Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Modernist Jello Shots

I got an email from Seattle Weekly editor Mike Seely asking if I wanted to try the World’s Most Potent Jello Shot. I’ve somehow gained a reputation as a Jello shot expert, so of course I agreed. But I agreed to this less out of a scholarly curiosity about all things Jello, and more out of a desire to get totally fucking shitfaced.

We enlisted Scott Heimendinger, AKA Seattle Food Geek, a well-known local blogger and Voracious contributor, to engineer these futuristic shots. Scott is also business development manager for Modernist Cuisine, which means he has access to the Modernist Cuisine kitchen, and so he has strange chemicals and wacky scientific tools at his disposal. Yes, even a centrifuge. And probably a speculum.

I was skeptical of these newfangled Jello shots. Because alcohol interferes with the polymerization of gelatin, the strongest Jello shot that can possibly be made will contain at most 30% alcohol by volume, or 60 proof. However, these new scientific Jello shots aren’t made from gelatin. Rather, Scott explained that they contain a cocktail of exotic gelling agents: agar agar and gellan. Agar agar is derived from seaweed and is well known in asian cuisine as, among other things, the gelling agent for the squicky black cubes found in the bottom of a can of Grass Jelly Drink.

Gellan is a type of gum extracted from Dr. Scholl’s Gel Insoles. Neither agar agar nor gellan seemed particularly delicious to me, but then again, the traditionally-used gelling agent, gelatin, comes from hooves: the take home message is that jiggly desserts of all kind are inherently pretty fucking gross.

So last week we met at West Seattle’s Tug Tavern, well known locally as an early adopter of jello shots. This was going to be an endurance test: I had to eat as many of these super strong shots as possible. As a metric of my drunkenness, I would have to read, out loud, several difficult literary passages from You Can’t Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe. AND I would have to do this on film. Which is why I dressed as the Unabomber.

Scott brought out a big platter of his ultra-strong shots, arranged on the plate in a colorful constellation of red, green, and blue. The camera started to roll; I started to eat. To say that these shots were nasty is an understatement: they were grainy and reeked with the astringent chemical bouquet of cheap vodka. Scott admitted that there was no sugar in the shots; in a quest to make the shots as STRONG AS POSSIBLE, sugar had been jettisoned. The brightly hued shots were tinted with food coloring, since it looks better on camera that way. What a cock tease.

I gulped down two or three before I started gagging. It wasn’t the alcohol that was repulsing me. On the contrary, it would’ve been no problem to knock back 14 thimblefuls of rotgut. But the texture was just too much: the shots crumbled apart on the tongue, shearing apart into granular chunks which weren’t exactly the easiest to swallow. If you’ve ever worked with petri dishes, you’ll recognize this gross texture instantly, since agar agar is a common bacterial growth medium. It tasted like someone spilled a bottle of Monarch onto a silica gel packet. There’s a reason the outside of those little packs always say “DO NOT EAT.” The bartender brought me a big canister of sugar, which I unceremonious dumped all over the shots. This didn’t improve the taste; on the contrary, the sugar granules added an additional, sandy layer of misery: sadness brulee.

After a couple shots I picked up the Thomas Wolfe book and gave a reading. At first I was psyched: I thought we were talking about TOM Wolfe and, having read “The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test” and “Bonfire of the Vanities,” I remembered these books as being relatively quick reads. Unfortunately Tom Wolfe is NOT, as Wikipedia’s disambiguation page politely informed me, the same guy as THOMAS Wolfe, a contemporary of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s who died in the 1940’s.

Wolfe’s unwieldy prose is purple like Barney the Dinosaur, and possibly just as gay. Awkward, paragraph long phrases read like Roman oratory, and are peppered with completely retarded passages such as "'Will you make me one of your sauces that is subtle, searching, and hushed?’” Hanna Raskin thought this line totally laughable; it’s only a matter of time before this quote ends up in one of her reviews, I’m sure. Note to Hanna: your best chance of finding a subtle, searching, hushed sauce is probably at Lark.

Fourteen shots later, I was drunk, for sure, but not shitfaced. I’d eaten all of the modernist jello shots. My tastebuds were insulted, but for the most part the worst part of the evening was the old lady who grabbed my nipples. I wasn’t too drunk to read, though I was definitely to the stage of inebriation where I was starting to pontificate. Something tells me your BAC has to be pretty fucking high for you to forget how to read.

Are the modernist jello shots a panacea? Nope. They taste like ass. One of my main criticisms of molecular gastronomy is the quaint, almost Utilitarian idea that everything must be “improved.” Scott’s jello shots were about 40% ABV. A standard jello shot is usually around 20% at most. The nasty texture wasn’t worth the attempt to shoehorn the extra 20% alcohol into these things. If I want to get drunk that badly, I’ll have a Wild Turkey, thanks.

If you want to watch the video, it's visible here. Thanks to Laura Onstot for her fine camera work.

Rating: 2 turkeys out of 10

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Cafe Juanita

Café Juanita is a legendary FANCY RESTAURANT in Kirkland, Washington. Totally fucking legendary, much like the legendary philosopher-king Prince Meatyass, who successfully united all the different warring meat products into one united carnivorous nation, not unlike a Voltron made of tasty cold cuts. For years, I’ve been intrigued by the legendary fanciness of Café Juanita, and so I was super excited at the prospect of dining there. More excited, even, than the time I was offered the opportunity to drink rum from a skeleton hand. Note: it was a pirate hand, that’s why it was so badass. That very skeletal hand, which once grasped a saber and, perhaps, some gold doubloons, was offering me a high-quality dark rum, so how could I refuse? You don’t refuse a skeleton hand’s offer of rum, and you don’t refuse an invitation to Café Juanita. So off we went.

We started with veal sweetbreads in crepinette ($18). Many people complain that the word “sweetbreads” is a gross example of false advertising, but I would argue that “crepinette” is worse. That’s because if you ask for a crepinette, expecting a tiny crepe, you’ll be in for quite a shock. When you order “sweetbreads in crepinette,” you don’t get a miniature French pancake wrapped around some variety of sugary rolls. In fact, you get quite the opposite: a calf’s thymus gland, tied up in a web of the fat stripped from a pig’s guts.

Luckily for me, the prospect of such a dish is in fact the opposite of disgusting: I generally enjoy sweetbreads, so I was actually quite excited. The thyroid was perfectly cooked, tender, and very juicy. Unfortunately, it was too salty. It was even saltier when you got a bite of it with one of the fried capers which garnished this dish. Perhaps more disappointing than the saltiness was the fact that, halfway through the crepinette, I got a big sticky mouthful of caul fat. Caul fat is what you stretch over your face when you rob a food bank, so that no one can discern your idenitity. This is supposed to completely melt when the crepinette is pan roasted. Sadly, it doesn’t melt in your mouth. I found this out the hard way.

Next up was the baby lettuce salad with goat cheese crema and Piments D’Argile ($10). This was a perfect salad, and I say that as someone who believes that an actual, Platonically perfect salad can’t possibly exist. Fresh baby lettuce is beautiful: supple and coltish and refreshing, baby lettuce is the Women’s Olympic Beach Volleyball team of salad greens. Café Juanita’s salad featured a mélange of butter lettuce and red leaf, served atop a relaxing pool of a smooth goat cheese dressing, with just enough twang to it to challenge the sunny disposition of the bikini-clad baby lettuces.

Pasta dishes were also quite tasty: goat cheese gnocchi with cherry tomatoes and fava beans ($18) was light on its feet, and far more refreshing than a pasta dish has any right to be. Airy gnocchi nuggets polka-dotted the plate, interspersed here and there with crimson hemispheres of cherry tomato and, of course, the aforementioned fava beans. My only complaint here was the sauce: I realize that they were trying to keep things light, but the sauce came off watered-down, like cafeteria Kool-Aid.

The Maltagliatti with Jones Family Pork Sugo, Honey Ricotta, and Black Pepper ($16) was the dark and stormy yin to the gnocchi’s watery yang. It was also way tastier than your mom’s yin yang. Squares of pasta were fancied up with zig-zaggy edges, as though snipped by pinking shears. These were delicate to the bite but somehow stood up to the hearty bolognese sauce in which this dish was doused. Atop the pile of pasta were three silky globules of the aforementioned honey ricotta. When mixed into the sauce, the ricotta brightened things up considerably, in much the same way as a crack rock brightens up your mom.

I crowd-sourced our choice of entrée by asking everyone on Twitter for a menu recommendation. People overwhelmingly recommended the rabbit, so in the true democratic spirit I ordered the Rabbit Braised in Arneis with Chickpea Gnocchi, Porcini, and Housemade Pancetta ($36). This dish was a showcase of technique, a veritable culinary concept car. A butterflied rabbit leg was stuffed with crumbly dark-brown forcemeat made, I would presume, with the eponymous porcinis. The meat was tender and flavorful and sported more umami than an MSG factory. Alongside this was served rabbit a second way: a delicious and mild-mannered rabbit loin, grilled and sliced into medallions. With the rabbit came a small, golden, starchy cube which seemed like it would be a polenta cake but which was probably the chickpea gnocchi. Rounding out this stately spread was a small side salad of arugula, laced through with batons of housemade pancetta. The whole thing swam in a slick pool of a very savory beige sauce. This sauce was good: lighter than it had any business being, with a glimmering peppery depth of flavor.

We paired the rabbit with an a la carte contorno of roasted carrots ($11) which I enjoyed more than the rabbit. Eleven bucks might seem like a lot for a plate of carrots, but these were magical like Lucky Charms: they sliced the carrots lengthwise, glazed them, and then roasted the ever living fuck out of them until they were charred in spots. The carrot flavor was a million fathoms deep. These carrots were utterly terrific, yet were also a melancholic reminder that, on the other side of the six 89-degree days we get here in Seattle, autumn drearily lurks.

We finished things off with a Chocolate Truffle Tortino ($11). Though I would have been more than satisfied to end the meal with another order of roasted carrots, the tortino was pretty tasty. In fact, as far as desserts go, this was surprisingly un-enraging! A small cylindrical truffle was topped with a couple blackberries and served with a quenelle of chocolate mint strachiatella and a tuile. The truffle managed to taste like rich cocoa, without resorting to the kind of cheap, over-the-top cloying chocolate flavor that fans of "Fifty Shades of Grey" inevitably enjoy instead of, you know, sex. The tart berries and the strachiatella were refreshing counterpoints. The most puzzling aspect of this dish was the tuile, which tasted suspiciously like Froot Loops.

Café Juanita is pretty solid. The technique is impeccable, and the flavor pairings are without reproach. That having been said, the crepinette was too salty and caul-fatty for a restaurant of this caliber. And I was less than enthralled with the ricotta gnocchi. Plus it’s in Kirkland. Still, if someone else is paying, and if the mystical skeleton hand hasn’t knocked on your door with a gift of fine liquor, I insist you go.

Rating: 7 phalanges out of 10

Café Juanita is located at 9702 NE 129th Place in Kirkland

For reservations call 425-823-1505


Cafe Juanita on Urbanspoon