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"Reverse engineering" restaurant dishes


JAZ
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When I taste something great in a restaurant, I often start thinking about how to make it myself (unless it requires equipment I don't have or ingredients I can't get). Maybe it's genetic -- my mom used to do this as well. Sometimes I try to make it exactly as I had it; other times I just use a flavor combination or other element and make my own version.

My latest experiment was pretty straightforward; a copy of a snap pea and radish salad we had at Momofuko Noodle Bar. It was dressed with sour cream and horseradish and chives, and I thought, "I can make this." And after a little playing around with the dressing, I did pretty well.

Sometimes, though, my efforts aren't so successful. For instance, I had a shrimp and bean dish at a now defunct restaurant in San Francisco that I never did figure out -- it seemed simple, but obviously I was missing something crucial.

I figure I'm not the only person who does this, right? Has anyone else had any successes or failures?

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All the time. It's one of my favorite sports.

The curry that I'm going to make for the Heartland Gathering is my reverse engineering of the dish I had at Mengrai Thai in Toronto back in May - red chicken curry with lychee and pineapple. Now they serve theirs in a hollowed out pineapple and I don't feel the need to do that.

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I try to do this, but my only real success is one I stumbled upon.

For over a year, I tried to duplicate the mushroom soup at a local restaurant. Several random recipes didn't get close. I wheedled details, one at a time, from the waitstaff, but all assured me they'd be fired if they told me everything. A co-worker's sister had been married to a former cook at the restaurant; I asked if it would be possible to try to get them back together long enough to get him to cough up the recipe. "Only if you wanna get shot," was the reply. I proposed several scenarios to her over the next few months, but all she would say is, "you don't want to be in the same room with those two. You won't get your recipe, but you probably will get caught in the crossfire." I thought about asking a cop friend to borrow his bullet-proof vest, but later discarded that idea.

So I gave up. A subsequent discussion on eG indicated Anthony Bourdain's recipe in his (then) new Les Halles cookbook was really good. Since I couldn't make the one I wanted, I thought I'd try Bourdain's recipe, and maybe we'd like it as much, or even more so.

One taste told me I was close to the restaurant recipe, and it was obvious that all I needed to do was use white wine instead of sherry, and leave some mushroom slices in the soup, instead of pureeing all. Bonus: it was the easiest, simplest recipe of all.

Now that the obsessiveness of the matter is over with, I've realized that I enjoy the challenge as much as finding success with the results. I'm still working on the lentil sausage soup at Carrabba's.

Jenny

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I haven't done this before, but have been tempted recently, after eating the most to-die-for chickpea soup at I Coppi in the east village. I asked the kitchen what kind of broth they used, chicken or beef, and they told me it was vegetable. I was floored. Sadly I don't even know where to begin trying to make a vegetable stock taste that good...

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My wife and I do this all the time as well.

When we can't identify something, we often ask and the query is passed to the chef. Most often they are very pleased that someone is showing such a strong interest in their food. This has led not only to discussions but also, in some cases, to lasting friendships.

Sometimes the dishes we are served have a flavour gap so we ask for a condiment to add to round out the flavour. For example, yesterday my wife had a pasta dish that was very pleasant but a bit bland. She added salt but something was still missing. By asking for some chopped chili to add to the dish, the heat profile increased with the added bonus that there was also a new texture.

Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"The Internet is full of false information." Plato
My eG Foodblog

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I do this too but the dish has to impress me enough. Recently had a green mango salad at a Vietnamese restaurant in Orlando. The dish was very delicious. The key was the dressing. Lots of lime and quite sweet, touch of fish sauce but my attempts at home to duplicate were good but I couldn't nail down the exact taste. It had these little pieces of celery that were sweet and just killer good. I'm sure the restaurant down the street did it different as well.

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