How far can you push the variation on a recipe before you lose the essence and change the dish into something that isn’t true to the name? Lately, I’ve had a taste for some traditional foods. Unfortunately, when I order them, what often ends up arriving at the table is not what I expected. I wouldn’t ever want to say that chefs should not innovate and put their own spin on the foods we grew up eating. Much of the fun of dining out is discovering new takes on traditional themes, but sometimes you want what you ordered to be exactly the same as you remember from the past, and not some fancy variation. The ability of a dish to evoke feelings from the past is what makes comfort food so comforting.
Many local restaurants have recently added adult versions of macaroni and cheese to their menu and found them to be very popular with diners. Mac and cheese is one of the classic comfort foods from childhood. Most of us grew up eating tons of the stuff from the Kraft brand blue box. The versions that chefs have come up with aspire to remind us somewhat of the taste we remember from childhood and yet elevate the overall quality. Most have a blend of several cheeses in a sauce of creamy consistency with a hint of sharpness. John’s City Diner and Bottega Café both do a wonderful job with a gussied-up version of the classic. Both use penne pasta, which I don’t think is any improvement over the elbow pasta traditionally associated with mac and cheese. Most chefs do substitute some fancier noodle shape, but that brings up an important question.
What specific aspect is it that makes a dish live up to its name? Is it ingredients, technique or simply taste that makes a dish true to its traditional recipe? Elbow macaroni is just one of the hundreds of different shapes of pasta noodle. Penne is another. Is using one and not the other a “truer” version of mac and cheese? There are instances where the ingredients become quite critical. There are hundreds of different versions of the Caesar salad, but every single one of them uses Romaine lettuce. The same salad using Bibb or iceberg lettuce would not be a Caesar salad. There is some critical quality that Romaine adds to a Caesar salad that allows no substitution.
If you have never had a traditional Caesar salad, prepared with the original recipe, I really urge you to get a recipe off the internet and try it. I don’t know of any local restaurant that serves Caesar Cardini’s original 1920s recipe, which was always constructed fresh to order at tableside. I had a Caesar salad served in this manner once, and it remains one of the best dining experiences of my life. You’ll have a hard time finding any restaurant that uses the original recipe, because it calls for coddled eggs which have not been cooked long enough to eliminate any hazard from food-borne illness. Finding a Pasta Carbonara that is true to the original is next to impossible for the same reason. If you know of any local places brave enough to serve the heavenly original recipes, please drop me an email.
One of my pet peeves is when restaurants blow the proper cooking technique on a Reuben sandwich. Almost every one gets the basic ingredients right. Corned beef or pastrami. Swiss cheese, preferably Ementhaller, sauerkraut, and either Russian or Thousand Island dressing. All of it grilled to a melted, oozing mess between two slices of hearty rye bread. If you are toasting the rye bread, or God forbid serving it at room temperature, please don’t bring Reuben’s name anywhere near your menu. You insult him and his legions of devoted fans. Diplomat Deli in Vestavia and Collage Café in Homewood do a fine job on their grilled Reuben. But the reigning local champ has to be Max’s Deli in the Colonnade.
You have to wonder how many different sandwich and salad combinations the original chef Reuben and chef Caesar experimented with before they found the one combination so perfectly delicious that they were willing to put their name on it. Both classic recipes have what in psychology is called “gestalt,” a strange phenomenon where the whole is perceived as greater than the sum of the parts. Gestalt in the kitchen usually involves a recipe where the description of the ingredients on the menu doesn’t sound all that exciting, but the taste combination is fireworks in the mouth. I recently had such a sandwich at Urban Standard on Second Avenue North in downtown Birmingham. The menu is rather limited, so I was a bit puzzled why the item offered top billing sounded like a basic cold-cut sandwich. But I was intrigued enough to try it.
It’s called the Tomeck Street sandwich and it really is reminiscent of something you might have at a roadside bistro in Eastern Europe. I’m not even going to bother telling you the individual ingredients. It would be pointless. Not one thing was chosen haphazardly. Every ingredient was constructed by someone who actually cared that you were going to put his work in your mouth. And they all blend together to create a taste that is surprising and memorable. It’s the kind of unique recipe you can proudly put your name on. In a roundabout way. Tomek is Polish for Thomas, as in Thomas Wrzesien, the café’s owner who invented this future classic.
Dee Marcus writes food-centric commentary for Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.