Chef Christian F. Puglisi
Chef Daniel Patterson of Coi in San Francisco, an F&W Best New Chef 1997, is enthralled by the New Nordic dishes at Puglisi’s first post-Noma venture.
I’d heard about Relae restaurant from a few friends. I’d met the chef, Christian Puglisi, when he was a sous-chef at Noma, where I had cooked for an event. Given Christian’s background, I figured that Relae would be pretty good. It turned out to be one of the most exciting meals I had all year.
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I remember each course vividly. I had a young leek, gently cooked and neatly enrobed in mustard and bread crumbs, its tendril-like roots still attached. A small head of celeriac, roasted whole, with black olive and pickled seaweed. Slivers of tender and flavorful lamb and a bit of lamb jus, shrouded in thin slices of cooked turnip. In one of the most striking dishes, three pieces of lightly cured mackerel and three ribbons of salted cucumber formed a ring around a pool of forest-green lovage sauce.
It was not only the deliciousness of Christian’s food that was thrilling, but also the style, which was defiantly, uncompromisingly minimalist. I know how hard it is to make a dish from three ingredients: the raw ingredients, the composition and the execution all have to be perfect. There is no room for error, and nothing to hide behind.
Relae’s modest prices and design say something about diners’ and chefs’ changing attitudes toward gastronomic cooking. Despite the talent in the kitchen, the food is not expensive—a four-course dinner is around $65. The dining room is a sliver of a space; the kitchen is tucked in a corner near the front door, with a few bar stools in the front. Bare wood tables are nestled between worn brick and white walls, the expanse interrupted only by a few pieces of artwork. Located in small drawers under each table is all the silverware you’ll need for the evening; you open them and take what you need for each dish. Expect that—and much else at Relae—to be widely copied. Jaegersborggade 41; restaurant-relae.dk; 011-45-3696-6609.
Chef José Avillez
George Mendes of Aldea in New York City, an F&W Best New Chef 2011, reveres Avillez’s ability to modernize the culinary classics of Portugal.
Portuguese food generally follows an oral tradition. There are no written recipes; ingredients are measured out in coffee cups by grandmothers. But after training with masters like Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adrià, José Avillez is reinterpreting old-fashioned dishes in a very creative and avant-garde way.
For instance, there’s this very old peasant dish called açorda—a bread soup, or really, a bread porridge. It’s what a very poor household would eat on Sunday: sautéed onions mixed with water, bread, garlic, olive oil, whatever proteins were on hand, with a raw egg stirred in at the end. José makes a salt-cod açorda, but in his own style: The broth is velvety and cilantro-scented; the sautéed croutons are injected with cod stock; there are flakes of gorgeous salt cod and then a perfectly cooked sous vide egg, which slowly and beautifully seeps into the soup. José also makes a refined version of bacalhau à brás—salt cod scrambled with eggs, crispy shoestring potatoes and green olives. Two bites took me back to when I first had this dish in a Lisbon café with my family, but José’s version is more elevated, with much more intense flavor.
José is remodeling recipes like these with ideas he’s learned from around the globe. He’s taking Portuguese food for a ride. Largo de São Carlos, 10; joseavillez.pt; 011-351-21-342-06-07.
Chef Hideki Shimoguchi
Byodoin Omotesando Chikurin, Uji, Japan
David Chang, chef and founder of the Momofuku empire and an F&W Best New Chef 2006, is in awe of Shimoguchi’s technique and dedication.
If Hideki Shimoguchi opened a restaurant in America, it would be the best place in the country. But he and his wife have a beautiful little restaurant serving kaiseki, a deeply traditional form of Japanese cuisine, an hour outside of Kyoto. I was lucky enough to apprentice with chef Hideki for a week in 2009. The first time I met him, we butchered fish at 5 a.m. I broke down pike conger eel, trying to cut the bones so thinly that they’d be edible. The knife blade was 25 pounds; it was one of the heaviest knives I’ve ever seen. I was struggling. So it was just incredible to see how Hideki worked with that pike conger. Cooking at Chikurin was a humbling experience—and Hideki is just a bad-ass. 21 Uji Renge; 011-81-774-21-7039.
Chef José Manuel Baños Rodríguez
Rick Bayless of Chicago’s Frontera Grill, an F&W Best New Chef 1988, praises the way Rodríguez uses cutting-edge techniques in the heart of Mexico’s most renowned food region.
When people visit Oaxaca, the so-called Land of the Seven Moles, those iconic mole sauces are all they want. Young chefs there, however, are using modern techniques to create something new that is still grounded in tradition. One of the best of these is José Manuel Baños Rodríguez. He interprets famous dishes in brilliant ways, like his shrimp ceviche wrapped in thin sheets of gelled carrots—there’s such freshness and lightness to it. I loved his take on the Mexican vermicelli soup sopa de fideos. Instead of the traditional garnish of crumbled queso fresco (fresh cheese), he floats spheres of liquefied cheese that burst in your mouth. That’s art, not craft. 5 de Mayo, 311; pitiona.com; 011-52-951-514-4707.
Chef Ángel León
Aponiente, Puerto De Santa Maria, Spain
Dan Barber of New York City’s Blue Hill, an F&W Best New Chef 2002, finds a genius seafood chef in a small town in southern Spain.
Visit a seafood restaurant anywhere in America, and undoubtedly, you’ll find a picture of the chef posing alongside a prized catch—a swordfish or a halibut, or an impossibly large striped bass. These triumphant photos reflect the tough-talking spirit of an Ernest Hemingway novel, back when the seas were full and the taking was good.
At Aponiente, I saw a Photoshopped picture of chef Ángel León, his hulking frame emerging from the body of a squid, merman-like. He is smiling, and the effect is subtle but significant. He’s not lording over the squid; he’s emerging from its core, at one with the squid. It’s humble in the same way Ángel’s cuisine is infused with humility. The picture tells you he’s going to speak for the fish.
Which he does. Ángel breaks rules, not with wild juxtapositions or chemical manipulations, but by looking to the sea to define his cuisine. A single clam is poached so lightly in its own juices that it appears to be raw. Tomaso, a fish that’s usually ground up into meal, is salted and thinly sliced, acquiring a delicate, custard-like consistency.
Midway through one of my meals, a waiter arrived, announcing the next course as “a little nose-to-tail eating.” Three small prawns floated in a bisque of shellfish with the lightly smoked and fried shells. A phytoplankton cracker topped with a spoonful of aioli framed the bowl. The prawns, normally hulking in size, were small and, to be frank, unattractive, as were the shells (the “tail” equivalent).
But then Ángel started talking. He told me the prawns were bycatch, decapitated by the netting process. He refuses to buy head-on shrimp because most have been treated with boric acid to retain their bright color, providing the illusion of freshness.
“Who needs the head if it’s marinated in boric acid?” he said to me. Instead, for a fraction of the price, he buys decapitated shrimp, which would otherwise be sold as ground meal. “A lot of it we can’t use; the really beat-up ones go into the bisque.”
Bisque doesn’t do justice to the soup. I don’t know that soup does either. Velouté, a richly satisfying sauce of stock thickened with roux, comes to mind. The dish was expressive of Ángel’s skills as a chef, coaxing flavors out of seafood that I didn’t think possible.
“Most of the ingredients I cook with are too ugly to show in their entirety,” he said. “I have stopped caring about that. I still want them to be pretty and look nice, but it’s not important to me that they be more beautiful than they taste.”
I took a bite of the prawn. “Delicious, no?” he asked. It was. Puerto Escondido 6; aponiente.com.