Innovation: Good and Bad

Barman 2009 International Drinks Fair Held UbKF8r-v-aQl

Comfort vodka anyone? A new trend seems to be sweeping the restaurant/bar scene–gummy vodka, cookie dough vodka, bubblegum vodka, chocolate milk vodka… I have no interest in this.

Derek Brown’s take on it is right.

I don’t believe that nostalgia is without merit. I can certainly understand the use of nostalgic elements in food and drinks. For instance, Christina Tosi’s famous cereal milk from Momofuku Milk Bar, or cheeky references to drinks from our childhood in cocktails. The difference is that these references are a kind of phrasing. The same thing that happens in jazz when musical phrases from other songs are transposed and improvised within an original work. Nostalgically-flavored vodkas are more likely to apply a literal interpretation of flavor. Whipped cream vodka tastes like, well, whipped cream vodka, which mostly tastes like whipped cream.

Taking flavors and placing them in a new context is the essence of culinary innovation. Making vodka taste like cream is just a gimmick. The problem is that nothing new is revealed here about cream or vodka

Similar misguided innovations have been spurred by the interest in molecular gastronomy.  So when I spotted “pork lollipops” in a review of Rome’s Metamorfosi by Elizabeth Minchilli, “culinary disaster” immediately crossed my mind. But my palate was piqued, by her mention of “barely cooked tuna with chestnut ice cream”—interesting in flavor and texture.

And the rest of the meal is extraordinary. Here is a taste:

Hard to call out a favorite, but the pressed raw shrimp, on a bed of crunchy bread crumbs and topped with oyster cream and avocado was sublime. And as with all the dishes, topped with just-picked fresh herbs that were not garnish, but an essential element of the dish.
After an exquisitely cooked scallop with radicchio (sorry no photo) we moved on to secondi.
Marsciarelli spaghetti, perfectly al dente, topped with ‘polvere e profumo di mare.’ Dried, dehydrated mussels that did indeed make me think I was standing by the sea. Then three prefect ravioli, filled with creamy blu di monviso and dressed with rounds of beets and black truffle. And finally Risotto in Pacchetto Zafferano e Chinotto. That would be rice in a saffron package with chinotto (a type of Italian soft drink). I’m not sure what the packet was made out of, but it was gorgeous, melted away magically beneath my fork, and contained a truly ethereal saffron risotto.

Avocado and oyster cream, spaghetti with dried, dehydrated mussels—thoughtful, creative, and intriguing because they show new dimensions of traditional Italian ingredients. And the photos show the extraordinary attention to detail.

Genuine artistic innovation is never different for the sake of being different or merely odd and unexpected. It gives you a new experience of something treasured, a new way of tasting, a revelation rather than a curio. Cutting-edge-different but nevertheless grounded in tradition—unlike vodka that tastes like cream.


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