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Drizzle of Decadence

Gourmet Oils & Vinegars Transform Dishes from Ordinary to Extraordinary

Johnny Gnall

A new age has dawned in professional pantries. Long gone are the days when vinegar was relegated to salad dressings and oil was simply used as a vehicle for frying, sautéing and bread dipping. Thanks to the imagination and technique of talented chefs, oils and vinegars are transcending their roles of anonymous condiments to become a formidable presence on menus everywhere. And, as many restaurants are proving today, there are very few limits to what professional chefs can do to turn an everyday oil or vinegar into a pièce de résistance over the course of a diner’s meal.

Capturing the essence

Whether cooks are whipping up dishes for breakfast, dinner or dessert, such culinary works of art don’t develop without some effort and creativity from the kitchen. Yes, it is clearly easier to just toss chili pepper into a dish rather than taking the time to perfect a house-made chili oil; but with an infused oil, something completely unique is created: the essence of a familiar food captured in a subtle, unexpected way. “Using an [infused] oil is about seeing an ingredient in a different form,” explains Sous Chef Brandon Rodgers of San Francisco restaurant Benu. His menu uses a variety of different infused oils, though their presence isn’t always obvious, and often that’s the idea.

Similarly, Executive Chef Matthew Silverman of Las Vegas’ Vintner Grill embraces the subtle approach to integrating oil into dishes. He explains that “most oils work best as a finishing touch, as something that shouldn’t be noticed.” Further noting, “but they have a place on every plate.” Silverman comments that infused oils also allow a chef to take advantage of the color component and essence of a product without using the leaves or whole pieces that might not fit into the plate’s presentation. With a simple drizzle, an ingredient can fit into a dish almost effortlessly, punching up the flavor and color.

Other chefs, however, are more liberal with their infusions. “Oils have a place everywhere,” insists San Francisco Chef Alexander Alioto of Seven Hills restaurant. “I worked with a chef in Italy who finished every pasta dish with a drizzle of a very light basil oil.” But even such ubiquity is often under the radar. Alioto explains that an oil will only make the menu description if it is a “star” on the plate, as opposed to a more subtle accent. For example, the parsley oil he drizzles over his fish plates to refresh the palate is something of an unsung hero, doing its job perfectly but receiving little recognition from the average diner. The mint oil, however, drizzled over the ricotta pillows, is there to be noticed; appropriately, the menu brings it to our attention.

The alchemy of oils

Before an oil can make it onto the menu, however, or even onto the plate itself, it must make its way into the kitchen. And when it comes to infused oils, most chefs will agree: doing it yourself is best. Despite the fact that specialty purveyors around the globe can offer oils flavored with anything from almond to zebra (okay, maybe not zebra), but in the end, “flavoring your own oils allows you better control of the flavor,” according to Silverman. The alchemy of infusing requires patience and practice, correct timing and adjusting the temperature and technique ever-so-slightly. Some valuable instruction, patience and persistence doesn’t hurt either.

“I believe I have been taught well how to make [infused oils],” explains Alioto. “so I always make them myself.” He works to achieve different degrees of flavor in his oils, allowing varying intensities to find their own roles in the dishes he prepares. And, as with almost any project in the kitchen, there is plenty of trial and error involved. He learned, for example, that chive oil doesn’t often come out as brightly colored as one might expect, so he found that adding parsley to the process is a perfect remedy.

Chef de Cuisine Nick Ritchie has even found a way to turn would-be garbage scraps into a seasonal oil at Michael Chiarello’s Napa Valley restaurant, Bottega. By taking the vibrant green tops of the various spring onions the kitchen uses on the menu, steeping them in oil and straining the product through a coffee filter, he gets a beautiful, seasonal oil full of bright color and big flavor. Similarly seasonal is the strawberry oil infused by Rodgers at Benu, another crowd (and chef) favorite.

In fact, it seems that every chef has an oil he or she has prepared that has been a smash hit for diners and cooks alike: from Chef Johnny Nguyen’s cinnamon oil on the apple crisp dessert at First Crush in San Francisco, to the wasabi oil infused by Chef Masa Shimakawa of Los Angeles restaurant Onyx. Not surprisingly, both of these specific oils highlight another important point: that infused oils can soften potentially overpowering ingredients like cinnamon or wasabi, and allow them to find a place nestled among other ingredients. But whether infusing an oil to soften strong flavors or accent subtler ones, the key is utilization. As Rodgers explains, “Once you create an oil or vinegar, it’s all about how you use it. As with everything else, it’s about how each and every restaurant uses their products that sets them apart.”

Sour grapes

Infused oils can almost completely take on the flavor of their respective products; vinegars, on the other hand, are a little too punchy to remain in the background. Fortunately, that’s pretty much the point. The truly good ones need nothing to help them stand on their own but an appropriate food pairing. Anyone who has ever dipped a soft hunk of bread into a plate of aged balsamic vinegar can attest to this fact.

“I’m a balsamic freak,” proclaims Chef Brian Malarkey of San Diego eatery Searsucker. Malarkey knows that a good drizzle of balsamic vinegar can make any dish pop, from a sizzling steak to a fresh tomato salad. In fact, he has even been able to fit it into a mainstay San Diego dessert: his granola and acai sorbet, with mixed berries tossed in white balsamic vinegar, is one of the biggest crowd-pleasers at Searsucker. “I like using white balsamic,” he explains, “because the flavor is similar [to traditional balsamic] but it’s easier to hide, like using white pepper in a hollandaise.”

Another acid hot on the scene right now is sherry vinegar. “It’s the newest star,” proclaims Nguyen, who likes the fact that it captures acidity, sweetness and roundness, all at the same time.

More obscure, but no less excellent, is one of Shimakawa’s favorite vinegars to use, Chinese black vinegar. Somewhat similar in texture and flavor to balsamic, Chinese black vinegar can be drizzled on its own, though it is more traditionally used in sauces and stir-fries. “Most guests don’t recognize it,” Shimakawa points out, “and many Western cooks aren’t familiar with it.” Nevertheless, the increased blurring of lines between cuisines, especially in California, may allow more room for this Chinese staple to gain some ground.

There is far greater versatility to be found in vinegar than one might expect. Chefs everywhere are finding new and exciting ways to manipulate these ambassadors of acidity, bringing out far more than just acidity. Take Shimakawa’s raspberry-bonito vinegar. His goal is to embody yin and yang, using the masculine flavor of bonito and the feminine flavor of raspberries, all punched up and brought out sharply by the background of the vinegar itself. Moreover, because the flavors are extruded from their respective products, the resulting concoction has a rich, creamy texture.

Along the same lines, one can try the balsamic game sauce on Bottega’s winter menu, which Ritchie prepares by reducing a game-based stock and a California balsamic separately, combining them just so. The resulting sauce, deep purple almost to the point of blackness, has a sexy sheen that makes it “almost mirror-like” on the plate, and a richness that is absolutely perfect for a game-meat pairing. Even more impressive is the restaurant’s sherry vinegar “caviar.” Individual pearls of sherry vinegar on the plate visually captivate the diner; but it’s the function of the caviar that is truly brilliant. “It allows us to pinpoint exactly which bites, on the plate, will get the vinegar’s flavor,” Ritchie explains. Rather than a traditional drizzle, which allows the vinegar to flow wherever it pleases, the intentional and specific placement of each pearl ensures that every mouthful will have the right balance of flavor
and acidity.

Adding color to your culinary palate

With this kind of outside-the-bottle thinking being put into practice in professional kitchens everywhere, it’s hard to say what may come next. Perhaps infusing oils will not be enough; point in fact, for Vintner’s Grill, it already is not. This is why Silverman presses his own avocado oil from the otherwise discarded pits; providing a slightly nuttier (absolutely no pun intended) alternative to extra virgin olive oil on his otherwise traditional margherita flatbread. Constant and new experimentation is a large part of progress.

It appears that with moderate imagination and dedication, ordinary oils and vinegars can become something much more. It’s not magic, but it can often look and taste pretty close to it. As Searsucker’s Malarkey puts it, “A plate is like an empty canvas; and I like to use lots of different crayons.” Thanks to the creativity and passion of a growing number of chefs, it seems the crayon box just got a little bit bigger.

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