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Monday, January 12, 2009

David Sweeney's collards: The inherent virtue of the real

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Years ago, a friend who was a well known dining critic used to tell me that the principal hazard of his occupation was coming to hate everything. He was being a bit facetious — and only a bit — but, several decades later, I’ve come to feel something of the same.

The problem isn’t that different from absorbing yourself in any other form of art. After a point, it becomes hard not to resent the way hype, trends, celebrity and theatrics of the outrageous continually substitute for the precision of the imaginative inherent in “the real.”

The fraud of the concocted memoir is a good example in literature. Rather than make meaning out of the actual, a growing number of memoirists simply ramp up the outrageous by fictionalizing their lives. The reason they don’t call their stories fiction is because they wouldn’t be impressive as such. The author merely would be a writer with a fertile imagination instead of a celebrity with an outrageous tale of wild-‘n’-wacky survival.

So it often goes in the restaurant world too. Flashy dramatics, celebrity and subscription to trends turn dining into the culinary equal of gossip. It can be an amusing game — and I’m certainly not saying that chefs shouldn’t push every envelope in their experimentation — but, in my view, the more experimentation is in service to “the real,” the ingredient’s inherent flavor, the more valuable it is. (Richard Blais, for example, is wildly experimental but it’s clear that flavor always comes first for him.)

That brings me to the bowl of collards shown here. I ordered it at Dynamic Dish on a recent Saturday night. The tender greens were picked the morning before in East Point and owner-chef David Sweeney tossed them with some olive oil and umeboshi vinegar.

I’ve seldom encountered a dish as evocative. First of all, the taste of the greens themselves was amazing. I grew up eating the usual treatment of long cooking with ham hocks or some other fatty meat. My Southern mother always served them with a small glass bowl full of ordinary cider vinegar, a zillion chopped onions and so much freshly-ground pepper that the solution was black and gold. Corn bread was often on the side, good for absorbing the greens’ pot liquor.

Sweeney’s umbeboshi (plum) vinegar was a perfect complement for the lightly cooked collards he served as a starter on the restaurant's popular pizza night. The first bite was intensely salty. The intensity dissolved as the olive oil spread over the tongue and the peppery flavor of the greens built up.

I love that peppery taste. Ethiopian cuisine, which employs collards (gomen) in various dishes, plays with that quality by often cooking them with hot peppers and nearly as much black pepper as my mother put in her vinegar.

But Sweeney’s simple treatment was revelatory. One taste evoked a world, as much of his cooking does. It’s no wonder Bon Appetit has named Dynamic Dish among the top three modern vegetarian restaurants in the country.

Of course, “farm-to-table” dining is all the trend now. Unfortunately there’s a sad but frequent glitch in the trend: Too many chefs don’t have a clue how to treat a farm-fresh ingredient, so that there isn’t any recognizable difference from the usual ingredients.

That’s not a problem at Dynamic Dish and I feel confident in saying that the restaurant’s cuisine is as much an education as an experience of pleasure. It’s required eating!

(Photo by Cliff Bostock)

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