Not long ago, the frontier of food was futuristic. Chefs made like mad scientists, creating gels and capsules, altering textures and forms. These clever experiments provoked surprise and delight. Eventually, weariness crept in, too. We’d been outfoamed.
The new frontier of food may be the past, or at least a form of taste time travel. Witness Chicago chef Grant Achatz, of the influential, science-driven Alinea. His new project Next sells tickets to dinners based on specific places and times — Paris in 1906, childhood, Kyoto. And New York’s lauded Eleven Madison Park has just reinvented itself, with a menu that uses food to pay tribute to the city’s history. (This month and next, the restaurants switch places, with Alinea staging a pop-up at Eleven Madison Park, then vice versa. The experiment is called the 21st Century Limited, a reference to the 20th Century Limited, a train that traveled between New York and Chicago in the 1900s. No one is content to remain where, or when, they are these days.)
Locally, chef Scott Herritt is in a like frame of mind. From time to time, his restaurant Grotto re-creates a 1950s Italian feast from the movie “Big Night.” When he took over Marliave, he kept the antique feeling of the 1885 establishment. And his new South End restaurant, Kitchen, serves what the website terms “time-honored cookery.” Herritt collects old cookbooks, and the menu showcases recipes of yore, from the intriguingly sweet-savory “Grand Sallet” (circa 1638) — greens with dried fruit, capers, and hard-cooked egg — to the sole that inspired Julia Child (Nov. 2, 1948).
Indeed, the dates are listed, although food historians should not be too exacting. Frog legs, in 1890, were not prepared Buffalo-style, with house-made hot sauce and blue cheese; the date refers to when Tabasco and other prepared sauces began to hit the market, according to Herritt. The little gams look as though they’ve been severed from a troupe of ranine Rockettes, dancing cancan vertical across the plate. Frog may taste like chicken, but these legs taste like fried batter, in which they are too abundantly encased.
Steak tartare is dry and underseasoned, while the pastry on an overly Stilton’d lamb pie is doughy and wet, needing to bake longer. (Rolls and tart crusts can suffer from the same problem.) And although this version of sole meuniere is pleasant — particularly the tiny and tender parsley potatoes it comes with — it’s not the perfectly browned, revelatory “morsel of perfection” Child describes in “My Life in France.”
If the food can be uneven, there are plenty of dishes that would have pleased the French Chef, who never objected to richness. Aside from a seasonal tomato menu, the food at Kitchen is quite heavy. An appetizer called “under glass” (circa 1903) features a Victorian display of mushrooms and cheese in a bell jar. The mushrooms are wild, the cheddar made at the restaurant by chef de cuisine EricLeBlanc. When the jar is lifted, the aroma wafts heavenly over the table. Tender oxtail is mounded on the plate, with pieces of brioche toast for constructing decadent sandwiches.
Tournedos Rossini (circa 1833) is a version of chef Marie-Antoine Carême’s classic recipe said to have been created for its namesake composer: a juicy, tender piece of beef, foie gras, and black truffles with Madeira sauce, with creamed spinach. Although we don’t taste a lot of foie gras, the dish shows why Carême rose to fame — and that there is considerable skill in Kitchen’s open kitchen. It is balanced, without going over the top.
As for lobster Thermidor (1894), it is entirely and excellently over the top. A casserole dish is packed with fresh, properly cooked lobster meat, flour-based gnocchi, and spinach, all bound together with cream and cheese, brightened with mustard and topped with breadcrumbs.
For other fine moments in history, we visit the Old West-inspired pork and beans (1832), a dish of tender Great Northerns with house-made sausage, Harpoon cider-glazed ribs, and a flavor bomb of a meatball (made with pork heart and liver, among other things); Hamburg steak (1850) with Roquefort butter, mushroom gravy, and shoestring fries; and billi bi (1910), a cream soup with plump mussels and garlic bread. Mock turtle soup is a tureen of complex, silky broth created over several days from veal bones, cow’s head, caramelized onions, and more. Beef cheek and tongue, cheap substitutes for real turtle when the dish was invented, are perhaps more appealing for modern-day palates. Scattered with peas and carrots, this is a thinner, more-elegant beef stew.
For dessert, one might try a fine version of creme brulee (1691), doughnuts (1860), or a slightly grainy but still enjoyable butterscotch pudding (1848) with whipped cream and candied ginger.
Cocktail offerings stay in character, with classics such as the Brandy Crusta of 1862 (cognac, Grand Marnier, sugar, bitters, and lemon) and the Queens Park Swizzle of 1920 (rum, lime, bitters, and mint). Wine and beer lists are succinct, with low markups on bottles and Harpoon from a cask. The space is simply decorated, with brick walls and leather booths, and servers are knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
At Kitchen, history isn’t a gimmick. It’s more of a guiding principle. “I love the way they reflect the times,” Herritt says of his vintage cookbooks by phone. “There are notes by recipes that say ‘This is a good one.’ It connects me with the people who used them. Cooking is, as simple as it sounds, part of what makes us human.”
So although it feels jarring to be eating dishes from the 1800s while listening to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in its entirety, in some ways it makes sense. Kitchen’s food comes from old cookbooks, and its music is all on vinyl. “An album is a snapshot like a cookbook, with cover art and liner notes,” Herritt says. It’s a document of a specific moment.
At restaurants, time travel is possible. And how they transport us — how we want to be transported — helps us understand where we are. Back from an experimental future, hungry for a reinterpreted past. Is that what’s on our plate?