The Elusive Bite

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.

The magic can also happen out of necessity. The best hors d'oeuvre chef Eric ever had was at a restaurant in Venice. A cube of toasted brioche, a cube of roasted pear, a cube of roasted beet threaded onto a stick.

"It was so bright, so fresh," he says. "It's a gift, being able to conceptualize in your head how flavors go together. But it's entirely possible that on that day, the chef just happened to have pears that were about to go past ripe and he needed to use them right away."

Lesson Two: Hors d'oeuvres are more than the sum of their parts. You must consider variations in temperature, texture (crunch versus squish), visual appeal. Balance. Color. Shape. Presentation. Timing. Charm. Do not start with flavors that are too intense, too explosive, lest you risk numbing the palate to subsequent dishes. Go for interesting contrasts. Tease. It is the Miss Universe pageant of food condensed into the size of a half-dollar. Anything can be employed toward the creation of hors d'oeuvres. Cookie cutters, melon ballers, X-acto knives, strips of bamboo. It is an exercise of the imagination.

In certain circles, chef Eric says, there are entire separate professional kitchens devoted exclusively to the preparation of hors d'oeuvres. We pause to picture it.

The Alpha Crowd

VARIATIONS ON THE ONE-TO-TWO-BITE THEME stretch out into infinity: stuffed mushrooms, stuffed mushrooms with cheese, stuffed mushrooms with cheese and caviar. Martha Stewart's Hors d'Oeuvres Handbook is an orgy of hors d'oeuvres. Savory mousses are piped into foods so small they have no business being stuffed: radishes, strawberries, cherry tomatoes, grapes, quail eggs. Will I know the perfect hors d'oeuvre when I bite it? Will it taste like heaven? Will it look stunning and will it make me look stunning just to hold it?

At the kitchen of Dana Williams of Bread & Wine catering, I learn what celebrities are biting. Her apartment is messily artsy. But her clients are the people who are in the business of perfect: Vogue, Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe, Halle Berry, Diesel clothing, InStyle. In less than a year, Bread & Wine has had a fast rise to fame, fueled by clever little bites. I wonder what deal with what devil has been struck.

Williams, however, is sweet and down-to-earth. She bustles about guilelessly. Caterer is the latest in a succession of different careers: sculptor, ceramicist, actress, mommy. Her hors d'oeuvres are pretty, fanciful. Rose-water-and-citrus simple-syrup marinated fruit skewers punched into flower shapes with Japanese cutters. Smoked-salmon tea sandwiches on black bread. Asparagus tied up with nori ribbons. "White trash" ding-dong cakes with paper ladybugs and fairies. Lemon cookies fashioned into chokers.

"Those were for a Bacardi Limon party. People were running around biting each other's necks," she says.

The menu for Portia di Rossi's party is tacked to the refrigerator. Edible flowers are on the list.

"What should an hors d'oeuvre do?" I ask.

"It should be beautiful, fabulous."

Everyone Else

AT AN ENGAGEMENT PARTY IN THE VALLEY, I LEARN what the masses are biting. There are 5 million people in Los Angeles, each and every one of them searching for the perfect bite. Chef Eric Greenstein of Contemporary Catering has a very long list of hors d'oeuvres for his very large, very extensively staffed clients: PC/Mac Mall, LAX, the Greater Los Angeles Jewish Federation ("We made 8,000 latkes for them!"). There's a wheel of Brie with crispbread. Mini-crab cakes. Mini-bagel dogs with ketchup and mustard. Mini-quiche. A server in black tuxedo stirs up 18 individual cup-size dollops of mashed potato at the mashed-potato bar.

I'm holding a mini-éclair on a napkin with the names of the bride and groom printed in purple ink. "What should an hors d'oeuvre do?"

"It has to be user-friendly. Most people," he whispers conspiratorially, "don't want anything too far-out."

Where I Went To Find the Far Gone

THE INTERNET. IT IS THE ARCHIVE OF cocktail weenies, Swedish meatballs, baby gherkins, deviled eggs, Spam. A Web site called Recipes of the Damned talks about an alarming hors d'oeuvre from Kraft circa 1960 called the "Burning Bush." You paddle a lump of cream cheese into a ball. You coat it in chipped beef. Then you toothpick it and stab it onto a grapefruit dome. Sadly, you don't actually set it on fire.

On the Web, all the phases of hors d'oeuvre history spring to virtual life: '60s psychedelic porcupines, '70s Vienna sausages on colored toothpicks, pools of warm Lipton spinach dip served in '80s sourdough- bread boules. Ethnic warps from the early '90s.

I stumble onto a Web site for a company that has a 60,000-square-foot USDA-approved facility devoted exclusively to the assembly of kebabs. A photo shows rows of factory workers at stainless-steel tables. Like scientists, they wear white lab coats and white hair caps. They spear the meat onto sticks. They place the sticks onto trays. They accept overnight orders — four trays or one case minimum.

Alan Turner, an industrial electrician in Pennsylvania, invented an hors d'oeuvre shaped like a Pokémon. You take a Play-Doh mold, spray it with vegetable oil, load it with 20 cubic centimeters of soft cheese and release. Most intriguing is a lump of Brie extruded into the shape of a Pikachu. It sits atop a square of domestic ham on a Triscuit. It has a round head. It has perky ears. It has a glossy, newborn sheen.

The Perfect Bite

UNEXPECTEDLY, CHEF JEAN-PIERRE Bosc invites me back to Mimosa to teach me how to make two tomato things, one on a puff, one with the non-salty anchovy. "Grrah, not things," he growls. He grabs my notebook and writes, "Tomato tart tatin and stuffed tomato with fennel, piquillos pepper and marinated anchovy." Both the tomato hors d'oeuvres are a labor-intensive process involving knife switching, fine dicing, freezing pastry, baking pastry, slow-roasting for several hours and blending a pistou.

It's early in the afternoon, before the dinner shift. The kitchen, which I didn't get to see my first time around, is bright and calm. But during dinner, he says, the work of the main meal is like a fight. He jabs his elbows like a streetfighter. "It is, how do you say, the coeur de feu."

"Because it is so small, should an hors d'oeuvre be more intense than the main meal?" I ask as we wait for the tart tatin to bake.

"Definitely. Intense. Explosive." His face contorts as he struggles to get around the last word. "It is amuse bouche. It means happy and mouth." Finally, instinctively, I realize that what he means is generosity, a commitment to the oeuvre, a humility in the face of the explosion, big or small. I don't know if there is such a thing as the perfect bite. Maybe there are many. But the thing that comes out of the oven is pretty close.


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