Pucker Power

If life gives you lemons, that's a start. But local chefs cook with a symphony of sour.

When I got together with Thomas Keller recently, that French Laundry dude, that Einstein and omega of American chefs, he told me that in his mind, an ideal cookbook would have no recipes, none, not one. Why, how lovely, I purred, because I have been working on just such a loosey-goosey thing all year, pursuing how various local chefs manipulate the most basic elements of flavor, the sweet, the salty, and such, to present the ideas to you, Dear Reader, so that you might use them yourself, without a single burdensome recipe!

And here I had felt sort of guilty at focusing on "ideas" and not "news you can use," when I shouldn't have felt guilty at all, but in fact sort of blindingly forward. I mean--ideas! Ideas are so much more convenient than recipes, not least because you can fit them into practically any head at all and carry them into airplanes without paying the excess baggage fee.

I mean, what about the idea of "sour"? It's one of the elemental tastes, but one that almost never gets top billing. Sour is considered a good thing in sauerkraut, lime curd, and certain pickles, and a bad thing in nearly everything else, from sourpusses to sour milk to sour notes.

Jane Sherman

So why is it that restaurant chefs use so much more sour than home cooks do? Go to a Thai restaurant and you might find lemon juice, lime juice, and vinegar in a single sauce, and the resulting sauce doesn't make you gag, it makes you smile and ask for more. An ingenious chef in a four-star hotel in downtown Minneapolis might top a preserved lemon with balsamic vinegar and place that doubly acidic thing in a vinaigrette-covered salad beside a fourth sort of acid, goat cheese--and the whole thing doesn't taste sour at all, but merely sweet and delicious.

Why, Seth Bixby Daugherty, head chef at Cosmos, the high-end hotel restaurant I just mentioned, why do you do it? What do you know that I don't? I phoned him up to get just that answer. "When my chefs and I get together and talk about building a dish," he said, "we want at least three of the four components of sour, sweet, salty, and bitter." For the sour part, the restaurant stocks as many as 30 different vinegars (including four sorts of sherry vinegar and seven grades of balsamic) and relies on a variety of both house-made and purchased sour stuffs, like preserved lemons, preserved tomatoes, or even vats of house-pickled yuzu, the Japanese citrus fruit.

Why such an expansive pantry? "If you want a particular flavor, you need a particular acid to get there," says Daugherty. That and the fact that no one who cooks at Le Meridien ever seems to go home or get a day off--the working motto in the kitchen these days is "Breakfast, lunch, dinner, forever"--and the deep Le Meridien pantry is what the restaurant uses to motivate and inspire the various chefs who fulfill the various hotel functions (like the dawn till after-bar bar and restaurant, the bustling ballrooms and banquet halls, and the elaborate room service).

"We're incredibly lucky," says Daugherty, "Where most restaurants today are 'Cut, cut, cut,' we're 'Push, push, push.' Oh, a couple weeks ago we did the coolest thing--took the inside of a preserved lemon, took the pulp and flesh, dried it, put it through a Vita-Mix so it was pulverized and we got this nice, fine, silky powder. You could smell it when you put it on the warm plate, as a garnish, and it just tasted great."

Preserved lemon dust? How on earth did that idea come up? Daugherty couldn't quite say, but I think I can: Genius is what happens when you take some of the most talented chefs in the state and strand them, sleep deprived, in the presence of the Tyrannosaurus Rex of blenders.

Still, talking about the sour ideas at Cosmos is as nothing to experiencing them, so I zipped in for a dinner with the idea of ordering only dishes with the sourest elements layered on one another. What I found was revelatory: A duck confit salad with a poached quail egg that strikes the palate as nothing but rich, warm, wonderful and wintry, if built with a peppery structure, and yet is revealed to be made of practically nothing but layers of sour: bitter frisée, spicy watercress, acidic roasted red bell peppers, and acidic preserved tomatoes coated in a citrus vinaigrette.

How does this work? The secret is the way the acid from all of those sour things cuts through the richness of the duck meat and the egg. "If you've got the double richness of duck confit and quail yolk, you need a double tart and sour to balance it out," explained Daugherty, on the phone again, later.

Ditto for the fantastic lamb chop dish that has been on the menu since the restaurant opened. Here, two gorgeous Summerfield lamb chops loll beside a watercress salad which conceals warm shreds of lamb shoulder braised in duck fat, tossed with strips of preserved lemon, tart and creamy lumps of Humboldt Fog goat cheese, sweet currants, and puckery roasted red peppers, all of it sauced with Malpighi balsamic vinegar (which costs about $25 an ounce).

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