Thursday, 13 March 2014

Epic Food Day #2: Pittsburgh (part 2)

Last month, one of my foodie friends and food anthropology colleagues, Lisa, informed me of an event that I just could not see myself passing up. For this March 1st event (opened to the public, though in large part a gathering of chefs and folks linked in some way to the food service sector), the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Culinary Federation would be holding its annual award dinner at the prestiguous (and exclusive) Duquesne Club, from which many chefs have excelled in their craft [e.g., 1 and 2]. The menu (upon which at first glance I'm sure I started to drool over) looked incredibly impressive, and Lisa assured me it would be absolutely amazing. With the reservations made shortly thereafter, and following a fun-filled foodie first part of the day with Brianne, here's my recap of what I can safely say is my second favourite meal ever (following this one, of course).

The black tie optional gathering was entirely appropriate for the Duquesne Club, the opening gathering of which, just past the registration table and through a small hallway, was adorned with three beautiful ice carvings by Dean Tozzi. Brianne and I were perched in a far corner of the room in direct sight of all the food prep, with everyone plating with precision, speed, and steely concentration. On the other side of the curtains, we were in prime ethnographic position to also survey those who arrived throughout the hour. But perhaps most importantly, we were primed and ready to check out the plates full of cleanly presented hors d'œuvres which were passed around by the knowledgeable and friendly waitstaff.

I was perhaps a mixture of both excited and hungry so much so that I failed to take a photo of my first hors d'œuvre-- smoked shrimp, which I enjoyed without the spicy cocktail sauce. Thankfully for the blog's sake if nothing else, I did quickly regain my composure and asked to take a photo of the other plates prior to trying each work of art. The Asian duck bbq atop a steamed bun topped even further with pickled vegetables and Thai basil was definitely one of the evening's standout hors d'œuvres, as evidenced in my book by the second helpings I had. The bun was doughy without overpowering the duck and the veg added brightness and texture to the more calculated, heavier components.

Also served on its own individual spoon was a Medjool date wrapped up in a slice of pickled carrot and topped with an orange yogurt sauce and cilantro. Amongst an outstanding selection of hors d'œuvres, this was not one of my second helping favourites; nevertheless, the meatiness of the date alone made it a worthwhile taste. The third served-on-a-spoon dish (which happened to be the one which made the most sense I thought to serve on a spoon) consisted of a chilled poached Kumamoto oyster topped by a small sliver of grapefruit and mint, swimming in a small pool of gin and its juices, and finished by what looked to me like pink peppercorns. Its milder taste (in comparison to others) made sufficient room for the other components of this dish to shine.

One look at the plate of mini bowls, followed by the look on my face by the sight of them, must have been priceless, especially when considering what was being served: Meyer lobster risotto. Also joining that party were licorice greens and certified organic Northern Divine caviar (read this, too). Rich, creamy, and without any hint of overpowering seafood, this was by far my favourite hors d'œuvre.

From what I considered the best to what may perhaps have been the least successful for me, the tuna carpaccio was at least well-plated. Here, I'd like to acknowledge the following: I'm not the biggest fan of tuna or Asian flavours (or at least, I don't jump toward them immediately), and so to have both on the same plate made this one an unfortunate miss. Sitting atop the carpaccio was an unfamiliar take on ratatouille, which was finished off by a basil seed vinaigrette and squid ink aioli. The result was a strangely mono-textual mash that I didn't entirely care for.

What I did care for was the final passed hors d'œuvre, a healthy chunk of fried pork belly which rounded out my top three favourites of the hour. Sitting a top a bed of creamy savoy cabbage, the pork belly was  finished with a sweet tomato glaze and topped with a matignon.

With our palates whetted, the announcement was made to head up to the second floor banquet room for dinner service. Upon entering the charming room and finding my way to our table, my eyes immediately caught sight of the centrepieces. As you may be able to tell in this photo, they were red-themed and included roses, daisies, chrysanthemums (I think), beetroot, rhubarb, and strawberries. The tables themselves were arranged rather compactly in the centre of the room spreading outward, with a podium and screen to the front, and silent auction items in the back benefitting the Chef William Foust Educational Scholarship.

 Following the introductory remarks and invocation, the meal and principal cause for our journey to Pittsburgh began with spicy turtle gumbo. Cooked creole-style, the finely chopped turtle meat melded beautifully with the textures and flavours of the deep broth and its ingredients. It had a slight heat to it which hit the back of my throat and paired nicely with the warm corn bread made with chopped jalapeño. Though somewhat dry, the corn bread was great for sopping up the gumbo, and the goat's milk butter which was incredibly light, whipped, and sweet lightened the overall density of the bread.

In terms of textures, flavours, and colours, our second course really got things going for me. From left to right, a fabulously firm noisette of Pacific halibut (sourced from Philadelphia-based Samuel and Sons Seafood) was topped off by a rich truffle-salmon mousseline (1,2) that added some toothiness to the perfectly flaky fish; a mélange of crisp sautéed radish and asparagus, and well cooked yet borderline waxy beech mushrooms, were tasty but in great need of the gooseberries which somehow missed my plate (I did try a few and found them to be warm while adding a citric brightness that would have contrasted against the overall meatiness of the mushrooms); and the one component of the entire menu I was most nervous about, the persillade-topped pressed veal sweetbreads were texturally difficult for me to fully enjoy on its own but nevertheless tasted much better than I anticipated. Beneath these dishes were a thick celeriac purée and hands down one of the best sauces I've ever tasted: a lemon-dill beurre blanc. Oh.my.yum. [Served with this course was a glass of 2011 Estancia California Unoaked Chardonnay.]

From that beurre blanc onward, the meal was especially unforgettable. Our third course was presented in a bowl and upon first glance looked to be rather meager and humble in contrast to everything that had been served thus far. With one bite though, it was evident this salad was much more complicated, technical, and composed than my initial judgement suggested. The winter greens were lightly dressed with a ginger lime vinaigrette and paired well with each of the other ingredients in the bowl. My favourite of the lot was without question the Vermont Cavemaster Torus, a rich, creamy, and relatively subtle goat cheese that matched the earthiness of the roasted beet. Compressed and fresh pear, as well as the insane combination of dehydrated and fresh mandarin (the former being referred to as "mandarin crunch"), balanced out the bitter and salty notes of the salad, the latter of which was made more texturally interesting by way of candied pistachios.

As if the meal to this point couldn't get any better, our final savoury course arrived. Placed in front of me was a rich, deep-coloured sauce which I immediately read as something of perfection that was about to be consumed. Sitting in the center of that sauce was a crépinette (a form of sausage held together pre-cooking by caul fat) of Elysian Fields (Waynesburg, PA) lamb loin and morels. The meat was perfectly cooked, tender and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Dipped into the natural demi-glace, it was utterly fantastic. In addition to the meat were a medley of haricot vert, heirloom carrot, turnip, and caramelised romanesco (1,2), which accompanied a great boulanger potato. [Served with this course was a glass of Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir.]

It is at this moment I realised this meal was my second favourite, a déja vu kind of experience that brought me back to Colmar. Back in 2011, I gained an understanding of what it could mean for food to be considered artwork, presented in most cases on an otherwise blank, white plate (read: canvase). The focus of some of the best dishes I have ever tasted were not necessarily the principal characters of the plate, but rather the supporting cast in the form of the sauce(s). These are the chef's paints, and it is my firm belief that the sign of a great plate of food is one in which you feel resistance to lick the sauce off the plate. Of course, that's not the most polite, formal, or well-manered thing you could do, but proper etiquette (and yes, I know that's sincerely contextual) permits you to do so by placing a piece of bread on the tines of your fork and mopping things up with that. Coincidentally, I claim, it seems you've created a faux paint brush of sorts, and as you move about the sauces, you're creating your own form of artwork through the act of removing from rather than adding to. The end result, if all goes well, is a clean plate, i.e., a clean canvas, which in turn symbolizes your readiness for the next great piece of gastronomic art to makes its way to your palate.

Well, wait no longer. The first of two major art pieces made its way as the conclusion of the main dinner service, in the form of a contained explosion of temperatures, textures, techniques, and of course flavours. The obvious focal point of the plate was a dark chocolate pineapple croquant, a dessert layered with caramelized pineapple, chocolate cheese cake, and crème fraîche ganache. To its right was a contrastingly bright blood orange sorbet, and at the center was a fresh raspberry atop an amazing passion fruit gel. I'm going to end this one with an Oh.my.yum, and move on. [Served with this course was a glass of Sandeman Tawny Porto.]

Following the presentation of the awards and recognition of the cook and wait staffs, the sixth course in the form of assorted petit fours (also individually and collectively referred to as a mignardise): grapefruit caramel tart, almond raspberry frangipane, milk chocolate grand marnier truffle, and three awesome ones I tried-- blackberry lime pâte de fruit, petite Duqesne Club macaroon, and chocolate nougat kiss.

With all of this said, I would like to wrap up my commentary on our Pittsburgh trip with a notation of gratitude. Many thanks go out to the chefs and everyone behind the scenes in the kitchen, led by Executive Chef Keith Coughenour, and the wait staff and all those serving on the floor. Thanks, too, to Lisa for informing me about the event, and herein a special shout-out to Cynthia for all her work in organising the event, as well as to everyone at our table who helped make this a memorable experience. For these and other photos, including from the first part of our visit to Pittsburgh, click here.

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