Ian Kleinman and his mind-opening food. Photo by Jessica Grenier
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Taking a bite out of our intermezzo, my girlfriend dug quickly into her purse to grab her camera to capture the moment.
It’s not often that smoke puffs out of your mouth after each bite of a dish, making the moment something you want to capture and post on Facebook.
Or is it?
When you’re dining at O’s Steak and Seafood in a very non-descript location (the Westin Westminster), clouds of smoke, food that should require eye protection to prepare and liquid nitrogen are commonplace. Interest piqued yet?
See, head chef Ian Kleinman is a bit of a culinary scientist, practicing molecular gastronomy in a tiny backroom closet that contains multiple liquid nitrogen tanks that serves as his laboratory in the massive Westin kitchen. Basically, he uses a variety of chemical reactions to change the complexion of food. Most of his menu is steaks and seafood, but his science fair project-like approach turns into a new molecular tasting menu each weekend.
He’ll change pineapple into bubble gum, sour cream into noodles and sometimes even float food a good inch off your plate. For $50, you get five courses of this testament to creativity, science and fine dining (an additional $25 will get you a robust wine pairing).
“I was bored with cooking,” Ian says. “I got the chance to work with a chef that worked at Alinea in Chicago. He told me stories of flash frozen sorbets and tomato paper. After talking with him it certainly piqued my interest to find new techniques and ingredients to improve my overall cooking style.”
In the process he discovered techniques that you just won’t see anywhere else in Colorado.
Over the course of the last 18 months, I’ve had the pleasure of tasting a few of his dishes at events and competitions, including the Denver International Wine Festival Taste of Elegance food and wine pairing competition in which he was named most creative chef (I voted for him as best overall, giving him a slight edge over Top Chef Hosea Rosenberg–the crowd disagreed). But a week ago I finally got the chance to witness his bizarre cooking in its entirety, sitting down for Tasting Menu No. 82.
We started with Oregano Grilled Clams that included a pancetta turned foam. Next up was a carbonated cantaloupe consommé, followed by the intermezzo, black truffle popcorn flash frozen in liquid nitrogen. Ian extended our intermezzo by making his strawberry sorbet tableside in the same liquid nitrogen. It’s amazing how fast strawberries freeze in minus 320-degree temps. Then there was sous-vide pork followed by dessert, a barley malt ice cream, again made tableside, that was more creamy than gelato in Rome.
Some of the food was strange, some of it was bizarre and all of it was downright fun. Popcorn tossed in truffle oil so cold that it feels as if it’s shattering with each bite? It’s blissfully tasty and unmistakable novel. I’m certain no other food I’ve ever eaten projected a cloud of smoke out of my mouth.
The ever-so-creamy ice cream and sorbet is so good its reason enough to drive up to Westminster. The subtle additions such as carbonation to a cantaloupe consommé make flavor bounce off your tongue. It’s food as you’ve never eaten it before. It will change the way you look at the culinary world. It is so unique and good, you’ll leave, honestly, with your mind blown. Forget that saying that is a cliché.
Ian, as far as I can tell, is the only chef in Colorado featuring such an extensive molecular menu. Other chefs, such as Wylie Dufresne at New York’s exclusive WD-50, feature nothing but this sci-fi food on the menu. Ian knows that wouldn’t fly in Colorado, especially in such a suburban menu.
He learned this firsthand.
“We had a great meal at WD-50,” he says. “I had never eaten anyone else’s molecular food so it was good to see. I learned that my food could never be like Wylie’s. The main reason is the location of my restaurant. The next reason is it is just not my style to deconstruct as much as he does. You have to find your own style with this cuisine. The coolest part of the restaurant was the bathrooms.”
Still, the novelty of O’s is unquestioned (the Westin has nice bathrooms, too)–we received countless stares from the dining room ordering off the regular menu when Ian would come out with a milk canister caked in ice crystals with the liquid nitrogen oozing out.
But don’t think of his food as some sort of fad or trickery. It’s a gourmet way to express his creative side. “I use molecular cooking to help enhance my food; it will never dominate my style of cooking,” he says. “It is the job of chefs to learn how these techniques can help them in their everyday operations.”
After finishing our delightful meal, Ian treated us to a tour of his lab and a few other surprises. The lab itself is so small, it’s hard to imagine culinary genius coming out of it. It’s a converted broom closet. He showed us the power of magic fruit, which lives up to its name. It distorts your tastebuds to the point you can bite directly into a lemon wedge and taste lemonade.
He even showed us his most recent trick, floating food using magnetics. It looks cool enough that a regular of Ian’s asked for an engagement ring to come out hovering above a dessert plate–we left that evening before we heard a definitive yes.
It’s a big show, eating the tasting menu. But the flavors certainly back up the spectacle. Ian was recently promoted to general manager, and I expect bigger things from him in the future. I’d love to see him open a molecular food bar in some trendy LoDo location; he’s not sure it’s plausible. Or, he could open up a Willy Wonka-like chocolate factory or ice cream house, only better since it would be non-fiction.
I have to believe he has some creative ideas floating through that head of his, although he’s not sharing specifics if there are any: “I can’t tell you about my concept until you give me the (big) bag of money,” he says.
I’m willing to give him $50 again, knowing that even if it doesn't open some new hotspot downtown, it'll get me five-courses of something special.