It's twilight on a cool spring night. I am sitting on the patio of Element (1051 W. Peachtree St., 404-745-3001). A dish arrives at the table. It looks a bit like animal feed – undecorated corn kernels in a bowl.
"Eat it quickly," the chef advises. He warns that it's cold to the touch but will warm up in a few minutes and lose its surprising character.
I pop a few of the icy kernels in my mouth. There's a crunchy explosion of caramel flavor. The corn mysteriously melts. Then, a cloud of fog jets out of my mouth, hangs briefly in the air and vanishes. It's like a magic trick or a fractured fairy tale in which lowly seeds transform an ordinary diner into an Icelandic fire-breather.
The chef, of course, is Richard Blais, and the corn kernels, transformed by liquid nitrogen, are an example of so-called molecular gastronomy, a movement that explores the chemistry of cooking. It has also revised culinary traditions, introduced new cooking equipment (such as the de rigueur tank of liquid nitrogen) and produced dishes that superficially resemble laboratory experiments but, in effect, cause us to reconceptualize the experience of taste itself.
"Molecular gastronomy" is a term coined in 1992 by the late physicist Nicholas Kurti and popularized by his associate Hervé This, a French chemist and author of several books on the subject. Although the term has already been abandoned by its most artful practitioners – such as Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in the U.K. and Ferrán Adriá of El Bulli in Spain – it continues to be enormously influential.
Besides its revision of technique, molecular gastronomy seems exemplary to me of a general shift in the aesthetics of cooking and dining from a mainly private or domestic experience to one of performance. One might date this from the advent of Julia Child's television show, which spawned the phenomenon of the celebrity chefs of the Food Network, who, as Ray Krishnendu argues in a recent issue of Gastronomica, take a continual stance against the historic domesticity of cooking. Indeed, the pervasive open kitchen invites every chef to perform as if he were an "Iron Chef" wannabe these days.
Cooking as aggressively sensual performance has given rise to the term "food porn." It suggests not only the voyeurism of watching TV chefs prepare and then consume voluptuous food. It also suggests that the meals of food TV, whether on cooking or travel shows, are no more likely to become part of most Americans' experience than are the three-ways with Cirque du Soleil contortionists featured in a porn vid.
Well, that's true unless you have access to the cooking of someone such as Blais. In a world of food porn, his dishes are pretty damn kinky, although I must say his food has seemed a bit less outré than the time he was serving up a virtual postmodern kaiseki at his short-lived, eponymous restaurant in Buckhead in 2004. He's cooked at a number of restaurants in town, including One Midtown Kitchen, which he left some months ago to work in product development in Miami – a gig he says bored him. So, rejoined by some of his former staff at One, he's taken charge of Element's cooking for owners Christopher Neal and Anouk Esmail for the time being.
The menu at Element – fully redesigned since my review a month ago, before Blais' arrival – could be written as food-porn haiku: "Hammock Hollow squash/impasta, sweet grass dairy/chevre truffle flavor." What is it? Basically it's ravioli fashioned from organic squash, filled with goat cheese from Sweet Grass Dairy, touched with truffle flavor.
There's country pate served with freeze-dried cherries and mustard ice cream (a fave in the world of molecular gastronomy). There's a lusty oxtail terrine, just slightly gamy, served with a marmalade of red wine and – brace yourself – bone-marrow foam. All of these ingredients make sense – they are in other forms traditional to a great degree – but the alchemy distills and isolates flavors, transforms texture and, honestly, the world seems different.
Wit matters greatly in this kind of food. Chicken-wing confit with turnip greens and smoked spices thumbs its nose at the French. Pressed pork belly – salty, fatty, meaty – is served with soy-bean succotash and ramp leaves.
Who expects chorizo with mussels? A long plate of the succulent mollusks, steamed in beer, is scattered with the sausage and served over a sop of sourdough bread with smoked aioli.
Two desserts are offered, and both are good, but the vanilla panna cotta, flavored with frozen bits of Coca Cola syrup and topped with homemade Cracker Jacks, is the better choice – not that chocolate cake with freeze-dried strawberries and shiso sorbet won't satisfy you, too.
We dined on a Sunday night when the restaurant was almost empty after serving brunch earlier in the day. So Blais was often bringing dishes to the few busy tables himself. As he did so, he often made commentary, noting that he regards his cooking as a riff on traditional forms, not a complete departure. This is much the same point that Adriá and Blumenthal, along with several others, made in a virtual manifesto presented in the British newspaper, the Guardian.
They don't want to be accused of novelty for its own sake. The problem, of course, is that less-talented and less-educated chefs will pursue molecular cooking in exactly that spirit. Hervé This' project has been to test the "adages" of culinary tradition, to verify them or improve them. There is method – chemical reasoning – to the apparent madness of many of the seemingly bizarre combinations of ingredients. That is why they taste so right although they often look so ... wrong.
Get yourself to Element and test this out for yourself.
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