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No more Dragon's Breath at the Bazaar?

April 1, 2009 |  6:09 pm

It wasn't on the menu at the Bazaar, but everybody wanted it, and now just about nobody can get it.

A bowl would be brought to the table and liquid nitrogen would be poured in. Then a server would dip skewers of "caramel popcorn" into the bowl and pass them around to everyone at the table while the boiling liquid nitrogen evaporated, creating plumes of cold smoke. You'd be instructed to put one in your mouth, and when you closed your mouth and breathed through your nose, the cold smoke would spew from your nostrils. Hence the name of the dish -- Dragon's Breath.  

But it's been 86'd, for the most part.

"From now on, I'm going to give it only when I'm there," says chef Jose Andres, who travels between his restaurants in Washington, D.C., and L.A. "And only on a few occasions.

"All of a sudden, it becomes like McDonald’s. Everyone expects it. It’s not good and fun anymore. Part of this thing is about the unexpected. If you already know that when you eat this, smoke will come out of your nose, 50% of the fun is gone."

Andres says he came to the realization after seeing the above video (but we're not completely to blame -- I've seen him and Anthony Bourdain enjoying Dragon's Breath on national television). And if anyone's reading this post, I guess it's not helping our cause.

Meanwhile, Andres says he may serve Dragon's Breath at Saam -- the more-intimate dining room located inside the Bazaar -- that he says will open next week.

As for all the liquid nitrogen that chefs have been playing with of late (Fany Setiyo of ingredient supplier Le Sanctuaire says she's been getting calls every day from chefs asking about it), just how safe is this stuff?

Ken Murray of the Environmental Health Division of the L.A. County Department of Public Health says the California Retail Food Code doesn't address the use of liquid nitrogen, but he did note that "liquid nitrogen is 300 degrees below zero and if you have prolonged contact with it, it can destroy tissue" (as in fingers). 

I discussed it with former Fat Duck food research manager Chris Young, who says that as far as he knows, Fat Duck chef Heston Blumenthal was the first to use it in 2000, after being introduced to it by a cardiac surgeon (and El Bulli started using it in 2003).  At the Fat Duck, it was used for a "green tea sour" to neutralize the palate (interesting tip: "The very worst thing a person can do before going to a restaurant is brush your teeth -- it leaves an alkaline film all over your tongue.")

"Liquid nitrogen is very cold, but it evaporates very quickly. So if I dump some onto my skin, it will boil off my skin faster than it can freeze it. When I was in the chemistry department, graduate students would occasionally gargle with liquid nitrogen." [Do not try this at home.]

He admits that "chefs may take a cavalier attitude" and that it would be worth their while to exercise caution. "In the dining room, it's less of a concern. If spilled, it would just flash to cold vapor." (The bigger issue is handling it from the storage tanks -- you should be wearing gloves and eye goggles.)

"We are very careful," Andres says. "We've been working with liquid nitrogen for years, and before using it,  we consulted with scientists. We've never experienced any problems. Someone always cuts themselves when they first use the ham knife for the iberico, and a fryer has exploded [a mini explosion]  and somebody has fallen and stuck their hand in hot stock -- I have a million stories like this, but I've never had issues with liquid nitrogen."

-- Betty Hallock

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