Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How Bazaar

For my birthday, Melissa took me out to a restaurant I've wanted to try for a while - Bazaar by Jose Andres. Jose is a kind of a big deal in the restaurant world and I've heard a lot of good buzz about Bazaar. Mostly I was intrigued at the prospect of molecular gastronomy - using science and chemicals to create new and interesting flavors and textures. This is the kind of place that would probably close within five minutes of opening in Iowa and the townspeople might accuse the chef of witchcraft.

The restaurant felt maybe a little too hip inside. It was Beverly Hills, after all. There was quirky art and statues displayed in unexpected places and most of the customers felt like they were trying to be something. You get used to this in LA. Upon being seated, we were presented with rather large menus and wine lists. I went straight for the craziest drink I could find. I don't recall the name, but it was a rum-based drink, inspired by a Cuban classic (not a mojito, but it tasted a bit like one). Not crazy, you say? Just wait, says I! The drink was frozen with liquid nitrogen, making it more like an alcoholic sorbet. On top of it all, they prepared it at your table.
Sitting at the table and looking up at the guy making this thing, it was like having a mad scientist for a bar tender. The smoke (steam? what is it that liquid nitrogen makes?) pouring over the counter was enchanting. The drink? Well, a little strong, but pretty tasty and refreshing.

The main menu was basically a series of tapas. It was divided into two sides - traditional and new. The traditional side was, as you would expect, traditional Spanish-inspired dishes. We had a few of them and they were quite well done. None of them stand out in my mind nearly a month later, though. It was the New section that I had come to try and it was those dishes that really stood out. We ordered in about 3 batches, five or six tapas each.

The first batch had an order of sweet potato chips with a whipped yogurt dipping sauce. The dipping sauce was absolutely phenomenal. I wish I knew what else was in it because it was the perfect compliment to sweet potatoes.
The little waffle cones in the above picture contain, if memory serves, a small amount of ceviche. It was nothing compared to the ceviche we had at Rick Bayless's Frontera in Chicago, but it was still quite good. The only complaint was that there wasn't enough of it. The giant Q-tips are something that everyone had recommended, but no one could describe - foie gras cotton candy. I didn't really know what to expect, but no phrase could better describe molecular gastronomy for me than "foie gras cotton candy." Essentially, it was sugar spun around a hunk of foie gras. The cotton candy itself was very sweet, though mostly flavorless, and the foie gras was so rich and was a very nice compliment. It was an odd taste sensation, but very satisfying.

Another standout in my mind was the "Caprese Salad" pictured at left. That looks pretty typical, but the experience was anything but. You see, those balls of mozzarella are not what they appear to be. They're not just little hunks of cheese. They are some kind of thing that Bazaar calls a "Spherification." It's some kind of chemical gel formed into a ball that will burst in your mouth. These were filled with a molten mozzarella that just oozed into your mouth as soon as it hit the tongue. It was sort of what they referred to on The Simpsons as "a tasty fake." Your eyes expect one texture and it sucker punches you with liquid cheese. Very cool. There were also a lot of "re-imaginings" or deconstructions of dishes. We had an order of the "Philly Cheese Steak." These were thin slices of wagyu beef (the American version of kobe) on top of what the restaurant called "air bread." Essentially, this was a crusty, pastry-like bread puffed with air, sort of like an un-filled, high-end Hot Pocket. Inside of this bread was a very sharp cheddar cheese, once again, liquefied. The way that cheese poured out of the bread into my mouth was strange and wonderful.

Of course, sometimes it really felt like the chef was trying to hard. Most notably, the shrimp cocktail. The menu described the dish as "Just a Shrimp Cocktail (Yeah, right!)." Naturally, I wanted to see what this snide menu item was. Well, here you go:
What you are looking at is 2 individual shrimp (it came with 4 total) skewered on a pipette filled with cocktail sauce. The waiter instructed us to put the shrimp in our mouths, then squeeze the pipette. Really? That's your "new take" on the shrimp cocktail? Don't get me wrong, the cocktails sauce was spicy and some of the best I've tasted, but just give it to me in a dish with a handful of shrimp like a normal person. Paying $10 for 4 shrimp is just insanity.

By this time in the evening, our waiter had literally disappeared. He had been all over the table for most of the evening, but he was gone. He even forgot to bring out one of the plates we had ordered. I didn't care. I'd ordered my second drink and was feeling pretty full, anyway. The drink was a Dirty Martini, Bazaar-style. Ketel One vodka (my personal choice), topped with an olive foam and garnished with a spherification of olive (much like the mozzarella cheese mentioned above, kind of like a melty gummy olive). Nice, but heavier on olive flavoring than I usually prefer. My fault for ordering a dirty martini. Anyway, the waiter showed up and we asked for dessert. We were led away from our table and into a dessert lounge, where we could choose from any number of candies and cakes. Melissa had a cupcake and we had an interesting passion fruit jelly, but the candies were the most fun and fantastic. There were lemon lime rocks, which had a delightful sparkle and texture and, my favorite, chocolate covered Pop Rocks. I think they were raspberry flavored. They looked like Cocoa Pebbles but exploded (chocolate covering does not stop the Rocks from Poppin') with a berry flavor. Combined with teas and coffee, it was a nice way to end the meal.

Bazaar provided me with an eating experience I'd never had before. For the most part, the flavors and textures I tried were exciting and delicious. However, I'm not sure I would want to eat this style of food very often. I got pretty bad heartburn that I blame on the chemicals used to create the mad genius on the plate. Plus, so much of the food is foamy and liquefied that it doesn't feel terribly satisfying (though it is certainly filling). I think everyone should try a place like this at least once, but most of the time I'd rather have more "normal" food.