Thursday, 28 April 2011

Supra nova - the new Georgian cuisine

Fusion cuisine gets a lot of bad press these days. In some restaurants, the very word ‘fusion’ is about as welcome as the words ‘rat droppings’ and ‘AA Gill’. It is a little hackneyed, I suppose. After all, you have to go back to the 1970s - when chefs mixed French with Chinese and came up with twisted classics like bird’s nest bouillon and coq au rice wine (maybe) - to realise fusion cuisine’s potential for pretentiousness and horror.

Nevertheless, most countries go through their fusion phase, melding their traditional wares with ingredients and techniques from whichever foreign cuisine seems to be en vogue at the time - which usually means Japanese (*whisper* I’m convinced the only thing that prevented Nobu from giving his food a Japanese twist rather than a South American one was the fact that it was already Japanese). 

Anyway, now it’s Georgia’s turn. That’s Georgia the country - in Europe - not the American home of Coca Cola and REM, and nowt to do with Ray Charles, either. 

Traditional Georgian food is typified by the ‘supra’ or special feast, which is presided over by a tamada or toast master, and involves a huge table strewn with a multitude of brilliant dishes, from kachapuri breads and shashlik kebabs, to khinkali (heavy dumplings stuffed with ground meat) and nigvziani badrijani (aubergine stuffed with ground walnuts). As feasts go, it’s a real heavyweight.

A traditional supra: note the celebratory hats, and goat skin wine bag.

This is probably the bit where most hardened and cynical restaurant-goers will recoil in terror, recalling such fusion faux pas as ‘tandushi‘ (tandoori sushi, seen in Abu Dhabi) and ‘sashimikraut’, and foreseeing a culinary train full of cheap Taiwanese fireworks crashing into a nuclear power station. But you should keep on reading, because here is a rare example of fusion that really, really works. 

It’s by a talented female chef called Tekuna Gachechiladze, and I was privileged enough to try it at Vong, an Asian restaurant in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. I say privileged, because not only were we dining with one or two distinguished members of the Georgian media and political establishment, but it was also the night that the Georgian football team beat Croatia 1-0 in a Euro 2012 qualifier. Oh, and some of the dishes were being served for the very first time. An historic occasion. The mood was buoyant. 

The amuse bouche - a gazpacho of tkemali (a traditional and rather tart cherry plum sauce) with the sweetness of grape to balance it out - set the tone. It was followed by a triumphant tuna tartare with jonjoli (a kind of Georgian pickled flower with a flavour not unlike capers) and rainbow trout ceviche marinated in orange juice. Podgy king prawns in tarragon sauce came next, followed by the night’s first true revelation - the dolma. 

Shrimp dolma.

Stuffed vine leaves are familiar all over the Middle East, Mediterranean and the Caucasus, but not vine leaves stuffed with shrimp, and served with a raita-style yoghurt sauce with mint and ginger - a combination as devastating as Smith & Wesson. 

Ham-wrapped quail in pomegranate sauce.

This was followed by roasted quail wrapped in cured ham, slathered in a thick pomegranate sauce - a rich, smokey-sweet blast of gamey flavour and moist textures. I sucked on about four of these like Kojak after a lollipop shortage, and then things got even more interesting.

The khinkali arrived at the table like Katie Melua dressed in a kimono. Instead of the bulging, tumescent and hearty dumplings of the traditional Georgian supra table, they had been given a Japanese makeover; a twist on the gyoza dumpling, made lighter, more elegant and refined but no less delicious. The time-honoured Georgian flavours flooded the palate, but they didn’t have to fight their way through inches of dumpling dough to do it.        

Badrijani and foie gras.

Let me assure you, if I’d dispatched as many traditional khinkali as I did the new gyoza-style version, I’d have needed two seats on the plane home. And probably a triple heart bypass. But home couldn’t have been further from my mind when the badrijani with foie gras turned up. I must confess to having one or two misgivings about the samey textures and smokey-sweet flavours of the walnut-stuffed aubergine and foie gras. They were unfounded. The combination worked like a dream - a dream with great lobes of perfection-seared enlarged goose liver in it. The only word I could muster at the time to describe its magnificence was “Waaarg.” It was that good.  

Badrijani and foie gras - again.

I’d been taught a lesson about fusion cuisine. It may be a jaded concept in the trendy restaurants of New York or London, where nobody wants to gatecrash a party right at the end. But in Georgia, fusion is less of a fad and more of a process. Traditional Georgian food in itself is fusion food, after all - were it not for the Mongolians there might not be khinkali at all; and the Ottoman Empire may have something to do with Georgian dolma. Conversely, the rest of the world might have a debt to pay to ancient Georgian viticulture - thought to be over 7000 years old - for inventing wine as we know it. 

Tekuna Gachechiladze plans to open a New Georgian restaurant in Tbilisi and, in the future, New York (personally, I think ‘Supra Nova’ would be a great name for it and I’m not asking for payment, just a shedload of badrijani with foie gras). There she might just mash up those stuffy preconceptions about fusion food and serve them back up with a nice ponzu sauce. But in the Georgian food story, her inspired ideas are merely the latest chapter. Just forgive me for revelling in the prose before I turn over the page. 

Thursday, 21 April 2011

S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants 2011 - Rene Redzepi and Heston Blumental

"I want more children - that's what I really want." Rene Redzepi, April 18th, 2011.

The restaurant world had its napkins flapped by the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants awards 2011, on a balmy April evening in London. El Bulli, which is to shut down in July, was out of the running this time, leaving the way clear for Copenhagen's Noma to triumph for the second year running. I caught up with a very relaxed (if a little broody) Rene Redzepi on the 50 Best stage, minutes after the Noma team had celebrated their win by prancing around in viking helmets and swigging champagne from the disgorged horns. Did he think his restaurant would now get a third Michelin star, and did he have any plans to open a second venue? Meanwhile, Heston Blumenthal saw his restaurant The Fat Duck drop two places, down to fifth place, which prompted him to declare: "Molecular gastronomy is the most misunderstood title in food."

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Santi Santamaria

The sad death of Santi Santamaria had me reminiscing about meeting and interviewing the great Catalan chef. It was 2009, he'd just opened Ossiano, the stunning seafood restaurant in Atlantis, The Palm, and I'd been invited to dine with Santi and a number of other guests. The food was as great, as you'd expect, incredible Spanish seafood cooked with heart. Santi was very keen to learn about the restaurants of Dubai, but I'm not sure if he ever had time to explore the places we talked about. Either way, he was a fine host with a genuine passion for food, and in particular, his food.

I interviewed him before dinner. It had been one of those interviews where we forgot the dictaphone was running, and just talked. Of course, Santi didn't speak English, and my Catalan was rusty, so an interpreter was on standby. The bulk of the interview was about molecular gastronomy. Santi was in vociferous opposition to it, and while he respected the work of fellow Catalan chef Ferran Adria, he was a passionate advocate of a more natural style of cooking. 

The excerpt below is nothing if not passionate, but it was also very prescient - the following year, Adria's El Bulli restaurant was knocked off the top spot of the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list by Noma, a restaurant that's dedicated to the use of natural, locally sourced ingredients.  

Take it away, Santi...

“I really think that this style of cooking (molecular gastronomy) will destroy the brains of the people. People who eat this will end up with something like mad cow disease. It’s not honest to take a chemical powder and put it in food that people eat. It’s not a natural ingredient. This is a big mistake. You don’t need chemical gimmicks to make good food. When you eat natural products you really understand what they are, the fish or the vegetables, you understand where they are from and why they have the flavour. 

When somebody asks you what is the best cuisine, you would probably say it’s the cuisine you remember - it’s the one your mother or grandmother made for you. It has a personal connection. But in following molecular gastronomy we will kill all the traditions that our mothers and grandmothers knew. In the future the people’s food of memory will be chemical food. I want to pass my cultural richness onto my sons, and their sons. We can always add creativity in cooking natural ingredients. I am always open to finding new ways of treating and cooking natural products, I’m open to innovation. But I will always respect the natural products.

I’m afraid that molecular gastronomy can go on for generations because there’s a lot of money behind it. Martin Berasategui, the chef from San Sebastian with three Michelin stars, said last week that the magazine (Restaurant Magazine) which named El Bulli the best restaurant in the world is only made by a handful of people. It’s a marketing operation. The people who vote for the moleculars might know that they are not the best, but there is such a marketing pressure behind this that they are not interested to say otherwise. It is very sad that the chefs need a gimmick to make themselves noticed by these people. 

In the past, when chefs acquired three michelin stars, there was a mutual respect between all of them. It was like a professional standard or qualification, like a doctorate. But for some chefs that is not enough. In the past there would be sixty or seventy in Europe. But there were some chefs who said they wanted to be the best of the best. There was a marketing push to name the best of the three-Michelin star chefs. And they created a lobby or pressure group, who are a danger to the real cuisine, because they are saying the best are the moleculars. 

I respect the desire of molecular gastronomes to evoke memories and emotions in food. But I do not respect the method. I’m really against the (Spanish) government, which gives money and subsidises molecular gastronomy. When the government of Spain takes molecular gastronomy and says this is the representative cuisine of Spain, it’s about marketing, money and publicity - from only one way. The government doesn’t represent me, or many other more traditional Spanish chefs. Any cuisine can represent Spain - the traditional, the classic, the modern - but not just one, it is a mix. From my point of view, I am really upset about this. 

In my cuisine, what’s most important is the product and the way it is cooked, the precision, the details. With molecular gastronomy, they substitute the chef for machines. With traditional cooking, a chef invents a dish, he believes in his creation, he cooks it and he puts it on the plate. To make this recipe, you need a chef. With molecular gastronomy you don’t need a chef, you just need someone who puts the powder in a machine, who injects a chemical solution. It’s industrial. It’s like a factory. 

Haute cuisine of the future will not be molecular gastronomy. We will go back to the respect of the products, respect of the fisherman who catches the fish, respect of the farmer who grows the vegetables, respect of the butcher who cuts the meat and so on. In too short a time so many things have happened, and it’s getting out of control. We need to settle things down. It can not go on like this. It’s all about money. What is killing the cuisine is the fact that these chefs are celebrities, and they all want to make it big to get as much money as possible. 

I have respect for the people who create the dishes, who mix this with that to make something new. But after that it becomes a copy of a copy of a copy. It’s always the same - where is the art, where is the creativity? It’s like a musician appearing every night but having the same tape played back. The stage is set, there are fireworks, it all looks very nice, but behind the curtain is a tape machine. It’s always the same. Molecular gastronomy is playback.”

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Benihana vs. Blogger: a kerfuffle in Kuwait

“Waiter, where's my pie crust?” 
“It’s a soft opening, sir.”

The “Kuwaitgate” restaurant blogger saga has prompted me to say a few words on food bloggers and restaurants. 

In case you didn’t know, a blogger in Kuwait ( wrote a slightly unfavourable review of newly-opened Benihana, the well-known Japanese restaurant chain. The restaurant responded by taking legal action. You might be in favour of the blogger, or even the restaurant, but in my opinion both are at fault to some extent.

Let’s look at it from the blogger’s side first. If a blogger is serious about reviewing restaurants and wants people to take those reviews seriously, he should never review a place that’s just opened (unless invited to do so). Wait at least a month before going in there and letting off your six-shooters.

The reason I say this is because almost every restaurant in the world needs at least a few weeks to get up to speed - just like you probably did in every job you started. 

As someone who’s reviewed restaurants professionally, I have occasionally been sent to a restaurant too soon by an editor. The verdict was always the same - there were teething troubles, it might get better, it might not. It was a pointless exercise.

There was no sense at all in reviewing the place, since it might improve over the coming weeks - or it might even get worse - but the review would remain online for months, perhaps a year, without a clear and definitive judgement. Or with an unfair one.  

Better to give the restaurant a short grace period, then any judgement you make will be based on a restaurant that’s functioning as well as it’s ever likely to.

Newspapers like the New York Times give a restaurant a grace period before reviewing. They’re a reputable outfit, wouldn’t you say? If you want your blog and reviews to be taken seriously, you should perhaps do the same. In the Kuwaiti blogger’s defence, he did state that the restaurant was newly opened. But he carried on regardless.    

You may argue that if a restaurant has opened to the public, and it’s charging full price, then it’s fair game. Perhaps. As someone who’s been to far too many brand new restaurants, I know to avoid a newly opened place for at least a month, whether I’m reviewing it or not. 

You may call for the restaurant to charge a reduced rate if it’s on a ‘soft opening’. Maybe you have a point. In fact that would be a good idea. But remember those first weeks in your job? Did you work for half your salary? So why expect a waiter to do that, or a chef, or a restaurateur? There’s a case to be made for restaurants - especially ones in the Middle East - to train their staff properly, so that they can hit the ground running. I support that. But I’ll be giving any new restaurant a few weeks to get its act together all the same if I’m reviewing it - and especially if I’m paying for it.  

Perhaps it’s a symptom of today’s society: we all want instant gratification, we want everything now. Be smart - resist all temptation to visit a new restaurant in its first month. Leave that to corporate lunchers who can slap it on expenses. 

I think I’ve stressed the point enough.

Which brings us onto the restaurant. Benihana Kuwait might feel aggrieved that a blogger can say nasty things about its food just after it’s opened. But blogging is just the modern-day equivalent of word of mouth - it just shouts louder. Just think what all the other people who dined at Benihana in its opening week thought about its food, and told their friends.

The way to deal with this was not by threatening the blogger, who has a perfect right to say whether his meal was good or not. They should have left a message on the blog, explaining that they weren’t quite up to speed yet, and inviting the blogger back to the restaurant once things were better. The blogger would no doubt have returned, written a much more favourable update, complimented Benihana on its excellent customer service and everybody would have lived happily ever after. Blogs can help restaurants too, you know. 

Instead, Benihana have decided to drag this through the courts and drag its own name into the mire in the process. It will not win itself any friends by doing this. It has already won itself a load of negative publicity, when it could all have been so different. Conversely, the blog has had great publicity out of this. 

It’s an example of disastrous PR. Yet all food bloggers and restaurants can learn from it. 

Benihana should drop their case immediately, say sorry and invite the blogger back to the restaurant for a slap up meal. We all know passions run high in the restaurant world, but it’s time to cool off. In fact I invite them onto this blog - neutral ground - to initiate the peace process. Prove to everybody that - like all restaurants - all it needed was a few weeks to start firing on all cylinders. Then you’d have a happy restaurant, a happy chef, a happy food blogger and a happy social networking community. 

Everyone’s a winner.