When I was in culinary school and turning out food that tasted good but just looked okay, I held that I was more concerned with the taste of the final product than with presentation. But culinary wisdom is right: We eat first with our eyes.
This was not so much on my mind when I accepted an invitation to attend a cocktail party at Luxe Sunset Boulevard, a hidden-in-plain-sight hotel in the northwest elbow crook of Sunset Boulevard and the 405 Freeway. But one look at Chef Olivier Rousselle’s formidable appetizers, and I knew my train had pulled into Presentation Station and that I had a thing or two to learn about the visual aspects of food.
I say formidable because there was nothing slight about this array of yummage. There was plenty of protein and plenty of variety of protein: cups of ceviche; tiny black sesame seed-studded waffle cones filled with sashimi and topped with roe; petite, delicately briny miyagi oysters; velvety steak bites, skewers of bacon, date and foie gras; and wee bowls of squash soup with a drizzle of balsamic. But unlike beauty queens with the IQ of sand, these bites telegraphed through their appearance that they were going to taste as good as they looked.
So what did I learn?
>That taking a staple from the world of sweet (the waffle cone in this instance) and using it in the savory can be visually intriguing as well as tasty.
>That it is possible to make a tortilla chip look elegant.
>That a naked oyster on the half shell is a thing of beauty requiring no adornment.
>That a drizzle of balsamic reduction adds both flavor and visual appeal.
>That parsley need not apply for every garnishing job.
Bartender Paul whipped up several cocktails for the occasion, including a Christmas martini layered in a cinnamon-rimmed glass with grenadine, creme de menthe and a mixture of vodka and creme de cocoa and garnished with a candy cane.
He also made a concoction he called “the chocolate cake shot.” In a twist on the old lime-salt-shot method of drinking tequila, this one was lemon-sugar-shot of Frangelico and Citron mixture. Oddly, it really did taste like chocolate cake, with a smooth finish that made me feel like I’d just swallowed the last of the frosting. Wacky!
I munched like there was no tomorrow, polishing off enough seafood to fill an aquarium. My eyes brought me to the spread, but the flavors made me stay. And it made me rethink the role of presentation in creating a pleasing spread. I may not be layering cocktails (frankly, I preferred the non-sweetened cucumber-and-herb number–which paired well with the seafood–to the syrupy-sweet ones), but I’ll be paying much closer attention to the visual details of what I make to share this holiday season. My friends and family are worth the extra effort.
The obligatory disclaimer: I was invited by Luxe to come and eat and drink and–they hoped–to write. If I hadn’t been impressed by what I had there, I’d certainly have come up with a good excuse for not writing about it!