Cooking With Charcoal: At Hinoki & the Bird and ink., the Coal Is in Your Food, Not Underneath it
In Japan, a restaurant recently served an entire tasting menu of dirt -- dirt soup, dirt dressing, dirt risotto ... you get the idea. At Copenhagen's Noma (aka the Best! Restaurant! in the WORLD!!) you will eat burnt hay in any number of ways: coating tubes of leeks in a layer of black ash, accompanying dehydrated carrots, slowly smoldering around a lightly cooked egg. And now cuisine de charcoal is being served in Los Angeles.
Hinoki & the Bird, recently opened in Century City, has a deliciously refined Japanese take on some familiar dishes: mussels in coconut broth, beef tartare, skate wing. There's also a lobster roll, served on a stunning pitch-black brioche bun. Chef Kuniko Yagi learned of a Japanese charcoal powder several years ago that was used by bakeries, and the idea marinated until Hinoki chef-owner David Myers asked her to come up with the right bread for their lobster.
"We were researching charcoal to have in the kitchen," explains Yagi. "Our focus in the kitchen equipment is the grill, and we only use charcoal, we don't use wood. And it all connected somehow."
Charcoal Lobster Roll
Hinoki & the Bird
The super-fine powder, usually made with coconut shells or bamboo coal, is kneaded into brioche dough and baked, yielding a soft roll that looks remarkably like a stone. But close your eyes and you won't know the difference.
Says Yagi: "It's not for smokiness, it's not for flavor -- it's the wow on the visual side."
At ink., where chef Michael Voltaggio is known for tricking both the eye and, often, the taste buds, a charcoal waffle is served atop buttery duck rillette and charred leeks. Again, close your eyes. The waffle tastes like flour, salt, sour cream -- no hint of fire.
The Charcoal Waffle with Duck at ink.
"A lot of eating is visual and people don't realize it," Voltaggio says. "As you're eating through the dish and you're picking up the char in the leeks, your brain might be telling you that's the charcoal coming through from the waffle. So it's kind of an intellectual game with people's palates."
Why use something that imparts no flavor? Aside from the homage to the grill and the truly neat, dark-as-night color, it turns out charcoal powder (activated charcoal powder, to be exact) is actually good for you. It removes toxins, kills bacteria, binds to poisons and prevents them from being ingested. You can buy capsules of edible charcoal at the vitamin store (which is where Voltaggio sources his). Even better: Some think it prevents hangovers, so you can feel less guilty about imbibing with your lobster roll and waffle.
If you're craving that charcoal-y taste, you can order Hinoki's black cod, served under a smoking piece of burning cedar, or ink.'s "potato charcoal" -- small potatoes cooked in black vinegar and squid ink so they resemble charcoal briquettes, roasted over actual charcoal to retain some smokiness, served with whipped sour cream in a vessel that looks like a tabletop grill.
"It's another flavor profile that can be added to sweet, sour, salty, bitter," Voltaggio says. "There's just something about that ember-y, salty, charry flavor that's kind of addicting when you eat it."
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