicious, but the white truffle powder brought nothing to the party and only served to distract. And the same issue with the gelatos--there was good cooking here, but the team in the kitchen seemed to be doing everything they could to hide it.

What concerns me is chefs diving into "molecular gastronomy" and ignoring what they do well. I have nothing against the movement. In fact, one of the best meals I've ever had was at Jose Andres' Minibar, considered by most to be the closest to El Bulli one can get in the states. I have nothing against tweezers, sous vide, and even foam, when it's in the right place. As Grant Achatz has noted, all cooking by definition is a form of "molecular gastronomy." The jump from saucisson en croute to cotton candy foie gras isn't really that great, when you think about it. But there is a fad as well, a bandwagon of McGs, and it is unfortunate to see a good chef hop on it without seeming to realize where he's going.

I believe there are culinary artists out there meant to paint a canvas on a plate; there are chefs who are meant to surprise, entertain, and unsettle. I also feel that there are many chefs, like Martin Picard, who do this from a more traditional place--I imagine that the element of surprise when he opens up his "Duck in a Can" and pours it onto your plate is similar to the excitement a diner experiences upon their first bite of Chef Achatz's Black Truffle Explosion. Very different restaurants at a glance, but at their core both are focused on seasonality, sourcing, and creativity.

There is a far more interesting dialogue on the place of molecular gastronomy that Chef Achatz has taken up with himself after attending the Madrid Fusion conference earlier this year, which you can start reading here. He winds up with more questions than answers, which in my mind is a good thing.