IT HAPPENED about five minutes into our pre-seating cocktail at Ración, when we were trying the bar snacks that were the preamble to the night's new-Spanish nine-course dinner. The thing that triggered it was something remarkably delicious and labor intensive for a simple skewered snack: a cool house-made rabbit pâté spread with caper berry relish, rolled inside a mustardy crêpe, and cut like sushi. More thought had gone into that one little bite—its appetite-sparking, rich, salty flavor, its timing during the first relaxing wash of the drink, its complementary nature—than entire meals I've had lately. I realized upon eating it that the chef had crafted a "surrender moment"—that he had earned my trust before I'd even sat down.
There were many other orchestrations of surprise and satisfaction that night. At the table, a starter of bacalao (dried, salted cod) "chicharron" with salmon-bone pil pil sauce reinforced my allegiance: I dread strong bacalao, but here the chef had isolated the sweet spot in the flavor spectrum of cod and turned it into a light, highly relieving and familiar snack of fish 'n' chips. Warm, comforting cauliflower soup told my reptile brain that autumn had started, in a way that the chilly air apparently hadn't. A cured, seared sous vide pork cheek pulled apart to reveal a deep red, pastrami-spiced interior. Fried, candied grape stems adorned an agar-agar-thickened chèvre cheesecake roll.
These clever victories and more inspired several questions about how dining works at its most strategically designed level. Ración chef Anthony Cafiero's answers follow.
MERCURY: How do you establish the critical feelings of comfort and trust in a new guest?
ANTHONY CAFIERO: The first impression, or the welcoming stage of the guest's experience, must be personalized, at the very least. The host must know their name, and head them directly to their chairs, or remember where they like to sit and bring them to their spot. I love the feeling of knowing my server or my chef. There may even be a pre-civilization thing there about trust in your food when it comes from someone else. I think this phase of a guest's experience at a restaurant is one of the most important and at the same time, at least in Portland, it's one of the most overlooked.
Is there a logic to the pacing of your menus, both in the timing between dishes, as well as the order of the types of dishes? Are there basic principles for keeping guests piqued?
You start altering textures and temperature, strength and subtlety of flavors, the size of a dish or how it "eats." And, it is up to us to word the menu in a vague enough way that when you receive the dish, it is a complete surprise all over again.
[Course progression] is all about how I tasted meals in Spain. At high-end spots like Gresca, Kokotxa, Moo in Barcelona, ABaC... they all had this basic template of snacks, then crunchy thing, then soup, followed by cold fish, salad, hot fish, starch, hot game, veg, hot meat, fruit dessert, then chocolate dessert. I love that progression, and that is absolutely what I try to emulate at Ración.
Moving a guest through a fun and interesting menu only makes our job easier in the end. They begin to submit to the kitchen. They trust us.
Many techniques seen as avant-garde are actually old methods, and furthermore, largely invisible once the food is plated. Why should the diner even know how the food was cooked?
Ah, this question has just one answer, but two facets.
The first: I think that technique is primary to the quality of the ingredients in the dish. Notice I didn't say food, because you can make anything, even shitty-quality product, much better by cooking it the best that you can. I love applying new techniques that people are not familiar with to a classic dish. It makes eating fun. Making a broccoli-cheddar dish that looks nothing like the soup that we all know and love is a part of modern, new Spanish cooking.
The second part has to do with what restaurants have been doing for a long time. We cook dinner. You come to restaurants when you either don't want to cook dinner at home or you want to experience something that you can't cook. This second part is what I'm banking on. [Guests] might know how to make awesome stock or roast a chicken, but do they know how to make an agar gel? Or a versa whip foam? Or how to butcher a lamb leg, brine it, sous vide it, and then pair it with peas and mint? That's why Ración is fun. You can see what the hell is going on in a modern kitchen.
Visit racionpdx.com for the next series of pop-ups and news of the restaurant's opening, projected for late fall.