Francis Lam really likes a well-cooked potato.
Sometimes, it really is the little things that matter. Sure, it’s fun to be wowed by exotic ingredients and highwire techniques, but then there are the moments in an eater’s life where you’re just happy to be alive because of a boiled potato.
That was the first thing Lorena served us, and it was one of my best bites of the day: a perfectly cooked huancaina potato. That word I have trouble pronouncing refers to a sauce made from cheese and fruity aji amarillo chiles, and it’s great. But there was also something really to the potato itself -- it was perfectly cooked. That may sound silly, but there’s something really great that happens when you hit it on a potato. The insides are smooth and creamy while the outside keeps its integrity, holding onto the skin, and not dissolving into that sticky mush that coats most boiled potatoes. Maybe I’m imagining things, but it’s almost like the potato holds onto its flavor better, releasing it just when your teeth break it open. Swathed in that creamy, fruity sauce, it was just awesome.
Let’s go from there (yes, 171 words on the doneness of a potato) to another “simple” dish that really won the day: Chris’ pork and chicken liver terrine. It did what every great terrine should do: confuse you. “Why do I love this?” you ask yourself the whole time you’re eating it. It looks a little—let’s be honest—like cat food, but it tastes like something you would physically fight an animal for. It tastes like “peasant” food because it has scraps and offal in it, but the earthy flavor of the liver hums along in the background, only rushing in with its richness after you’ve finished chewing. It’s a trick of the most refined order. The fat and nuts make it taste like butter, even though there’s no butter anywhere near it. I started to spy the others to see if I could take their leftovers.Kerry’s picnic, for me, wasn’t as much about a single standout dish as an overall experience. I love that he started with a white soup—was it intentional? It was gorgeous, that cold cauliflower cream with that brash streak of yellow saffron. It was luxurious and plain, a starting point. From there, we got the appealing blandness of mozzarella, but we started heading into fuller flavor with pesto. And then he teed up a ridiculous grilled chicken and kielbasa smothered in peppers and paprika. It was like falling asleep to your mother reading you a bedtime story and waking up in an acid trip of a dream. That’s a good thing, I mean.
And Patricia’s menu, actually, I thought was the most interesting and exciting of the day, telling a story of traveling through the Middle East into China. (We were at the Venetian, where Marco Polo was from, ya dig?) Sadly, starches did her in—the fact that starches recrystallize, that is. You know how rice gets hard after you put it in the fridge? And it doesn’t soften back up until after you actually get it hot again? That’s because starches seize up and crystallize in the cold. Rice does it the worst, but others, like Patricia’s flatbread and lentils, do it to some degree as well, making that dish sorrowfully unappealing. She’s a great cook, and it bummed me out that she ended up leaving on this challenge, because the thoughtfulness behind her food was so inspiring.