Do you remember your first time? There you are, feasting on the fruits of your Halloween spoils when you throw back a fistful of Good & Plenties or stumble upon a seductively black Jelly Belly, expecting its sugary sweetness to delight your senses. Instead, you are met with the bracing bitterness of licorice, that cruelest of jokes adults pass off as candy. Perhaps your experience was as traumatizing as mine, when I discovered that the mysterious thing in the fridge I ate wasn’t a piece of caramel. My mom then proceeded to freak the f*** out on the phone with Poison Control because that bitter-tasting nastiness was actually one of my dad’s suppositories (true story).
Our first encounter with the most under-appreciated and misunderstood of flavors can set the tone for our relationship with bitterness early in our childhood.
“Bitterness is something you can’t appreciate when you’re a kid, you’re too sensitive,” said Ian Fleischmann, executive chef at Il Desco in Riverside. “But then when you get older, you hit this sweet spot, and it becomes great.”
There’s a reason we find ourselves naturally averse to the flavor, a biological one in fact. In nature, many bitter compounds are actually toxic. Whereas sweetness signals easy and accessible energy to our brains causing cravings and addiction. Adaptation and instinct have taught us to avoid bitterness because it can, ya know, maybe kill you.
But for some, that danger is half the fun. As a chef, Fleischmann has tasted nearly everything under the sun.
“Discovering bitterness opened a whole new world to me because I was so burnt out on every other taste that I’d had,” he said. “This was something I hated before, but now I loved it because everything else just tasted flat at that point.”
Some foods are naturally bitter including many greens such as arugula, kale, dandelion and collards. Vegetables within the Brassicaceae family like cabbages, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, are also well-known for their bitterness, which explains why they are collectively detested by the young. The vegetal quality of unripened melon, a flavor appreciated by Southeast Asian cultures, manifests as bitter. Other foods can be made bitter, particularly through smoking or charring. The crust on your steak, for example, lends a pleasant bitterness that helps to cut through the fat of the meat.
On its own, bitterness is nothing if not intense, but its abrasiveness can be tamed if you know how to wield it. Fat, salt and sweetness all have a way of naturally balancing bitter’s harsher tendencies, revealing a deep complexity that might otherwise be overlooked.
“There’s an umami [savory] that hides behind bitterness for me, and if you can tone down the bitterness, it comes right out,” Chef Ian explained.
To illustrate, Chef Ian described a charred scallion vinaigrette he prepares in the restaurant. “It’s the most amazing dressing,” he boasts. “It hits all the points on your tongue.”
Charring scallions nearly to ash creates bitter compounds that make it nearly unpalatable on its own, but by blending it with honey, salt, oil and a little vinegar, the more sublime, subtle characteristics of the scallion are able to shine through in ways that would have fallen flat if using the allium (or onion) fresh.
Bitterness is rarely the highlight of a dish, but used rather as an effect that plays with other flavors. When composing a new dish, Chef Ian’s approach is to begin with saltiness and acidity before using a balance of bitter and sweet to hit the right notes. Then, it’s all about finishing things with the right fat content. His charred scallion vinaigrette isn’t the main attraction, it’s used to accentuate the rich, fattiness of a roast duck.
After explaining his cooking technique, he hits me with a caveat — “unless you’re drinking it,” he interjects. “Then I like to focus it.”
Enter Christopher Shinn, Il Desco’s head bartender who approaches as if on cue with a rocks glass containing a reddish-brown liquid over cubed ice which he presents as a Salted Chocolate Negroni. It could be argued that cocktail culture, along with the booming popularity of IPAs, can largely be accredited to bringing bitterness back to the American palate.
“In the cocktail kingdom, Italians rule when it comes to bitterness. It’s in wines, it’s in vermouths, it’s in aperitivos [aperitif] and digestivos [digestif], it’s in everything,” Christopher said.
A bitter pre-meal cocktail or glass of vermouth is known to stimulate the appetite, but the Italian aperitivo tradition is more than just functional, it’s a ritual unto itself. Practiced by every self-respecting Italian and lasting as long as three hours, bitter drinks are imbibed and salty snacks are enjoyed before the main course, setting the tone for the entire dining experience. Digestivos on the other hand are sipped after the meal to stimulate the digestive juices and provide a finale to the broader ritual of Italian dining.
Jacksonville’s dining scene can be viewed as somewhat one-dimensional at times. “There’s nothing very aggressive about it,” Fleischmann lamented.
That being said, he identifies a handful of local chefs that make no qualms about experimenting with more aggressive flavors, such as bitterness.
Riverside, it would seem, provides the ideal grounds for exploration in a town with a food scene that’s otherwise dependent on putting a familiar, Southern twist on things. It makes sense too, as we urban dwellers are viewed as cynical and perhaps even misanthropic compared to our easy-going counterparts nearer to the coast.
“Ah, so naturally you choose Riverside to talk about bitterness,” Chef Ian joked, and we laugh — but just a little bit.
Vietnamese Coffee Tuna Tataki
Taking inspiration from Vietnamese coffee, the bitterness of this espresso-rubbed tuna is balanced by a ponzu sauce sweetened with condensed milk rather than mirin, so it’s only Italian by degree.
- 4-oz. fresh tuna
- ¼ cup ground coffee
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- ¼ cup lime juice
- ⅛ cup sweetened condensed milk
- ⅛ cup lemon juice
- 2 tbsp yuzu juice
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp chopped ginger
- Frisee hearts
- Belgian endive
- Small jalapeno, sliced thin
- Mixed picked herbs, about four leaves each cilantro, thai basil, mint
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Sea salt
- Toast coriander seeds in a dry pan over medium heat until lightly toasted then grind to a powder using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.
- Combine soy sauce, condensed milk, juices, and coriander powder in a small bowl. Reserve.
- Rub tuna with olive oil, season with salt, then dredge in coffee grounds.
- Heat a small pan on high heat and sear tuna on each side, 8-10 seconds each.
- Combine lettuces, herbs, jalapeno and ginger in a medium bowl, dress with oil and season with salt.
- To serve, pile salad in a small bowl topped with ⅛ inch slices of tuna, spoon sauce around tuna and finish with salt.
Salted Chocolate Negroni
This cocktail dials the bitterness to 11 by combining a barrel-aged gin, Campari, chocolate bitters, and an extra bitter vermouth while using salt instead of sweetness to provide the necessary balance.
- 1 oz Campari
- 1 oz Punt e Mes
- 1 oz Ransom Old Tom Gin
- 3 dashes chocolate bitters
- Pinch of Himalayan sea salt
- Orange peel for garnish
- Combine first five ingredients in a mixing glass.
- Add ice and stir.
- Strain over a large ice cube into a rocks glass.
- Express orange peel over a lit unsulfured match into glass.
- Garnish with orange peel and serve.
By Jack Twachtman | Staff Writer