There’s something fishy in the kitchen at this year’s Best New Restaurant, Table 45. Chef Zack Bruell keeps it stocked withnam pla, the Thai version of a seasoning liquid made from fermented anchovies. It’s used in many Southeast Asian cuisines, and although it has a truly terrible smell and a nasty taste on its own, fish sauce, also callednuoc mam (in Vietnam) andtuk trey (in Cambodia), is undetectable when added to sauces, soups and marinades. But it contributes important salty and umami components.
Also known as the fifth taste, umami represents the hard-to-describe experience we characterize as meaty, earthy and deliciously savory. Our enthusiasm for it is primal and encoded into our senses. That’s why Bruell is such a fan of fish sauce. His favorite brand is Tiparo.
“I never heard the word umami until recently,” he says. “But I’ve known for a long time that a small amount of this ingredient has a huge impact.”
It goes into the luscious coconut broth he serves at the restaurant, along with chicken stock, shallots, lemon grass, ginger, shiitake mushrooms, peppers, scallions, jalapeños, garlic, shrimp, scallops and rice vermicelli. “Fish sauce makes this soup sparkle. It brings dimensionality, complexity and balance.” And, he notes, its use need not be limited to Asian dishes. “You don’t know it’s there, but it works like magic.” 9801 Carnegie Ave., Cleveland, (216) 707-4045
My Favorite Mold
[by Greg MacLaren]
While I haven’t done any official surveys on this, I figure cheese is the food most people consider “pungent.” (Garlic probably gets some votes, too.) Perhaps nowhere else in the world of comestibles does the line between what we’ll eat and what grosses us out blur so finely. Think about it: Normally we shun bacteria and mold, but it’s what makes many cheeses so delicious. Generally speaking, I’ll eat, cook with and adore any cheese, no matter how quickly its presence clears a room or elicits embarrassed glances. In fact, on my first trip to Paul Minnillo’s Baricelli Inn, a colleague and I ordered a real, aged Muenster that led other nosy diners to stealthily peek their heads in the door of our dining room out of curiosity or concern. I still can’t imagine what they expected to find ... a team from “CSI”?
My friend Ben Bebenroth runs Spice of Life, a catering company that uses only locally produced items. He recommends Doug Daniels of Meadow Made, which has been making cheese locally for about 10 years, offering everything from the expected — cheddar, flavored Jack cheeses — to cave-ripened oddities such as buche, a goat-cheese variety. “The fastest-growing area of local cheese production ... is goat cheese,” Bebenroth says, “with Lake Erie Creamery in Cleveland and Mackenzie Creamery in Hiram making some of the best goat cheese I’ve ever tasted.”
As a connoisseur of smelly cheese, I have a deep, basic, visceral appreciation for the subject, which seems akin to other people’s enjoyment of the smell of gasoline or dirt. We can’t explain our dark urges. So while I love the palatable goat cheese, I still look forward most to the pungent cheeses that frighten old ladies and make children cry. Blue-veined cheeses, such as Roquefort, Stilton, maytag and Gorgonzola, were the first exotic cheeses I tried when I was young, and I’ll always like them best.
Ask a vegetarian out for sweetbreads, and she may be excited until learning they’re neither sweet nor breadlike. They’re pancreas. My dining companion looks at the small Fat Cats appetizer skeptically. The tiny pieces of meat are incredibly rich, served with wild mushrooms and a sherry-based sauce. The sherry enhances the sharp taste, contrasting with the milder mushrooms. It looks like chicken, but has the consistency of swordfish. Running your tongue along the meat while you chew reveals its buttery texture. “I was expecting something jellylike,” she says. “It’s tangy and smoky. Rich. It might be the sauce that makes it good.” As she chews she tries to forget she’s eating cow.Baby cow. 2061 W. 10th St., Cleveland, (216) 579-0200
Sans Souci’s bouillabaisse is fall in a bowl. Carefully prepared over two hours, the broth’s deep oranges and browns dance like a hillside of foliage touched by the breeze. A whiff of the shore prepares you for the mingling of flavors to come. Each spoonful brings something different: sweet from the scallops, lobster pulling up the buttery notes, the clams and mussels bumping up the saltiness, and the mild bass stepping in to enhance the zingy, buttery, salty goodness. The French classic has been on the menu since the restaurant opened 16 years ago. “It’s in us,” says sous chef Maggie Keane. 24 Public Square, Cleveland, (216) 902-4095
the umami of it all
Push those containers of Hellmann’s, Heinz and French’s aside. When it comes to condiments, there’s a world of flavors to explore. Some local chefs are prepping traditional ethnic favorites and taking a cross-cultural approach to inventing their own. We got a taste of four creative condiments that pack a big punch thanks to ingredients such as truffles, tomatoes, soy sauce and vinegar that taste rich, full-bodied and satisfying.
Brazilian Carioca Relish
fresh tomatoes + 3 kinds of onions + malagueta pepper sauce + garlic
Flavor Profile: Relish with kick
Where to Find It: Saravá
What’s to Love: It’s fragrant and refreshing, with a mellow heat. It’s usually served with beef picanha, but try ordering as a side to heat up rice and beans.
egg yolks + truffle oil + roasted garlic + oven-dried tomatoes
Flavor Profile: Mayonnaise, only better
Where to Find It: Fahrenheit
What’s to Love: It’s sweet, tart, earthy and extra creamy, elevating the french fry to gourmet fare. Added benefit: It cools down those hot potatoes fast, so no waiting to eat them.
fresh tamarinds + Thai chiles + fish sauce
Flavor Profile: Sour and salty, with the tanginess of liquid Smarties
Where to Find It: Thyme
What’s to Love: Savory and intense, it makes your tongue pay attention. It comes with the hanger steak, but it’s also a fine matchup for shrimp or burgers.
red chili paste + housemade mayonnaise + soy sauce
Flavor Profile: Super creamy spread with an edge
Where to Find It: Light Bistro
What’s to Love: It’s airy and velvety with a balance of salt and spice. Chef Matthew Mathlage uses it in his ribeye sushi roll and with crab and chicken. But I say serve it with every sandwich!