I was lucky enough to have time on a recent Manhattan trip to experience the Cocoa Tasting Menu at Sam Mason’s Tailor, the new restaurant by the former pastry chef at WD-50. Tailor and WD-50 are the two main bastions of “molecular gastronomy” in New York. The proponents of molecular gastronomy, working in the footsteps of insane genii like Harold McGee and Ferran Adria, use chemical principles to reimagine the way that food is made and tastes are paired. At one of these establishments, you are more likely to be eating watermelon air or pine needle sorbet than a steak or pasta. While many people are taken aback by the odd tastes and textures employed, this school of cooking has really taken the gourmet world by storm. Adria’s El Bulli is the most sought after reservation in the world, and Grant Achatz’s Alinea was named by Gourmet magazine as the best restaurant in the United States. The mainstream success of shows like Good Eats and America’s Test Kitchen also owe their success to the MG approach to cooking.
So, what does an MG kitchen like Tailor do with cocoa and chocolate? They pretty much take into some frontiers not often visited. The menu is definitely an aggressive exploration of how chocolate can pair with other flavors (squid and chocolate?!?), but I think there’s definitely more room for experimentation. What Tailor didn’t do was to work with the different flavors of chocolate itself, or imagine what can be done with the fat mechanics of chocolate. I think that some enterprising chef should do a menu with untempered chocolate, unconched chocolate, and perhaps also contrasts between the different bean varieties. Tailor (like many MG places) uses a lot of gels to manipulate texture. Chocolate (and cocoa butter), carefully crystallized, could do many of the same jobs, with possibly more toothsome results. My grousing aside, here’s what Tailor offered, with some tasting notes.
Squid salad, cocoa, toast, mint. The menu definitely starts on a challenging note. Squid and chocolate sound like an odd pairing, but the mint in this dish is definitely the peacemaker. There’s still a definite oceanic quality to the squid which fills the salt void in the chocolate taste, but the high notes of the mint build a little bit of a bridge.
Foie gras, peanut butter, cocoa, pear. Ah, two different fats singing in harmony! Foie gras and peanut butter were melded together in a small square, and dusted with cocoa and peanut. Foie gras loves to live along side sweet ingredients, and the pear and peanut butter prove to be a delicious counterpoint.
Chocolate gnocchi, brussel sprouts, lime puree. Soft chocolate pasta nuggets served with brussels sprouts leaves, on a lime puree. The trick here is that the dish is sprinkled with sea salt, which makes the lime and bitter-ish leaves support the chocolate.
Chocolate-miso cod, cauliflower puree, snow pea julienne. This is the Tailor twist on Nobu’s famous black cod. Crunch is supplied by tiny nuggets of Japanese rice crackers, and the chocolate supplies sweetness. The cauliflower puree is extremely smooth and enriched with olive oil (and is far better than most potato purees I’ve had!)
Duck and eel terrine, chocolate consomme, green mango. A small block of layered duck and eel, very slowly cooked, in a strong chocolate broth. This broth, much more bitter than sweet, could be used as the base for lots of dishes.
Beet ravioli, cocoa caviar, orange, tarragon emulsion. My favorite dish of the evening. A small bright red square made of thinly sliced beet covering an orange foam, covered with small chocolate gel spheres. Ultra-refreshing, and a huge contrast to the bass notes of the previous dish. The tarragon emulsion is a brilliant green, herbal counterpoint that adds depth without taking away from the pure, clean flavor of the beet and orange.
Butternut squash cake, cocoa sorbet, cashew beads, maple Fall on a plate. Cake with ice cream, topped with a square of clear squash brittle. These are ingredients that more obviously rhyme, and this is executed without too much sugar to distract from the basic flavors.
Soft chocolate, sesame ice cream, mole A small strip of chocolate gel, like cold semi-melted chocolate. Your mouth expects melted chocolate to be warm, but this is cool and soft. A very nice trick, and the sesame ice cream works too.
It’s great fun to experience this kind of experimentation, and while the flavors are unconventional, after I mentally stepped back a bit, they were really delicious. The best part of the overall menu is that they got the goodness of chocolate without the goopiness and sugar that usually accompanies it. Now I’m just keeping my fingers crossed for Cocoa Tasting 2.0, with varietal cacao (the fruitness of Madagascar, the smoky earthiness of Arriba) and elements of less processed chocolate. Sam, I’m willing to help anytime!