Hawaiian poke tuna tartare with avocado cream and a sesame won ton crisp with soy “cotton candy”
All I could do was sit there, helpless against the tides of time, as the churros spaghetti withered away. It looked good—hell, it looked amazing: crisp strings of dough straight from the fryer, blistering and dusted with cinnamon. But no fork dared make a move while the enthusiastic waitress verbally dissected every inch of the plate, which also included doughnut ice cream, a cherry preserve sauce, and a chili-spiked hot chocolate ball set on a porcelain spoon. My party was instructed just how to pop the cocoa orb and pour it over the churros . . . but first we had to endure similar descriptions of the other three desserts on our communal table. By the time the waitress finished, civilizations had risen, economies had collapsed, and the damn churros were lukewarm.
I wanted Ing to do something that no one else has: successfully bring science-based cooking to the masses. With its affordable prices, Homaro Cantu’s minimalist lair is at the right end of the molecular gastronomy spectrum to achieve that goal. Firmly encamped at the other end is Nathan Myhrvold’s recently released Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, a six-volume, 2,438-page, $625 cookbook so inaccessible it pounds the nails into molecular gastronomy’s coffin for 99.9 percent of the world. Ing strives to avoid that exclusivity, but Cantu’s restaurants, while fascinating, always seem to be populated by a species of chefs more interested in discovery than in your presence. As such, the dishes purportedly built to amaze diners seem geared toward something else: namely, stroking the egos of their creators.
No one cares for “molecular gastronomy.” Most chefs lumped into the genre rejected it long ago, like Kurt Cobain scowling at grunge. “‘Molecular’ makes it sound complicated, and ‘gastronomy’ makes it sound elitist,” Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck told The Guardian back in 2006. Ferran Adrià calls his cuisine at El Bulli “deconstructivist”; Alinea’s Grant Achatz goes with “progressive.” Cantu describes Moto, his three-star spectacle, as “postmodern” or “food science with a purpose.” None of this makes me especially hungry, nor does it address the central question: Is the food any good?
At Ing, whose neighbors are Moto and the Achatzapalooza of Next and The Aviary, the answer is complicated. Thomas Bowman’s sparse Asian menu—origamied on your plate to conceal a pipette of warm white miso with cold togarashi tofu—gets divided into categories like “Heating” and “Cooling.” You’re meant to be surprised by the playful tako taco, a peanut butter and scallion crêpe with oil-poached octopus and elements of pad Thai (noodles, peanuts, curry, tofu). Not really a taco or Thai but excellent. So is the ultrafresh Hawaiian poke tuna, a tartare with avocado cream and a sesame won ton crisp painted with soy “cotton candy.” Few chefs allow goofy humor to creep into their food anymore, but Ing’s creations are more jokey than groundbreaking.
Sometimes they’re just heartbreaking. While you’re oohing at the wagyu beef sizzling tableside on a kiln brick, the waitress whips out an aerosol bottle and sprays 12-year-old Scotch whisky onto the beef. My guests laughed, in shock at seeing precious wagyu used as a prop but also at the indignity of a Scotch aging for 12 years only to find itself in an aerosol bottle. Even with a delicious panko-coated soy rice ball and miso-marinated Japanese eggplant, this dish does not work. Another offering, two giant oysters topped with foie gras and uni mousse, comes with an inverted pint glass, which the waitress flips to reveal a fog of smoke. Then she pours beer into the glass—“to combat the harshness of the smoke.” Combat the smoke? Who asked for the smoke? Not to mention the teriyaki concentrate that obliterates any subtlety the smolder fails to overpower.
Some simpler dishes hit their marks, like the tamagoyaki, a fresh tobiko and seaweed salad, and the okonomiyaki sake, a satisfying mu-shu-like dish with Faroe Islands salmon that you dip into a bed of Himalayan salt and then wrap in a pancake you’ve spread with hoisin sauce or Japanese mayonnaise (or both). But Ing’s noodles need tweaking: The la mien with pork belly and fried ramen was ridiculously oily, and an oversweet udon with rock shrimp tempura on a lemongrass skewer with a liquid-center ball of coconut was a ham-fisted mess. Desserts skirt close to Moto’s brain-bending approach, as in the cold waffle with a mango sorbet that resembles a pat of butter, coconut that looks like whipped cream, and coffee stout that gets poured on like syrup. It’s beyond clever, but clever doesn’t make it taste good.
“Ing” stands for “imagining new gastronomy”—a bold statement in this town—but few of the restaurant’s intriguing innovations live up to their promise. “Dining by the hour” turns out to be standard prix fixe menus culled from the regular menu. The basement command center meant to revolutionize service? Whatever they’ve got down there, it doesn’t prevent pacing problems. At presstime, the homemade nanobrews—sporting components such as lemongrass and mustard seeds—were off the menu “indefinitely.” I can’t comment on the $125 flavor-twisting West African miracle berry menus available at the four-person kitchen table in Ing’s basement, but Cantu believes these fruits to be the future of food. Based on the miracle berry tablet his publicist sent out, the future tastes like a Flintstones vitamin.
Any restaurant trying something new in 2011 deserves leeway. But Cantu, who over two decades has gone from homeless in Tacoma to an internationally celebrated food anarchist, dreams so big that the reality rarely measures up. He told Metromix that the chefs in Ing’s three open kitchens would put on “the most entertaining show you’ve ever seen a chef do in a restaurant.” All I saw was a guy pulling noodles. The staff, outfitted with headsets, are still settling in, their approach something like, Hey, we got the green light to try some crazy stuff here. Tell us what you think. If you’re in the right mood, that’s hard to resist—even when the food is not. In the end, though, Ing’s trickery is less interesting than what it represents: minds supple enough to rethink the way restaurants run. Unfortunately, those minds haven’t figured out a better model.