Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Akasha: Thoughtfully (under)seasoned

“You put salt in your… oatmeal?!” My roommate, Betsy, squeals, her face aghast as though I’ve just told her I think wife beaters and fedoras are sexy. She exchanges a look with our other roommate, Philippe, who seems equally repulsed by my revelation.

“Err… yes.” I stumble. “But it brings out the flavor in the apple and dried cranberries – like salting oranges or pineapple!”

Again, my roommates exchange a look.

“You salt your oranges?!” Betsy exclaims in shock.

“Well… I… yes.” I say finally, bowing my head in shame. I don’t mention that I also salt the top of my chocolate chip cookies before baking them. And dislike margaritas except for the salted rim of the glass. And lust after desserts like the salted caramel at Huckleberry Café in Santa Monica.

They know too much as it is.

Despite my roommates’ averse reactions, my obsession with the salt shaker isn’t a true personal quirk like my (slight) affinity for the color pink or my irrational bouts of anger when someone (I’m not naming names) uses one of my “special” spoons. My salt habit is something I seem to share with many Americans who are consuming way more than their daily allotment of sodium.

It’s not a healthy obsession – especially since the more salt I eat, the more I seem to become desensitized to its pungency. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve now begun requesting it at restaurants when I deem a dish underseasoned for my tastes – something that many view as a serious faux pas (though to my credit I always try the item first before applying the salt shower).

I haven’t paid my addiction much attention, however, until a recent late night dinner with two girl friends at Akasha in Culver City -- a restaurant that is devoted to promoting sustainability and healthy eating. The meal at the polished eatery proceeded like most meals shared between food bloggers do – we quizzed the waiter for recommendations, ordered what he told us to, took pictures when the food arrived, and then started eating. Two bites into our respective dishes, however, we each came to the same conclusion: Our food needed salt.

“You don’t use a lot of salt, do you?” One of my dining companions politely asked the waiter when he came by to check on us shortly after.

He shook his head, explaining that the kitchen makes an effort to keep the salt, sugar and butter to a minimum.

We nodded and exchanged knowing looks that said, “Oh it’s one of those places.” As in, a place that attracts the “dressing on the side” set.

But then our server said something else – that this practice of restraint also allows customers to salt the dish as they please.

The brief conversation continued to run through my head as I ate my entrée – the barramundi with romanesco zucchini & parmigiano-reggiano risotto, tomato, pine nuts, golden raisin, olive & caper relish ($24). I began noticing that the dish was thoughtfully concocted in such a way to create sweet and salty flavors through the ingredients rather than excessive seasoning. The raisins added a punch of sweetness that was balanced out by the brininess of the olives and capers. Both brightened up the mild white fish and accompanying risotto in a way that I hadn’t noticed before. My initial reaction that the dish needed more salt was somewhat mollified by this realization – though, in the interests of full disclosure, I did still shower away once our table received the requested shaker. (My dining companions also showered their dishes – the baked macaroni & cheese, and another order of barramundi – as well.)

The waiter’s other point stuck with me, however, as I cranked the shaker over my friend’s uneaten leftover portion of the oozing mac & cheese ($8). Just because I like to coat every cheese-lubed elbow noodle with salt crystals doesn’t mean that everybody does. My roommates certainly wouldn’t wish that fate upon their entrees. And as every chef or aspiring chef or everyday cook knows, there is no undo button when a dish is overseasoned. I have had many moments of regret in my kitchen – most recently with an excessively salty bowl of oatmeal. (I drank a lot of tea that morning.)

What initially seemed to be a Cooking 101 fail at Akasha was redeemed by my new perspective on the matter. A restaurant that actually respects the health and well-being of its customers – imagine that!

Of course, that’s not to say I wasn’t relieved when I took a bite of the salty chocolate peanut tart with candied peanuts, peanut butter gelato, and caramel ($9) dessert. There was no salt shaker needed here, and I happily neglected my intensely cinnamon-flavored pear and cranberry tart ($8) to apprehend more than my fair share of my companion’s more prescient order. The overt presence of the chocolate truffle-like bars and potently peanut buttery ice cream negated the restrained use of sugar in the dish. Again, it was another thoughtful preparation.

While I haven’t stopped salting my oatmeal or fruit since my meal at Akasha a week and a half ago, the dining experience has inspired more thought than I’m accustomed to after a dinner out. Normally I leave a restaurant thinking, “Ugh, I can’t believe I ate all that.” Or “What the heck am I going to say about this one?”

Not so with Akasha. This kid on the Culver City block isn’t just some pretty blonde Barbie with nothing going on between the ears. And it’s not just a restaurant for the “hold the everything” folks. I’d certainly return if I were hungry and in the neighborhood again. And next time, I might even take a pass on the salt shaker.

Akasha Restaurant
9543 Culver Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232

Phone: (310) 845-1700


Esi said...

I loooove salt!! I love it on almost everything..except my margaritas. Honestly, I think if Akasha salted their food properly, people wouldn't need to add it later...just sayin. That said, the chocolate peanut tart sounds awesome!

Gastronomer said...

You're not alone in your salting fruit habit. The entire country of Vietnam likes to do the same. I think it's quite nice :-)

Bianca said...

Hmm... really dont like salt too much, except for on fries & mangos, but then again I'm sure I'd miss the salt on my entree at any restaurant....

SinoSoul said...

Salt on oranges is sick!!! Wtf??

You don't wanna be skinny with high pressure and kidney problems!

Liz said...

I salt my watermelon, it helps to balance the flavors.

The Duo Dishes said...

Salt must go on all things. It's a rule. That's it.

Um. Can you bring a piece of that salted chocolate tart to the bake sale on Saturday?

Jenn said...

I salt my oranges, too. As well as other fruits especially watermelons. It just adds a nice flavor to them.

Diana said...

Esi - Hah, no salt on your margaritas? Por shame!

Cathy - This is why we get along. That and you like P Mozza. :)

Bianca - I've never tried sald on mango! I'll have to investigate!

Tony - You DON'T salt your oranges?!?! All the cool kids are doing it. Get on that, foodie cupid. ;)

Liz - Love salt on watermelon - especially when that watermelon is topped off with some burrata cheese!

Crystal & Amir - What about some carrot cake cookies instead?

Jenn - It does! Thank you!!

weezermonkey said...

I think I'm an undersalter. I think I can count on one hand the times I've asked for salt at a restaurant.

Ashley said...

this place sounds up my alley.

Anna A. said...

Mmmm good stuff and way to acknowledge your salt issue there - I do agree that salting the oatmeal is a must and I will have to sprinkle a few granules on my cc cookies next time. And can you please take me next time TALF.

yutjangsah said...

Hey, have you tried that fruit vendor on the streets? They salt the mangos, etc. that they chop and it is DEEELICIOUS. yummy! I had a great time at Akasha and I def would go back too.

yutjangsah said...

Hey, have you tried that fruit vendor on the streets? They salt the mangos, etc. that they chop and it is DEEELICIOUS. yummy! I had a great time at Akasha and I def would go back too.

Katy said...

My mom always taught me that oatmeal should be salted before cooking. And when I forget the salt, it tastes very off and I can't eat it. I thought everyone salted their oatmeal!

Kung Food Panda said...

Salt on orange, it's the same concept as salt on watermelon, no? :)

Even though I'm not quite liberal with the salt shaker, as my mom has been known to cook quite bland (aka healthy) over time, I'm used to underseasoned food. I don't even need salt on my fries! :P

Diana said...

Sharon - I don't think it's a bad thing to be an under salter! Your kidneys will thank you for it later!

Ashley - You would love it -- we'll have to go back!

Anna - I'm so glad I'm not the only freak who salts my oatmeal! Salty oats are the best. ;)

Sook - Mmmm this sounds like a Sook and Diana summertime activity.

Katy - THANK YOU! I appreciate the back up! :)

Danny - No salt on your fries? What kind of crazy talk is that? And you call yourself a foodie!