We headed to the instantly popular Zest restaurant at 298 W. Main Street to get a glimpse into the mind of chef/owner Mike Liebman.
Controlled chaos is the only way to describe it. And that’s best reflected in the dishes found on the specials menus, which change monthly.
While Liebman says his flavor combinations can boggle the mind at first glance, “there’s a formula to it, because at the heart, these are takes on classic combinations.”
We tried the Surf & Turf Taco Tower (32) from the most recent specials menu.
The taco tower is stacked with Cajun grilled shrimp, smoked short ribs, mango Thai chili sauce, queso fresco, poblano lime aioli, avocado, pineapple salsa and crispy shoestring plantains.
It all happens between two blue corn crispy tortillas.
Here’s how the dish came to be.
“I had this idea for a surf and turf taco, but tacos are small, so I went to a tower so you could better experience all the stuff inside,” Liebman said.
He chose short rib over the more traditional skirt steak for tacos because he wanted a smoked component.
“You wouldn’t smoke a skirt steak,” he said. “That would be a big waste.”
The tender, smoked short rib perfectly complements the charr on the firm shrimp. Instead of a mango salsa (his initial thought), he pureed the mango, which sweetens up the Thai chili sauce.
He ditched his initial idea for salsa con queso, figuring that would be too heavy for a light, airy dish. The tartness of the pineapple salsa brings it all home, as those fruity bursts help cut through the salt.
“You want a layer of flavors so it’s not the same bite over and over,” Liebman says of all his dishes.
Mission accomplished with the taco tower.
People might look at Liebman a little funny when they see a salmon dish with poached pear, or lamb with grapes.
But he doesn’t think it’s all that unconventional.
“You eat cranberry sauce on your turkey. People eat pork chops with apple sauce. Do you think it’s weird? No. Because you do it all the time,” he said. “You’re used to it. What I try to do is stretch the limits of what classic combinations are, and what they could be.”
First, he’ll pick a protein he wants to work with. Then he thinks about the influence, such as: Spanish or Italian?
“Then I start breaking down the flavor profiles. What things go good together and how far can I expand off that.”
He then gets to messing around. What’s paramount is the combination of flavors needs to be just right.
“And it’s also about the colors and the texture, the height … crunchy and soft, sweet and sour,” he said. “If I deep fry something, I generally won’t be looking for something to add more crunch. I’ll look for something soft or something to cut the dish a little bit, if it’s a little too rich.”
“If it’s savory or salty I’ll use something like vinegary or sweet to transform the whole dish so you have multiple flavors — so we’re not just hitting you with salt-salt-salt notes.”
The monthly specials menu typically consists of a handful of entrees or sandwiches, along with appetizers and desserts.
For Liebman, his customers will typically order a special after their second or third or fourth visit to Zest.
“By that time they’ve liked everything they’ve tried,” he said, “so you’ve built that trust.”
Photos by Michael White