Happy Reverse-Hoarder Holidays!

A heartwarming tale of Thanksgiving

note: a small amout of poetic license has been taken in the following true-life account.  Namely, that my sister is not actually crazy, just eccentric in sometimes maddening ways.

Fate has a way of knitting together random crap into what becomes our lives.  Example: The day before Thanksgiving, I roasted a duck.  I was in South Carolina, where my parents now live.   Also: my sister Lisa is crazy, a fact that I often forget.   This is the story of how the Crochet Hook of Fate got busy on my sister Lisa and the duck.

As far as I can tell, there is no object or substance on planet earth that my sister Lisa isn’t happy to throw right in the garbage.  She’s like those people on hoarders, whose collections of empty cat food cans form miniature housing projects in the living room, next to the prized head of rotten cabbage from the Clinton years.  Except my sister Lisa is the total opposite of that.  She lives for the pristine, empty space which hosts only, well, a kind of romanticized possibility of living.  If my sister were say…a suicide bomber…the paradise awaiting her after blowing up the school bus would be an infinite supply of cluttered refrigerators, which she could obsessively empty and clean.  In her McMansion’s soccer-field sized kitchen, the array of high-end appliances gleam across great vistas of bare granite countertop; the couch cushions in her hanger-like ‘great room’ have never been marred by a human ass print.  On the mantle, the immaculately antiqued ‘welcome friends’ duck in Williamsburg blue has never actually been disturbed by mingling, chattering, welcomed friends.  Oh my sister entertained—once, under great pressure from her now ex-husband, who had some crazy notion of using the many acres of their expensively-furnished home to socialize with other humans.  She regaled us later with wide-eyed tales of having to watch in horror as cocktail napkins and brownie crumbs fell to the carpet, “and I couldn’t vacuum them for hours! I had to just STAND there and watch!”  Except for the kitchen and adjacent small family room, which occasionally get used due to absolute necessity, the majority of my sister’s McMansion appears to be theoretical.  My sister Lisa, you see, is a reverse hoarder.

So I bought this duck, which I cooked the day before Thanksgiving.  I know it seems redundant to have duck right before Thanksgiving, but I was going to make this sweet potato hash by cooking the potatoes in duck fat, as a kind of ultimate designer side dish for Thanksgiving.  Not that anyone in my family would notice.  To those with whom I share a genetic bond, primary sources of culinary inspiration include Parade magazine  and Campbell’s soup labels.  Rachael Ray could be Joel Robuchon to my family, so technically demanding and exotic are her dishes.  “I prefer canned” is an oft-used phrase at our Thanksgivings.  I persist in making the yams and cranberry sauce from scratch, even though I’m the only one that goes near them.  Remembering my grandmother’s deep brown turkey gravy, and some alchemy of pan drippings and flour, I asked my mom “how do you get that really rich brown turkey gravy grandma used to make?”  “Oh,” began her earnest reply, “I cut open the envelope, then add a cup of water.”

I’m reminded that it was The Gravy Incident of 2005 that first set off alarm bells about my sister Lisa’s reverse hoarder syndrome.  I cooked at her house that year—I know—and she looked on with a kind of stressful, rapt fascination as I showed her how the $400 mixer and Viking stove could be successfully employed to prepare food for human consumption.   I had succeeded in negotiating Brining—the process of soaking the turkey overnight to ensure the meat stays moist.  “You soak the turkey—raw??” my sister was horrified.  “Yes, like most food, that is the state it is found in, prior to the cooking process,” I spoke in the measured tones of a UN translator explaining controversial sanctions.  “But…where will you put it???” “There’s room in the garage—it will sit in a cooler, with ice in the brine…” “But…why do you have to do that?” she protested wrinkling her nose, “what if you get—turkey juice on the floor?” “Well, it’s a garage Lisa, the floor is cement—are you afraid the car tires might get salmonilla?” We went back and forth like that for an hour.

What torture it must have been for Lisa to have to sleep all night with what that bacteria spa right there in her garage.  The next morning she’d put on those  industrial rubber  gloves, got that turkey out, cleaned and disinfected the cooler, and for all I know power washed the garage floor before I even woke up.

“Um where are the giblets?”  I’m cutting celery for the stock, while Lisa is following me around the kitchen with a sponge and 409.   “What?” she asks innocently, spraying and wiping. “You know, the parts from the turkey I put in the fridge yesterday?”  “You mean the NECK?” “Yes, the neck and—they were all in butcher paper, in the fridge? “ I rinse 409 from the surface of a stray celery stalk.  “I threw those away.” “Um—what?” “I threw them away.  Michael—we don’t EAT the NECK.”  I was dumb with shock—but I have to keep it together:  I won’t let her see me cry.  Was she kidding? Did she really not pay attention to the other 40 or so Thanksgivings she’d lived through?  Or was this payback for my winning the brining war?  “they were for the stock and gravy—Lisa, how am I going to make stock now?”  “Well I have BOULLION CUBES right in the cupboard,” as if there were no difference at all between homemade turkey stock and a pair of dice fashioned from salt and monosodium glutamate.

After she went off to vacuum something or compulsively scrub a surface, I snuck out to the garage, where I went trash-diving for turkey parts.   If she thought I was going to spend all damn day cooking with no turkey stock—well, I’d show her.

Perhaps because it was laced with the bitter herbs of smug satisfaction, my giblet gravy that year was the best ever.  In addition to sneaking in spices and herbs, I deglazed the pan with a splash of apple cider.  My family is suspicious of the DNA of actual food flavor: herbs, aromatics, spices.  If they’d known I shoved a bunch of herbs in the birds ass, they would have accused me of some sort of kitchen treason.  So I have become a kind of dysfunctionally secretive cook, sneaking sprigs of parsley and thyme like an alcoholic sneaking shots of cheap vodka.

“Um…where is the gravy?” The next morning I’m ferreting around the neatly packed leftovers, a skyline of Jenga-like Tupperware tower in my sister’s impeccable refrigerator.  I was making a care package for myself to take back home.  “Keep looking, it’s in there somewhere,” said my mother, clearly an enabler.  “Lisa? Do you know where you put Michael’s gravy?” she called helpfully to my sister, who was off disinfecting  a surface somewhere in her lab-like, germ- free home.  Note, she said Michael’s gravy.  My sister Shelley’s gravy, the family favorite, was of course sitting right there in the fridge.  Shelley’s gravy is the color of camel fur and performs all the functions of gravy except the delivery of taste or flavor.  “The gravy?  From the pan that I made yesterday?” I said when Lisa showed up, brandishing  a toilet brush like a mace in her  gloved hand.  “Was it in the pan?” “yes—it may shock you to know that the pan is pretty much the Ground Zero of gravy, for people who have a palette?” I can feel a panic begin. “Oh.  Well I WASHED  the pan.”  “You washed—ok, but what did you do with the gravy?” “Was it still in the PAN?” “Yes yes the gravy from the pan! Jesus Mary and Rhoda— “I stopped to breathe and count to ten.  “Oh.  I threw that AWAY.”

A year later my parents sold their house in Maryland and moved to South Carolina. Lisa was delighted to ‘help’ them.  Moving is like Christmas to a reverse hoarder.  Here was 30 years of accumulated history and personal belongings from our family of six, all begging to be thrown right in the dumpster.  “Now do you need these?  They’re just pictures,” I imagine her saying, balancing my box of photos—from a high school tour of Europe— on the lip of an industrial-sized Rubbermaid.  Even now I have no idea how much of my own personal history fell victim to Lisa’s compulsion to 86 everything of value in sight.

“You know,” my mom whispers conspiratorially, handing me the box of photos, “Lisa wanted to throw these away, but I rescued them.  And look!  I saved this just for you!”   She points to a favorite of mine, an antique toy from India that belonged to my grandfather, sitting on a side table.  I don’t know how they survived the move, my parents.  There was plenty of room in the new house.  It wasn’t so much moving as going into hiding, like the families in “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

“Duck fat provides inimitable flavor and texture to foods when used for frying roasting and sautéing.” Informs the Williams-Sonoma website, where duck fat can be purchased for roughly one dollar per ounce.  The duck this year was my first effort.  As ducks go, it was ok—the skin wasn’t as crisp as I’d like, the meat was a little too well-done.  But mission completed: I had at least least 25 dollars worth of duck fat to work with.  I was excited—tomorrow I’d  make this awesome sweet potato hash…I’d never cooked with duck fat, but everyone knows it’s amazing, especially for frying.   Almost everyone knows this.

“Do you want to save this?” Lisa asks, holding up a parsley stem while cleaning the kitchen.  “Lisa, that’s a stem. No—I don’t want to keep that.”  She’s overcompensating now, feeling guilty for the crime she’s just committed.  But it’s too late.   “Well what about this?” She points to a husk of onion I’d peeled earlier.  “No.”  I can’t tell if she’s being sarcastic or truly ignorant. “Can I throw this away?” She indicates the butt of a carrot. “Just, just don’t talk to me right now.”  By ‘right now’ I mean a span of time which I hope stretches to infinity.  You see 5 minutes earlier, we finished our meal of duck.  Two minutes after that, I got up from the table and walked into the kitchen, where I watched my sister pour the final three Williams-Sonoma dollars’ worth of duck fat right into the garbage can.  She reads on my face the expression of one watching a baby being tossed onto a bonfire.  “Oh—did you want to keep that?”

 

The End

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Published in: on January 2, 2011 at 1:49 am  Leave a Comment  

Is John Curtas’ review of Bachi Burger racist, or just idiotic?

In the current issue of Las Vegas Weekly, food critic John Curtas finally gets around to reviewing Bachi Burger.  Possibly because both Mike Dobranski and I sang its praises here and here (months before Mr. Curtas got around to his review), John Curtas trashes Bachi Burger in his piece–ya gotta stand out somehow. 

In his typically pedestrian, dull prose, Mr. Curtas, a self-described ‘purist,’–i.e., ‘I have no imagination when it comes to deviating from tradition,’– accuses Bachi Burger of being watered-down ‘Asian’ food, designed for those ‘who wouldn’t be caught dead in a pho parlor on Spring Mountain’ (meaning: ‘I John Curtas enjoy hanging with my Asians on Spring Mountain–pass the Sriracha!’).  He goes on to claim that Bachi Burger ‘wouldn’t exist’ were it not for David Chang’s’  ‘East-meets-West’ Momofuku in New York.  Because, I suppose, Mr. Curtas believes David Chang is the first and only Asian person to ever employ Asian flavors in a non-traditional way.  Culturally tone-deaf, Mr. Curtas would prefer ‘the wonders of Korean and Vietnamese cuisine’ stay comfortably in the confines of Spring Mountain Rd.  Like a lot of unconscious liberal bias, he unwittingly insults the very culture he means to praise–the subtext is, ‘I love my pho and kim chee, but please stay on the porch exotic yellow person, and don’t play in my sandbox of Western tradition.’

Do I think John Curtas’ review is racist?  Not really, just tone-deaf.  But this is coming from a man who loves Carnevino, which offers the least bang-for-the-buck in all of Las Vegas, in its surly presentation of some of the most overpriced, boringly-plated food in town. 

You think the burger is overcooked?  Fine; though you can ask for yours medium rare next time.  But don’t accuse Bachi Burger of being too Asian, not Asian enough, or derivatively Asian, Mr. Curtas.  Because there is nothing particularly Italian about Carnevino, for instance, and yet you made no complaints about its cultural pedigree or roots in your review.

Published in: on July 2, 2010 at 9:31 pm  Comments (1)  

Twit Lit 101: An intro to A.D.D. Fiction

When I first became aware of Twitter I couldn’t be less interested in it.  I’m still not feeling much Twitter love, and am not particularly drawn to reducing the events of my life to 140-character glib asides.

But the odd, arbitrary frame of the 140-character real estate was interesting to me as a platform for something else–writing fiction.  Early searches found some novels and short stories written over several twitter posts, but that seemed like cheating to me–I was more drawn to the severe limitation of crafting an entire work of fiction in 140-or-less characters of typed modern English.

Stravinsky once said something about the more rules an artist has the more free he is.  Taking his dictum to absurd levels, my twitter fiction began to take on even more challenges–stories which used words of only one syllable; the rather perverse challenge of composing a perfect letter palindrome. 

After a bountiful early harvest of 30 or so Twitter stories, I lost momentum.  But I’m hoping sharing my body of twitter works here will spur some critical feedback and urge me on to more.

The challenge of Twitter Fiction is achieving the ‘beginning, middle, end’ aspect (aka, a plot…) we associate with fiction.  It’s easy to describe a moment, but suggesting plot is much harder in the 140-character format.

So I’ll present my efforts in chronological order, beginning with my first untitled effort:

How many times had he heard her say This Is The Last Time? And no words would ever convince her that backing over Mittens was an accident.

Stay with me–they get better…

Published in: on June 29, 2010 at 8:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

Welcome to The Age of Manley

Welcome to The Age of Manley.   Let’s evolve, shall we?

Inexplicable, Frighteningly Huge Green Monkey, Laughlin, NV

So: on a recent trip to Laughlin, NV I happened on a riverside promenade lined with the above Inexplicable, Frighteningly Huge Green Monkeys.  They were functional: each outsized ape wielded (in an uncomfortably phallic fashion) a torch-themed lantern, presumably to light the way.  The detritus of a now-gone hotel/casino, I surmised. 

What a perfect simian simile for my new venture into the blogosphere–for I too, am a primate bent on illumination.  And yes, at times I may even instill fright in small children and the elderly.

But what do the Gargantuan Molded Fiberglass Chimps of Laughlin mean?  And why choose them as my talisman, indeed my muse?

They are derelict, neglected, forgetten; cast-off, out of context, remnant; essentially skidmarks in the underwear of history.  Who built them, and why?  The monkeys offer no proof; they stand as mute witness to their own obsolescence–an apt metaphor for the essentially ephemeral-yet-permanent nature of content in the digital age. 

Some background:  My virgin venture into the blogosphere was as a co-thinker-upper and contributing writer on the excellent Tasting Las Vegas.  That blog is now the sole purview of Mike Dobranski, who continues his lively and up-to-the-minute survey of the Las Vegas dining scene there.  A few factors made branching off a logical choice.  First, with Two Guys Named Mike posting, authorial confusion inevitably ensued (the blog as a format better suits the singular voice).  Second, my content was really broadening to include travel, the cultural landscape, and my obsession with molecular gastronomy (sadly, a cuisine not much represented in Las Vegas).  Third, Mike Dobranski is a true blogger, whereas I’m more of a writer wedging myself into the blog rubric.  Even though I’ve not yet achieved the cross-media integration Mike has done with TLV (through Twitter and Facebook, etc.), I remain hopeful that I will let go of my rhetorical OCD to achieve more frequent posts here, and to establish a higher profile on Facebook and Twitter as well.  I hope you’ll stick around for my cyber-evolution.

So what can you expect here at The Age of Manley?  Well more food and dining for sure (note: my posts from Tasting Las Vegas have been imported to this blog and can be found under Food and Dining).  Also: critical writing on books, culture, the arts, and some politics thrown in.  Also, I plan to share some of my own fictional and dramatic work, including my experiments in the peculiar genre of Twitter Fiction–complete works of fiction in 140 characters or less. 

I’m posting in five major categories, with more narrow sub-categories to be added soon.  These are:

On Books and Culture

On Food and Dining

On Life and Politics

On the Performing Arts

Plays and Fiction (c) Michael Manley

So for those of you who are following me here from Tasting Las Vegas, thanks for reading and the continued conversation.  For those of you new, welcome to my world. 

Let the evolution begin!

Michael Manley is a professional musician, avid foodie, and writer living Las Vegas, Nevada.  Follow him on Twitter @AgeOfManley.

Politically Correctness V. Sustainability–my 2 cents on the Raynor/Moonen smackdown

Further to Mike Dobranski’s recent post here on the Raynor V. Moonen “Top Chef Masters” sustainability debate, I wanted to chime in with a few observations and comments…

First, there is a difference between sustainability (good) and political correctness (bad).  I think Chef Rick Moonen falls into the former category, and believe that critic Jay Raynor unfairly places him in the latter camp.  The distinction is significant.

Sustainability is pro-consumption, where political correctness is anti-consumption. Sustainability wants us to save and sustain game, fish and plant life that is threatened so we can continue enjoying it in the future.  This is the opposite motive of say a militant vegan, who would argue that consuming all animals is unethical and morally wrong.

An environmentally aware hunter may be opposed to hunting threatened animals because he wants to continue eating them; our militant vegan is opposed to hunting as a practice altogether. The hunter’s opposition is pragmatic, the militant vegan’s are philosophical.

As an omnivore and whimsitarian–a self-invented term for those who enjoy eating rabbits, duck, and other cute, whimsical animals–I am all about sustainability.  From what was aired on this season of Top Chef (granted, we didn’t see everything) I think Rick Moonen was consistent in coming across as practical and not preachy.  But beyond that, Raynor’s sniping about Moonen’s “fish guy” and “sustainability guy” cred is ridiculous on its face.

An Inconvenient Deer

To wit: Raynor calls Moonen out for serving New Zealand Venison because he (incorrectly) assumed it was flown in (and its carbon footprint therefore too large, chided Mr. Raynor, as if Chef Rick Moonen were Al Gore).

Here’s the problem with that logic: Unless all of Rick Moonen’s fish came from Lake Mead or The Mojave Ocean, which last time I checked didn’t exist, planes trains and automobiles have long been involved in his career.  To say a chef has no right to advocate for sustainability because he/she ships product in is like saying that Al Gore has no right to raise environmental concerns because he owns an SUV.  Why didn’t Jay Raynor bring this up in the first episode if he felt it was such a problem?  Or is shipping fish OK, but not Venison?  It makes no sense.

“The Fish Guy”

Raynor was equally annoyed with Moonen’s referring to himself as “The Fish Guy.” I too kept wondering if Rick Moonen could cook things with legs during the Top Chef Masters season–but wouldn’t that be reason to applaud his cooking a protein that walked?  I am sure if Rick Moonen had served three fish courses in the finale Raynor would have called him on the carpet for only doing fish.  Raynor lamely complains that the NZ Venison didn’t fit in with Chef Moonen’s ‘story,’ but part of Chef Moonen’s story is pushing himself, taking risks, and surprising his diners–all of which could be said of the Venison dish.

Another thing: while not as out-front as Moonen, winning chef Marcus Samuelsson also made claims to cultural and environmental sensitivity, and even implied that those who didn’t like his last dish didn’t ‘understand’ it.  I don’t take issue with that, but I do think its disingenuous for Raynor to be offended by one chef’s story/point of view and not the other.  If Raynor were more fair in his critique, he might have wondered why Chef Samuelsson, who is eloquently passionate about world hunger and the economical use of food/water, served foie gras in the final competition.  I love foie gras myself, but I’m sure the ROI in grain to duck liver is pretty low…

Thanks to Mike D. for initiating this lively debate, and the good news is that we got to see, in the Top Chef Masters Final, the beatiful work of three truly worthy chefs.  What I’m dying to know is where Gael Greene and James Oseland were in the whole fracas…anyone have the details on that?

Published in: on June 12, 2010 at 2:57 pm  Comments (4)  

Tasting Chicago–Michael Manley and The Dave eat the Windy City!

Intrepid readers–I live. All appearances otherwise, I have not fallen off the face of the earth, nor met my untimely demise.   The same cannot be said of my Toshiba laptop, which partly accounts for the lag in my posts.  I dusted off the spare which is very buggy and very slow…a gentle reminder to my virtual comrades: first unplug headphones from laptop jack THEN get up and walk away from computer…but enough of my excuses, on with the post!

Tasting Chicago

Cloud Gate, aka “The Bean,” Millenium Park, Chicago

Spending Memorial Day Weekend in Chicago has become a tradition for me, when time and money permit.  I have been pretty faithful since 2005, aka “the year I flew to Chicago to have dinner.”

As astute readers may recall, I have always been a Casual Foodie, which was kind of a job hazard from spending years touring.  When you live out of a suitcase, dining is one of the few pleasures you can indulge in.  But it wasn’t until I was off the road that I became an Insane Foodie.  The exact moment was December 2004, when I lost my Molecular Gastronomy virginity at Wylie Dufresne’s wd-50 in lower Manhattan.  Much of that meal remains vivid in my memory and it was a really transforming experience.  Like discovering a new language, or seeing the ocean for the first time.  Not to get all Marianne Williamson about it.  But it did have that affect on me.  What can I say?  Chef Dufresne had me at Toast Ice Cream.

After this initial inspiration, I quickly discovered that Chicago was becoming a center for molecular gastronomy.  Grant Achatz had just left Trio around this time, and was set to open Alinea in the spring of 2005.  And there was this other guy, Homaro Cantu, who had a placed called moto that looked pretty trippy too.  In February, I decided that if I could get a reservation at Alinea the month they opened (May, 2005), I would fly to Chicago and essentially eat my vacation.  Not only did my Memorial Day weekend reservation work out, but I was even able to score a table at moto for the evening prior.  So one plane ticket, two meals and 35 courses later, I had spent the equivalent of my NY rent on one incredible and unforgettable vacation.

Where the Bears Are

An added bonus:  Memorial Day weekend in Chicago is home to both International Mr. Leather and Bear Pride. This first is not a pageant for cobblers, nor is the second a symposium on the self-esteem of the grizzly. They are simply reasons for thousands of gay men to gather and socialize to various degrees of intimacy and inebriation.  Facial hair and cowhide predominate in the festivities, with half the guys look like they just left the Bass Pro Shop, and the other half are on their way to the Harley Davidson Café. It is possible that lesbians also attend—but why would I notice?  Sorry womyn sistahs, couldn’t resist.  Anyway another good non-dining excuse to enjoy Chicago.  If that’s your thing.  And if it’s not, well I am telling you, you will NOT be bored by the spectacle.

Anyway, I have several friends from around the country who gather there that weekend, so my annual trip to Chicago is a great chance to see them.  Hell I’ve even persuaded a few to enjoy a fantastic meal or two.  Not Alan The Bear from Dallas, however.  I realized my best bear buddy and I were never meant to be when I heard Alan utter the four words every foodie dreads: “What’s wrong with Applebee’s?” Intrepid readers brace yourselves: these words were spoken with feet firmly planted on the island of Manhattan, New York.

Well there are plenty of bears in the forest.  Aren’t there???

Michael and The Dave Eat Chicago

This year, none other than The Dave himself joined me, for 3 days of food and drink, and hopefully some no further comment with names redacted thrown in for good measure. And great retro shopping—the Chicago Ragstock rules.  So after Thursday’s show on the Memorial Day weekend eve, The Dave and I boarded a red-eye for the Windy City.

We arrived tired and hungry, checked in to the Swissotel and headed to its restaurant Geneva for breakfast.  The Dave wisely ordered the culturally appropriate cured salmon, which was quite good, while I ordered, for no apparent reason, corned beef hash and eggs, which were corned beef hash and eggs.  I only regretted this because everything was pricey, and the ROI on hash and eggs wasn’t very high in this instance.  However, great service and an elegant experience.  Not a fan of the Swiss coffee, however, as they seem to enjoy a very smooth cup that for me lacks any character or real flavor.  The Dave and I shared an order of Muesli—the wonderful Swiss apple/granola/cream/yogurt concoction that is one of the few adult foods with the consistency of baby food that is, against all odds, truly delicious.  It’s ten bucks, and worth going back for.

We then crashed for a few hours, then headed over to the Hyatt next door—which was hosting the IML cowhide enthusiasts—for a pre-dinner cocktail.  I was psyched about trying any of the Rick Bayless places—Topolobompo, Frontera Grill, or the new tacqueria Xoco, all nearby.  But we struck up a conversation with a Chicago native cowhide enthusiast who turned out to be another Insane Foodie, who insisted we try a hot new place instead.  Several Manhattans and gin and tonics later, we were all headed down the street to The Wit, a  trendy hotel with a very cool roof lounge/restaurant appropriately named Roof:


The view/scene at Roof.

Because of the aforementioned cocktails, there is little of this meal I actually remember, except for a beautiful apple and bacon pizza, and wonderfully gamey lamb sliders. All I know for sure is it was 45 bucks a person (clearly the drinking continued), the view was great, and I was hungry when we got back to the hotel.  Naturally, we drank more.

Saturday morning was all about coffee and amnesiac regret. But that evening we were going to moto so we had to sober up and get serious!  Finding ourselves in Boystown in the afternoon, I thought we could  enjoy some light tapas at the unassuming but often great Arco de Cuchilleros, but they do not open until 5pm.  So we grabbed some tacos and sopes at a Mexican joint that were unremarkable, but held us over until our orgy of gastronomic excess.

Dinner at moto—what to say?  Plenty, but that is for a separate post.  But shout-outs must be given here to chef Ben Roche, General Manager and Sommelier Matthew Gundlach, and chef Richie Farina, for giving some special TLV love in the form of a kitchen tour (look for my first video soon…).    I was so glad The Dave joined me; it’s a big investment of time and money, one few of my friends will indulge in.  I’ve been alternating between moto and Alinea on my annual Chicago trips, and it’s been a real education to eat at both restaurants a few times.  They share a common philosophical approach–in terms of deconstruction, surprise, and manipulating sense memories and expectations—but their dishes could not be more different.  Alinea is like a Miyazaki anime film; moto is more Pixar.

Sunday, we headed to Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinders, a place The Dave had fond memories of, and a Chicago institution. It is home to the Pizza Pot Pie, a wonderful concept that takes Chicago’s famous deep-dish pizza to its logical conclusion, wherein a cheese-lined bowl is filled with sauce and toppings, and the whole thing is domed in pizza dough.  The upside-down plating yields a sort of bread-bowl pizza:

“Pizza Pot Pie,” Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co.

We ordered the sausage version, and I wish it had tasted as good as it looked. Unfortunately, everything between the cheese and the crust tasted like it came straight from a Ragu jar to me.

The Grinder was more successful:

This was a basic Italian sub that was enlived by an excellent house-made roll.  It had been lightly toasted so the cheese was just melted.  I’m not a fan of cold cold-cut subs; heating brings out the spices and sweetness of salamis and bolognas, and just takes it to another level for me.

We also tried their famous flatbread, a fluffy, herbed round that was larger than a dinner plate.  A house salad was fine as well.

We trekked up to Ragstock, the MN based used/vintage clothing chain of stores.  Sale item of the day:

How much are gorillas in Las Vegas? Pretty sure that’s a steal.  Several cool shirts later (I am now #18 on the Daiichi baseball team…) we were headed to the bars of Boystown for some late afternoon beers before dinner.  This put us back in Arco de Cuchilleros territory, though again we found them closed (for vacation, I assumed).  A few doors down we stumbled on HB, short for Home Bistro.  Packed to the gills—sigh.  But chef/host Joncarl Lachman said it would only be about 10 minutes for a 2-top, so we were in luck.  HB has a BYOB policy, but luckily the 7-11 was open across the street.  Can good wine be had at 7-11?  I know that cheap wine can.  I grabbed something whimsical in the ‘animal on the label from Australia’ genre (yellow tail, blue penguin, pink wombat, blind zebra, etc).   The big, cheap red worked well with our hearty fare.

The room at HB is all ochre and shadows.  Were it not for the view of 7-11 across the street, we could be on a Parisian side street.

The food at HB was a revelation, the polar opposite of moto in every way, and a nice contrast after that experience.  We started with artichoke and edam fritters, then moved on to ribbon pasta with a hearty pork ragu,  And a duo of smoked quail on a bed of barbecued lentils. The quail is a must-order if you go–a home run in every way.  An apple crumble for dessert rounded out a bistro experience so transporting that The Dave and I were practically speaking French afterward…

While I never made it to the Rick Bayless joints (they are closed Sundays and Mondays), Bayless is not the only Chicago chef to offer his twist on Mexican street food.  Paul Kahan, of Blackbird,  Avec, and the recent Publican, just opened Big Star Taco in Wicker Park, where we had lunch on Monday:

Big Star Taco, Wicker Park, Chicago (but for the rain the patio would be packed I’m told!)

The former garage space is the perfect environment to sample Kahan’s recession-friendly taco joint.  Decent margaritas were just seven bucks, and most tacos were in the three-to-five-dollar range.  Is the taco-truck/bar mash-up the new pork belly?

The bar at Big Star Taco.

The Al Pastor tacos were excellent, with nicely caramelized pineapple balancing the porky goodness.  Fish and lamb varieties were equally good.  No radical twists here just tasty, straightforward food at a great price.  This is the kind of place we need more of in Las Vegas—food that is sophisticated but mid-priced, from real chefs.  One cannot eat at Raku and Bachi Burger alone.

It was finally time for The Dave and I to bid farewell to the bears and cowhide enthusiasts and head back to Las Vegas.  At the airport, The Dave and I decided to grab a snack.  We weren’t really hungry for dinner,  but didn’t want to go four hours without something.  What had we missed?  Why the loaded Chicago Dog of course:

As authentic as this looks, gentle readers, it proved not to be ideal pre-flight food.  The peppers for one were quite hot, and ended up doing Pilates in my stomach the whole flight.  For two, the bun makes a big difference with a true Chicago dog.  As does the dog. The only thing halfway on the mark was the array of toppings—the dog and bun could have come from a theme park, homeless shelter or prison.  Lesson learned–next time I’ll head to Hot Doug’s.

Perhaps not the best culinary send-off, but it was a trip filled with some great meals and memories.  Until next year, plant life, precipitation, and buildings having lights only on the inside! As far as Chicago dining goes for 2011, I’ve already shortlisted Schwa, The Bristol and a return trip to Alinea. Or moto. Or both…??

Michael Manley is a musician, writer and technilogical retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.  He can be followed on twitter @TLV_Michael and is also on Facebook (Michael S Manley).

Published in: on June 7, 2010 at 4:26 pm  Comments (2)  

Vegas Uncork’d Grand Tasting–Michael Manley’s take

I almost didn’t make it to the Vegas Uncork’d Grand Tasting, held poolside at Caesar’s Palace on May 7th.  Despite my being here for a year, I still don’t know the magic, secret routes that would say, convey one via automobile from I-15 to a parking spot at Caesar’s.  Better to arrive by cab, limo, helicopter, or chariot—they sure don’t make navigating the parking lots easy here.

Just made it in time to meet Mike Dobranski and Kerry (aka The Wife) at check-in, and get my press pass.   We score some face time on the red carpet with Rick Moonen (whose off-hour haunts include Yellowtail and Honey Pig, and who is the rare ‘star chef’ to make Vegas home), Charlie Palmer (“you can get anything in Vegas.  The idea that you can’t get fish, fresh produce, it’s bull—t”), and Sage’s Shawn McClain (Me: “What menu item are you most tired of?” Chef McClain: “Anything slider-related.  If it gets to the point where Jack-in-the-Box is doing it, you know something is overdone.”)

Sadly, scoring face time with Charlie Palmer deprives me of the opportunity to get my pic taken with fabulous figure skater Jonny Weir, who was disappointingly free of controversial dead-animal fashion accessories.  Is Jonny a secret foodie?  Or is Cirque wooing him to replace Criss Angel in Believe?  Well, we can dream.

A backstage shot from the red-carpet area:

(pictured: Jean Joho, Guy Savoy, Bradley Ogden, Francois Payard and Rick Moonen)

Sadly, there was no cheat-sheet of chefs/dishes available at the event, though we did get a list of chef pics so we could easily put names to faces.  I’ve requested a list of all restaurants/dishes present via email.  In the meantime, I must rely on my memory and the few notes I was able to take—not easy, when standing up juggling wine, fork and plate.  Or was it a Knork?

After orbiting the culinary star-field that was the press area for about an hour, we were collectively starved.  I approached the first booth and grabbed the first plate I could get my hands on—which turned out to be French Toast with maple ice cream, offered by the Wynn’s Tableau restaurant.  Might as well start with dessert, I thought.  It is a fine rendition of French Toast, though a quick peak at the Wynn’s website suggests this dish only hints at the talents of Tableau’s Chef David Spero.

What next? Well, a glass of red wine for starters. Then, oh, how about an artichoke and mushroom soup shooter, with a side of mushroom brioche? That was a stunner by the way, offered by Guy Savoy. While you could argue that serving a hot soup in May is like wearing white shoes after Labor Day, you can only have so many crab salads and tartares.  In the end, the soup was a smart choice for Guy Savoy—it proved a welcome contrast to the slider-seafood-tartare pack.

The soup is followed by some strawberry-shortcake-y morsel, which was then followed by—naturally—scallop ‘crudo’ from (I recall) Bobby Flay.

There is a kind of necessary randomness to what is eaten, and when, at a Food/Wine tasting.  While the Vegas Uncork’d Grand Tasting was, happily, very well attended, this meant that navigation was less a personal choice than a physical law—the crowd ebbed and flowed to those whims of higher math that explain fractals, or the clustering patterns of migratory birds.  We were, in essence, a skittering mass of well-dressed seagulls.

While I have to wait for the cheat-sheet for a more detailed download, here are some ‘Best’s’ that stand out.  This reflects only those dishes I tried, which was probably only 50-60% of what was offered, but here goes:

Best Presentation:

Shrimp and Crawfish Terrine, Andre’s/Alize (Monte Carlo/Palms)

Chef Andre Rochat offers a perfect, individually-molded ball of shrimp and crawfish flan perched on an herb chip, that ingeniously doubles as a handle:

While the chip’s thickness made it a bit hard, the flavor was outstanding.  And since no plastic utensils or plates are used, this dish takes the “Best Green Dish” award as well.

Joel Robuchon’s delicate crab, nestled in an impossibly thin, perfectly fried rice paper-y capsule, is a beauty to behold and comes in at a close second.

 

Best Tasting Dish, Savory:

 

Shrimp ball, Beijing Noodle 9 (Caesars Palace)

A humble morsel packed with flavor.  And like Robuchon’s crab, a wonderful contrast of tender seafood and crunchy exterior—in this case a nest of filament-thin, delicately fried threads (shredded rice paper? Wonton skin? I’ll have to pay a visit to Beijing Noodle 9 to find out).

What’s great about attending Uncork’d as a local is discovering new places that may not be on your radar screen.  You can’t throw a rock—or dumpling—on the strip and without hitting an Asian restaurant, so I was grateful for the chance to sample Beijing Noodle 9.  It’s on my short-list of places to try.

Lamb Tagine and Couscous, Simon (Palms Place)

 

Dear Chef Kerry Simon,

I’ve eaten your lamb tagine, and now I must eat my words.  I admit I’ve only sampled your food twice—one dinner years ago (back at Simon Kitchen in the Hard Rock), and one brunch (at Palms Place).  Love your homemade granola and smoothies; thought the homemade ‘Hostess Snowball’ was something of a culinary abomination—but then, I hate the original—and the Bloody Mary bar was, for me, kind of silly.   And I do believe I was confronted with the sight of some faux rock person wearing a robe, slippers, and ray-bans.  Still trying to block that out, as well as the presence of candy corn on the dessert plate, though it was around Halloween when I visited.

In short I found the whole menu and vibe of Simon, well, a bit facile.

And yet.  And yet, this lamb tagine.  A risk at an outdoor tasting, but again a nice contrast to the parade of mostly-cold seafood canapés.   Aforementioned words—bitter, with a hint of acid—have been baked into a humble pie, now being consumed by yours truly.

The lamb is cooked perfectly; no small feat given this is a 3 hour outdoor feeding frenzy.  And I went close to closing time, so it made the not-at-all-dried-out-or-overcooked perfection even more impressive.  Sweet hints of dried fruit and preserved lemon temper the gaminess of the lamb, and the couscous too is spot-on.  There is a lot going on with this lamb; it is so not-at-all facile.

So thank you chef Simon, for reminding me that you are indeed a talented and serious chef, snowballs, candy-corn and preconceptions aside.

 

Best Tasting Dish, Sweet:

Spiced Melon soup, Mix (Mandalay Bay)

Any chef that can make me rave about cantaloupe has really performed miracles.  Though I am normally nuts about the color orange (hell, I drive an orange car), Cantaloupe is one of a set of orange foods I normally find intolerable.  These let’s call them “Code Orange” foods include Pimento cheese spread, marshmallow circus peanuts, and instant butterscotch pudding.  Sea-foam hued honeydew?  Love you.  Cantaloupe? You have a weird aftertaste that turns me off big time.

And yet, there is this spiced melon shooter from Alain Ducasse; to say nothing of my second use of ‘and yet’ as a qualifier.

This is a lovely little orange-and white shooter, with bits of melon in the bottom.  So you get three layers of texture/flavor in one shot: creamy foam, spicy ‘soup’ and chewy fruit.  There is something vaguely Indian in the spicing—cumin? cardamom?—that is hard to pin down.  The complexity in this one shot of soup is calling out the laziness of those chefs choosing the ‘let’s slap some tartare on a cracker’ school (you know who you are…).  Cantaloupe be damned, this is a winner.

Cardamom and Poppy dark chocolate truffle, Vosges Haut Chocolat (Forum Shops, Caesars)

 

This isn’t really fair, as the Vosges truffles were not actually cooked or prepared at the event.  But honestly I have never had a bite of anything from Vosges that has not been amazing, and this truffle is possibly my favorite of their offerings.

Here’s something that 99% of chocolatiers and pastry chefs don’t get: sugar is the enemy of cocoa, the way that salt can be the enemy of protein.  What I mean is, sweetness is a note in the flavor profile instead of the subject of the dish.  Vosges gets this—their truffles perfectly ride the almost-not-sweet line without emphasizing the bitter/sour notes that can occur if chocolate is under-sweetened.

Here’s a test—eat a Vosges truffle and a Godiva truffle side-by-side.  Notice how cloying and one-note the Godiva truffle is after tasting the Vosges chocolate; it’s quite revealing.

Note: Charlie Palmer and his Aureole team based their offerings on chocolate; sadly I did not get to sample their items before closing time.  I imagine they would have given Vosges some stiff competition here…

Most Risky:

Pickled pig knuckle, Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant (Caesars Palace)

God bless Sea Harbour Seafood, and their wonderfully redundant Engrish name.  As a lover of offal and all things strange, I was hoping some of the chefs at the Grand Tasting would take use the opportunity to challenge and surprise the attendees.  Some of them came through—Rick Moonen and rm seafood offered a chorizo-tinged octopus crudo and strawberry dippin’ dots, which made me even more excited to try the new rm upstairs tasting menu (Chef Moonen and Adam Sobel are the Batman and Robin of Las Vegas dining—redeeming our metropolis from the overpriced steak-and-bread-pudding-homogenized-hell to which we have been lately damned).

While rm’s octopus impressed, it really takes cajones to serve pickled trotter poolside.  Does this highly acidic pig play well with my cabernet?  No it does not; the pig knuckle steals the wine’s toys in the sandbox, and makes it cry for its mother.  But Sea Harbour Seafood doesn’t care, they are putting that pig’s foot out there and if you don’t like it well $&#$@# you and your frilly wine.  And we love that.


Most Ingenious Packaging:

Wine Ice Cream Push-up Pops (Silk Road)

“I’m sorry, can you tell me what this is?” I ask, picking up a plastic tube of white-and-crimson-marbled something.  Why, it is a wine-ice cream push-up pop, of course.  Props to Chef Martin Heierling for finding a cool, functional and elegant way to serve ice cream.  He was clearly sensitive to the ‘how am I to eat this standing up in a crowd?’ question, and the flock of foodies appreciated it.  The thing was frozen solid but did fit nicely into the inner breast pocket of my jacket, where I wore it for like 5 more courses as it thawed.  Oddly, this was neither as awkward nor unpleasant as it sounds.

The taste was first-rate, and made a good case for wine ice cream—something that initially strikes me as a stupid gimmick. I plan to hit Silk Road (which is open for breakfast and lunch) soon; this first taste makes me very curious.

But what about the wine? I hear the oenophiles lament.  Well I’ll be honest–I don’t have an exhaustive wine knowledge, but I do know that the stemware one drinks from makes a huge difference at least for me.  So as handsome and sturdy as the plastic goblets were, I found they made any detailed tasting kind of impossible.  But that’s not really the point of a Grand Tasting.  Intelligent pairings became quickly impossible, so hence the heavy red wine being sipped with dippin’ dots.  You just accept the randomness as part of the seagull-vibe fun.

Well intrepid foodies, that about sums up my first whirl-wind Grand Tasting.  The following night we attended a more casual “Crushed” wine-and-rock band event, which I’ll be reporting on soon.  Until then, Keep your Knork sharp and your taste buds open…

Michael Manley is a professional musician, food nut, writer and technological retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.  He posts on Twitter as TLV_Michael.

Michaelmanley.tlv@gmail.com

Published in: on May 10, 2010 at 5:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

DVR Alert–Molecular Gastronomy Thrives on cable’s ‘Planet Green’

Faithful readers will recall my embarrassing, school-girl like love letters to Planet Green’s “Future Food,” featuring chefs Homaro Cantu and Ben Roche of Chicago’s Moto (which can be read here, here and here.)

Completely by accident, I stumbled onto “In Search of Perfection” on the Cox cable screen guide.  Seeing the name “Heston” in the description, I thought–could it be The Fat Duck’s Heston Blumenthal?  How many Heston’s are there really?  I quickly switched channels to find that yes, Planet Green is indeed featuring two of the most important chefs alive in their programming.  I could not click the ‘record all episodes’ button on my intrepid DVR box quickly enough.

Haven’t watched a full episode yet, though the gist seems to be to seek out the ultimate version of standard dishes.  I remain flummoxed by why Planet Green has become the oasis of molecular gastronomy (when I last left Chef Blumenthal he was sampling at least 6 varieties of dead cow–resource-hogging, grain eating, completely-not-green-at-all cow).   But why ask why?  At least someone, somewhere is showcasing this important cooking movement (is The Food Network too busy tracking the life cycle of Whoppers, or allowing Paula Deen to deep-fry a biscuit-wrapped snickers, in that charming “Yes I really am a walking parody of a Tennessee Williams character” way of hers?)…

In any case, “In Search of Perfection” is worth a look–Heston Blumenthal being Britain’s earliest and best chef of the mad-scientist school.

“In Search of Excellence” airs on the Planet Green cable network.  Check local listings for times and dates.

Michael Manley is a professional musician, food nut, writer and technological retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.  He posts on Twitter as TLV_Michael.

Published in: on May 4, 2010 at 1:25 am  Leave a Comment  

Run, don’t walk, to Bachi Burger

Bachi Burger must be a mirage.  First the location: an otherwise undistinguished stripmall wasteland on east Windmill near Bermuda.  Right across from a frighteningly gi-normous hypodermic needle sign. Second: a menu that is at once sophisticated, varied and extremely well edited, as Tim Gunn would say.  Third: prices which are impossibly reasonable given the quality of ingredients and skill of cooking.  Surely the play of light on desert sand is tricking our eyes?

Allow me to illustrate:


This is the “Port wine cherry-glazed pop tart, with white chocolate yuzu ice cream.”  The description alone puts to shame many of the often shockingly dull desserts at fancier strip joints (Banana bread pudding from Nobhill Tavern, please stand in the line-up next to Sage’s poached pears.  Sorry Sage, still love your sweatbreads and manhattans though).

The taste?   Imagine a cherry pie with the best crust you’ve ever eaten, a nicely browned lattice crust, and imagine a whole pastry of that wonderful top crust that normally is two bites from a regular pie slice.  Now balance that with a just-sweet-enough white chocolate ice cream with the perfect, modernizing note of yuzu, and you have the best Las Vegas dessert I’ve eaten in 2010.

But here’s the shocker:  The above dessert set me back exactly five dollars.  Five dollars! For a dessert that would–in concept, execution, and appearance–put the work of half the pastry chefs on the strip to shame (pretentious steakhouse $15 funnel cakes, your prints and mugshots have been taken).  How is this even possible?  And in my own neighborhood food wasteland of ‘South Of The Strip But Not Really Henderson Yet?’

Did I mention Bachi Burger (bachi being short for hibachi, fyi) is open until 2 am?  Jesus has clearly answered my “Lord deliver us from the PTs/Winchells/Steiner’s ‘Nevada Style Pub’ late-night-dining-hell-to-which-we-in-the-S.O.T.S.B.N.R.H.Y-geography-have-been-damned” prayers.

The dessert was preceded by several menu home-runs: beautifully glazed pork belly steamed buns, Peking duck steamed buns, and an array of house-made pickles featuring seaweed, radishes and ginger bulbs.  The pickles rivaled those at David Chang’s justly-famous Momofuku in NYC.  The now-standard truffle fries came with a yuzu aioli that really set them apart from their thousand cousins in Las Vegas.

It turns out that the Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion is where the Bachi Burger chef spent the last few years, and the gourmet influence and skill level are evident in the modestly-priced dishes.  I assumed Bachi Burger was an import from somewhere else—southern ca maybe?—but no, something this interesting actually originated in Las Vegas.  We love it when local chefs make good, and the town needs more trailblazers and less star chefs smacking their name on a steakhouse.

I can’t wait to go back to try the various burgers, and the Vietnamese-themed Bahn-Mi burger sounds especially tasty.  It should be noted that while they were out of sake on our first visit, they have a quite extensive non-alcoholic beverage list, as well as a good beer menu.   Also, the only Boba teas and milkshakes in the S.O.T.S.B.N.R.H.Y. geography that I’m aware of.  Mike D. said it all: this is the place we hoped Match Bar would be.

A few suggestions and quibbles:  the Portuguese donuts (or Malasadas in Hawaii) would be excellent with a bitter chocolate or salted caramel dipping sauce.  And it would be great to tone down the behind-the-counter fluorescent lighting and cut up the dining space with some curtains or dividers to create intimacy.  The room doesn’t yet feel as cool as the food.  But given what I’m sure will be Bachi Burger’s smashing success as an industry hang, this is probably only a matter of time.

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to patronize and enjoy Bachi Burger—its creative, recession-friendly delights are worth several trips.

 

Bachi Burger

470 East Windmill Lane, Suite 100 (just west of Bermuda)

Las Vegas, NV  89123

 

702-242-2244

Michael Manley is a professional musician, food nut, writer and technological retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.  He posts on Twitter as TLV_Michael.

Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 4:10 am  Comments (9)  

moto perpetuo–how Chef Homaro Cantu is transforming the way we eat

Homaro Cantu is going to change the way you eat, what you eat, and how you eat it.  He is quickly becoming the most important figure in the food industry worldwide, period.

Homaro Who? What?

Ok, so maybe he’s not yet a household name.  But what Julia Child did for American cooking in the last half of the 20th Century,  Homaro Cantu is doing for the first half of the 21st.  If it is not obvious yet, I am deeply in awe, and potentially in Platonic man-crush love with, Chef Homaro Cantu.  But my words above are not idle flattery; I truly believe it.  Any doubts were dispelled by the April 13th episode of “Future Food” on Planet Green. If you missed it, set your DVR tonight (all four initial episodes are airing again) and watch in awe.

Some background:  My baptism into complete food obsession came during a dinner at wd-50 in NYC back in late 2004.  Chef Wylie Dufresne, New York’s main practitioner of molecular gastronomy, not only served amazing food—his meal made me rethink food, what went with what, how it was prepared, and how it was presented and consumed.  From this dinner I began to do research on the good ol’ interwebs, and discovered the work of Chef Grant Achatz in Chicago.  At the time, Chef Achatz had left Trio and was set to open Alinea a few months hence.  I vowed that if I could score a table in the opening month (May of 2005), I would fly to Chicago and spend the bulk of my vacation budget to experience his cuisine.

Somewhere along the way Homaro Cantu popped up on my molecular gastronomy searches, and almost as an afterthought I booked a table at his moto (also in Chicago) the evening prior to my Alinea reservation.  After all, if you are going to fly to another city to eat dinner, you may as well break the bank I reasoned.

Credit card bill be damned, I can’t tell you how important those two meals were to me.  I still recall, in vivid detail, dishes I had at both Alinea and moto.  While Grant Achatz’ Alinea offered an utterly unique, matchlessly refined experience—his 25-course virtuoso tasting remains the single best meal I’ve eaten in my life—in many ways the dishes I had at moto were far more radical, and more significant.

 

The Chef as (mad?) Scientist

 

Here are a few of the highlights of my first moto meal:

  • A one-bite ‘ceasar salad’ featuring ‘dippin’ dot’ sized balls of frozen, liquefied romaine lettuce.
  • A hot beverage with the exact taste of a Krispy-Kreme glazed donut.
  • A soup garnished with smoking, liquid nitrogen-frozen croutons.
  • Sweetbreads in the style of chicken McNuggets, speared on plastic DNA ampules containing various sauces, which the diner squeezed into the mouth.
  • A miniature, edible paper rendering of MC Escher’s fish-morphing-to-birds “Sky and Water I,” imbued with the flavors of duck and salmon.
  • A fish cooked table-side in a lightweight, flexible polymer ‘oven’ no bigger than a square tissue box, which retained heat at a very high temperature but was not itself hot to the touch.  A device invented and patented by Chef Cantu.
  • A carbonated orange.
  • Popcorn-flavored “Fed-Ex” packing peanuts.

Mind you, this is what I remember from one meal–that I had 5 years ago. Chef Cantu is, to put it mildly, not a man interested in serving you a perfect medium-rare filet mignon with a side of grilled asparagus.

What this first meal revealed was a mind not merely interested in exceptional and original cuisine; this was a chef who sought to reinvent dining from the ground up.  Was every dish a home run?  Frankly no—on my second visit, a few years later, I recall one odd course based on Guinness, cheese, and root beer that featured a mat of plasticine brown/yellow ooze that had the exact look and consistency of fake joke vomit.  It didn’t taste bad, but it was and remains a total question mark for me as a dish.  But here’s why I remember it: this was a dish that showed a chef and kitchen unafraid to push themselves, to risk failure, to not play it safe.

When I have the rare opportunity to enjoy a meal whose bill reaches the three-digit mark, I value this spirit of daring and innovation more than any other (spending my own $200 to eat a steak and Caesar, no matter how aged or fetishized, seems an obscene waste of my limited dining resources).  The reason I return to moto is because I know that I will experience something that I will have never experienced before, and that my knowledge and understanding of food will be expanded.

A few themes emerged in my dining adventures at moto.  First, a certain obsession with “TV Dinner” Americana—the aforementioned McNugget reference, and others to mac and cheese, pizza, donuts, popcorn, and nachos to name a few.  Second: a penchant for transformation, and eye- and taste-fooling imitation.  A plate of ‘nachos’ that was actually dessert; beef with the flavors of pizza; a donut in the form of a beverage.

At first I thought this was mere whimsy, and while that can become gimmicky in lesser hands, the conceptual play at moto rarely resulted in less than stellar dishes.  The “Miracle Food” episode of “Future Food,” however, reveals a deeper and far more serious context for Chef Cantu’s quirky themes and interests.  It explained a lot.

“Future Food” and ‘Miracle Food’

As noted here, and here, I was totally stoked about Planet Green’s “Future Food”…but I was also concerned about its hippie-green angle, and if this would end up becoming a gimmick.  Was the show’s focus on thrift, re-use, and reinvention of product really germane to Chef Cantu and his moto team?  In the “Miracle Food” episode of “Future Food” that question is answered with a resounding yes.  Here’s why.

The show reveals that Chef Cantu spent part of his childhood homeless, and likely much of it very poor.  So that’s partly where the fast food references come from.  And a child that grows up poor is bound to be forced to make do with foods that are repetitious or unpalatable—the endless beans and rice or maybe just rice—when he gets food.  What does a kid do when faced with both hunger and food he doesn’t want to eat?  He pretends its something else, or he tries to mask the flavor with catsup or A-1 or who knows what.  So Chef Cantu’s idea of transforming food isn’t mere whimsy at all; it’s rooted in his humble beginnings.  This also explains why many of his ideas, while presented in a gourmet context at moto, are designed to translate to meet broader needs—the polymer oven mentioned above was, I recall, once eyed by the military for improving MRE’s.

Perhaps the most profound impact Chef Cantu may have is in his exploration of “miracle fruit,” an African berry that acts as a taste-bud doppelganger, making bitter/sour receptors perceive sweet/savory instead.  When Chef Cantu discusses his own childhood near-hunger, as he twirls a dead leaf idly, and asks why we can’t eat the plentiful-but-unpalatable plant life around us—this was one of the most moving and inspiring TV moments I’ve ever seen.  Of course Chef Cantu proceeds to answer his own question, with a series of dishes prepared by his team that are based on foods that we normally don’t eat but that are edible.  You’ll have to watch the episode to see the amazing results for yourself.

Some chefs are invisible, they want the food to shine.  A perfect meatball, or osso bucco, or steak can send you to heaven, but you may not recall or even know who prepared it.  Mario Batali, though his food is distinctive and certainly bears his stamp, is more this kind of chef.  He didn’t invent the meatball, he just perfected it; he’s more interpreter than innovator.

Other chefs tell stories through their food; I call them narrative chefs.  Their food is personal and idiosyncratic.  Probably one of the things I love about chefs who have completely drunk the molecular gastronomy Kool-Aid is that their food, because it so inventive, is by nature personal.  I’ve never said more than a few sentences to Wylie Dufresne, Sam Mason, David Chang, Grant Achatz or even Homaro Cantu, but I feel like I know them from eating their dishes—some are witty, some are austere, some are playful, some indescribably strange.  But each is a window into a mind—and into a soul.

I am grateful for “Future Food” for showcasing Homaro Cantu’s innovative cuisine, and for telling his story.  He’s the most important, and perhaps only, chef/artist/scientist/inventor out there.  And if you will soon be munching carbonated grapes or drinking your Krispy Kreme–or eating a delicious soup made from grass cuttings–you’ll have him to thank.

Future Food airs at various time slots on the Planet Green cable network.  Check local listings for airings in your area.

Michael Manley is a professional musician, food nut, writer and technological retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.  He posts on Twitter as TLV_Michael.