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Garnish II: The Sequel

June 10, 2015

Great chefs don’t just cook, they inspire. Several months ago I was inspired to write a post on garnish thanks to chef Dominic Colose at The Wine Bar in Saratoga Springs. He had said at the time that he wanted to “use more intelligent garnishes” and I used the opportunity to riff off that with a screed of things I wanted off of dinner plates.

Let’s see what I said back then:

Those showers of diced red pepper around the edges of a plate? That’s got to stop. As do the mysterious appearances of greenery, whether that’s in the form of a single decorative leaf, or an entire bunch of herbs. And as long as I’m getting things off my chest, those squiggles of drizzled sauces are totally played out. They don’t make your food look fancy. They make it look dated. You know, kind of like molded mounds of rice.

Really, I thought I had covered everything I wanted to say on the subject at the time. But it turns out there is one more to add to the list. And since I think chef Dominic would appreciate some constructive criticism, I’d like to make a small suggestion for helping him achieve the goal set earlier this year.

If you recall, I made a garnish faux pas years ago in that cooking contest by putting decorative slices of lemon on the plate. The problem with this ubiquitous garnish is that the pieces of fruit aren’t edible in and of themselves. Sure, the eater could use them to adjust the acidity of the dish, but this is something that really should be taken care of in the kitchen by the chef.

I suppose if the lemon pieces were cut up super small and intended to be eaten whole–skin, pith and all–then it would be a different story. One of my favorite Thai dishes does that with limes, and the fruit’s bold flavor and textural contrast really makes for a memorable experience.

Chef Dominic did something awesome. He worked up a grilled sardine dish.

Upstate New York isn’t the most daring corner of the world. And while I’ve enjoyed grilled sardines out west, they are one of those foods that suffer from an “ick factor” which keep them off most menus in the region. But grilled sardines are wonderful, and nothing like the canned stuff that people conjure up in their imaginations.

The only thing is that chef Dominic’s plating involves lemon slices.

I’m not complaining. I’m not criticising. There’s nothing wrong with a bright squeeze of lemon on grilled seafood, especially sardines. Well seasoned grilled fish with plenty of great olive oil and lemon is one of life’s great pleasures. But if the stated goal is to “use more intelligent garnishes” then this one falls short of the mark.

Lemon zest would work. The segmented flesh of the lemon could provide a juicy alternative. Small, bite sized bits that include the fruit, pith and zest, would be even more daring. Or maybe there’s a way of creating translucent paper thin shavings of lemon that tile the bottom of the plate and permeate the dish with their aroma and brightness.

There’s still time to tinker with the dish before it hits the summer menu in July. I’ll be curious to see how my observations on this matter are perceived.

Speaking of translucent paper thin shavings of produce serving as garnish, I’d like to make a broad declaration.

Shaved radishes are over.

Much like brushing plates with sauces, or the decorative lines from the squeeze bottles that preceded the brushes, this admittedly beautiful effect is feeling played out.

Aparently 2015 is the year of the radish, so perhaps that helps to explain the situation. And I’m not hating on all radishes. Far from it. Frankly, I think they are beautiful, and I get why the vegetables has become heavily relied upon to make plates of food more visually striking. The stark white interior surrounded by a thin vibrant red skin really helps to set off just about anything.

Plus, they are remarkably flexible. Delicate in flavor when sliced paper thin, with a little bit of pepper and earth–maybe a hint of juicy sweetness–radishes play nicely with a wide range of flavors.

But it’s time for restaurants with higher ambitions to find something new. The also-rans who want to pick up the trend long after it has peaked are welcome to adopt this technique to garnish their food. However, the rest of the world should be moving on. Or at least I desperately hope it is. Because part of what made this garnish so special at first was its cleverness.

Now that part is gone. Which, of course, makes it a perfectly fine technique for the home chef. I myself used it last night, and it still has the power to impress the unjaded. But shaving radishes doesn’t help you go through your weekly CSA load. One radish can stretch across a dozen plates.

To use the rest of my Roxbury Farm radishes from the first CSA share of the season, I might just break down and make a batch of radish butter. You know, because, butter.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2015 9:28 am

    Who says you can’t eat lemon slices, skin and all? (That was a question).

    I looked at the photo of Chef Colose’s Facebook page and those look like oranges, actually. But if you and he say they’re lemons, I guess they are.

    I would grill those lemon slices right along with the fish. Yum. Want some right now.

  2. Dominic Colose permalink
    June 10, 2015 9:39 am

    They are lemons, and a last second addition as the plate was leaving the kitchen. The little fish were a special I ran, as are all my specials for the past, and next couple of weeks to try some dishes for the Summer menu. I had no intention initially of putting the lemon on, and thought some brightness would help as the dish was about to go to the table. The move took no thought, just habit. The final product on the new menu will be finished with a “more intelligent garnish.” Thank you, Daniel.

  3. June 10, 2015 9:47 am

    I grow tons of radishes in my small garden. So I guess I am on the radish bandwagon. If you have a surfeit of radishes my advice is – don’t neglect the greens. Lightly sautéed radish greens get me going more than the radishes themselves. I will caveat this by saying that the greens are really at their best within a few hours of the radishes leaving the ground… So your CSA stuff might be past its peak.

    Also, suburban CSA-ers make me ponder. I get it for urbanites without access to land. But if you have a yard, have a garden. Food not lawns.

    • Dominic Colose permalink
      June 10, 2015 12:22 pm

      Radishes are great, the problem has been their use as a garnish for no particular reason.

    • June 11, 2015 8:27 am

      oh boy. i live in the burbs, have a fairly large vegetable garden (about 500 sq feet of beds) and a CSA. There are advantages to both – but to be frank a CSA makes way more sense (to me). Aaaaaand now i have a post that needs to be written

  4. Laura K. permalink
    June 10, 2015 3:07 pm

    I’ve been looking for radishes at the Empire State Plaza farmers market for the past few weeks, but there haven’t been any. I asked one of the farmers about it, and she said that she didn’t put any early ones in because everyone had them last year. Fresh baguette with unsalted butter, thinly sliced radishes and a little dill is one of my favorite spring meals. Maybe next week.

  5. June 10, 2015 4:38 pm

    Mr. Dave brings up an interesting question. Why don’t you have a garden Daniel?

  6. June 11, 2015 2:01 pm

    Can I get a ruling on my garnishing here :

    Acceptable yeh or neigh? I don’t just use the radish and lime as just a garnish however, I pickle the radish in citrus and then add or just snack on them with my meal. But i do love the look of the radish, for the reason you described.

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