GQ‘s food correspondent Alan Richman recently decried the increasingly common practice of male-helmed kitchens orchestrating what he calls “Egotarian Cuisine:” Chefs turn out ever-stranger dishes meant to showcase their inspirations, banking on culinary orgasms via mental masturbation. “What makes the food different is that every chef is seeking to express himself in an incomparable and triumphant manner,” he opines. “The food is ingenious. It’s occasionally brilliant. Too often, it’s awful.”
Richman focuses on several chefs around the country, many of whom are young and all of whom are male, and he defines Egotarian Cuisine’s food as dishes “that express the inspirations of the chef…what appears before you are compilations of ingredients never previously compiled. This is the first food development in America that exists not because customers are eager for it but because chefs insist on doing it.”
Ultimately, this describes a rather large swathe of modern cooking. Richman is fine being titillated by unconventional compositions from dictatorial chefs as long as he knows he’s in good hands that have extensive training and experience.
On that last point, we can agree: Part of what we pay for when we dine out is the promise of excitement weighed against the likelihood of failure. That could easily be said of any restaurant meal, but for diners at progressive restaurants whose chefs play a game of cerebral chicken, the ratio is considerably more precarious. A more seasoned chef with a foundational background might have an easier go of this kind of improvisational cooking. It’s like jazz. To riff brilliantly, you’ve got to master the basics.
And we’ll concur, too, that bravado of this sort can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Richman is right to bemoan the movement for encouraging an atmosphere of self-importance. (Though the food media certainly helped move that ball along.)
But it seems irresponsible to discourage gastronomic exploration. Sure, the way may be fraught with obscure micro greens, but while Richman seems to have nibbled upon one too many pig’s blood crackers, experimentation is kind of the point of this particular breed of restaurant, and it’s very much part of the fun. What else are today’s soul-searching chefs to do? All cooking is an expression of identity, and what inspires one chef may be anathema to another. If we agree that dining culture is built on more than just old stalwarts like Brennan & Carr or Delmonico’s, then you can’t blame Atera’s Matt Lightner or a young Paul Liebrandt for wanting to create new culinary traditions, even if it meant, in Liebrandt’s case, having guests lick food off women’s backs at Papillon. (Don’t try to lick anything off of anyone at Brennan & Carr — you will get kicked out.)
As Adam Platt pointed out, part of the problem with being an avid eater in any great dining city is that on a national scale, there’s a lot of stylistic overlap of esoteric plate compositions and casual atmosphere. As a result, it’s hard not to get jaded, which is why restaurants like the ones Richman maligns feel exciting simply by virtue of being quirky. Critics will chime in on these places, and, ultimately, diners will decide whether they’re willing to put up with the peculiarities. We’re lucky to live in a town that can foster such a diversity of ideas (yes, even pizza cones), even if the success rate is dicey at best.
At their core, Egotarian restaurants are provocative. Whatever you want to call these types of hyper-curated experiences, they’re undeniably compelling, and there should be room for them — especially in this city.
On the next page, five of our favorite places to stroke the chef’s id.
Torrisi Italian Specialties, 250 Mulberry Street, 212-965-0955
With Mario Carbone serving up red sauce luxury across town at his namesake restaurant, the Major Food Group flagship is firmly Rich Torrisi’s domain. Initially offering a $45 four course prix fixe, the menu now stands at nine courses of Italian American-inspired small plates for $100. Although the food’s less esoteric than what’s often found at your typical Egotarian joint, dishes like cumin-spiced lamb carpaccio served with mini bao buns and an amaretto sour featuring fresh-pressed almond milk poured over winter citrus serve as reminders that the chef has grown since carving turkey sandwiches. Perhaps most importantly, the restaurant has gotten rid of its signature warm mozzarella (it now lives at Carbone full time), replacing the near-molten cheese with a beggar’s purse of mozzarella skin filled with trout roe, lemon zest and breadcrumbs. If you’re unsatisfied with the audacity of being served less than ten courses, an extended tasting is available upon request.
Blanca, 261 North Moore Street, Brooklyn
Carlo Mirarchi presides over a scant 12 seats at this sleek, 20+ course tasting counter restaurant pressed into the back of the Roberta’s Bushwick compound. On any given night you’re apt to find slippery raw glass shrimp coated in poppy seeds, hardcore extra-aged meats, and caviar-topped parsnip cream to be eaten with a shallow mother of pearl spoon. The restaurant recently teamed up with like-minded Brooklyn pioneer Evil Twin Brewing Company — who consult on Greenpoint’s Tørst and its restaurant Luksus, also on this list — to create a Berliner-style wheat beer called, appropriately, Biere Blanca.
Luksus, 615 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-389-6034
A jewel box of a restaurant tucked inside Greenpoint beer bar Tørst, Luksus serves a suds-friendly tasting menu influenced by chef Daniel Burns’ time spent working at Momufuku Labs and The Fat Duck and running the pastry department at Noma. Hidden behind a sliding white door, the chef toils over delicate preparations like lamb sweetbreads served in a paper cone for dipping into burnt hay gribiche. Luksus isn’t the only restaurant in town with a beer pairing, but it’s by far the most exciting, allowing diners to taste through a range of oddball fermentations, some of which are only available at the restaurant.
Atera, 77 Worth Street, 212-226-1444
Matthew Lightner’s paean to foraging serves a procession of around 24 courses to 13 guests at an unusually broad U-shape counter, the better to showcase the chef’s dramatic plating, which occasionally finds ingredients plated sparely on rock slabs or nestled into wooden planters. Illusions and allusions are tossed around, resulting in clever plates like lobster rolls with buns made from dry yeast meringue and beef marrow served inside an edible “bone” made from hearts of palm. If you feel like splurging with a group (up to six), snag the secluded corner table that sits under a hanging garden. Atera also sets itself apart with a subterranean lounge that, in addition to mixing excellent cocktails by Benjamin Foote, serves a wonderful if cheffed-up burger whose predominate flavor comes from dry-aged short rib.
Contra, 138 Orchard Street, 212-466-4633
Jeremiah Lawrence and Fabian von Hauske preside over a rotating five-course $55 prix fixe meal from this slim Lower East Side restaurant, which also features nightly-changing wine pairings from sommelier Linda Milagros Violago. On any given night, you might find floppy discs of thinly sliced raw butternut squash drizzled with smoked cashew milk, or beef paired with walnuts, truffle, and wasabi. Every meal concludes with a pair of desserts, usually an ice cream and a mousse-based composition. If you have any fears as to whether the trend of restaurants simplifying their dessert programs will be detrimental to the future of dining, comfort yourself with a spoonful of van Hauske’s popcorn mousse topped with mandarin orange “snow” and covered in a mound of sweet and salty popcorn dust.