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Chervil makes a comeback

A favorite among chefs, French herb used for garnish and flavor

As many chefs at high-end restaurants come off of two difficult years in which much of the food they served sought to soothe their stressed-out customers, they are turning to their own comfort food — or at least their comfort herb.

Chervil, arguably the finest of the French fines herbes, and certainly the most rare in the United States, is adding an elegant-yet-retro finish to many fine-dining plates.

“My cooks make fun of me for how much I use it,” said Andrew Zimmerman, executive chef of Sepia in Chicago, whose mise en place when he’s expediting always includes sea salt, olive oil and chervil.

Delicate and feathery looking, chervil has the anise flavor of tarragon, but less so, and the spring-like freshness of parsley, but more subtle.

“I love to garnish my dishes with chervil because it has a fresh and light flavor that accents the plate well without changing the flavor,” said Nico Romo, chef of Fish restaurant in Charleston, S.C.

Rob Weland, executive chef of Poste Moderne Brasserie in Washington, D.C., grows chervil in his restaurant garden and said the soft anise flavor helps brighten dishes.

John Critchley, the new chef at Urbana Restaurant and Wine Bar in Washington, said chervil gives warmth and depth to herb sauces. He likes to use whole sprigs because the stem is more flavorful than the leaves and as a whole is a good complement to baby vegetables or delicate fish, whose sweet aromas are enhanced by the herb.

“It’s the new parsley,” he said.

Actually, it’s ancient. The Greek poet Aristophanes mentions it in his first known comedy, and its medical and culinary uses appear in Roman texts.

Chervil joins tarragon, chives and parsley in the classic French pantheon of fines herbes used in omelets and compound butters.

But it does play a garnishing role similar to parsley, and in a way fits into the current trend of adding refinements to classics that give customers a sense that they're getting something new, but not something scary.

Zimmerman of Sepia also points out that chervil is significantly less expensive than the micro-herbs that would be another garnish option.

“It’s a classic garnish,” he said, adding that its use was widespread in 1989-90, when his notions of what a plate should look like were being formed.

Chervil also enjoyed a resurgence during the post-fusion era around 2000, when the self-conscious pairing of elements from different cuisines started to give way to the use of ingredients simply for their flavor and appearance.

Back then chervil made its way into pestos and mashed potatoes, but these days it’s mostly used as a garnish or as part of fines herbes.

Paul Fehribach, executive chef and co-owner of Big Jones in Chicago, said he likes to use the leaves to make tiny salads to finish or garnish meat and fish.

“It can help lighten an otherwise cumbersome dish, “ he said.

Susan Goss, chef-owner o West Town Tavern in Chicago, said it might be her favorite herb.

“I love the slightly celery, minty, bitter quality, and no other herb is as delicate a garnish,” she said. But she warned that chervil is “highly perishable” and generally lasts for only a few days.

“I like it in a shrimp risotto with baby artichokes and lemon, with hearty wild rice and duck soup, and dressed lightly with olive oil and coarse salt as a garnish for charcuterie, cheeses and carpaccio,” she said.

Tony Aiazzi, a chef-consultant based in Philadelphia and the former executive chef of Aureole in New York City, said chervil sprigs keep pretty well in a little ice water, “and yet they don’t look all waterlogged on the plate,” he said.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].

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