Just the other day, I was at Le Bernardin. There was much to praise in the seafood that went across our table that evening. Most everything I’d eaten, from hamachi pounded thin, to braised octopus, was the very best of the ingredient I’d eaten, ever. When dessert came around, something familiar held still the quenelle of ice cream. This something was spread throughout the dish, decorating a pen box-sized rectangle of Madagascan chocolate ganache.
Originally, when this ingredient made its way onto menus as an ironic nod to the bourgeois food of American quotidian life – baseball games, carnivals, movie theaters – it was charming. This would have been around the time chefs in the late eighties and early nineties were getting tired of having fruit cutting competitions with their Japanese and Vietnamese counterparts (chefs in this part of the world still carve fruit religiously – some of my family members recently took a cooking class in Ho Chi Minh City and the first thing they were told to do was carve a rose out of a plum tomato).
This would have also been around the time Joël Robuchon was named Chef of the Century by Gault Millau for simplifying and intensifying the flavors of what had arguably become, at the same time, the most insular and revered culinary tradition in the world – French haute cuisine. Eventually, Robuchon brought the tapa to the United States, and the rest is history.
As America reveled in the non-committal aspect of the Franco-Spanish tapa during the fete of Clinton-era economics, dishes with more “international” (a word today reserved for executive airport lounges) leanings had emerged, and the line between chicken consommé and chicken broth was becoming more and more turbid. Somewhere in between 9/11 and the closing of molecular gastronomy font, El Bulli, haute cuisine underwent yet another makeover: it finally became, not just noble and unforgetting and contextually important to serve the food of the masses – to serve potato soup, as the Irish might have said – it became incredibly stylish.
But the world – especially Americans – wanted comfort food, without tainting their newly sophisticated pallets. For awhile now, chefs have endeavored to elevate what in other times would have been considered bourgeois. Throw out the tenderloin and keep the shanks, short ribs and ox tail. These cuts of beef, with their higher fat content, occasional silver skin and bodily miscellanea, took time to manipulate into melting submission.
Their replacing of more kingly cuts was no doubt a form of irony, but it was a form that would overturn on itself and produce a lasting affinity, rather than a fleeting riff. The progeny of this new culinary looseness would manifest in bites like lobster mac’n cheese, bacon dipped in chocolate, and pop-up anew in dishes like cassoulet and seasoned beef marrow with croutons – yes, it’s ironic…it’s ironically ironic, etc… but it’s really good too, so maybe that’s not the point!
And so I sat, staring at my beautiful dark Madagascan chocolate ganache, seeing the decorative popcorn bits, golden and caramel-shiny. And that quenelle of ice cream? It’s popcorn ice cream, sitting on caramel popcorn crumble. Other restaurants are doing this popcorn thing too: just the other day I saw it on the menu of north Union Square restaurant, ABC Kitchen, bathing in chocolate.
Before I took a bite of my ganache, I tried the popcorn. The thought crossing my head as I lifted the fork to my mouth: is popcorn really good enough for this dish? Or is this just a charade, a little vending machine irony, a quiet but sustained irreverence of what Chef Robuchon spent years reforming? Is it not yet reformed? The popcorn was sweet and the shell of caramel crushed into mild buttery meringue-like corn crust. This was caramel popcorn. And it’s on the plate, primarily, because it’s good and it’s unique, not because it’s ironic. But sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference.
I took a sip of my calvados. Chef Ripert, co-owner and chef at Le Bernardin, is one of Joël Robuchon’s protégés; if Chef Ripert learned anything from the subtly iconoclastic master, it comes through in his ability to simplify and intensify, not to provide ironic commentary.