CHER HAD IT BAD FOR HORS D'OEUVRES. AS MRS. Flax in the movie Mermaids, she chopped sandwiches into stars. Not even breakfast was safe Mrs. Flax reconfigured every meal into frilly bite-size morsels. It was like living at a perpetual cocktail party. Which wouldn't really be too bad, except that Mrs. Flax had a commitment problem. A commitment problem manifest as a food problem.
Hors d'oeuvres exist in a kind of netherworld of the mealtime universe. They are ephemeral creatures. They show up in bunches, looking cute and sexy. They're meant to whet the appetite, yet not to fill. To be adored, yet leave no trace. They whisper, Stay, but don't stay. Love me, but love me not. Then, in a poof, they're gone.
Throughout the kitchens of Los Angeles, its candle-lit dining rooms and fancy back yards, I stalk the wild hors d'oeuvre. I am chasing the perfect bite. It is a weird and sometimes frustrating quest. It is a question of commitment. But when done well, tasting the perfect bite is like catching a glimpse of the rarest of birds, all gorgeous plumage that takes your breath away.
The Art of Introductions
HORS D'OEUVRE. IT'S A CLASSIC FRENCH TERM. SO I visit someone classic. Someone French.
At Mimosa on Beverly Boulevard, chef Jean-Pierre Bosc hears "hors d'oeuvre" and sends out oysters. A young woman named Kora, his friend and an event planner, sits across from me. Tonight she is chef Jean-Pierre's interlocutor. Kora is here to tell me what it is I am eating and how to eat it. "Scoop the flesh into your mouth," she says. "When putting together an hors d'oeuvre menu, you must consider how far your guests' palate is developed." Some people, she says in her elegant, birdlike way, cannot even think of oysters. I chuckle. In truth, though, my oyster concept is of gummy, albino egg yolks from the sea. Thankfully, this one is delicious, an oyster avatar. Things are looking good.
"Taste the champagne vinaigrette," says chef Jean-Pierre. "Good, no?" He is the gruff, strong, silent type. He sends out hors d'oeuvres on a glass platter: smoked salmon blinis with crème fraiche, tomato confit tart tatin, red-wine pear tart with fromme d'Ambert, procento with pear and mascarpone cheese on Belgian endive. How can food so tiny have names so long? How about "Egg in a Hole"? Kora asks, which is another name for a quail egg soft-scrambled inside a round of brioche.
Tonight I am eating parts of beasts I have never eaten before. Beef bone marrow. Foie gras. A whole, non-salty anchovy.
"What should an hors d'oeuvre be? What should it do?" I ask.
"It should be adventurous, a way to push people's boundaries," says Kora. "You might not order goose liver in a restaurant, but if it's just one bite, why not?"
"It should be intense," says chef Jean-Pierre. "Explosive."
"Anything you can do big," says Jean-Pierre's chef friend Martin, who saunters to our table, cigarette in hand, "you can do small."
"Wait," I say, "what are we talking about?"
The Hors d'Oeuvre, Deconstructed
HORS D'OEUVRE MEANS "OUTSIDE THE WORK," the "work" being the main meal. The Culinary Institute of America has this to say: "The distinction between an hors d'oeuvre and an appetizer has more to do with how and when it is served than with the actual food being served. Hors d'oeuvres are typically served as a prelude to a meal, while appetizers are usually the meal's first course." Hors d'oeuvres are not a first course. They are the course before the first course. They are a 0.5 course.
The trail of hors d'oeuvres next leads me to chef-instructor Eric Crowley. Crowley trained at the Culinary Institute. He graduated with honors. I am looking to him for enlightenment. We're seated at a corner table at the Epicurean School of Culinary Arts, just before the fancy-furniture segment of Melrose. This spring he will teach a class on the subject.
Lesson One: All hors d'oeuvres build upon a basic structure. A base such as toast or blini smeared with a "glue" (a sauce or butter) to hold down the main item plus a garnish. Beyond that it comes down to the individual chef's vision.
"A chef might say, I'm sick of pigs in a blanket. So maybe he slices the frankfurter crosswise, skewers it, encircles the puff pastry like petals. Instead of a pig, it's a lollipop," chef Eric says. The pinwheel sandwich might have evolved out of a jellyroll. Or a Yule log. The magic happens when disparate items cross-reference. Thomas Keller, at French Laundry, for example, makes a tuna tartare inside a savory cone. He was inspired by ice cream.