Pino Maffeo throws on plastic safety goggles and vanishes in a puff of smoke as he pours liquid nitrogen out of a large metallic canister. But appearances aside, Maffeo is no mad scientist.

His experiments are of the culinary kind and his lab is the basement kitchen at Boston’s swank Restaurant L, where he is the chef and dinner for two with wine averages about $130.

Maffeo, who describes his cuisine as mainly European with Asian accents, is one of a new breed of American cooks who practice what has become known as molecular gastronomy.

Using liquid nitrogen, emulsifiers and an arsenal of equipment typically stocked in scientific laboratories, Maffeo creates what he calls “one-bite wonders.”

“If science can make my cuisine better, then I’ll use it,” he said, while putting ravioli made from mango and dry cured ham on skewers alongside aloe vera and muscato grape juice gelatin cubes.

“I’ve opened my doors to anything.”

To create unusual and original recipes — such as pairing fried calamari with watermelon and cantaloupe — Maffeo analyzes the molecular make-up of the ingredients with an infrared spectrometer nuclear magnetic resonance machine, equipment usually used by synthetic chemists and physicists. He believes foods with similar composition pair well together.

He meets weekly to discuss projects with Angela Buffone, a visiting professor of organic chemistry at Suffolk University and partner in Maffeo’s culinary experiments.

For his signature dish, seared foie gras with a 24 carat golden egg, Maffeo pulls out a keg of liquid nitrogen — a gas more commonly used to zap away skin growths such as warts.

The browned foie gras is placed on a bed of shaved pickled fennel and a small oblong and airy meringue is then dredged in lightly whipped cream and dunked into the liquid nitrogen.

The gas — a cool 300 or more degrees Fahrenheit below zero (184 degrees Celsius below zero) — flash freezes the cream, creating a texture resembling an egg shell. Using a syringe, Maffeo then injects mango sauce into the meringue, which is then dipped into the frigid bath.

By Mark Wilkinson

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