The phenomenon commonly known as “molecular gastronomy”—also called “modernist cuisine” by former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold, and “vanguard Spanish cuisine” by pioneering chef José Andrés—is now well-represented in Las Vegas for anyone to try.
The movement took off in Spain, at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli, which recently closed so that the master can devote energy to research and development in his field. In the ’80s, though, French chefs such as Pierre Gagnaire of Twist at the Mandarin Oriental played with his food, too. So where it really started is anyone’s guess.
Myhrvold has taken the subject to an extreme, publishing a six-volume, 2,438-page tome titled Modernist Cuisine (The Cooking Lab, $625). He’s currently on a quest for the perfect hamburger. We wish him luck.
Edwin Robles, an Andrés disciple at É Bar in Jaleo at the Cosmopolitan, has been turning out beet rings, dried apple meringue and chocolates that have been aerated so as to look like sea sponges. He defines this cuisine as “food resulting from techniques that alter natural states, which create spheres, foams, jellies and other nonstandard textures, shapes and even flavors.”
To achieve this, a chef like Robles uses sophisticated devices such as the Pacojet anti-griddle and dehydrator, as well as ones that cause foods to form spheres and other shapes. Sometimes, though, a chef will just use a pastry tube, or his hands, aided by chemicals such as sodium alginate, or natural substances, including agar-agar.
I’m in the middle of an absolutely stunning afternoon snack at É Bar as he tells me this. The restaurant, which normally opens for two “shows” nightly, at 5:30 and 8:30, takes reservations by e-mail a month out. But he’s generously agreed to do a demo for me, a mini-version of the meal one might eat here, and it’s completely spectacular.
We begin with “nitro gin and tonic,” a slushy concoction made by pouring liquid nitrogen from what looks like a radioactive shell. It’s at once refreshing and mind-boggling.
Next comes rice-paper flower petals intense with raspberry, then beet rings, dried apple meringue, spherical chick-peas in a jamón Ibérico broth, a frozen outside, hot on the inside timbale of apricot and amaretto and, finally, chocolate and a 25-second microwaved bizcocho, Spanish for biscuit.
There’s irony here. Surely you remember Nabisco’s Chicken in a Biskit, crackers that got their chicken flavor from hydrolyzed soy protein. Think of that, or Pop Rocks. We’ve been playing with our food for a while, too, it turns out. But no one before Adria made it a movement.
I don’t wish to diminish Adria. The man is a giant of the culinary world, and he’s been creating 1,800 dishes a year—from hare jelly to grapefruit risotto—for 20 years at elBulli. “In Spain,” he told me while on a visit here to see his friend Andrés, “we’ve got great product, and are bound less by hard and fast rules.
“The French had 500 great chefs 20 years ago,” he said. “Spain had only a handful, so we evolved it separately, as individuals, by not bucking the establishment, since there wasn’t one.”
É Bar isn’t the only place to experience this magic. At Twist, Gagnaire’s chef de cuisine, Pascal Sanchez, is doing a stunning experience called “Estivale Cocktail” or summer cocktail, six plates with ingredients such as hand-formed cubes of pastis gelée (black olive aspic blanketing thin slices of veal) and red pepper mint velouté with fresh peach compote.
“I use machines that allow me to control food temperatures,” Sanchez tells me, “but I am careful not to overuse them. And additives like lecithin and agar-agar have a tendency to make you lose focus on the product you are trying to emphasize, so I use them to a minimum.”
Recently, at Bradley Ogden, chef Michael Gill made poached Maine lobster served warm and cold, with tiny spherical peas and carrot that was pureed, foamed and dispensed through a special gun. At Harrah’s, the Ice Pan specializes in frozen confections made from a base you’ll choose, which is emulsified and crystallized before your eyes in what looks like a circular teppan grill.
Call these foods what you will. A rose, by any other name, would smell just as sweet, as the Bard once told us.