Five-Spice Crusted Monkfish at Gargoyles on the Square

Jason Santos has a bit of the mad scientist about him, and I’m not just talking about the apparent laboratory mishap that is his hair. Rather, he’s a rare local practitioner of molecular cooking (MC), the application of avant-garde cooking techniques to fine dining. (If you’ve tasted a dish involving foamed food, you’ve experienced one MC cliché.) Depending on who you ask, it’s either a) awful foodie pretension that substitutes flash for well-grounded technique or b) the next logical step in cooking’s evolution, a clever use of modern technologies to deliver new flavors, textures, and aromas. (Personally, I’m pro-technology in the kitchen, grateful we’ve marched relentlessly forward from that raw-food fad so popular with cavemen.)

Santos recently served me a dish with a little mound of brown butter powder created with a food dehydrator. I quickly found myself craving another bump of the stuff, which was surprising, mystifying, and delicious in a word, fun. But before you accuse Santos of allowing high-tech style to trump old-school substance, you’d first better visit Gargoyles on the Square (219 Elm Street, Somerville, 617.776.5300). Few of his dishes there channel Ferran Adrià (note to non-foodies: he’s a world-famous Spanish chef and MC pioneer), though he occasionally employs sous-vide (low-temperature vacuum cooking) and other edgy methods. Rather, what stands out is his clever melding of Asian and European flavors with fine, conventionally prepared local ingredients, especially seafood. A prime example is his five-spice crusted monkfish ($23), an intriguing juxtaposition of Chinese and Basque flavors.

Firm, sweet pan-seared monkfish filets rest atop a beautiful pipérade that mixes ripe bell peppers, black olives, and parsley in a tart vinaigrette based on rice bran oil. A terrific salty underscoring is provided by the copious use of capers and cubes of Fiorucci pancetta. Even the side of “marble potatoes,” a mix of purple Peruvian, red bliss, and Yukon gold, is pretty. Gently cooked pea tendrils and leaves provide a tender vernal crown, an evocative breath of spring. There are no experimental gimmicks here, just an imaginative East-meets-West recipe skillfully executed no Frankensteinian equipment involved. My one complaint might be that the lights are so low in this casually romantic dining room that you can’t see how gorgeous this dish is. So while you won’t need a chemistry manual to decode it, you might want to bring a flashlight to fully appreciate it.