Popcorn goes haute couture

Just in time for the Oscars, check out local chefs' red-carpet takes on everyone's favorite movie treat

March 03, 2010|By Laura Vozzella | laura.vozzella@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

Just like Hollywood actors and actresses of a certain age, popcorn has had a little work done.

A little nip here, a little tuck there, and pretty soon Orville Redenbacher is looking like George Clooney.

The classic movie theater treat, a natural for Oscar parties this weekend, has gotten so glammed up that it is making cameos on menus in high-end restaurants.

Cooked in duck fat and adorned with truffle oil and truffle sea salt at a North Baltimore bistro. Spiced up with sriracha and tossed into a spinach salad in a Canton eatery. It even pops up in a Cuban ceviche.

The kernels are going Hollywood at home, too. Multicolored, organic "heirloom" popcorn varieties are available with a variety of spice blends.

So even if you can't have movies without popcorn, you can have popcorn without fake-o cineplex "butter."

"For so many years, it's - you're going to get it out of the microwave or at the movie theater - very pedestrian," said Chef Brian Bruso of Birches Restaurant in Canton. "For myself, personally, I always thought it could be a greater vehicle."

Sometimes popcorn appears on menus with a wink. At Corks, "gourmet" popcorn comes alongside its Merguez corn dog, which is made with a Spanish-style lamb sausage. The corn dog-popcorn combo is a playful, upscale twist on carnival fare.

But that doesn't mean chefs aren't taking popcorn seriously.

Bruso started serving popcorn in the restaurant's outdoor dining area in place of bread and butter a few years ago. It wasn't ordinary Jiffy Pop. He flavored it with a mixture of melted butter with a little sriracha, a Vietnamese chili sauce.

But still, he just thought of the popcorn as "fun."

Then at some point, the popcorn made its way into a $7 salad: Baby Spinach Salad with a Honey Scallion Vinaigrette, Hard Boiled Egg, Oven Roasted Roma Tomatoes, Sriracha Buttered Popcorn and Platanos Frita.

"I don't exactly know why I had the crazy idea to do it," he said. "Corn and spinach and scallions go together flavor-wise and food-wise, and I said, 'Well, what about popcorn?' "

Some diners are surprised to see popcorn in a salad. Then they try it.

"They're, like, 'Wow. It actually works,' " Bruso said.

"I think it has a unique contrast [to the other salad ingredients] in its texture, and its flavor is still familiar enough to work with the other familiar items," he said. "You get a little crunch and, at the same time, it's light. It's not like a heavy crouton."

Bruso encountered an unusual use of popcorn several years ago at a Philadelphia restaurant he visited with his wife.

"There's a Cuban place that actually tossed popcorn with their shrimp cocktail," he said.

The cocktail was essentially a shrimp ceviche. The popcorn, tossed in at the last minute, "added that balance of texture and flavor."

Since then, popcorn has started appearing more commonly on high-end menus. Alizee in North Baltimore serves Duck Fat Popcorn with Truffle Oil and Truffle Sea Salt as a free bar treat. On its late-night bar menu, Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia offers White Truffle Popcorn with Butter and Parmesan. Woodberry Kitchen offers Eastern Shore Popcorn, which qualifies as upscale if you factor in locavore chic. Founding Farmers, a Washington restaurant devoted to sustainable agriculture, offers "Popcorn of the Day" on its menu for $2.50. The flavor du jour "depends on Chef's mood!" the menu says.

Founding Fathers offers popcorn as both an appetizer and as a side dish meant to complement sophisticated entrees. The wait staff even play popcorn sommelier, suggesting that the Rosemary-Parmesan Popcorn would pair nicely with the Butternut Squash Ravioli or that the Old Bay Butter Popcorn works well with the Lobster Mac 'n' Cheese.

Every afternoon at 4:30 in the kitchen of Alizee, someone is popping corn in duck fat. The popped kernels are doused with more duck fat, truffle oil and truffle sea salt before being given away as a free bar snack at the North Baltimore bistro. It is popped late in the day so it is still fresh - and around - for evening diners.

"We usually pop 5 gallons of it a day in the kitchen and the servers probably eat about half of it," Chef Christian deLutis said. "Once people smell it, they come around and start eating it. ... It's a very savory, umami kind of thing."

DeLutis started offering the popcorn as a free bar snack about six months ago, after a restaurant patron suggested he "do something with truffles."

Truffles aren't the sort of things most chefs can afford to give away in the bar. Even when truffle oil and salt are spread out over something as inexpensive as popcorn, it adds up.

"It's not a cheap bar snack, if I could put it that way," deLutis said.

But the salty, addictive treat has a way of returning cash to the restaurant.

"It keeps people drinking at the bar," he said.

The restaurant's head bartender, who goes by the single name Bayne, can attest to its popularity among guests.

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