Taste Test

Inside the flavors of St. Louis’ most memorable dishes

 

Chefs face a tall order when it comes to impressing diners with a standout dish. Not only do their presentations and flavor combinations have to be spot-on, but theyre also up against a whole other mysterious side to why we like what we likeour memory for tastes. We all perceive flavors differently (some of us have more taste buds, which means more flavorful sensations), yet the way we process them is very similar. Our brains perk up when we taste something new, but tune out when they get used to a dishs flavora chefs never-ending conundrum. They have to entice us with newness one day and reward our long-term memories (when we crave a favorite dish) the next. To show the proof is in the pudding, we scouted five St. Louis dishes that have what it takes to tweak our memories and wow our taste buds time and time again.

Hooked

Tuna Tiradito at Miso

Average diners may not be able to pinpoint what it is about the flavors in Misos tuna tiradito that make it so delectable, but Chef Eliott Harris says that customers who order the off-menu special like it so much “they basically lick the plate.”

Harris serves the days freshest tuna (yellowtail in the photo) sashimi-style, finished with Japanese ponzu soy sauce to add a citrus zing, along with his own unique contribution to the traditional dish: truffled chive oil. Then come the textures that contrast with the smoothness of the tuna to light up your palate: daikon radish sprouts, flying fish eggs, green onion and wasabi sesame seeds.

According to memory expert Henry Roediger, a professor of psychology at Wash U, tasting unfamiliar flavors like these causes your brain to release a compound that is believed to be related to lasting memories of taste and smell. It may take your brain a couple of hours to decide how to classify the flavors, but it will help you remember every lick of your plate.

Scent-Sational

Butternut Squash Soup at Scape

Aromas have enormous influence on tastethats why “when you have a cold and cant breathe through your nose, food is tasteless,” Roediger explains. Translation: When food is in our mouths, we taste and smell it.

Were conditioned to expect certain flavor and aroma pairings, and playing with our expectations is how Chef Eric Kelly came up with this classic fall soup combination.

“This is a conscious decision to really engage the senses of smell and taste together,” Kelly says. Having the sage clipped where it can be seen and smelled gives the dish a very distinct front and finish, almost like you would have when drinking wine. Without the sage clip, the dish wouldnt be the sameeven if you were to put the sage into the soup, the soup would mask the aroma. (In keeping with the playful spirit of the clip, try holding your nose and see if the flavor of the soup stays the same.)

Compared to sounds we hear and sights we see, Roediger says, “smells dont seem to be forgotten as rapidly”a testament to why smells and tastes seem to be very good memory retrieval cues.

Just Ducky

Vietnamese Roast Duck at Mai Lee

When a sophisticated combination of cooking techniques, spices and dipping sauce converge, our 10,000 taste buds revel in the sensationsbut because were not good at describing flavors, all our tongues can say is “delicious.”

At first glance, the plate of roast duck looks relatively simple. But cook Qui Tran quickly dispels that idea. The duck is brined overnight, then slow-roasted in soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, ginger, whole onions and garlic, as well as five spices (fennel, cinnamon, anise, clove and allspice) and fermented tofu paste.

As melt-in-your-mouth-tender as the duck is, it would be less memorable without the sauce, made of soy sauce diluted with sugar, rice wine, sesame oil, vinegar, fresh ginger and chile paste. Its a classic example of how sweet and sour flavors suppress each other, while saltiness enhances both sweet and umami.

Customers who want to show off their dexterity will be disappointedthis is not a dish that calls for chopsticks. Use your fingers, Tran urges. Pick up a bone and gnaw. “That is the actual way to eat ityou have to get barbaric with it.” In doing so, you rely on the same fine-motor skills and pathways that make fried chicken and barbecued ribs such finger-lickin favorites.

Flavor Savers

Lamb Shank at Aya Sofia

After many bites of the same dish, our taste buds kind of glaze over. Its called taste adaptation, and its the reason sauces and side dishes can make or break the meat in the center of the plate. The subtle flavors supporting this roasted lamb fore-shankthe dry-rub of fresh garlic, oregano, paprika and cumin, the slow-cooking atop lettuce, cucumber, celery and green onionwould be gradually lost over the course of the meal if it were the only thing on your plate.

But its not. Mediterranean white beans are mixed with pan juices for the sauce, and that, alternated with bites of rice pilaf and vegetables, gives your tongue the change-up of textures and taste sensations it needs. The effect is called dishabituation, which puts your senses on alert again. Combined with Chef Mehmet Yildizs skill with lamb, the sides are likely one reason the shank has been one of the most popular dishes for five years and counting.

Burning for You

Cherries Jubilee at Cyranos

Scientifically speaking, taste is tantalizing. Its secrets extend from the receptors on our tongues to the messages our brains receive and encode. Researchers are still trying to figure it all out. They would also like to know how taste interacts with our other senses. Verbal and visual cues can be especially powerfulwhich is why no one ever forgets a good flamb, especially when Ryan Bradford is lighting the fire.

In his three years of making cherries jubilee, Bradford has perfected both the tableside showmanship and the friendly banter the dish calls for. As he heats the brown sugar, adds the butter, simmers the cherries and finishes it off with rum, he explains the ingredients and chats about the process. But he doesnt give away the ending too soon. With a sprinkle of cinnamon-sugar, he creates what looks like sparkling snow falling through the flames.

Involuntary oohs and aahs follow, not only from those at the table. “It doesnt just capture one person,” Bradford says. “It captures the entire half of the restaurant.”

 

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Tuna Tiradito at Miso

Tuna Tiradito at Miso

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Butternut Squash Soup at Scape

Lamb Shank at Aya Sofia

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Vietnamese Roast Duck at Mai Lee

Vietnamese Roast Duck at Mai Lee

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Lamb Shank at Aya Sofia

Lamb Shank at Aya Sofia

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Cherries Jubilee at Cyrano’s

Cherries Jubilee at Cyrano’s

 

Photo credit: By Jennifer Silverberg

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