Wednesday, 16 October 2013

My 25th Birthday and a Return to the Blogosphere

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Late night greetings, my foodie friends among you! I cannot believe it has been over a month since my last blog post, though I am most definitely going to pull out my I'm-in-grad-school card. (We will see just how many times it takes before that excuse gets worn out.) In any case, the next few days are quickly going to be particularly foodie-filled. This has prompted me to consider an attempt to catch you up on the past month. I do wish I had more time to give all my food experiences their due justice, but c'est la vie. This being said, I would like to kick things off with this first return post (of perhaps four or five): a Slow Food Columbus "Off the Menu" dinner at The Worthington Inn (which coincidentally timed perfectly with my 25th birthday... wow, time is flying by!).

But first, I should mention that between my last blog post and this Slow Food dinner, I volunteered at the brunch station (of course I would go with the food option) of Independents' Day's sixth iteration. This year, the committee decided to try out a three-day format, of which this brunch--catered by the folks of The Hills Market Downtown (who also hosted this past June's hog roast and downtown luau)--set the stage for great music and equally great eats. [Click here for my photo album.]

On a related note, part of my volunteer thank you package included a set of tickets to the Small Business Beanstalk's Awards Gala, which was held at The Bluestone. [Click here for that album.]


This now brings me to the Thursday, the 26th, and the Slow Food Columbus dinner I noted earlier. After a few brisk weeks to get everything in order, our much-anticipated dinner had finally arrived. The concept is simple: we pair a guest author who has released a new book with a local chef and practitioner of Slow Food-friendly cooking. The chef is then provided an opportunity to cook something off the typical menu (hence "Off the Menu") for an engaging, eager, and, hungry audience. For this dinner, that author was New Orleans native Lolis Eric Elie. As we shared in our invitation, Lolis is a "columnist for the Times-Picayune, a contibutor to Gourmet Magazine, is the author of Smokestack Lightning, and a writer for the HBO series Treme, which features the foods and restaurant personalities of the city prominently."

His newest book, Treme: Stories and Recipes From the Heart of New Orleans, expands upon the show and features a stunning variety of recipes from many of the real-life chefs shown on the screen." I purchased a copy of the book, which he enthusiastically signed, and of which I can definitely say the photos are exquisite and drool-worthy, as much as the stories are personal and captivating. The spirit of New Orleans may be found within the book, an ambitious, one-stop compendium of sorts which highlights a culinary culture I have appreciated ever since my first visit to NOLA as a component of one of my French courses. Who knows? Perhaps my future research in food cultures can yield something which emulates much of what Treme accomplishes.

As for the second half of this introductory piece, our chef for the evening was Chef Thomas Smith, who earned his culinary chops through experience working alongside Columbus's talented chefs. Following his service in the U.S. Air Force and move to Columbus, Chef Tom began working at The Worthing Inn since 2002, and according to the restaurant's website "describes his menu as 'global cuisine' with strong roots in classic French and Italian flavors." It was certainily a fitting place for me to celebrate my birthday given my own gastronomic interests and culinary preferences, as well as the right environment overall to enjoy this mouth-watering menu. Speaking of enjoying the experience that awaited me, I should note that also at the table were fellow SFOSU co-leader Zach, Granvillian foodie friend Maureen, and her friend, Kim, who had celebrated her birthday just a few days earlier. For much of the remainder of this post, then, I would like to switch writing styles and translate as best I can my scribbled notes from this absolutely memorable dinner, which I think I can safely say was enjoyed by everyone in attendance.

Our journey (or rather mine at least) begins in the 1800s with the Sazerac [1,2,3], which over 200 years later would be identified as the official cocktail of New Orleans. The glass is heavy, filled with the alcoholic and cultural weight of the city. As you bring your mouth to its edge, you catch the assertive smell of the lemon peel and fall-like smell emanating from the whiskey base. The drink itself is crisp and refreshing at the start, mellowing midway through the sip and warming as you complete it.

Just before the first plates arrive, Andy introduces Lolis to everyone in attendance, who in turn situates Treme and our dinner within the context of celebrating heritage and pride as a component of helping to rebuild New Orleans. It's a story of the confluence among musicians, chefs, and community. It's also a story of how people cook on a daily basis, the spectrum of microwave to high class cuisines. It's a grounding of food and culture.

From there, we continue along our gastronomic path, maintaining the convivial atmosphere lingering in the restaurant. We converse with those around the table, patiently awaiting the fabulous meal we have come to expect. My eyes casually go back and forth between eying the kitchen door and my menu. Four courses are printed on the menu, each sounding better than the next. The fifth course is clearly absent. Then: It's an amuse bouche and a surprise not only for the palate but for the guests, as well. The linens and service ware have been set, the names have been checked off, and Lolis has again set the stage for our upcoming meal. Now, we have been transported, if only for a moment, from central Ohio to NOLA, a city of artistic revival. The door to kitchen swings open and the smells of each course being cooked and prepped waft through the dining room. The wait staff move with focus, a smile, and sincere professionalism. You notice small cubes sitting atop small plates, and the odour in the air is unmistakable and delicious. The salivary glands work as two words are uttered: pork belly. There's a crisp, caramelisation, sitting atop a gorgeous layer of true flavour, which in turn sits upon a meaty base.

As you bring the plate to your nose, two smells hit. The first is a distinct presence of vinegar coming from the crisp Southern slaw; the second is translated in the form of heat, by way of a peppery mustard sauce. You realise there are other people around and that this is something to be savoured. So you take the knife and cut into the dish. The melt-in-your mouth fat collapses on the tongue and the meat finishes up the bite. A touch of mustard provides cohesion to the pairing, while the slaw adds a refreshing textural component, the vinegar cleansing the bite in preparation for the next. The only bad thing about this dish, is that it's simply the starter.

Thankfully, though, the next course is up to bat. A warm bowl of "Smothered Turnip Soup" (the recipe of which may be found on page 126 of Treme) is placed before us, embodying the fall sensibilities of the season, which has permeated the dining space. Amidst the smooth texture and depths of flavour, crisped elements of turnip and (I think) onion add to the contrast. And against the richness of the soup itself, the scallions barely have to fight to reveal their identity. [As an aside, Zach managed to clear his bowl with nothing but a spoon, whereas I took to the act of mopping up.]

Course three, our seafood course, shortly follows and is presented in the form of "Creole Succotash" (pg 87). The medley of flavours are outstanding, the tastes well-developed without being destroyed by the heat of prolonged cooking. The crispness of the green bell pepper and sweet corn remain and offer contrasting variation to the tomato base and unabashed okra, its typically slimy persona not in the least overpowering. Atop the succotash sits beautifully clean shrimp, the firm texture of which is also skillfully maintained, while the boneless smoked ham add the all-too-familiar meaty, fulfilling quality to the dish. The rice which tops it all is delicate and encourages the diner to, in a sense, play with the food, in search for self-ascribed proper balance.

We are then briefly greeted by Chef Tom and given an intermezzo [1,2,3]. The bright, fruity notes of strawberry and pineapple juice interacts with a touch of rum to cleanse our palate in preparation for the upcoming fourth course.

As I am now looking down at my notes, I see the following: "too busy eating to write." Our entrée, inspired by the recipe on page 67 of Treme, prominently features a generous slice of pork loin. Of the entire meal, my singular critique would probably be the relative chewiness of the pork; I would argue though that the bacon wrapped around it makes short work of such a comment. The bacon-wrapped pork loin rests gently against a pile of excellent smothered greens, which we deduced to be kale, and beautifully roasted butternut squash. As if this was not enough, a cane syrup jus adds even more colour to the plate, its toned down yellow hue lusciously bringing all of the components together.

For his last act, Chef Tom chooses to present cushaw pie (pg 155), fall-time tones of cinnamon and pumpkin spice clearly evident and ready to conclude the harmonious meal we have just experienced. Before that moment, I could not say I ever had birthday cushaw pie; indeed, there is a first time for everything. Cushaw, an entirely fitting ingredient to highlight this Slow Food Columbus dinner, is an Ark of Taste heirloom squash variety. As used here, it is indicative of Louisiana Creole traditions, and for our version embraces Lolis's own family farm back home. The nutty texture of the pie is situated within a flaky crust and topped with a delicate whipped cream. The overall effect is a light, comforting way, to end this balanced meal. 

And on this note, we thank the wait staff and cooks behind the kitchen door: Patrick, Chef Tom, Marcus, Jay, Jack(?), and Alex. And eventually leave The Worthington Inn, well fed by another exquisite food memory, rooted in the cultures and cuisines of New Orleans.

To order a copy of Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans, click here. For the entire album from this experience, click here.

1 comment:

  1. Mark Anthony,
    I appreciate the thorough notes on our meal. I was really quite pleased with what Chef Tom and his staff were able to pull off. The food was delicious! Thanks for the commemoration.