Monday, November 16, 2009

Do reality TV stars continue to exist if no one is watching them?

Debatable, which is probably why they're always doing stuff to keep themselves on TMZ. It seems like reality TV chefs have similar challenges. It used to be that someone had to establish a few really good restaurants before they could think about a shot at TV. Once they got there, they could either take the respected PBS cooking show route, the pseudo-cooking make-sure-it-contains-a-processed-food-we-can-shill Food Network route, or the ego-driven shameless-self-promotion-followed-by-crash 'n burn-route (aka "The Rocco"). All three can lead to celebrity and further success running a restaurant empire.

Top Chef has changed that formula.

Take for example Richard Blais, runner up on season 4 of the Bravo show that was never quite as good as Project Runway. Leading up to his time on the show, his résumé included a two year executive chef position at a restaurant that's now a Ted's Montana grill, a self-titled restaurant that failed within six months, a firing from another place, then a decent review from the AJC at a once-trendy restaurant that has since drowned in the sea of Atlanta's slickly-decorated-and-overpriced restaurants with indistinguishable $20+ entrees (bonus trendy appeal if it's located in what was once a warehouse or housing projects...nothing makes a restaurant experience better than the knowledge that your grilled hanger steak came at the expense of a few displaced undesirable poor people).

His bio mentions that he's studied under Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Ferran Adria. These are some of the most famous names in their extremely different disciplines. Who really knows what "studied under" means on Wikipedia. Boulud keeps an office over Daniel (according to After Hours with Daniel), so I could walk into his restaurant, read the menu, then technically say I've "studied under Daniel Boulud" on the .01% likelihood he was in his office at that moment. Judging by his work on Top Chef and Top Chef Masters, it doesn't seem that Blais could possibly reach the lofty heights of his mentors' talents. I haven't actually tried Boulud's or Adria's food, but Blais doesn't have the instinct for perfectly executed California cuisine or the ability for all-out playful, challenging, befuddling molecular gastronomy. "Sorta perfect" execution and "sorta impressive but now somewhat common" molecular gastronomy wouldn't do in a fine dining restaurant...but it works perfectly for a burger joint.

My old college roommate Dan came down to Atlanta for the weekend. Our bond was forged mainly through being gluttons. During our freshman year, Trader Joe's had not yet come to Amherst, so when my mother sent Peanut Butter Cups and Crack Cookies (crispy oatmeal chocolate chip), Dan was always close by. He repaid her kindness by making her physically ill with his stench when he came to California. Sophomore year when we were living in the same room, the Pinocchio's number, along with their two-for-one pizza coupons were always in use. Junior year when he was abroad in Florence and I went to visit him, our tourist style was basically "Big church, big church, pretty art...what's for lunch?" Suite life senior year centered around tea-time eats in the lower common room. Naturally I wanted to take him to a hot restaurant that everyone was raving about but was also moderately priced. Dan's visit gave the perfect excuse to check out Flip Burger Boutique which I had been hearing about constantly but hadn't yet tried.

Let's talk about the milkshakes. Earlier I mentioned that his molecular gastronomy isn't on the level of a Ferran Adria, Jose Andres, or Wylie Dufresne. That's perfectly fine for a burger place. It's cool if there's something entertaining, as long as it doesn't seriously freak you out and it works well...basically it has to taste good. Using liquid nitrogen to make milkshakes could be a gigantic gimmick. After thinking about it, it may be that nitrogen allows for a liquid milk shake base, and instead of having to make separate ice cream base then churn and freeze it, (a long process), one can simply add just enough liquid nitrogen while mixing to create a milkshake consistency, but not too much to make ice cream (as anyone who's taken a high school level or below science class sometime in their life has done). Also, the whole freezing/churning process of ice cream might do undesirable things to ingredients like Krispy Kreme doughnut bits or pistachios. Either that or it could be a huge gimmick...I'll let you know after I try the foie gras. Given that Blais has talked about opening a creamery either next door or nearby makes me think that yes...they do make ice cream with liquid nitrogen, then make a milkshake in the normal way, then for show just pour a bit of liquid nitrogen on the top of the shake for flair.

I tried (over the course of two visits with friends) the Krispy Kreme, Pumpkin Pie, Pistachio White Truffle, Nutella and Burnt Marshmallow, and the Key Lime Cheesecake.

The pumpkin pie gave the most accurate taste experience to its namesake food. As you can see, they'll split a milkshake for you if you ask. Audra and Erin ordered these (Erin's is quite appropriately sized).

This is a shot of Dan's Nutella and Burnt Marshmallow shake (though on facebook, Amanda Cai-or The 'Da as I like to call her-tagged herself on this photo. This is because she was jealous that Audra and Erin were tagged on their milkshakes, but by the time photos had been taken, she had already inhaled her shake. Right now if Amanda is reading this she's probably upset, even more so because there isn't anything I've said that's untrue). The burnt marshmallow was fine...simple torch job on the top ones, but it seemed like the mound underneath were still "raw." The shake itself tasted like a good solid chocolate milkshake.

The pistachio white chocolate was quite good, but you have to stir it all together first. The shake itself is nicely pistachio-laden. The whipped cream contains a lot of white truffle oil/flavor. I started drinking from the bottom, which led to too little white truffle early on then a bit too much later. Together though, they make for a shake that tastes like Italy. Don't ask just does.

Krispy Kreme tasted extremely accurate as well, but that might be better for splitting, and Key Lime Cheesecake was also delicious. It had graham cracker crust bits on the bottom, had a nice lime flavor without being too sour, and later I was able to taste the cheesecake-ness of it (which had been masked by the cold up until then). Again, one that requires mixing well first.

So the liquid nitrogen for milkshakes may be a complete gimmick to up the price, but it does serve a more functional purpose in the kitchen. The french fries are cut, blanched/par-fried in duck fat, then flash frozen in liquid nitrogen. Why are McDonald's fries so crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside? They're blanched then flash frozen. Fried once (a la in-n-out) makes for either weirdly crisp throughout or just kinda so-so soft. Even blanch frying then crisping later (which I do at home) can lead to uneven results, with fries sometimes becoming too brown before they're really done. The freezing process makes for a nice and uniformly crisp outside of the fry with a great texture on the inside. Frying in duck fat is nice, but I've read reviews on Yelp where people say that the duck flavor is great. Anyone who thinks they're tasting duck is fooling themselves. Think about what an unseasoned duck would taste like, then imagine if you'd be able to taste a thin layer of that over potato, salt, and parsley (not to mention ketchup and smoked mayo). Try taking rendered bacon fat and spreading it on toast. How much bacon do you taste? How much stronger does bacon taste than duck? In any case, stop fooling yourselves. Things fried in duck fat certainly taste DIFFERENT than if they'd been fried in say canola. Duck fat is more pleasantly neutral and feels lighter on the lips, whereas other oils are more raw/oily neutral tasting. Duck fat is also less likely to go rancid so there are definitely benefits. In any case, it's a bit of a moot point because they fry things WELL at Flip. This means that the things they're frying aren't sponging up massive amounts of oil (think steak fries from your school cafeteria).

The fried bread and butter pickles (made in house) are fantastic. Don't let them sit too long though, as they turn a bit slimy and overpoweringly briny when cold. It won't be hard to eat them quickly though. Try them without the ranch first, then dip if you like.

The fried okra was the most impressive fried item of the day. Split down the middle (with what I imagine is a pretty sharp blade) instead of the more traditional segments, the sliminess is kept in check and the result is fried okra that's light and crisp like potato chips (with a few chewy ones every now and then...those are good too). Comes with a sriracha ranch.

There are those fries next to the farm burger. Here's where the Alice Waters influence comes in (wiki says he also studied at Chez Panisse...THERE TOO? SERIOUSLY, IT JUST SEEMS MADE UP AT THIS POINT). Organic grass-fed beef, heirloom tomatoes, local blah blah blah blah. It was a tasty burger. The beef was certainly of higher quality than any other burger I've had in recent memory, and it was cooked well. Flip doesn't seem to suffer from the temeprature inconsistency issues that places like The Vortex do. Nice amount of char on the outside of the burger, still slightly pink on the inside.

The steak tartare burger was phenomenal. Great texture, great flavor, sous-vide egg yolk takes out some of the rawness of normal tartare (eat a raw egg yolk, then eat an over easy or poached egg yolk for comparison, they're both runny but different).

I also tried the Philly the next night, which had "American Cheez Whiz" on it. This was more like a foam/whip cheese that tasted like Port Salut than actual cheez whiz. The burger sits on ketchup, then is topped with onions and peppers and the cheese stuff. This makes for a burger patty that is prone to sliding right out of the light brioche buns (from Alon's). It's a terrible mess, but also terribly fun. Delicious too. I had bites of the ossobucco, which had a nice gremolata, and the rBQ, which was basically a better than average pulled pork sandwich with brisket instead of pig.

I won't really pass final judgment on the burgers until I follow Marla's advice. She said to really judge the place I should try the the flip, their most basic burger. I was too excited to try the more creative things at the time, but now I realize she was absolutely right. The burgers aren't outlandishly expensive (the most expensive is the foie gras-laden A5, which at $39 is $7 more expensive than Daniel Boulud's db bistro moderne burger which comes with fries and adds truffle, but lacks Kobe beef) so if the flip is really solid that would make me happy. I think it was 6 or 7 bucks. The burgers are, however, a bit small to eat without a side which costs extra. The fried items are quite reasonably priced, for smaller but not inadequate portions. The non-fried sides are a bit more pricey.

I'll stop talking about the food for a bit now, as I'm wandering way too close into typical uninformed restaurant review territory. People often form an opinion of a restaurant before they even take a bite of food, either having read other reviews on yelp, or maybe they've seen the place on a Rachel Ray show, and gush about it. Otherwise, people will be negative for the sake of being negative. JUST GO EAT AT THE PLACE AND FIND OUT YOURSELF for god's sake. I'll just say's good, I liked it, you should at least try it.

Will the hype last? I think the prices are pretty reasonable, but the menu needs some editing, and maybe more than one burger special. I haven't tried most of the non-beef burgers and I haven't tried some of the beef burgers. Dan and I went back the next night for dinner. In retrospect, for me at least, it was more the excitement of the novelty/creativity of the burgers and shakes than the food itself that drew me back (that and the fried items...I'd go just to eat the fried stuff). I'll have to go back and try the flip, and there are still things on the menu I want to try, and things I don't really want to try. After I'm through with those, I wonder if there's something that'll really COMPEL me to go unless someone comes into town. The drive is similar in length to that of a Banh Mi place that is excellent and where a sandwich is no more than $2.50.

There's no doubt that maybe 50-70% of the hype is Richard Blais's TV success. It's a solid restaurant no doubt, and to be fair Blais was a finalist, but I'd probably be raging at Flip if it cost any more. There was a bonafide Richard Blais sighting when he came out to talk to the front of the house, and Audra almost passed out with excitement. He's not really well established enough to avoid being hands on in the restaurant. The same could be said for a lot of other famous chefs out there now though. I think Blais is pretty smart in the way he digs in and gets involved. He shows his face which everyone gets excited about, and he's friendly and gracious and is willing to take pictures with people. He knows that some of the fame is from the show, and embraces that, but doesn't charge you for it. If he tried to get away with that he would tank. Think about how many Top Chef, America's Next Top Model, Project Runway WINNERS etc. etc. etc. go on to have really famous careers. Can you even name all of them? If you remember Top Chef's season one winner, Harold Dieterle, he opened a restaurant in NYC called Perilla. By the NY Times's review (1 star), he tried hard not to make himself too visible, probably not wanting to take advantage of his reality show celebrity (either that or he was too arrogant to think that the majority of his patrons were there for a different reason). The nicest thing Zagat had to say about it was "the understated verging on spare interior is in sharp contrast to the emphatic pricing." Snap.

In any case, Flip fills a perfect role. Upscale burgers at a reasonable price. Going to a really fancy restaurant is a great experience, but the prices prohibit your brain from craving a return trip. Flip is priced so that you can go back and try all the different burgers. If you don't get a milkshake (which you really don't have to), a meal is really very reasonable. I'll be going back, as I have unfinished business (they were out of Korean BBQ on the second night, which was my initial choice). I'm sure that anyone who goes will likely find reasons to make a return trip. It may be curiosity, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, because it's never a bad thing if there are multiple items on the menu that pique your interest. Once the novelty wears off, hopefully things rotate a bit or there's one particular burger I really want to go back for. Maybe it'll be the A5 with a foie gras shake, hopefully not...for my wallet's sake. I'm not really too concerned with my health.

Is reality TV good for restaurants? I can't say. There are a few other restaurants here in Atlanta with Top Chef alums, some of whom have gone pretty far in the contest, and I hear they're good. Still, how many Top Chef alums do you suppose will win James Beard foundation awards as well? Yeah that's what I thought too.

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