Some embrace them. Some are torn between tolerance and abolition. Some take the perennial approach. Some don't let them come to pass.
Whatever the case may be, all chefs have an opinion on, and a way of dealing with, signature dishes -- the kind of dish that has survived menu changes and eager new chefs, all to the delight of diners. Ten thousand bowls of old faithful later and restaurants may ache to put a cork in it, but to do so would represent disappointed -- even lost -- customers. Which is why it's so interesting to hear area chefs dish on the albatross in the kitchen.
Brian Luscher, The Grape For nearly four decades, The Grape has been ladling their way to cream-based notoriety. Consisting of little more than white button mushrooms, beef stock, cream, flour and onions, their cream of mushroom soup was devised by a prep-chef some 35 years ago and has been on the menu ever since. The recipe is now an heirloom, passed down through three brothers, all of whom have worked (or in the case of Chuy, continue to work) in the kitchen.
But there have been other chefs to pass through The Grape, chefs who have not seen the soup as such a jewel, but rather something that needed to be fixed. "Every single chef that comes in here wants to tweak it," says owner Brian Luscher. "And you know what? I could make a better mushroom soup. And I have. I've done it twice. And then there's uproar in the dining room."
Luscher hasn't touched the soup since. He has a practical view of what this and similar dishes mean for The Grape and those who work there.
"I would not say that anything is an albatross in the 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner' context, where it's this bad thing. ... I know there are some people who inherited these dishes but they've got to make them even though it's not 'their food.' You kind of give it the stepchild treatment and preen your most precious and most intriguing items, then other things suffer. The hardest thing for a chef to do is give as much attention to the boring details as to the exciting. Take everything just as serious and it will make such a better experience for diners."
Graham Dodds, Hibiscus When Graham Dodds took over the kitchen at Hibiscus in 2013, he didn't give the dishes the stepchild treatment -- he put them up for adoption.
"I've been calling myself Napoleon," Dodds says. One of his proudest conquests to date is the Dungeness crab dip, which José Ralat Maldonado said "provoked a moment of quiescence" followed by "ravenous arm wrestling for more" in his 2010 review. Dodds likes to boast that the removal of this particular item has elicited hate mail. Feeling conciliatory, he offered diners a white flag by adding a new crab dish -- soft-shell, with a side of house-made biscuits and kielbasa gravy -- to the menu.
"We've done well with updating and transforming the menu and aligning the whole place with this philosophy that we know where the food comes from," Dodds says. There is, however, still the matter of the pie. That is, the icebox pie, with its "crushed Butterfingers from the farm," as Dodds jokes. It haunts Dodds, a proponent of local and seasonal cuisine, with its artificial, pre-packaged ingredients, and yet this is one conquest that continually evades him. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to change that or I'll get murdered."
David Uygur, Lucia Then there is David Uygur, who, unlike Luscher and Dodds, did not inherit his restaurant. Lucia is his culinary baby, and he refuses to let it become sullied by the chicken Caesar salads of this world.
"Whenever I hear the phrase 'signature dish,' it drives me nuts because it says to me you're always going to see it on the menu regardless of the season. At least change something."
Uygur cites Lucia's handmade pasta, which is always on the menu but in different permutations. "Ideally we're changing [a dish] not because we're tired of it but because we have something that's nicer," he says.
"Honestly I think there's a life of a dish. When I come up with something and I teach it to my cooks and they prepare it and they figure out new things about that dish, for me I let them have the freedom to make it work best for them as long as the quality is the same or better. And then once the dish is really working well, then that's the middle part. And finally, whether everyone is tired of looking at it or whether it's not selling well ... There's a timeline."
Andrew Bell, Bolsa
Where Uygur's garden is strictly annuals, Andrew Bell doesn't mind a few perennials here and there. He recently removed the Diamond H Ranch Quail, with its elote, queso fresco, chayote and honey-chile glaze, from Bolsa's menu. "[It has] been hugely popular and I know backlash is coming," Bell says. He took it off the menu because he was tired of it, plain and simple. "It's a good dish and I'll bring it back next spring or a variation on it. But it's time for something fresh."
Jay Jerrier, Il Cane Rosso There are no seasons when it comes to the s'mores calzone at Il Cane Rosso. "It's just one of our most popular dishes and now it never lets up. S'mores calzone, s'mores calzone, s'mores calzone," Jay Jerrier says.
The calzone consists of mini marshmallows and chocolate chips folded between Cane Rosso's standard pizza dough, topped with granulated sugar and baked until molten. "The worst burn I've ever gotten was from the top of that calzone. I accidentally grazed my arm against the side of it." But even third-degrees are not enough of a deterrent for Jerrier to clip his albatross' wings. "My God, we'd have a riot if we took it off. A lot of people come down just for that. But I get it. I hate to say it, I don't want to waste my trip when I go [to a restaurant] when I can get something I like."
Jerrier brings up a good point. Even those who enjoy navigating menus written in characters or eating their way through gas station cuisine will inevitably wind up where they began. That is, at the same Italian place, eating the same lasagna. For as much satisfaction as one can derive from being gastronomically adventurous, there are times when hunger calls for the respite of familiarity.
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