Friday, March 30, 2012

The making of a Legend

Imagine it. You purchase a ticket to a dinner event, not knowing the menu. Not knowing the location. Not knowing the entertainment. Knowing only the date and the time and the chefs involved. Good thing you have a healthy sense of adventure!

This is the concept for The Legend Series, a new underground dining series that will feature the best chefs in our region along with a rotating array of artists, musicians and performers. Chef Scotty Schwartz from 29 South and I devised the series after one too many brunchtime cocktails at Orsay one afternoon. I’m producing the events in conjunction with some awesomely talented local restaurant peeps (holla Allan & Crystal!) and Scotty and my other chef buddies (more on them soon).


In January, forty willing subjects attended the inaugural event in The Legend Series. The morning of the event they received an email outlining the location and all converged on Riverside’s Intuition Ale Works that evening, just before sundown.


But preparations had been taking place months in advance. You know how Restaurant Wars is one of the hardest challenges for contestants of Top Chef? Conceptualizing an entire restaurant, building a menu, setting it up, executing, pleasing customers and breaking it all down… all in a single day?

That’s what The Legend Series is like. Only on crack.

We were lucky with our first venue that we had such luxurious amenities as electricity and toilets.

For future events we are not going to be so lucky. We’ll truly be off the grid at the next event.

The morning of the first Legends event Crystal Vessels (miss you!) and I arrived early to the brewery to set up the table. Soon we were joined by Annie, Nicole, Linds, Jason & Macky. They polished glassware and did a myriad other activities to make sure we were ready for dinner service.

Crystal gave directions. And contemplated the seating arrangement.



While I helped set the table.


The entertainment for the evening was my friend Philip Pan, violinist and Concertmaster of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. He composed a music piece inspired by each of the five courses we enjoyed that evening.


Photographer Jensen Hande took portraits of the chefs whenever he could grab them from their work the kitchen.


Speaking of the kitchen… I really should put that in quotes. The “kitchen” consisted of some folding tables, a few propane burners, a fryer and a hot box. Amazing the magic the chefs pulled off using such minimal equipment.


For the first hour or so guests enjoyed passed hors d’ouevres in the tap room of Intuition Ale Works. There was roasted quail breast with pancetta and chestnut honey; ceviche; cold-smoked Beau Soleil oyster with jalapeno mignonette; steamed mussel over horseradish “potato salad”; and crispy Mayport shrimp stuffed with baccala potatoes.


We precariously balanced the cold dishes on top of the kegs in our tiny walk-in…


…while the chefs continued to conjure up magic in the makeshift kitchen.


Soon, guests were led from the tap room to the brewery area where we had set up a single long, white linen-draped table between the tanks.



As the sun set, the dishes began to arrive.


Chef Guy Ferri from Black Sheep Restaurant Group set the tone by starting the evening with a roasted marrow bone accompanied by braised oxtail marmalade and brioche toasts.


Each dish was triply accompanied: by wine generously donated by Vibrant Rioja from the eponymous region in Spain; by beer crafted in the tanks around us from Intuition Ale Works; and by Philip’s violin piece.

Chef Guy’s pairings were 2001 Campo Viejo Gran Reserva, Intuition Ale’s The Factor Scotch Ale and Mussorgsky Bydlo (The Ox) from Pictures at an Exhibition.

Next were Strauss lamb sweetbreads, romesco and Tuscan kale from Chef Tom Gray of Bistro Aix.


Paired with 2007 Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Reserva “Unica” Rioja, Triad Belgian Tripel and Chef Tom accompanying Philip on cowbell to Hugh Masekela’s Grazing in the Grass.

Then. Chef Scotty Schwartz of 29 South’s succulent roasted saddle of rabbit stuffed with rabbit confit and prunes. It was accompanied by a potato playfully crafted to look like a marrow bone and stuffed with the creamiest sformato you can imagine. I think I said as I was eating it that I wanted to die inside the sformato and spend eternity eating my way out. Or something like that.


Scotty paired his rabbit and sformato with the most complicated wine of the night, a 2000 Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva Rosado. O'Connor’s The Road to Appalachia was played as we took our first sip.

Taverna’s Chef Sam Efron perfectly paired his braised veal checks, potato puree, piquillo pepper and Marcona almonds with 2005 Bodegas Dinastia Vivanco Reserva and Quiet Storm Belgian Quad. The dish was brought to the table to the tune of the Pixies Where is My Mind?


As Sam’s course was cleared animal bones were scattered across the tables. Yes. Animal bones. Skulls and such.

Why? you may ask. No biggie. It was just Chef Brian Siebenschuh’s version of nose-to-tail cooking. For his "soup & Sandwich" a la Indochine he used every part of a wild boar. A banh mi sandwich with fromage de tete, braised belly, roasted leg, sambal aioli, cilantro, pickled fennel and fresh cucumber. Pho with raw ribeye, scallion, melted fat, star anise braised ribs, rice noodle and spicy meatballs. And the bones, well, well the bones served as entertainment. Nothing wasted.


The not-so-humble soup and sandwich was served with 2005 Maetierra Dominum Quatro Pagos "QP"  and Intuition’s Dubbel Helix Belgian Dubbel. Philip chimed in with an apropos rendition of the Theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

We ended the meal with piles of cheese. Every meal should end with heaps of cheese. There was cabrales brought by Chef Tom, Reypenaer aged gouda from Chef Brian, Epoisses from Chef Scotty, manchego from Chef Guy and Brillat Savarin from Chef Sam.


Then, after the guests had gone, we drank beer. We took some fun photos. We toasted to a successful first event.


To learn more about The Legend Series (and read an article about this event in Arbus Magazine) visit www.thelegendseriesjax.com. If you’d like to attend a future event, email me at thelegendseriesjax@gmail.com.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Madrid

Our Spanish adventure ended where it began. In culinary terms, our trip had come full circle. We had spanned time and geography, eating classic dishes like tortilla and jamon that are found in nearly every city in Spain. We had also looked to the future with modern interpretations of these classics and dishes that drew inspiration from around the globe.

Madrid is a microcosm of all this. It has classic restaurants and those that harness the genius of today’s forward-thinking Spanish gastronomists.

The Mercado de San Miguel is as good a place as any to catch a glimpse of the ingredients that go into crafting classic Spanish dishes.

Nestled among the tall buildings is this glass pantheon to Spanish cuisine: hams swinging, the smell of frying croquetas and pimientos de Padron, groups of men and women drinking skinny glasses of beer well before most Americans would think it appropriate.

Most stalls are selling items to take home: bulk dried beans the size of your thumb, thick slices of jamon Serrano, cheeses and vegetables and seafood and olives and pickled peppers. 

And many of these stalls are cooking their ingredients for you to sit down and eat at their counters. We settled into a cozy spot next to some Italian tourists, ordered a beer (when in Rome) and ordered an early lunch. First up: deep-fried pimientos de Padron topped with big chunks of sea salt. Most of these bright green peppers are sweet and mild but every once in awhile you’ll get lucky and find the one spicy pepper in the bunch – some people call this Spanish Roulette!  

We also had a few montaditos (open-faced sandwiches) with fresh cheese, tomato, smoked salmon and pepper relish.
  
And tortilla de patatas – my ultimate favorite comfort food. Essentially tortilla is a thick potato omelette made with onions and plenty of olive oil. I could eat it every day.


After resting our eyes for a few hours we headed to La Latina. This neighborhood is known as Madrid’s tapas zone and indeed, every other door in the area was open to hanging jamon and bars serving little scrumptious plates of classic Spanish dishes and those influenced by cuisines from about the world.

We chose a very classic-looking place and sat outside so we could watch the beautiful people stroll by. Our beers came with potato chips which lifted up and floated away in the windy afternoon. The place served dishes you’d find at any straight-up tapas joint: croquetas de jamon (ham croquettes). Montado con jamon y queso (ham and cheese sandwich). Provoleta con tomate (grilled provolone cheese with slices of warm tomato). Chorizo on bread. Lomo (pork sandwich with jamon Serrano and roasted green pepper).

We continued the theme of traditional Spanish fare that night at the Chocolateria de San Gines, happily only a few stumbling blocks from our hotel.

San Gines is a local institution and is the best known place in the city to order chocolate con churros. Our midnight arrival announced we were tourists as real Madrileños stop by on their way home from the clubs around 6:00am.

Chocolate con churros isn’t a sugar bomb in Spain. The chocolate was too thick to be drinkable and only very slightly sweet. We dipped the piping hot churros into it and scooped the rest up with a spoon.


That’s how we left Madrid before exploring the northern reaches of Spain: classic tapas and churros con chocolate. When we came back to spend one more day in Madrid at the end of our trip we capped off two weeks of memorable cuisine in a very fitting way – at Estado Puro in the Prado. Spanish cuisine comes full circle here – extremely modern, creative interpretations of all the classic dishes cooked up by an acolyte of Ferran Adria.

The tortilla siglo XXI is perhaps the best example of the creativity of Estado Puro’s chef. It was an uber-modern take on the classic tortilla, served by the glass instead of by the slab. We were instructed to eat from the bottom up so as to enjoy a bit of caramelized onions and egg and potato foam in each bite.

Boquerones al limon were a light take on fried anchovies with lemon.  

Bombas de carne, literally “meat bombs,” were croquettes stuffed with pulled beef in a sweet and smoky BBQ sauce.

For the mollete de tortilla our tortilla was served inside a little roll instead of perched on top of bread as is traditional.

The berenjanas con miel, or fried eggplant with honey, were shaped like French fries in served in a ceramic fry bag – a novel presentation of a very classic dish.
  
The oxtail meat in our caldero de rabo de toro was plucked from the bone for an elegant presentation and served with toothsome, short-grained rice in personal Staub pots. It all spoke to the big, boney hunks of bull’s tail you might find in Pamplona during San Fermín but it was updated with clean flavors and a modern presentation.

Instead of a sloppy mess of fried potatoes, mayonnaise and sauce, here the patatas bravas were composed packets of elegance with all the traditional flavors. Tiny new potatoes were roasted to a salty crust, hollowed and stuffed with little dollops of mayo and a spicy sauce.

So ended our trip. But my adventures in Spanish cuisine don’t end there…

Monday, January 2, 2012

Barcelona

After San Sebastian we hopped an early train to Barcelona. Our apartment was in the Barri Gotic neighborhood and we decided to stick close to home for our first meal out.

Just a few blocks away was L’Antic Bocoi del Gotic, a stylish candlelit restaurant that specializes in sweet and savory coques. Coques are a Catalonian regional specialty of a doughy base topped with all manner of ingredients, from vegetables to fish to bacon and every cheese imaginable. Sound like pizza? It kinda is.

Before we got to our coques we started with olives and a platter of local cheeses.

See that bread in the background? That’s pa amb tomaquet which translates to “bread with tomato.” It’s bread rubbed with garlic and ripe tomatoes then doused in olive oil. Sounds simple, but pa amb tomaquet is the essence of Catalonia and it’s served at pretty much every restaurant. It’s difficult to replicate anywhere outside this region as the bread just doesn’t have as many nooks and crannies, the tomatoes just aren’t as sweet and the olive oil isn’t nearly as fruity and fresh.

The version at L’Antic Bocoi del Gotic was one of the best we had during our five days in Barcelona.

We also shared a plate of beef carpaccio with foie, arugula and parmesan.

We each ordered a plate of coques and shared. There were coques recapte topped with smoked bacon, dates and cheese and coques with camembert, arugula and nuts.

And my favorite, the coques with escalivada, tender cod and whipped garlic sauce. Escalivada is a typical Catalonian combination of roasted eggplant, red pepper and onion. 

One afternoon we wandered out to the beach.

While the girls sunbathed I scoped out the dining scene in La Barceloneta and settled on Can Majó. As with every meal in Barcelona, we started with pa amb tomaquet and a bottle of cava.

I ordered a big plate of razor clams…
  
… and we shared a shellfish paella with langoustines, mussels, prawns and mini scallops.

My favorite neighborhood we visited in Barcelona was El Born in La Ribera. Such great energy and lots of independent shops and restaurants. We stopped at Casa Delfin for a snack and ended up staying for a full meal.

Guess what we started with! We also had patatas bravas (fried potatoes topped with spicy aioli), alcachofas fritas con salsa romesco (fried artichokes with romesco sauce) and pimientos de Padron (fried Padron peppers sprinkled with big salt flakes).

I especially enjoyed the ensalada de arugula con Marconas fritas, queso fresco and dulce de membrillo (arugula salad with fried Marcona almonds, fresh cheese and squares of quince paste)…

… the sesos (lambs brains fried in egg and flour batter) with spicy sauce…

… and the suquet de rape (monkfish, potato, garlic and tomato stew).

That stew inspired us to take a visit to La Boqueria the next morning to shop for ingredients for our own homemade suquet.

La Boqueria is one of the best markets I’ve ever visited and is a must-do for any visitor to the city – food lover or not! You can find every imaginable cheese, sausage or fish…

But you’ll have more fun seeking out exotic ingredients like emu and ostrich eggs or lamb’s heads and cow hooves.


Back at our apartment we made a nice conservative meal of pa amb tomaquet and suquet de vegetales (tomato bread and vegetable stew).

Any good visitor to Barcelona will spend a day or two seeking out Gaudi’s architectural masterpieces. Except for the inevitable crowds, Park Guell and La Sagrada Familia never disappoint.

After detouring to see Casa Battló we walked a few more blocks to Tapac 24 in the L’Eixample ‘hood of Barcelona.

A lot of buzz has surrounded Tapac 24. It’s run by an alum of El Bulli and fittingly the dishes are traditional Spanish tapas with playful, creative twists.

It’s an obviously hip place with high top tables you share with other diners and an open kitchen that quickly churns out small tapas plates.

The trendy atmosphere carries over to the food. Starting with the menu, which is printed on a paper bag that holds your cutlery.

The pa amb tomaquet here was the best we tried during our whole trip – impossibly sweet ripe tomatoes on perfectly crisp bread finished with a healthy glug of olive oil.  

One of Tapac 24’s signature dishes is the bikini, a toasted sandwich with cured ham and cheese and truffles.

Other dishes we tried were tempura vegetables with allioli.

Patatas bravas (fried potatoes with spicy tomato sauce and garlicky aioli).

Huevos estrellados with chorizo (“broken” eggs with sausage).

Arros negre de sipia (squid ink black rice).

And finally, xocolata amb pa, sal i oli (balls of chocolate in olive oil with salt and wafer).

Ñam ñam indeed!