This afternoon, within the hallowed halls of Food Media Twitter, a New York City restaurant selling what appeared to be $8 bowls of spiced-up ice broke through the noise of the hellscape that is contemporary discourse in America. The restaurant in question is Mind of a Chef star Danny Bowien’s latest outpost of Mission Chinese Food, and the frozen item in question, labeled “iced Sichuan water pickles,” appeared to be just ice pebbles covered in Sichuan spices.
The Mission Chinese menu says the iced Sichuan water pickles are composed of “smoked habanero, caraway, hibiscus, ice.” Whatever the dish’s provenance — and however much creative energy and labor went into it — writers and chefs saw eight dollar ice and sprang into action on Twitter. There were those who immediately took to dunking on this concept.
*mind of a chef camera crew shows up— Richie Nakano (@linecook) October 26, 2018
*Me, pulling a tray of ice cubes out of the freezer: be right with you guys!
I will now only refer to ice as water pickles @EaterNY https://t.co/dXrbkvJOoq— Amy Kao (@_amykao) October 26, 2018
And then Francis Lam, host of extremely comforting public radio show The Splendid Table, stepped up to defend Bowien and his dish.
I know everyone is going to want to dunk on this but...what's kakigori? I read it was "America's Hottest Dessert." https://t.co/yKMszlzgdT Don't get me wrong; I love kakigori and granita and know there's skill involved. But they're also "just" flavored frozen water. https://t.co/PheOXTnxch— Francis Lam (@Francis_Lam) October 26, 2018
Helen Rosner, the New Yorker’s roving food correspondent and an Eater alum, dissected the issue in a tweetstorm, raising a number of interesting points about the perception of value, and sparking conversation with multiple Twitter users.
Savory granitas are a thing—especially as an oyster topping. Kimchi, wasabi, horseradish, jalapeño. So ice-with-a-flavor has a precedent on fancy American restaurant menus. But the cost is sort of folded into the cost of the oysters, there.— your friend Helen (@hels) October 26, 2018
But we also engage in a transaction of what I’ll call ~cultural trust~: We trust that we’re not being ripped off, that by engaging with this food, we’re engaging with the culture (traditional or unique or both) we believe we’re engaging with—we assign authority to the restaurant.— your friend Helen (@hels) October 26, 2018
Kendra Vaculin, another Eater alum and currently a recipe developer at Blue Apron, explained she had once ordered the dish, thinking she would be getting actual pickles, only to be served a disappointing bowl of seasoned ice. This prompted a response from New York-based writer Aaron Timms, who provided a jolting twist in the saga.
The pickles. Are. Under. The. Ice. Go look for them next time! Maybe the real story here is that food like Danny Bowien’s makes demands of the diner — to explore a dish, disassemble and recompose it, discover it — that many diners, and apparently some critics, are not equal to.— Aaron Timms (@aarontimms) October 26, 2018
Could it be that Mission Chinese diners, including Vaculin and Eater NY critic Robert Sietsema, were simply failing to dig through the ice to get to the actual pickles? In other tweets, Timms says the dish includes chiles and kimchi, which is, in fact, a form of pickle, and proclaims it to be “terrific.” But the mystery has not been solved just yet. Responding to Timms, Vaculin says she was served ice. Not kimchi, no chiles, just ice.
this was not true for me! we let all the ice melt into red water and played with it with a noodle spoon at the end. there was nothing :( might have been a mistake but it was a sad one— Kendra Vaculin (@kendravaculin) October 26, 2018
After a full day of furious debate, Bowien wraps up the mystery, telling Eater restaurant editor Hillary Dixler Canavan in a text message: “The dish is a bowl of Napa cabbage, radish and hibiscus fermented in a water and salt brine, served with some of the pickling liquid and topped with pebble ice, tingling chili oil and aloe salt. It’s basically an interpretation of water kimchi and obviously we don’t sell ice for $8, as a matter of fact ice is free to anyone who requests it lol.”
• Mission Chinese Is Selling Ice for $8 as ‘Water Pickles’ [ENY]