The Elevated Ingredient

IMG_2161Puffed smelt over beet wasabi

My life in food over the past decade has changed pretty remarkably from that of a person raised to eat and cook similar things from the family’s traditional archives to that of a person who is wildly adventurous and counts culinary sojourns, whether in a restaurant or in my own kitchen, as opportunities to discover and explore items vastly diverse. But even in this wide-open forum of a curious palate, I still find it important to eat responsibly. Enjoying food to me is not about being able to buy the most exotic ingredients from far away places or to experience luxury items that take labor and resources to find their way to my table. It is not about finding bigger and better perfectly grown tomatoes nor is it about promoting the production-oriented fish farms or hormone-injected meats. It’s almost the opposite—to find the gems of whatever is currently around me: fresh, available, natural and seasonal. Sure, there is a time and a place to splurge, but in the ordinary course of my meals, I like to know that purity is at each dish’s base.

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 Smoking goat’s cheese with pretzel loaf accompanied by pickled onions and cauliflower over kalamata paste

I also appreciate the chefs who cook from this premise. It’s a difficult feat to take a few essential ingredients and make them shine over a repertoire of dishes in a way that leaves the diner delighted in every bite and not bored by redundancy. On one of my earliest dates with the Cute Gardener, I was highly charmed by the romantic lights strung from the trees in the Lucques’ courtyard but then irritated by the rote application of root vegetables in just about every plate I chose off of the menu from pasta to salad. Even though I respected Suzanne Goin’s desire to utilize that, which was abundant, I wondered why there wasn’t a bit more creativity involved: root puree, diced steam root, cold root in salsa –that sort of thing.

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Blackened cauliflower with pickled onions.

I love it when I find the chefs who do this extremely well though and actually end up surprising me. One of recent note is Phillip Lee of Scratch Bar. When the CG and I ended up at the tiny La Cienega space for a small plates dinner, we were anticipating Chef Lee’s finesse with vegetables, which had been alluded to in many write-ups about the young vegetarian-niche cook.

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Roasted bone marrow in a sourdough “bone” with pickled onions

We ordered a smattering of meat and veggie dishes including the trendy and highly popular fried smelt puff and immediately noticed that every dish had the bright purple poignancy of beet somewhere alongside a curly pile of pink pickled onions. At the second dish, we got a little leery but by the end of the evening, we realized that each dish still had that magic ability to shine all on its own. The fact that neither beet juice nor pickled onions accompanied any of the descriptions of the wildly varying dishes made the inclusion of both on everything a very brash choice. A bold and risky move for a young chef that in this particular case not only worked, but showcased some of the best things about eating this highly accountable and resourceful way.

IMG_2163Cured pig’s head in a splatter of Pollock-esque beet sauce

One thought on “The Elevated Ingredient

  1. You need to drive to Taco Maria for dinner in Costa Mesa – you won’t be disappointed! This place sounds so interesting, I’ll have to bookmark it for one our LA trips this winter.

    Hope to catch up with you sometime!

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