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If I had to pick the thing I like best at Citronelle, I don’t think I’d hesitate to reply: “breakfast.”
Great, you’re thinking, the answer to the eternal question of where should I go for an early-morning repast when the relatives come to town.
Ah, but I didn’t say breakfast. I said “breakfast.”
“Breakfast” is served at dinner, as the signature dessert on chef Michel Richard’s tasting menu. Brought to the table on a room-service tray, it’s a dead ringer for the real thing. A perfectly fried “egg”—a thin ring of cream-cheese mousse, at the center of which sits a bright yellow “yolk” of apricot-ginger puree—lies in a cast-iron skillet; a pat of vanilla ice cream melts into a stack of toasted pound cake; a raspberry puree makes a splat of “ketchup” atop a hash of cubed apples. That cup of cappuccino? It’s another mousse. Ditto the “soft-boiled egg.” Two long, crispy, wafer-thin cookies replicate the curlicued edges of bacon, and I’d even swear I tasted some smokiness in there.
Richard is a master. But if he stands alone for his breathtaking ability to pull off such elaborate puns without straining, he does not stand alone for trying. Nothing says a chef has arrived—not a professed love for locally grown produce, not a long-cultivated and much-touted relationship with a producer of heirloom meats—quite like the appearance of quotation marks on a menu.
Morou Ouattara, whose menu at Signatures has included, among others, a “grilled cheese” (foie gras with red-onion marmalade sandwiched between slices of toasted brioche), explains: “You see those quotes and it’s like, Whoa, OK: This dish is not going to be a traditional dish. It’s a signal. It tells people: ‘It’s going to come out my way.’”
The insistent trendiness of these quote-unquote dishes, Morou contends, is offset by the simplicity at the heart of their conception. “Really, a lot of these dishes just build off of people’s childhood memories. ‘Grilled cheese,’ for example, or ‘macaroni and cheese,’ with lobster instead of pasta and cream in place of cheese. These dishes begin with basic questions. What did their mothers cook? What would they love to be able to taste again as if they could taste it for the very first time?”
Besides the payoff of playing with people’s primal memories, says Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve, there is another, more practical reason why chefs are playing coy: “The question servers used to always ask, ‘Do you have any questions about the menu?’ is pretty much moot. Edamame, wakame, all these different types of mushrooms—people know these things now. Listing all the ingredients in a dish on the menu, the way we’ve done—well, people have learned. They know. And they’re jaded.”
So what does Armstrong do? He comes up with “scallop Wellington”—a light, contemporary riff on that leaden puff-pastry classic—and dares his customers to think: What tha? Anything, he says, to encourage diners to engage in a “discourse with a waiter.”
Armstrong believes that a lot of diners are encouraged to try his nine-course tasting menu precisely because of the dishes in quotation marks. “It’s a challenge,” he explains, “for them and for us, too. This is theater. You have to leave a little something to the imagination.”
If Eric Ziebold, of CityZen, is not quite so self-conscious about seducing diners, it’s probably because he hails from a kitchen in which quotations are the rule and not the exception: He spent the past eight-and-a-half years at the Napa Valley’s French Laundry, where, as the right-hand man to the merry prankster Thomas Keller, he served up more quotations than Bartlett’s.
Foodies who flock to Ziebold’s new restaurant in Southwest may be surprised to learn that the dishes that hark back to his old boss’s most famous quotations—such as a “Vietnamese coffee” made with tapioca pearls that’s not liquid but solid—don’t have them. The menu’s font, Ziebold contends, won’t allow for the practice.
Susan McCreight Lindeborgh of the Majestic Cafe, by contrast, is a strict constructionist. She favors a well-balanced plate that includes protein, starch, and vegetable; she says of quotations, “Customers come here to be fed, and they’re not interested in the wait staff entertaining them. I want them to read a menu and know what the food is.”
And the only quotations that Carole Greenwood of Buck’s Fishing and Camping goes in for these days are the ones at the top of her daily printed menu: epigrams on dining, ritual, and living well. She dabbled in puns at her earlier three restaurants. But no more. “It’s stupid. It’s silly. You know? There’s nothing new. Don’t tell me you’re reinventing the wheel.”
Gillian Clark is an on-again, off-again quoter, indulging the way a not-quite-rehabilitated smoker sneaks the occasional cigarette. Though a traditionalist, the Colorado Kitchen chef is preternaturally restless. Thus the recent entree called “monkfish ‘schnitzel’”: a meaty filet pounded into a flat disc, breaded in panko, fried, and set atop a pool of brown sauce with cabbage and dumplings. That’s it, she says: the only quotation on the current menu. Her customer base, not to mention her inherently homey sensibility, won’t allow for much more than that.
Besides, a little quoting goes a long, long way. “Shit, I’ll tell you what,” Clark says. “If I were going to put a lobster on my menu, I’d never call it macaroni and cheese. I’d call it lobster.” —Todd Kliman
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