City Paper is not for tourists
Eric Ziebold overlooked nothing when it came to the final design elements of CityZen’s chic dining room. He scrutinized not only china and stemware but also less intrinsic items, such as salt and pepper shakers. Ziebold struggled to find a set that would fit the ambience; the only true contender cost in the hundreds, which the chef knew would be too tempting to dining thieves. To Ziebold, the scale was tipped – aesthetics prevailed. He scrapped salt and pepper shakers altogether at the Southwest Waterfront restaurant in a move that declared war on DIY seasoning. Besides, with the often too-small holes in shakers, a person ends up “shaking and shaking and you look like a fool,” Ziebold laughs.
In top restaurants, self-seasoning is becoming passe. The trend is evident in many such D.C. establishments that have opened in the past several years: CityZen, Komi, Restaurant Eve, 2941, Indebleu, Zengo, Blue Duck Tavern, and others have opted for roomier tabletops. It’s a sign that chefs have decided they can’t reach their culinary ambitions if their customers remain wedded to crude seasoning habits. One frequent diner, Lauren Winter, admits that though she doesn’t season her own food often, when she does, “it’s probably only because it’s there.”
Why do chefs prefer to be the ones in charge of the salt and pepper? Consider Dupont Circle’s Komi, where chef and owner Johnny Monis, 27, creates complexly flavored dishes that he seasons up to five separate times, with the kitchen staff focus-grouping each step of the process. “Salt and pepper are ingredients, and they’re part of something bigger. They’re part of a whole,” Monis explains.
Although Monis understands that “it’s almost like second nature that people salt and pepper their food before they even taste it,” he wants to make them think twice. “We want people to trust that their food is going to be seasoned when they walk in.” If someone requests salt and pepper, it’s a flag that something might have gone wrong. Servers at Komi (full disclosure: This reporter is a former server at Komi) know to inform the chef when salt or pepper has been requested. “I want to know what table, what seat number, what dish,” Monis says. Usually, the pot the dish was cooked in hasn’t been washed yet, and the chef can re-taste the dish to check whether it was seasoned correctly.
At 2941 in Falls Church, a request for salt and pepper is equated to a complaint of improperly cooked meat. Chef and owner Jonathan Krinn, 38, does not want diners to correct their own food. “It’s the same as any other mistake…to be rectified by the chef,” he says. If a diner feels a dish tastes flat, Krinn wants it sent back to the kitchen rather than the kitchen sending out seasoning. The chef reasons, “If it’s undercooked, I don’t give you a grill.”
When a diner makes a seemingly simple request for the black and white stuff, a chef is left staring at a wall of seasoning scratching his head. Cathal Armstrong, 37, chef and owner of Old Town’s Restaurant Eve, has 14 different salts and various peppers to season his menu. With table sizes ever decreasing, giving diners the myriad seasonings they need is just not feasible. And limiting their choices to one type would not be fair. “Kosher salt [is] a flavor enhancer,” says Armstrong. “It draws the saliva into your palate and makes you taste food better. But some of the salts that we use, if they’re used in the right application, have a very distinct flavor.” There are many more varieties of salt than pepper: Among the world’s offerings are white salts, gray salts, black salts; Japanese salts, Bolivian salts, French salts; shallow-water salts, deep-water salts, rock salts. Flavor isn’t the only characteristic chefs taste for – texture is a factor as well. There are salts as fine as confectioner’s sugar that will dissolve when their grains land on warm food and there are large, crystallized clumps of salt that will retain their crunch.
I recently put self-seasoning to the test at Restaurant Eve. When the two appetizers arrived – a poached tuna with Meyer lemon and a salad of heirloom beets, goat cheese, and walnuts – I requested salt and pepper. I was given a set of silver grinders. After adding a half-turn of salt to a bite of each dish, I could easily report…too salty. Just to make sure, I tried two entrees as well – a cured pork belly with cannelloni beans and oregano and a duck breast with fois gras and figs. Again, a half-turn of kosher salt bullied the other flavors into the back seat.
People who are accustomed to spending north of $20 per entree have little trouble taking their seats at a table sans shakers. Jeff Speck says, “If I’m paying for a top-notch dining experience, the chef should know how much salt should be on [the dish].” His wife, Alice, who dines out once or twice a week and concedes that she has been known to “eat [salt] as a snack,” says she’s “never been in a nice restaurant where I’ve needed salt.”
In fine-dining restaurants where diners rarely request salt and pepper, chefs often view providing shakers as less about seasoning than about service. When Armstrong was designing his restaurant, they “had a long discussion of whether it was better to put salt [on the table] and not put the guest in the position where they have to ask for something.” Ultimately, he decided it was safer to remove temptation. “It was kind of inappropriate for us to put salt on the table…then you get into the issue where if there is salt and pepper there the guests are going to season their food before they even try it and then [we] have a complaint issue.”
Chefs will often train servers to politely ask customers who request salt and pepper to try the food before they alter it. Ziebold, 34, has created a clever alternative to customers’ freestyle seasoning – he’s made seasoning itself a service. Once a customer makes the request, a server brings a tray of several salts to choose from, including a Bolivian rock salt the size of a fist that is grated tableside. The server offers recommendations of which salt is appropriate for a dish, hopefully minimizing the effects of oversalting. And perhaps the array of salts will enlighten diners to the fact that they may not know best.
While chefs aim for a satisfied clientele, they await the day when diners complain about having salt and pepper shakers on the table. As Komi’s Monis explains, “We wouldn’t put a head of broccoli on the table. It’s just kind of the same thing. Unless someone wanted it.