Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Where's the Spoon?: Terra Madre Local Chef's Dinner

As I reflect on one of the best dinners I have ever had in the States, I've begun trying to articulate how very fortunate I have been to continue to meet a diverse array of foodies since moving to central Ohio and especially since I began working on Denison's Food and Culture Colloquium many months ago. Since joining Slow Food Columbus in the last few weeks, though, it seems I've been put on a fast forward track to catch up with the growth of food interests in this area. And after last night's Terra Madre Local Chefs Dinner set in tucked away Basi Italia--a true blockbuster of a fundraiser--it was very clear that food not only brings folks from all walks of life together and that it has been my clearest entrée into being connected to a glocal culture removed from yet still connected to Denison and the daily life of living on a small, liberal arts campus.

Hosted by one of Central Ohio's nine Terra Madre delegates and upcoming Chef de Cuisine Dave MacLennan and chef/owner Johnny Dornback, last night's dinner also welcomed into the kitchen Bill Glover, owner of Sage American Bistro and Executive Chef of The Gallerie Bar & Bistro; Adam Cobb of Latitude 41; Erik Till, chef/owner of Commonwealth Sandwich Bar and the soon-to-open White Rabbit (in close proximity to Double Happiness); and Ryan Beck of Sage American Bistro. In addition, local spirits and beverage partners (all central Ohio-based)--Middle West Spirits, Vintage Wine Distributor, Rockmill Brewery, Vanguard Wines, Brothers Drake Meadery & Bar and Stauf's Coffee Roasters--allowed for the drinks to speak for themselves, conversing with the food and making their presence known. And so, with this context in mind, let's get onto this food journey!

As we (I was joined last night by Maureen, who had also gone to one of Slow Food Columbus's last fundraising events a few weeks ago) made our way to the front steps of Basi Italia, the unmistakable aroma of fine dining filled the air and carried onto the back patio where the evening's guests were first gathering. Glass of Canella Prosecco (Italy) in hand, a trio of hors d'œuvres were set out and equally aesthetically delicious.

Without first seeing the hors d'œuvres, I began with what I would soon learn was a lobster profiterole. As I took my first bite, I could taste an unexpected heavy smell of orange (if nothing else, I was expecting lemon because of the lobster) which shifted over to a bright summer and freshness from the lobster wrapped up in the pillowy pastry and finished on a slight salty caviar tone. It turns out I should trust my palate a bit more as we soon read the profiteroles included shaved fennel, citrus crème fraiche and hackleback caviar.

Next up was the slightly more difficult to eat crostini which we read supported a pork rillette atop which sat a small amount of carrot gastrique and scallion, and under which sat one of the best and most memorable components of the entire meal: blackberry ketchup. Growing up in a Filipino household, banana ketchup (catsup) was certainly a condiment of which I was aware (though always resisted enjoying); but something about this blackberry ketchup has opened up the possibilities for considering anything other than tomatoes as acceptable ketchup bases.

Finishing off this trio was a clearly recognisable pepper seared tuna topped with the very distinguishable flavour profile of foie gras (in the form of a mousse). A surf and turf kind of party in its own right, these sat on a thin layer of spicy tomato jam and a shaved bread crisp. For those who aren't a huge fan of spice, such as myself, the fat from the foie gras helped to calm what little heat there actually was, without being overpowering.

As folks continued to arrive, Maureen and I began to notice different glasses floating about and soon after tried the OYO Citron Blossom and Pesco Rouge (OYO Stone Fruit Vodka + a touch of Prosecco) cocktails. On the patio, we met scaffolding sourcer by trade and local, small batch coffee roaster and entrepreneur Jason Valentine (owner of Thunderkiss Cofee), his wife Emily, and Chef Stefan of Commonwealth and cousin of Chef Erik, all of whom joined us, after Chef Johnny explained the evening's menu, at our table inside Basi Italia for the start of the dinner service.

On the tables awaiting each of us was the first drink pairing, Rockmill Brewery's Saison; as one who typically chooses wine above all else, the most I could say at the time was that this beer had a deep flavour that finished rather crisply and with very little bitterness to it, i.e., something I would drink again.

The Saison was paired then with the "soup" course; as Chef Adam explained, the proper ingredients didn't arrive and so what was actually presented to us was more or less an improvisation of what was available. Playing off the pears and apples that seem to be more readily available here in Ohio than in Michigan, set before us was a roasted apple (with a little bit of olive oil, salt and pepper), granny smith and red delicious apple chips made with a dehydrator, a warm farro salad, an emulsification with apple cider, a bit of bleu cheese and a pear and parsnip purée. The creativity and courage of today's chefs continue to baffle me, alongside the impressive amount of research (intentional or otherwise) that becomes evident when considering the blend of local ingredients with the Italians roots of this restaurant.

Onto our second course, Chefs David and Johnny of Basi Italia cooked up a beautiful roasted diver scallop which sat in one of the best mini pools of sauces I've ever consumed: a celery root and parsnip purée paired with a smoked salmon consommé. For me, the standout dinner I've had outside of the States is clearly the one I had at L’Atelier du Peintre in Colmar; it was this very specific point in my personal gastronomic journey that I realised the best part of any well-composed dish truly is the sauce and that, as a diner, it's my experience to "paint" with what's presented (using my food as paintbrushes) until I clear off the dish to reveal a blank canvas, ready for more. This experience at Basi Italia clearly rang the same emotions and sentiments I had toward food since that meal in Colmar. And yet, what I was really thinking at the time was "where's the spoon?" Luckily, I portioned off my scallop and paired kabocha squash cannelloni to finish off the sauce with ease. Paired with this seafood dish, I should note, was Fattori's "Runcaris" which is produced in the Soave DOC of Veneto, Italy. About at this point, too, co-owner of both Commonwealth Sandwich Bar and the soon-to-be-White Rabbit Lisa Edge arrived and completed our table of foodies.

Course three--arguably the dish Maureen and I were most looking for--came in the form of rhubarb lacquered pork belly which sat on a shaved radish salad of red, lime and white (i.e., daikon) radishes and garnished with pecan salt, all of which was prepared by the hands of Chef Erik. Chef Stefan (who again sat at our table) was responsible for the beautifully roasted apple wedges that completed the dish and which added a filling texture (compared to the contrasting rawness and near bitterness of the radishes) to the overall composition. As for the pork belly, the fat was melt-in-your-mouth perfection while the meat itself balanced the sweetness from the rhubarb lacquer. The dish was so good that I almost forgot it, too, had a wine pairing of an earthy red wine from the eastern Huesca region of Spain.

And then, it arrived: Chefs David and Johnny's Veal "Osso Buco" (served with quotation marks, I believe, because instead of braised veal shank, this version was made with braised oxtail and wrapped with pancetta to further emphasize the traditional bone-in with marrow preparation; if someone reading this can confirm or alter this explanation, that would be much appreciated!). An essential component to Milanese food identity, I found it quite interesting and fitting this was served not only because of the overall Italian theme (both in terms of the restaurant and the Terra Madre conference) but because the next world expo will take place in 2015 in none other than Milan ("Expo Milano"); the theme, again quite interestingly and fittingly, will be "Feeding the Planet Energy for Life." Speaking of energy, the cannellini beans (a staple in the Italian gourmet kitchen) served as the osso buco's bed (along with the wilted arugula) is high in both protein and fiber. Especially as I'm not a huge fan of the bitterness and peppery profile of arugula, I was very happy to have the richness from the marrow and oxtail to counter it; the panceta also made this dish great as it added a crisp texture to contrast the otherwise tender textures. But, of all the components of this dish, once again the broth (which I'm going so far as to claim it a sauce) was outstanding. However, there was nothing that could sufficiently soak up all of that lovely flavour and, as we briefly discussed at our table, the ridges of the bowl's design made us pause since we weren't entirely sure if the liquid would be channeled all over the place. In the exact moment I had thought of the options before me, Chef Stefan sought out spoons. And oh my was that broth delicious. With this fourth course, we were served a lighter red than the first from Renato Ratti's Barbera d'Alba which--perhaps most importantly--comes from the region of Piedmont, home of the Slow Food Movement and hopefully (fingers crossed) a possible site for my Master's degree next year via the University of Gastronomic Sciences.

In preparation for the meal's finale, mini goblets of honey oaked mead were passed around. Dangerously sweet, the mead seemed to be the perfect pairing with one of the richest desserts I've had in a while (and I'm one for rich desserts).

Our final food course was headlined by "seared foie gras." At this point, you know (well, if you like foie gras you'd know) this was going to be a good course. And then you know by the smells and looks of it that Chef Ryan has presented a great dish, complete with ginger crème brûlée French toast, salty caramel and a homemade toasted marshmallow. I don't know how in the world French toast is supposed to be cooked to achieve that light and fluffy texture but I'm adding that in my list of techniques I need to learn. Paired with an otherwise soft component, the greatest textural contrasts came in the form of the sear on the foie gras itself. In retrospect, the delicacy of the caramelisation of the left-side components nearly parallels the delicacy achieved with the toasted marshmallow. Here, I'm speculating this is what Chef Ryan was going for; regardless of whether or not I'm right, this was a brilliant finish to the meal.

However, as most foodie tales end, there were just a few more notes to end with. The first was a final toast with Rockmill's Cask Aged Tripel, a much lighter beer than the first one that started off the meal. This beer, again coming from the point of view of someone who's not all that into beer, was a more pleasant experience, though perhaps more so because dessert was so heavy; though, in any other circumstance, I could probably eat a whole tray of the French toast and marshmallows. The second came in the form of a party favour-- rosemary lemon & garlic salt from Tess Geer's Westerville-based and French-inspired Gourmet Salt Blends. And when all was said and done, I'd say we all left fulfilled by not only the food, but by the atmosphere and memory, the company and new connections, and the desire to learn and experience more, especially from this region of Central Ohio. Inspired to try good coffee, to seek out yakitori and to write the next foodie adventure, I'll have to remember to wander the outer limits of my palate, converse with others who equally seek to share their food stories and sense of self, and to always bring a spoon wherever I go. To learn more about Slow Food Columbus, click here. And to view the entire photo album from this meal, click here.

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