The Mystique of Monochrome (Part 2)

Last time, we started our exploration of monochrome food with a close look at three out of seven dishes from the monochrome menu of Ottimo. This week, we will examine the remaining four dishes. As in every meal, not every course is perfect, and this menu too had its ups and downs. We will work your way through the dishes from weakest to strongest in an attempt to figure out what works and what doesn’t in a monochrome context.

We’ll start with what was, in my opinion, the weakest dish of the meal: the fish course. The colour was green, and on paper it seemed promising. Green is one of the easier colours to work with in a culinary context, with the abundance of fresh green ingredients at hand. But one must be judicious while picking the ingredients, thinking about both colour and flavour. Failure to do so can result in a dish that tastes way too monotonous and with green in particular, borderline medicinal.

The dish looked, according to one of my seniors, like Ghibli art, and the perfectly cooked fillet of sea bass was the highlight of the dish. Also, the broth was light and delicious. And that’s where the positives end. The piece of steamed bok choy at the base did nothing, the dark green piece of fried kale was not crisp and blended in with the herby flavour of the broth. And the “herb leather”, essentially a sheet of fish sausage made green with a multitude of herbs, shared the texture of the fish and the flavour of literally everything else on the plate. The edemame beans added texture, but little more.

Course 4, Shades of Flora: Butter confit seabass, dill scent, herb leather, edemame

There was no pop of acid, no element of crunch, nothing to contrast against the soft texture of the fish and the light flavour of the broth, making it pretty boring after two or three bites. It was light and delicious, but incredibly dull. And it was even more disappointing because you are spoiled for choice in Green-land, from the acidic pop of a caper to the nutty bite of a pistachio. It was a well-executed dish, but a flawed conceptualization didn’t allow it to reach full potential.

The main course, which heroed chicken and the colour orange, was a different story altogether. The centerpiece was a ballotine of chicken, stuffed with a chicken mousse. The real hero of the dish however, was a vibrant orange sauce made using fermented Guntur chillies, very reminiscent of the Sriracha flavour profile: spicy but with a level of complexity. The chicken was perfectly cooked, and the duality of textures helped retain interest. Paired with the potent sauce and the creamy polenta, shaped like asparagus, it was a really hearty course. Spheres of sweet carrot and candied kumquat, a variety of small citrus, added another dimension to an already interesting dish.

So, what did this dish do differently? Both the fish and the chicken courses stuck to a single dominant flavour element apart from the protein. For the fish dish, relying on just green herbs as the dominant flavour note rendered it dull. However, the changes needed were absolutely minimal. The dish was plated beautifully, and it was just one squeeze of acid away from singing. But the fermented chilli sauce in the chicken dish was already complex enough to begin with and in my opinion helped carry the entire dish, helped along even further by the garnishes.

Course 6, The Heat of Orange and Amber: Asadostyle ballotine of corn-fed chicken, chicken foie center, house fermented chilli coulis, asparagus mould corn grits

The intrinsic limitations in terms of ingredients in a monochrome dish makes it a challenge for any chef. You’re not allowed to dot an earthy beet risotto with dollops of white goat cheese, or sprinkle some fresh parsley to brighten up a brown stew. When crafting a monochrome dish, two strategies seem to work: either use a number of similarly coloured ingredients with starkly contrasting flavour, like the raspberry and the beetroot in the dessert we talked about last time (more on that here), or use one ingredient that is complex enough to hold its own in a dish, like the chilli sauce in the chicken course. However, I’ll have to admit that monochrome dishes are easier said than done.

You know a monochrome dish is brilliant though, when it doesn’t require the crutch of a protein to assert its presence. And that is exactly was course two did. A celebration of yellow, the heart of the dish was a soup made of butternut squash. Pale yellow, creamy, mild, with a hint of garlic, it was nice and comforting. Petals of yellow chrysanthemum and turmeric oil were used as garnish, the former adding a very subtle texture, the latter another layer of flavour. It was the inclusions though, that made it truly spectacular.

The real strokes of genius were hidden within the soup. The first of these were cubes of lacto-fermented pineapple. Lacto fermentation is a technique of fermenting fruits and veggies in brine (more on fermentation some other time), which imparts the end-product with a complex flavour. So when you dig out the cube of pineapple and bite into it with the expectation of an acidic tang, you get a much more rounded, complex flavour which takes you by surprise.

Course 2, Titillating Hues of Yellow: Smoked turmeric and butternut squash puree, lacto pineapple, chrysanthemum, yellow tomato chips

And the tang? That comes from unassuming discs of crisp discs of yellow tomato. You’d think it was just a textural element with a hint of acid, and the bright acidity of the sungold tomatoes takes you by surprise. Everything is not as it seems in this particular dish, yet you’ve got everything: creaminess, depth of flavour, an acidic contrast, and loads of texture. And all of this within the constraints of yellow. A truly well-conceived dish, this is an excellent example of the potential of monochrome.

Even more impressive than that was the following course, since it packed the same punch whilst showcasing a much less appetizing colour. Black is the colour of burnt food, and is off-putting to most diners, especially when it is the dominant hue of the food. So the third course, the pasta, had a big challenge to overcome: how do you make a dish black and yet taste invite the guests to tuck in and more importantly, have it taste delicious at the same time?

The answer to the first question is relatively simple: activated charcoal. Reynold used the same in his Onyx dessert, and the trend of black “goth food” blew up in the middle of the last decade, and activated charcoal was at the forefront. Another great option, especially for seafood lovers, is squid ink, which imparts the dish with the flavour of seafood in addition to a jet black hue. The pasta course stuck to the former, creating dainty tortellini out of pasta dough coloured black with activated charcoal, filled with a smoky chicken mousse.

Onyx (Courtesy : The Dessert Game)

The two other key components were also coloured black: the chilli garlic foam added a heat to the dish while the black crumb, essentially a pangrittato made by crumbling up black ciabatta bread, added much-needed texture. And so while everything was rendered visually boring, each element stood out on its own. The pasta was silky, the chicken smoky and luscious, the foam added a kick while the crumb brought texture into the party. What seemed like a boring dish exploded with flavours and textures when eaten all at once.

And finally, there was a clove of black garlic for garnish, the result of a magical transformation which happens when garlic is slowly fermented, a sticky clove with a flavour reminiscent of liquorice and texture reminiscent of tamarind candy. Sweet, complex and delicious, it is the underlying flavour of the oil the pasta is tossed in, and adds a wonderful sweetness. It takes some doing to craft a delicious dish limited to the shades of a CT scan, but this dish managed to do it brilliantly.

And that is the magic of monochrome food. Dishes that look pretty as a picture can turn out to be disappointing, while questionable looking dishes can end up blowing your mind. The limited range of colours lowers the diner’s expectation, which is rejuvenated by the complexity of flavour and texture. Monochrome food is definitely avant-garde, and more in the realm of “art food” than “pop food”, if I may borrow from musical lexicon. But it is art that needs recognition and celebration, because it takes immense skill to pull off a good dish within a limited range of colours and ingredients. When done well, the results are spectacular to say the least.

Course 3, Chroma Noir: Charcoal tortellini, black garlic aglio e olio

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