You’ve ordered the mac ‘n’ cheese and you can already see it in your mind’s eye: a delicate layer of toasty, buttery bread crumbs atop just-firm-enough curls of pasta suspended in hot, cheesy creaminess. When it finally arrives, what’s in front of you looks close enough to that Platonic mac ‘n’ cheese ideal, but when you take that first bite, it’s dry -- dry as a cracker.
Bad mac ‘n’ cheese seems to have become an epidemic -- the most rampant symptoms include dryness, greasiness and stringiness. But it gets weirder: Ritz crackers for topping, crab and tomatoes mixed in, errant wasabi. The bad aftertaste of so much disappointing mac ‘n’ cheese is long-lingering, and it provokes the question: What’s up with all the terrible macaroni and cheese in this town?
Macaroni and cheese is a simple pleasure, so why spike it with jalapeno peppers, make it with smoked Gouda or deep-fry it? And because it’s the ultimate comfort food, it’s just that much more perturbing when a sorry mac ‘n’ cheese lands on your placemat.
It was oh so retro
A few years ago, Los Angeles underwent a veritable mac ‘n’ cheese renaissance. It was the retro dish of the moment, and now, every trendy restaurant with or without a velvet rope has mac ‘n’ cheese on the menu. Maybe that’s why chefs are inclined to differentiate their versions by adding lobster (no, thanks) or plopping seared tuna on top (yes, it’s true) or using esoteric cheeses (cheddar will do), or by tacking on adjectives such as “ultimate” or “best.”
But don’t fall for it; beware the “Killer Mac ‘n Cheese” or “Our Famous Mac & Cheese.” The “Killer Mac ‘n Cheese” at Tart, the restaurant at the Farmer’s Daughter hotel in West Hollywood, has a sticky-smooth orange paste of a sauce, which often means just one thing: processed cheese. “You need a Velveeta cheese product in it; otherwise it comes out dry,” says Tart general manager Robert Rabine. “The Velveeta is the key.”
Rabine is correct in one sense: The processing denatures the proteins in the cheese, which means it doesn’t clump when it melts, but the resulting texture isn’t necessarily pleasant, and the sacrifice is flavor -- which is a big sacrifice. What’s more, “Killer Mac ‘n Cheese” is topped with Ritz crackers, which, by the way, don’t stay crisp when exposed to hot cheese sauce.
The “Our Famous Mac & Cheese” at the Belmont in West Hollywood is made with crab, bacon, scallions, tomatoes, smoked mozzarella, smoked Gouda and Swiss cheese. But why? It doesn’t even taste like mac ‘n’ cheese, just a bad pasta dish. Others (OK, so they work for the restaurant) would disagree: “I tell people this is the mac ‘n’ cheese that might change your life,” says Belmont manager Paul Boomhower. “It’s gonna make tomorrow brighter, it’s gonna make the smog go away. It’s absolutely phenomenal.” It’s certainly a phenomenon.
And smoked Gouda? It shows up in more than one mac ‘n’ cheese around town, including the one at the newly opened Holly’s West in Santa Monica. Smoked Gouda may be great with an apple and some nice walnut bread, but it has no place in my mac ‘n’ cheese.
Neither do seared slabs of bigeye tuna, or even truffle oil. At Ocean and Vine in Santa Monica, cheddar and fontiago (a mixture of Fontina and asiago) are used for the sauce, with pieces of rare tuna placed on top. Rare fish with hot cheddar cheese just isn’t all that appetizing.
Iron chef Kerry Simon at Simon L.A. puts a little truffle oil in his macaroni and cheese. “Why not?” Simon says. “It was an experiment and it worked.” (The amazing macaroni and cheese popularized by Bill Bracken, former chef at the Belvedere in Beverly Hills’ Peninsula Hotel, had crushed black truffles in it.) It would be rude to tell Simon to keep experimenting. Meanwhile, when the kitchen mixes up the wasabi and the truffle oil, it’s a bit of a shocker.
Speaking of experiments, at the recently opened Liberty Grill downtown, executive chef Twain Schreiber fries up balls of macaroni and cheese. Schreiber, who is from England via South Africa, says, “I’ve realized that Americans like everything fried, and they love macaroni and cheese. So why not combine the two together?” Well, because.... Still, it’s his bestselling appetizer, he says.
Properly made, plain old macaroni and cheese can be transcendent. It should be lush with lots of cheesy sauce, and the pasta should be firm and substantial. There should be just enough toasted bread crumbs to give it some crispness (but nobody wants a mouthful of panko). It couldn’t be easier to achieve.
So why, at so many restaurants, is it grainy or greasy or gooey? Why do so many professionally made sauces separate, leaving small pools of a milky substance at the bottom of the dish? Who forgot to put the cheese in the bechamel sauce? Who left off the bread crumb topping? How can you give us pasta that’s slippery, soft or broken? Where is the integrity? Where is the love?
Truly, it’s not so hard. To start, you make a bechamel sauce by first making a roux (cooking butter and flour together until the flour loses its raw taste), then adding milk, a little nutmeg, cayenne, dry mustard and a bay leaf. A traditional bechamel, cooked for about 30 minutes (much longer than a quick bechamel), melds the ingredients together and deepens the flavor. To that you add tangy, mild cheddar and nutty Gruyere. Pour it over cooked macaroni or big shells that cup the cheese sauce so that when you bite into the mac ‘n’ cheese, you get a rush of cheesiness. A judicious amount of panko bread crumbs and some extra cheese provide the perfect crunchy-but-not-impenetrable topping. And then a little extra cream drizzled around the sides before the pan goes into the oven ensures nicely crisp edges.
Eighty-six the crab.