Although I’m not exactly a culinary school graduate—the last time I cooked dinner I think a Bush was president—I imagine that not burning things is one of the core lessons they teach there. And yet many top chefs are ignoring the whole thou-shall-not-burn thing and are purposely burning their food.
Charring and scorching make for bold, smoky flavors that enhance everything from fruit to lattes—plus, taking food to the dark side looks pretty damn cool. This trend is especially big at fine dining restaurants, where chefs apparently got bored with perfection and decided to challenge what it means for food to be perfectly cooked.
“It used to be considered an error, but nowadays this (charring) is a utilized technique,” says Ryan Pfeiffer, Chef de Cuisine at Chicago’s Blackbird restaurant. “My favorite part about this technique is the versatility. It’s amazing how you can take something that someone would consider wrong and twist it to make your own ideas flourish.”
Want to feel the burn? Here, nine dishes that prove that black is the new black.
“We originally had a charred carrot vegetable side on the menu and it became so popular that we decided to add some ingredients to the carrots and turn it into a salad,” says Jared Bennett, executive chef at Metropole. Yes, the burnt food was so popular that they had to make more. Creamy avocados, crunchy pickled red onions and briny feta perfectly complement the sweetly charred carrots.
This dish was originally inspired by L’Espalier pastry chef Jared Bacheller’s desire to use local apples in an innovative dessert. The medley of apples—fresh, sauced and caramelized—sandwich charred lemon ice cream, which cuts the richness of the dish while adding an earthy, almost smoked undertone.
One time, I burnt Jell-O. I only mention this because it seems just about as unlikely a thing to burn as a salad. But not only is Mizuna burning their salad, they’re burning a fruit salad. The charred watermelon base, arugula, melon and white balsamic actually tastes like it’s supposed to be burnt. Unlike that Jell-O.
The blackened tentacles at Launderette is almost an ‘I dare you’ type of dish. It combines two things that most people don’t seek out when going to a restaurant—an eight-legged creature and burnt food. But stick with us here. The charred octopus with garlic aioli, lentils and avocado is way less scary than if you encountered this sucker on your next beach vacation. And tastier.
Warning: East Coast lobster roll purists should probably stop reading now. What Hinoki & the Bird is doing to this crustacean classic is almost blasphemous—but also delicious. The lobster filling is bound together by green curry paste mayo, but what really elevates this humble sandwich is the charcoal bun— a mixture of buttery brioche and intense Japanese charcoal powder.
Chef de Cuisine Ryan Pfeiffer does a lot of charring on Blackbird’s menu, which is just a fancy way of saying that the guy likes to play with fire. For this popular fish dish, Pfeiffer confits the sunchokes and then chars them on a plancha (a Spanish flat-top grill). The burnt jalapeno powder gives the dish a kick, while highlighting the other flavors on the plate.
Weirdest thing: In L.A., where carbs have been all but outlawed, people are lining up and waiting hours for burnt toast. Wannabe starlets and soon-to-be sex tape sensations are temporarily forgetting about their gluten intolerance and feasting on Sqrl’s burnt brioche topped with home-made ricotta cheese and small-batch jams. Breakfast of champions.
If it’s not enough to eat your burnt, you can drink it too, with (the aptly named) Carbon Bar’s charcoal-infused cocktail, the Black Mamba Margarita. Yes, really. Made with charcoal-infused Avio tequila, St. Germain, Bowmore and lime, it’s finished off with ignited Bacardi 151. Bonus: charcoal has purifying elements, which make these babies virtually hangover-free (don’t quote us on that).
The heart of La Brasa’s kitchen is a custom wood-fired oven and grill, so you expect to see some scorching on your food. But coffee? Sure, why not? The house-made caramel and vegetable ash latte is a buzz-y (see what we did there?) customer favorite.
Allyson Reedy is first and foremost an eater. While her affinity for food was detrimental to her dreams of modeling swimwear, it helps her tremendously when writing about food and restaurants from Denver, CO.