#Instafood is, of course, a thing. And if a dish looks great on Instagram, social media users are more likely to share. And share. And share. Witness the ongoing appeal of unicorn food, dishes glamorized with colorful adornments or just bright pops of color and glitter.

Chef de Cuisine Jason Raffin of Comstock Saloon was not thinking about unicorns or glitter when he created his unicorn tartare. “I love tartares,” he said. The craft of the dish stemmed from Raffin’s love of tartares, as well as inspiration from a fourth grade science experiment. “We tested pH levels of oranges from across the United States,” recalled Raffin.  Inspired, the chef went into the Comstock kitchen, his on-site laboratory for creating delicious, fun food.

Build Flavor First

Raffin worked first to develop the flavors of the dish, layering sashimi-grade tuna with pickled green papayas and toasted sesame oil. The dish is topped with a chiffonade of fresh mint, and cilantro, then fresh chives and fried shallots for a flavor profile that is at once toasty and crunchy, creamy, and fragrant. “The sauce adds another layer,” said Raffin.

Make Food Fun

The vibrant colors that resulted from adding acid or alkaline solutions to pH paper strips, an experiment he witnessed firsthand in fourth grade, stuck with the young chef. “The study of cooking is a science—everything is chemistry,” Raffin said. Looking for ways to build flavor in the tartare’s sauce, Raffin started playing with red cabbage juice. Loaded with anthocyanins, the photosynthetic pigment that gives cabbage its vivid purple color, cabbage juice chemically changes when acid is added.  “Cabbage juice reacts to acidic or alkaline solutions by turning anywhere from bright yellow to dark blue.”

Like any great chemist, Raffin played around with different acid solutions (alkaline solutions are notoriously not tasty, according to Raffin), eventually settling on lemon juice—a simple citric acid solution—to transform the purple into an eye-popping pink.

The dish arrives tableside looking strangely dark in the low light setting of the Saloon. The tartare tower appears surrounded by a moat of purple and green. The green? Parsley oil. Servers arrive with droppers loaded with lemon juice and sprinkle the needed “chemical” to turn the purple into pink. Customers are then encouraged to use the accompanying spoon to swirl the sauce together and watch the chemistry happen in real time.  

Glitter for the Win

When the dish first appeared on the menu, Raffin had staff sprinkle edible glitter on the dish. Some guests asked for glitter drops to be placed on their forehead, like a unicorn horn. That option is still available—check with your server.

Make it Yourself

The beauty of this unicorn is that it’s all-natural and easy to create at home. If you have ever made vinegared coleslaw with red cabbage and watched it turn pink, you have also created a unicorn. Home chefs can play around with citric acid and ascorbic acid—two main acids in foods like lemons, oranges, and tomatoes—to similar effect. At Comstock Saloon, the appearance of that bright pink feels like magic. “Everyone loves it, people order a second one just for photo.” And just like that: #instafood is born.

Header image courtesy of Hannah Frail.

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