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Dux: A Chef's Culinary Art Project Explores and Interprets Flavor 

Wednesday, Nov 30 2011
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"While some people are calling Dux a pop-up restaurant," says its chef, Eddie Lau, "I think of it as an art project." And indeed, the introduction to Lau's current six-week series of Sunday night dinners at the Summit resembles the artist's statement at a gallery opening: "While Series 2 was focused on an exploration with familiarity of flavors," Lau writes on the Dux website, "Series 3 is focused on interpreting a set of flavor profiles that are representative of unfamiliar standards."

I'm still not clear what exactly Lau means by that. But even if it sounds like he inhaled a big rip of post-structuralist theory in college, there's little pretension to the setup of the dinner itself. Just eight stools, lined up along the counter at the Mission cafe, the site of Lau's day job. Meanwhile, the Summit is still operating as usual, and when I look behind me, a good 30 people are seated at the communal wood tables, eyes affixed to screens, any conversation blanketed by classic rock. They're ignoring us, the new-economy workforce, and for the eight diners' part, we're ignoring them too. We're too busy watching the affable Lau and his two assistants prepare a seven-course, $75 prix fixe dinner in front of us with a tabletop induction burner and the cafe's convection oven.

Lau, who blogged under the name Hot Food Porn long before taking on the Summit job, is largely self-taught in most of the forward-thinking techniques he's using. His culinary training primarily consisting of stints on the line at Poleng Lounge and Orson, and the Summit's cafe menu consists of a handful of creative sandwiches and salads, none of which are anything like Dux's first course, titled "degustation of bitterness." Three nubbly arcs of pickled bitter melon are aligned in a long wooden bowl, and Lau's assistants pour warm, sweet chocolate sauce over the left curl and a dark-chocolate-espresso sauce onto the right piece. Meanwhile, Lau hands out glasses of a Dogfish Head chicory stout (each course comes with a beverage pairing), lecturing to the group about how our tongues can sense more variations in bitterness than we can sweetness or acidity.

The bitter melon, sweetly pickled in sherry vinegar, does hit the palate with a crescendoing, vibrating kick at the back of the mouth that only dissipates with a slug of the stout. But the chocolate sauce marvelously layers a soft, masking bitterness overtop — a real surprise. The sweet, broodingly dense coffee sauce clashes with the bitter melon's acidity, but it, too, seems to animate different sensors on our tongues. It's not the hautest of cuisines, but it's a marvelous science experiment.

Which is kind of how the dinner at Dux goes. For his next course, lobster chawan-mushi, Lau talks about how his parents, when they're steaming lobsters, will pour egg whites into the bottom of the dish so that they combine with the juices that flow out of the lobster as it steams. So he's inverted this dish — the word "inverted" comes up a lot in Lau's pre-dish talks — into a Japanese steamed custard made with egg whites instead of whole eggs.

Truth be told, the lack of yolks flaws the custard; egg whites alone don't gel into that trembling, silky chawanmushi. It's more of a soup, with egg-white strands and fat lobes of lobster tail suspended in a wonderfully deep stock made with lobster shells and smoked, dried bonito. And the bright, apple-y Côtes du Rhône he pairs with the dish, which seems the exact opposite of the lobster stock, unlocks a briny aftertaste I hadn't noticed in the dish; it was as if he had appended a gustatory footnote.

That mix of personal memory, modernist techniques, and a thing for inversions seems to be what this Dux series is all about. The theme almost reaches its apogee in his next course, a duo of pink, puffy rounds of steamed shrimp-lobster mousse that each encase a teaspoon of broth — a soup dumpling of sorts. The saltiness of the broths is biting, but the surprise of that gush of liquid is a technical marvel. Lau serves the mousse rounds with his house soy sauce, enriched with meat stock and infused with lemongrass, star anise, and cloves. It is the single best thing I taste all night.

Lau's intuition and thoughtfulness come through in every dish, but his lack of significant cooking experience, combined with the rudimentary kitchen he's working with, come through, too. His black and white rice, presented in concentric rings, tastes great; the white rice at the center of the bowl is flavored darkly with Chinese bacon and smoke, while the black rice at the outside is steamed with sweet corn (inverted). But it's unclear whether the thick, mushy texture is meant to reference congee or risotto; you can't do both. And his next course, a cornflake "cromesquis" — a fritter with a liquid center — leaks almond milk over the plate, mixing with half-melted ice cream that had been plated too early.

It's the first dinner of this Dux series, and I suspect some of the technical glitches will get fixed. I also find myself wishing that the counter was actually a table, so that the diners could talk to one another, not just the chef, about food created to be discussed. It's an art project, after all, not a pop-up.

The last course: Dux's second take on the s'more. His first take in Series 2, Lau tells us, was a savory dish with a s'more-like construction. Here, he's inverted the dessert again, turning it into clouds of sugary egg-white foam, a gel-skinned sphere of vanilla cream, and graham-cracker crumbs encased in a chocolate bowl. It is all too quickly deconstructed.a

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Jonathan Kauffman

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