You know that feeling. It's that lingering cloud of doubt that hovers over you while preparing a recipe from a cookbook written by one of your favourite chefs. Maybe it's Batali, maybe Keller, or maybe, as in my case, that chef is Nobu Matsuhisa. I hate that feeling.
You follow the recipe to the letter. The finished dish is good, great even. But no matter how hard you try you can't fully appreciate the dish because you're bugged by that voice in your head constantly feeding that nagging doubt: is this really as good as the dish at the restaurant?
This niggling suspicion attacks in two ways. First, it casts doubt on whether you've even prepared the dish well. "Surely," your frazzled brain reasons, "Thomas Keller has some sort of magical knack for roasting a chicken. I, however, am a rank amateur, and have surely prepared a chicken only slightly better than Swiss Chalet." There may be some truth to this -- none of us will ever be Thomas Keller -- but such worries are best written off as the culinary equivalent of performance anxiety.
The second cause for suspicion is far less benign, in my opinion, specifically because it's beyond the home cook's control. I'm speaking of the cookbook recipe that can charitably be described as an "adaptation" of the restaurant dish, but is, of course, presented as "the dish I serve my patrons." One of the more disturbing lessons of Heat, Bill Buford's chronicle of his time at Babbo (Mario Batali's flagship restaurant) is that Batali's recipes are not faithful reproductions of his astonishing restaurant dishes. Want to reproduce the fresh egg pasta at Babbo? Don't use the Babbo cookbook. Ditto for polenta. Buford reveals that Batali enriches the pasta at Babbo with extra egg yolks, and that the use of instant polenta, which is a Batali recipe standard, is viewed as a personal failing at the restaurant.
There are times when scrupulously recreating a restaurant dish is impossible, and so the recipe must be adapted to better suit the equipment and ingredients available to the home cook. I've got no issue with alterations under such circumstances. It is, however, reprehensible to sell an altered recipe as the original when a home cook could reproduce the original without any specialized equipment or ingredients.
There is hope, though it doesn't come easily or cheaply. The only surefire way to learn whether a homecooked version of a dish is the real deal is to actually go to the restaurant and eat the original. Which brings me, finally, to Nobu's black cod with miso. Many years ago, I made this dish after friends who had tasted it at Nobu London raved about it. Word spreads quickly, and now Nobu's signature plate seems to be on the menu at pretty much every pan-Asian restaurant in the Western hemisphere. For good reason, too. Not only is the recipe (FYI, I use equal amounts of sake and mirin) accessible to even the most novice cook, the finished product is phenomenal. The key is the fat content of the black cod, which creates a luxurious buttery texture and flavour. Three days in a sugar-spiked miso marinade adds more umami punch and increases caramelization during cooking. We fell in love with this dish the first time we made it, and have continued to prepare it frequently ever since.
But how does homemade black cod with miso compare to Nobu's version? To figure that out, we visited New York and enjoyed a stupendous meal at Nobu. We chose to eat omakase -- the Japanese equivalent of a tasting menu -- but asked if the chef might make one little exception and include the black cod. Some things you just have to know, after all. Nobu's black cod with miso is superb -- it doesn't hurt that they served ours with some seared foie gras -- and I was thrilled to learn that our homemade version, minus the foie gras, is every bit as good. So much for that anxiety.
There was, unfortunately, one thing I discovered I cannot prepare even a fraction as well. Our menu included nigiri sushi -- wonderfully fresh slices of raw fish atop sushi rice. But what rice! I have never tasted such perfect sushi rice in my life: a fragrant, perfectly cooked, neatly compact bundle in which each grain of rice was still individually discernible on the tongue. Simple genius: rice free of starchy consequences.
I know I can't make rice like Nobu, but at least I can prepare its black cod with miso secure in the knowledge that it's every bit the equal of what they serve to their customers.