There was a time not all that long ago that you couldn't escape molecular gastronomy in the culinary world.
It seemed like every other chef had to moonlight as a mad scientist to stay ahead of the curve and liquid nitrogen tanks became as commonplace in the kitchen as deep fryers and convection ovens.
But, like a lot of trends in the always-fickle world of fine dining, molecular gastronomy — or at least the term — has largely fallen by the wayside. One of its pioneers, celebrity chef and proprietor of famed British restaurant The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal has tried to distance himself from the label.
"Molecular makes it sound complicated," he told The Guardian. "And gastronomy makes it sound elitist."
But Blumenthal — who prefers the term "multisensory cooking" — like a lot of chefs, hasn't abandoned the more technical, scientific elements of food preparation.
"It's the 'wow' effect. People like to be wowed when they go out for dinner these days and this is one of the reasons we decided to (use liquid nitrogen)," explained Dominic Fortin, pastry chef at the Bearfoot Bistro, where diners have been "wowed" by Fortin's ice cream flash-frozen tableside going on eight years.
Besides the obvious spectacle of seeing ice cream prepared instantly before your eyes, there are also some practical benefits to using nitrogen, Fortin said.
"What's different from this ice cream to regular ice cream is the freshness. It's made right in front of you and you can eat it right after it's made," he noted. "You cannot have ice cream as good as that when you make it in a regular ice cream machine just because it's going to sit in the freezer before you eat it."
What's more is Fortin's bourbon vanilla bean ice cream is 80-per-cent cream, about three times the fat content of traditional ice cream, lending it a deep richness that would be hard to maintain in a conventional freezer. Throw in a constantly rotating list of seasonal toppings — right now you can top a sundae with your choice of sauce, fresh fruit and caramel corn — and it's a bowl of ice cream that most have never had the pleasure of tasting before.
"A lot of people think that it's just a gimmick but as soon as they see it everyone is wowed," Fortin said. "Most people that say (it's gimmicky) haven't seen it."
Liquid nitrogen has also become popular in the preparation of cocktails, either for its fast-freezing properties or the smoky effect nitrogen vapour can add to a drink. The Bearfoot serves two cocktails that use nitrogen: the more traditional Ketel One vodka martini and the Vesper, a favourite tipple of James Bond, served with two parts gin, one part vodka and half Lillet Blanc. But this martini isn't shaken or stirred.
First, the alcohol is frozen solid in a copper kettle, then the bartender will pour over a couple shots of room-temperature booze, which serves to melt the frozen concoction, resulting in a slush-like consistency.
"That will bring it almost to a super thick, white viscosity with maybe some frozen booze chunks that will dissolve and turn into liquid form," explained bar manager Scott Barber. "It's all about the viscosity, the mouthfeel.
"Not many people have had a martini like this, made in front of them with a process as cool as this is."
But the Bearfoot, already a purveyor of extreme cool both figuratively and literally in its Vodka Ice Room, isn't the only place in town to recognize the chilly wonders of liquid nitrogen.
Over at the Dubh Linn Gate, barkeeps began pouring their own cold-brewed coffee that is kegged with a 100-per-cent nitrogen mix. Dubbed Nitro Jet Fuel, it's not exactly what you would expect from a traditional Irish pub, but you might be surprised to learn that the smooth, creamy cup of joe — made with single-source beans from Gastown's Timbertrain Coffee Roasters — shares a lot in common with one of the bar's staple libations.
"(The nitrogen) gives it the same kind of head (as beer), so when we put it in a glass, it looks just like Guinness. You would be fooled if you didn't know it was coffee," said GM Diane Rothdram.
On the menu since August, Nitro Jet Fuel was inspired by Rothdram's travels through Quebec this spring, where she saw nitrogen coffee "popping up everywhere."
Although the pub goes through its fair share of beer kegs, the staff has never kegged its own brews, so it took plenty of patience and some digging on YouTube to figure out how to get the coffee up to snuff.
"It's been an interesting education," Rothdram said. "There's a lot of DIY stuff online so we just dabbled in it until we got it right. It took quite a bit of homework."
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