October 8, 2010
It is macaroni and cheese. But we're not here to talk about your grandma's mac 'n' cheese, but how the classic's being co-opted by everyone from Tony Baker to Thomas Keller. Now it's gourmet. Luxury. And still mac n cheese.
The San Jose Mercury ran a cool story about the trend earlier this week, pointing out how guys like James Beard award-winning Michael Mina use it as a menu pillar:
"Mina has featured mac and cheese variations at many of his restaurants—a roster that includes four in San Francisco, including RN74 and his soon-to-reopen eponymous bistro. A truffled version with sauteed chicken breast and rosemary appears on the current menu at San Jose's Arcadia, and Mina is constantly reinventing his basic recipe, which gets extra sizzle from garlic, thyme and a nicely aged Parmigiano-Reggiano."
At Harvest Carmel, local chef and Weekly contributor Mike Whalen (above), rocked a truffled mac n cheese with a polenta crouton that blew folks away. The recipe was too complicated—"13.5 kilograms of cheese and 12 liters of wine went into those 1,500 mini-portions!" he says—but he did add this:
"What makes mac and cheese great? C'mon, it's cheesy goodness. You can't beat that home-style comfort food. When you kick it up a notch, it becomes upscale comfort food and you get the best of both worlds: Some thing with home style familiarity, but more, because lobster and truffles taste awesome and we can't afford to cook with them at home."
Whalen ratifies my top local foodie mac 'n' cheese choice: The lobster mac 'n' cheese ($6.50) at Montrio Bistro (648-8880) in downtown Monterey. It's a must order.
"I have young kids and they really like the real mac 'n' cheese we make at home," Chef Tony Baker says, "so we started playing around with it here.
"To make lobster butter we cook down a ton of butter with shrimp and lobster shells, and a crapload of spices, tons of garlic, then strain that with three layers of cheese cloth and get this really shrimp, lobster, spicy butter mixture, then use that to make the rouge that's the base for the cheese."
He adds Spring Hill Jersey cheddar out of Petaluma from a guy who grows his own feed, throws in carmelized leeks, nibbles of Maine lobster (delivered live), some crispy bread crumbs and grated Grano Padano (a less intense Parmesan).
And the lobster mac is only $4 during the 4:30-6:30pm happy hour, which happens seven days a week.