It's a bird, it's a plane ... no, it's a grill!

Long known for its spectacular beaches, quaint downtown, and rich whaling history, Nantucket island, off the coast of Massachusetts, is now also home to a dazzling "fire cone." The one-of-a-kind grill, which burns nightly at the White Elephant Inn, is a 21st-century interpretation of a native American cooking technique.

When he first witnessed this scene 20 years ago, Russ Cleveland wasn't thinking of building a better barbecue. In 1981, the vice president and managing director of the inn was on America's other coast watching a tribal winter festival of the old Northwest. The Potlach, as it's called, was performed by the Salish tribe, Indians who lived from Northern California to Southern Alaska along the coast - salmon territory.

Mr. Cleveland was taken with the powerful image of a large circle of rocks surrounding a low bed of blazing red charcoal. Dotted around the perimeter of the rocks and tilted toward the red-hot fire were alderwood skewers threaded through large fillets of fresh salmon. The aroma of slowly cooking, just-caught salmon filled the air.

Last year, when Cleveland was developing a new restaurant on the inn's property, he was inspired by the strong image of the Indian cooking method. Still emblazoned in his mind, Cleveland now pictured a similar scene at his harborside restaurant, with the fire as an outdoor focal point.

"Seafood is such a wonderful, local food source. I thought we should do something interesting with it," Cleveland says.

"I have some machine drawing skills," he explains, "and have fooled around with lots of barbecue methods over the years." Cleveland and chef Don Kolp had drawings done, commissioned a fabricator who makes custom grills, and the fire cone was born.

Mr. Kolp, who worked with award-winning chef Jeremiah Tower at Stars in San Francisco and Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley, Calif., is pleased with the result.

"It's dramatically different from other grills - radiant heat is the difference," says Kolp. "It's a much slower, much calmer method of grilling. This method changes the texture of food - everything is much more tender coming off the fire cone."

The fire cone is built on a 3-foot-by-3-foot brick stand. It is almost 2 feet high, 9 inches across at the top, 16 inches across at the bottom, and holds 20 pounds of charcoal. A notched metal arm is clipped to the top edge of the cone to hold up vertical wood planks used as a cooking surface.

Other restaurants employ both novel and historic grilling methods, but nothing quite like the fire cone. Hibachis have long been used tableside in Japanese restaurants. An Australian restaurant called Boomerock in Pasadena, Calif., uses slabs of lava rock heated to 700 degrees F. Todd English, chef and owner of Olives restaurants has all his grills and wood-burning ovens custom made to accommodate both the menus and the sites of his different restaurants. But these techniques employ direct heat, which is a key difference. The fire cone is all about radiant heat.

"Indirect radiant heat is a much gentler cooking process that allows the fish protein to cook in a very moist and tender way," Cleveland explains.

They also wanted the design to be visually interesting. But the eye-appealing fire cone is not just a gimmick. It is in keeping with the "slow food" movement - seen as a backlash against fast-food - and is dedicated to the revival of the table as a center of pleasure, culture, and community. It is also in keeping with slow-cooking methods that are returning to restaurants and home kitchens as a way to enhance taste.

Most barbecues go for fast and flavorful, with lots of sauces and rubs and short cooking times. Not so with the fire cone. Fish and meat are lightly seasoned, just drizzled with olive oil or lemon. Unlike regular barbecuing, cooking methods that generally sear the protein first, cooking with the fire cone reverses the order.

"You do need some caramelization, but the browning comes at the end," explains Kolp. "You don't get the grill marks, but you get incredible flavor."

At the Brandt Point Grill, chefs cook salmon, striped bass, and bluefish at the fire cone. The large slabs of fresh fish are literally laced onto a wooden plank and placed upright, 6 to 14 inches from the cone. Up to four planks cook at a time.

Meat is done differently. Prime rib, for example, is skewered onto an electric rotisserie that plugs in at the base of the fire cone and sits on the perimeter like the planks of fish. It keeps revolving, and cooks from the center of the roast out, making it extremely tender. Meat is seasoned with chopped fresh herbs - thyme, sage, and marjoram, salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.

A home chef could duplicate the effect with a charcoal grill by making a very small bed of coals and placing the grill far away, creating as much distance from the heat as possible. The trick then is to maintain the heat over a period of time. A large fillet of salmon takes about half an hour to cook; prime rib takes 2-1/2 to 3 hours.

This slow-cooking approach presents an interesting challenge for a 21st-century restaurant. An anachronistic balance has to be struck between the slower cooking pace and the need to fill orders quickly. Weather can also present a challenge as rain will make the fire cone ineffective.

Cooking this way is "a labor of love and a test of patience," says chef Kolp. But for him, low and slow is the way to go.

Fire-Cone Salmon Nicoise Salad

This recipe is a variation on the classic French Nicoise salad made with tuna. The composed (arranged, not tossed) salad is served as an appetizer at Nantucket's Brandt Point Grill, but it makes a fine summer dinner. As with many salads, it can accommodate change: You can either grill or broil your salmon; roast or boil the potatoes; make your own roasted red peppers, or use jarred. If you can't find slender, delicious haricots verts (tiny, French green beans), fresh garden green beans will work well.

DRESSING:

1/4 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed (about one lemon)

2 tablespoons shallots, peeled and finely diced

1 teaspoon fresh thyme, picked off the stem and finely chopped

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and fresh pepper to taste

Combine the first three ingredients in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in the olive oil a few drops at a time to start with so that the two become combined. Continue until all of the oil is used. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

SALAD:

1 pound fresh salmon fillet

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 lemon

Salt and pepper

1/2 pound haricots verts

4 to 6 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, cut in half

4 eggs, hard-boiled and cut in quarters

1 red pepper, roasted, peeled, cut in strips

8 cups mesclun salad mix

1/2 cup Nicoise olives

Drizzle olive oil and fresh lemon juice over salmon and season with salt and pepper. Grill or broil until done, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool, then skin and flake fish into small chunks.

Meanwhile, bring pot of water to a boil. Cut ends of haricots verts, and blanch in boiling water. After just 3 minutes, drain and "shock" green beans in cold water to retain bright green color. Set aside.

In medium pot of water, boil potato halves until just cooked. Drain, cool, then slice and set aside.

Hard-boil 4 eggs.

Roast red pepper under broiler in shallow pan until pepper is well-charred on all sides. Place charred pepper in plastic bag and close tightly. Allow pepper to cool, then remove stem and seeds, and pick charred peels off. Rinse and cut into julienne strips.

On a large platter, spread bed of lettuce greens. Arrange flaked salmon in the center. Then arrange the rest of your ingredients: haricots verts, cooked and sliced potatoes, hard-boiled egg quarters, roasted red pepper strips. Top with the tiny Nicoise olives, and serve with dressing on the side. Serves 4.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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