Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Miracle Fruit Flavor Tripping Party

Last week I helped throw a flavor tripping party for Gastronomy Society. We purchased Miracle Fruit Tablets online since we were expecting a big group and the fresh fruit would have been cumbersome and expensive. With a list of tasting recommendations, I went shopping for sours, bitter, and spicy foods. This was my first experience with miracle fruit and I wanted to get a variety of flavors.


I first read about the wonders of miracle fruit in a New York Times article last year. It occurred to me that the best way to experience the sensory-altering Synsepalum dulcificum would be in a party setting. It's not like I'm going to finish lemons and jars of pickles on my own. A shopping list of sour foods isn't all that practical in large amounts. In fact, going through checkout at the grocery was an odd experience itself. I got a weird look from the cashier when I paid for lemons, limes, grapefruits, olives, pickles, salt and vinegar chips, wasabi peas, sour patch kids, and a bottle of balsamic vinegar.

Miracle fruit gets its unique properties from a glycoprotein called miraculin; yes that's seriously what it's called. Though the actual mechanism does not seem to be fully understood, miraculin binds with flavor receptors on the tongue so that these receptors respond to tart acids as well as sweetness. The effect is that formerly sour foods become sweet and formerly sweet foods can become overly cloying. Miracle fruit had grown in West Africa for some time, and had even been floated as a sugar substitute for diabetic and dieters in the 1970s. Unfortunately, a last minute change by the FDA shelved the widespread introduction in the US.

The tablet I had tasted vaguely like raisins. I couldn't tell if that was the flavor the fruit was supposed to have or if it was an additive. The trick is to let the pill dissolve on your tongue. I had quite a few people coming back to me to ask for more tablets because they chewed and swallowed the first one. With my tongue sufficiently activated with miraculin, I picked up a plate of enough acidic foods to wear away the enamel on my teeth.

I started with the pickle. Not much of an effect. I intentionally avoided sweet pickles and bought dill slices in hopes that the fruit would do its work. Sour Patch Kids lose much of their appeal when they are just Sweet Patch Kids. Wasabi peas were easy to just pop into your mouth and forget about. The pill probably tapered off some of the harshness of the wasabi, but it still tasted about the same. Salt and vinegar chips were oddly sweet. Not sure they were quite as satisfying without the sourness. I didn't bother with the cheap balsamic. People told me it tasted like bad wine. I have a bottle of seven-year aged balsamic from Italy that's sweet enough by itself to drink from a glass. I didn't need a miracle for that to be delicious (especially on strawberries and vanilla ice cream)

The best foods to eat with the miracle fruit effects were the citruses. Lemons, limes, grapefruits, I could just bite into the slices like oranges. The bitterness of grapefruit wore away, the main reason I avoided pamplemousse before. The lemon and lime, stripped of their acidity, expressed their unique flavors more readily. It was an opportunity to appreciate the lemon and lime for more than the juice, in the same way the zest gives you those essential oils without the mouth puckering. Too often lemon-lime flavors are conflated in artificial flavorings. They're really not the same. Stripping away the juice gives them them the chance to express their inner fruitiness.

The party wrapped up since our keg of Guinness couldn't be tapped. Did you know Guinness kegs require special taps? Keep that in mind if you ever order one. About an hour after most people left, the store brought us a few cases of bottled Guinness. At this point it was mostly just the Gastronomy Society board that remained. We celebrated with the dark beer, which combined with the miracle fruit, was creamy like a milkshake and much smoother to drink. This was the last event of a year of chocolate and cheese tastings, movie nights, taco trips, dumpling crawls and Indian buffets. I'm taking event suggestions for next year now, and miracle fruit party is on the top of the list.


Monday, April 5, 2010

Fatty Crab on the Upper West Side

The dim red bulb lit up walls of retro pornography while a speaker played out the familiar ping and pong of a distant table tennis match. This was the oddest bathroom I've been in. I was locked in the unisex bathroom trying to wash my hands of the thick red sambal for the third time. But the hearty smell of crustacean wasn't coming off. Alas, I walk back to my table just in time for the check and a delightful dish of complimentary mochi cake dessert.


The crunchy crust and the jelly interior of the cake was pleasant, maybe not pleasant enough to offset the $48 for a dungeness crab. Before I made my reservation, I had set a price goal for myself at $30. I wasn't going to order the chili crab if it was more than that. When the waiter came around, I asked him for the market price and got my meal chilling quote. Sounds a bit high, what the range? Maybe I could justify ordering it if it was usually around $50. Nope. $48 was the highest they've ever charged. I glanced down through the small plates and the entrees. Short rib rendang, watermelon pickle and crispy pork, fatty duck? I briefly considered each of these alternatives, but each time my mind went back to the chili crab. How could I come to Fatty Crab and not order their signature dish? How could I give it an adequate review without it?

Fatty Dog - XO sausage, pickled chili, radish, aioli

I started with the Fatty Dog appetizer/small plate. A completely forgettable dish, I would've been as satisfied with a $5 hot dog than a $13 Fatty Dog. There was a certain sweetness component that was missing from the dog that would've kicked it up a little more towards its price. For a restaurant of supposedly spicy and flavorful dishes, the dog lacked any Southeast Asian vigor.

Chili Crab - crab, chili sauce, white toast

The namesake dish came to the table. Crab, chili sauce, and white toast? The ingredient list on the menu was deceptively simple. The chili sauce could be composed of dozens of ingredients itself. I've been eating crab since I was a kid. I'd proclaim myself a crab eating expert after the countless family meals we'd have gathered around a lazy Susan at various Chinese seafood restaurants around the Bay Area. I could dissect and consume the shelled 8-legged creature faster than some people carve up a crab cake. And being from San Francisco, dungeness was my crab of choice.

I cracked through a leg, plenty of flavor on the shell, but too little penetration into the meat. This normally wouldn't be too big a problem if the crab was fresh, as the sweetness of the meat would be more than sufficient. However, this crab had been frozen a bit too long (as if any freezing was okay). The restaurant could have cracked the shells slightly to allow the aroma to permeate. The best part of the dish was the pool of sauce at the bottom of the bowl ready to be sopped up by the toast or the coconut rice I ordered on the side. Still, I'll save my money for a plane ticket back home, when I can eat crab fresh off the dock. I have high standards for crab and I refuse to compromise.

Fatty Crab
2170 Broadway
Upper West Side, NY 10024

Another location:
643 Hudson St
West Village, NY 10014


Friday, April 2, 2010

Tasting with La Maison du Chocolat

With boutique locations in Paris, New York, Cannes, London, Tokyo and Hong Kong, La Maison du Chocolat don't mess around. Master chocolatier Robert Linxe's philosophy is that everyone should have one piece of exquisite chocolate a day. I'm not sure if he meant that everyone should have at least one piece, but certainly one of La Maison du Chocolat's ganaches would keep you satisfied for a week in this Hersey permeated world. Good chocolate, just like good cheese, wine or other victuals is an indulgence going forward. Once you take that step into the hard stuff, you can't go back the same.


I had the opportunity to taste four chocolates from this fancy boutique through an event hosted by the Columbia Gastronomy Society. Manager Anca Niculescu walked us through the chocolate making process to inculcate an appreciation for the four morsels in front of us.

Cocoa butter, cocoa nibs, cocoa beans

We dissected the cocoa bean, which come in cacao pods. Inside each bean are tiny cocoa nibs that are ground into chocolate liquor. The liquor is then separated into cocoa powder and cocoa butter.

Cracked open bean with all its cocoa goodness falling out

The manager emphasized that La Maison du Chocolat used the highest quality cacao pods, the Criollo variety, whereas typical industrial chocolate makers utilized the more common Forastero. This differentiation didn't mean much to me as someone outside of the industry, but the fact that they could claim this exclusivity meant something in itself. What stuck with me was the manager's description of the shelf-life of good chocolate. Most of her ganaches lasted about four weeks, and she added that you should be skeptical of chocolates that have unnaturally long shelf-lives. Another useful tip, if the chocolate leaves a filmy feeling in your mouth, it could be an indication that the maker used vegetable oil as a replacement for cocoa butter. Chocolate is best kept in the climate of a wine cellar. Never freeze chocolate.

Grain dentelle - milk chocolate praliné with slivers of crispy waffle

I had always been a fan of chocolate pralines and I urge anyone who spots a gold box of Goldkenn Swiss pralines to treat herself. The tasting started with this milk chocolate exhibition of textures. The chocolate started dense in the middle and opened outwards with an airy crispness to thin waffle layer at the top. The lightest chocolate came first and each piece was progressively darker.

Micaëla - Milk chocolate mousse infused with pure Kenyan Arabica coffee

This was our first infusion. A mousse, whipped ganache creating a playful levity. A hint of caramel that comes from the chocolate beans themselves and not from any added ingredient. The coffee depth. The beans are steeped in cream, brought to a rolling boil, before being mixed with the chocolate.

Andalousie - Dark chocolate ganache infused with lemon zest

Just a sniff and you'll get the citrus right away. Real fruits always taste better than their chemical counterparts. Just like there is a distinct difference between lemon juice and lemon zest, you can feel a concentration of oils in this chocolate. This was one of the denser chocolates in terms of texture. Just look at the picture of the black hole of cocoa.

Chiberta - Dark chocolate mousse infused with orange and lemon zest

Somewhat like a combination of the second and third chocolates, I expected the flavor to be similar too. Actually, I've never been particularly fond of orange chocolates, but given the experience with the lemon zest ganache, I figured the orange would be delicious. In fact, the orange was distinctively different from the lemon. More than just being sweeter, less tart, there was actually an essence of orange like the difference between a San Pellegrino Limonta and Aranciata.

With those four, I think I'm set on chocolate for a week at least. But what's the future hold? I anticipate that I'll be stopping into one of La Maison du Chocolat's three boutiques from time to time to keep up my fancy chocolate cravings. They hold two hour tasting for $70, a terrific special occasion gift.

La Maison du Chocolat
1018 Madison Ave
Manhattan, NY 10075
(212) 744-7117

30 Rockefeller Center,
Manhattan, NY 10020
(212) 265-9404

63 Wall St
Manhattan, NY 10005
(212) 952-1123