Curiouser and curiouser. The new world of restaurants is making me feel a bit like Alice falling through the looking glass. These days, a person can call themselves a chef if they go on TV! What ever happened to years of toiling as an apprentice in the kitchen? To working your way up to chef, peeling onions and making sauces and learning the ropes? No, nowadays everybody is an artist. With free will.
So here are these two guys, Howard Dubrovsky and Chris Scott. A glance at Scott's history reveals that he was chef at Six Steps on Colborne Street, a restaurant with food that was, to put it very kindly, undistinguished. Other than that Scott has worked mostly for David Adjey. If you troll the latter's CV, the word that crops up most frequently is "consulting." And he's "corporate chef" for several restos in clubland. I am not too sure what a corporate chef is. Do they cook? Dubrovsky, meanwhile, went to the California Culinary Academy and regularly appears on numerous TV shows. He also teaches cooking, edits cookbooks and writes. Can TV cooks cook? Does it matter?
Only if they open a restaurant and you consider going there. L.A.B. (short for Live And Breathe) opened on the strip of College Street where the taste buds aren't always the glands that are in the driver's seat. This location likely portends well for L.A.B. since the place looks fairly cool (there are huge, bright graffiti-style murals, a brick wall and a small bar at the back with big bottle lights over it) and the menu is inspired by molecular gastronomy. Although the menu isn't as weird as Nathan Isberg's at The Atlantic, it is by no means mainstream.
The co-chefs have fun with their molecular theme, employing food smokers, vacuum cookers, gizmos that morph liquids into gels - and a sense of humour. Hence pogo wings with hot sauce gel! Cream ale consommé! 8-hour steak! Cigar-smoked gnocchi! Risotto with cabernet sauvignon powder!
As an aficionado of molecular gastronomy, I am sad to report that the hot sauce gel on the chicken wings is like hard Jell-O (only spicy) and the wings are heinously overcooked.
The cream ale consommé, however, is both entertaining and delicious. In the presentation of that dish, Dubrovsky comes to the table with what is apparently a bottle of beer and pours its contents into a bowl that has apparently one Brussels sprout in it. As is often the case with molecular cooking, though, things are not always as they seem. What comes from the beer bottle is a sweet, high-flavoured vegetable stock with just enough ale for complexity, while the apparent Brussels sprout is really severed leaves of sprout that have been put back together around a heart of parsnip purée. Creative, clever and delicious. After tasting Dubrovsky's soup, it should come as no surprise that he is a vegetarian. But such is the banality of his veg selection - potato, carrot and absolutely unchewable fibrous fennel - that it might turn even the most committed meat-avoider carnivorous. The broth has a wonderful Pernod backstory, but dinner this is not, even for a diehard vegetarian. It is a small portion and the pile of spiced bread crumbs at the side of the bowl don't compensate. Is that supposed to be rouille gone molecular? And where are the wild leeks, fiddleheads and asparagus that ought to herald spring, especially in a vegetarian dish? Appallingly absent.
That Dubrovsky is a vegetarian but cooks meat is a credit to him. That he cooks meat betterthan he cooks veg is just plain weird, but weird delicious. His turkey roulade is turkey at its best - a wondrously tender and moist roll studded with plumped raisins and stacked atop buttery chiffon of Savoy cabbage. Its sauce, dubbed clove gastrique, sounds strange but is one of Dubrovsky's good risks, a surprisingly delicate play on clove-studded Thanksgiving ham.
Not all his innovations play out so well. The cigar-smoked gnocchi that accompany lamb are not as odd as they sound, but rather just over-browned, tough potato dumplings. Apparently they've been smoked with Romeo y Julieta fumes using a $700 smoking gun; by me, though, chef should have saved his money on the smoking gizmo and just rolled out (and cooked) the gnocchi more carefully. That he hasn't is a particular pity because the sous-vide lamb is pink and pretty, tender and tasty.
"Steak and cake" is another case of good meat with bad fixings. The menu calls it an "8-hour steak" but no explanation of why is forthcoming. Same deal for how we want the steak done. Don't ask, don't tell may be this resto's policy, for our server is remarkably uncommunicative. On arrival, we asked to be seated at a large table. "Okay," quoth he, unsmilingly. But the steak itself is unimpeachable. We would have preferred it rare rather than medium well, but it is nonetheless of fine texture and tasty. As for the "cakes," which turn out to be made of beet, carrot and onion, I had instead imagined lacy rosti-like fried things, kissin' cousins to potato latkes. But these are leaden, floury spheres, like muffins gone very wrong.
The most ambitiousdessert at L.A.B. is an experiment marrying the apples and cheddar from traditional apple pie: It's a sturdy bolus of dough enclosing apples and cheddar cheese; curry ice cream is served on the side. Now, combining the classic cheese slice with the apple in the pie is a clever idea. And apples and curry do go well together. But this experiment curries no favour. It is both too weird and not delicate enough in the pastry department.
Among other desserts, chocolat pot de crème is credible (and normal). It's topped with pleasant enough dehydrated chocolate pearls and white tonka foam (tonka being a vanilla-like bean) with no taste. The other lab-experiment dessert utilizes what they call compressed fruit, which to me looks like cantaloupe and honeydew cubes with cold melon soup and a few flowers in a cool asymmetrical bowl. Pleasant but hardly nouvelle.
Finally, the bill comes rolled up in a tiny test tube stuck in jar of pale pink sand. Now that is cool.