Monday, September 14, 2015

Not knowing the limits of your skills, a case study: Cooks & Soldiers

Last week, I wrote an entry in which I mentioned my recent dinner at Cooks & Soldiers.  As I said then, the meal was okay but almost never better than that.  I've thought a lot about what the restaurant did wrong, and I've come to the conclusion that it boils down to ambition far outstripping skill.

The basic idea--serve Basque food--was enough to attract me to the restaurant.  Its menu certainly looked promising.

Click an image to see a larger version.

Then what should have been an easy home run, the pan con tomate with Jamon Iberico, arrived.

The bread was not the thin, crispy wonder you get in Spain.  The tomato was a thick paste, not the light, grated coating of tradition.  Even the Jamon Iberico wasn't quite up to snuff, though it was the best part of the dish.

The croquetas on the menu made me a bit nervous, because they involved shrimp rather than ham, but I was up for trying them.

Unfortunately, as you can see, they were more like hush puppies or just fried shrimp with way, way too much breading, than any croqueta I've ever seen.  To be fair, the menu did describe them as "Royal red shrimp fritters," but I assumed with the name "Croquetas de Gambas" they would hew more to the croquetas tradition.  In this case, I paid for that assumption.

At this point, I realized that this was not so much Basque food as a southern take on Basque food, a menu built by riffing on Basque classics.  In theory, I'd love that--note how much I adore Aaron Vandemark's take on Italian food at Panciuto.  The difference is that Aaron's fundamental skills are so good that when he produces a twist on an Italian dish, he not only understands the heart of that dish, he also can reinvent the concept while staying true to its nature.

Put differently, his skills are strong enough to let him invent.  The folks at Cooks & Soldiers, by contrast, didn't display enough strength in the basics to let them hit their goals.

This point became crystal clear when I tasted the very best dish on the Cooks & Soldiers menu:  the Bikini.

Basically, this is a nine-buck, small, fancy grilled cheese sandwich.  I'm all for dishes like this:  take a classic, employ great ingredients--and here we have Jamon Iberico and black truffle--and create something better.  Even this offering, though, made me instantly wonder how much stronger it would have been with better bread and a more flavorful, ideally Spanish cheese.

The lesson here applies to any art, not just cooking:  if you want to experiment, to riff on classics, to take them to new heights, great--just be sure your fundamental skills and your understanding of those classics are up to the task.

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