Suffer the Soufflé

The late, lamented signature dish of the Grand Cafe

The signature dish always starts out so promising, so celebratory, so self-aggrandizing. A creation that's unique unto the chef, something that puts him on the map. And the people, they go crazy for it. Everybody's ordering it. Pretty soon, you can't mention the name of the restaurant without talking about "the dish."

But then, that's just the problem. The signature dish and the restaurant become one and the same. It's all the chef makes, until he wishes he'd never thought it up. He contemplates taking it off the menu -- but the people, they won't let him. He thinks about making it badly so the people, they won't like it, but he's a good chef, so he can't do that, either. Soon the signature dish starts to hang around his neck like another Rocky sequel for Sylvester Stallone. And when he just can't take it anymore, he moves on, and the new guy inherits it. The dish is the star of his menu and he can't get rid of it. It is Dish From Hell: The Legacy (ad campaign: In the Kitchen, They Can't See You Spit).

Tweak the facts and change the names to protect the guilty, and you have the tale of polenta soufflé, the much-ballyhooed dish that made its debut a decade ago at the Grand Cafe (501 Geary, 292-0101).

The inventor, chef Bob Helstrom, came up with the concept while at Kuleto's, before he took over the reins to open the Grand Cafe in 1995. (He has since gone on to the Kimpton hotel and restaurant group.)

"[Legendary French chef] Paul Bocuse once said that if you could have one signature dish in your lifetime you'd be lucky," says Helstrom. "It's like a recording artist who is always expected to play his hit single. You know what it means to people, so you smile and perform it graciously."

(Or is it more like Will's father in the film About a Boy, who wrote a one-hit-wonder, "Santa's Super Sleigh," and spent the rest of his life "trying to write a better song"?)

Either way, it's not hard to see why the soufflé caught on. The dreamy combination of baked polenta and mushroom ragout topped with a rich Cambozola fondue is the kind of comfort food that makes you want to hunker down in a booth and share a fork.

At the dish's zenith in the early '90s, the kitchen was turning out 50 to 60 a day. Then Helstrom left -- and the soufflé stayed. Chef Denis Soriano became its new executor.

"His idea was to replace it with a feuilletée [puff pastry] with a mushroom ragout, but the new dish couldn't compete," says Helstrom. "Eventually, he just accepted it."

After Soriano came Victor Scargle, who also didn't understand why the soufflé was so popular, but at least he understood that taking it off the menu was something akin to Sears Fine Foods removing silver-dollar pancakes from its list. If the execution suffered, diners didn't seem to notice; sales were as good as ever.

Then in 2001 Paul Arenstam arrived. In a bold move, he proposed to replace the soufflé with his own creation. In an even bolder move, Helstrom gave his blessing.

"I never knew the original, and I couldn't relate to it," says Arenstam.

The contender that finally toppled the reigning champ is a seasonal mushroom tart with truffle zabaglione. It has, concedes Arenstam, some similarities to the soufflé (one being indescribable yumminess). "It's a similar experience to the soufflé," he admits. "People love [it]. We make 30 to 40 a day, and it's only on the dinner menu."

"The tart has definitely filled the soufflé's shoes," says Helstrom, with some relief.

The signature dish is dead. Long live the signature dish.

 
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