Friday, February 26, 2010

Amping Up The Flavor At AMP 150

The Airport Marriot at the intersection of West 150th and I-71 has taken a bold, and some might consider risky, move. I don't think it takes a rocket scientist (or perhaps more appropriately a public media person) to know that downtown Cleveland and the areas just surrounding the downtown have some rockin' and pretty hip places to eat. Two of Iron Chef America Michael Symon's restaurants are located in the extremely trendy neighborhoods of East 4th and the Tremont district. Chef Jonathon Sawyer is playing to the local, sustainable, and ultimately "green" crowd with his restaurant on East 4th, just a few storefronts down from Michael Symon.

Knowing that the Airport Marriot could get a significant slice of that restaurant revenue if they opened something desirable within the hotel, they recruited and brought in Executive Chef Ellis Cooley and his vision of a fine dining establishment so that guests didn't have to leave the premises to find great food. Originally envisioned as a gastropub by the Marriot management team, Chef Cooley convinced them to pursue a different direction instead. He wanted to bring local, seasonal, and high quality ingredients to a menu that rotated during the course of the year. He has been tweaking the menu since the opening of the flagship restaurant, AMP 150, in order to hone and finely tune the menu offerings to match what guests were ordering. He has also championed the notion of the "small plates," where guests can find smaller, higher quality tastes for less money than their large brethren, the entrée. Similar in notion to Spanish tapas, this gives guests a way to share many different flavors for the same amount of money they'd spend on a single entrée.

Back in January 2010, I had received a communication from a fellow Cleveland foodie, Stuart, that Chef Cooley was looking to sponsor a menu tasting for local foodies and food bloggers. Sadly, due to multiple counts of inclement weather, the meal was postponed until the majority of us could convene last night. And even though the weather last night was pretty crappy, too, I was bound and determined to find out what Chef Cooley and his menu offered the northeast Ohio diner.

Before we begin, gentle reader, full disclosure dictates that I inform you that I knew going into the meal that it would be fully comp'd (minus alcoholic beverages). While I am normally uncomfortable with a gratis meal, my curiosity was firmly piqued and I knew that this restaurant might be something those of you who are kind enough to read my blog might be interested in. I checked with my contact to make sure he knew that if I did attend, it was with the intention of being honest and fair in what I wrote. He indicated that it wouldn't be a problem.

[Ed. Note: Begin soapbox. In case you didn't already know, when being comp'd a dish or an entire meal, it is important to realize that the food is free, not the service. Always tip a commensurate amount to your service staff. Sometimes patrons get the phrase "free food" stuck in their minds and forget that most of a server's wages here in the US come from tips. Okay, end soapbox.]

The other item I wanted to mention before beginning was that nearly everything we tried tonight was either on the menu currently or had been on in the past and would more than likely be making a return sometime soon. That being said, what you are about to witness turned out to be a multi-hour onslaught of food. I did manage to try everything that came out of the kitchen, but sadly some courses just didn't get finished due to the sheer amount of food that Chef Cooley sent our way. Due to the volume of courses we had tonight, some of my descriptions may be more in depth and some less. However, let it be known that I truly enjoyed the enormity of what Chef Cooley did for us tonight.

First up, the current menu for AMP 150. A left, middle, and right shot:

The current menu is broken up into Appetizers, Soups and Salads, Small Bites, Gardens, and Larger Bites. At the end of the meal, the chef stopped by to talk with us about the notion that he was thinking about revamping the menu so that Small Bites are much more predominant than Larger Bites. His thinking fell along the lines of, "Why pay $25 for one taste when you can pay the same amount for four tastes?" I think if he can keep the Small Bites in line with his philosophy of local, sustainable, and best quality possible, he may just have a winner here.

As soon as we were seated, two flat breads and two types of chicken wings appeared on our table. Here was a shot of my appetizer plate:

To the upper left was the oyster mushroom, goat cheese and celery leaf flat bread. To the upper right was the roasted chicken, fontina cheese, fresh rosemary, and garlic oil flat bread. Both were fantastic, but the roasted chicken flat bread was top notch. The combination of the flavors just sang in my mouth. The flat bread itself was also nice and thin and had a wonderful crunch to it without it crumbling when taking a bite. The chicken wing to the front of the plate was the Natural Free Range Chicken Wing with spicy glaze. The one to the rear was the Sweet Soy and Peanut Chicken Wing with homemade spicy Kimchee. I'll say collectively about both wings that they were cooked perfectly, each with nice crispy skin and juicy chicken meat inside. The spicy glaze on the first wing was akin to your standard "hot" wing and was quite tasty. The Sweet Soy and Peanut wing by itself wasn't all that spicy, but the homemade spicy Kimchee was delicious. In a nod of what was to come, I began to realize that Chef Cooley draws his culinary influences from all over the world.

Next up were a plate of Old Bay House Made Potato Chips:

Again, like so many of the dishes tonight, these were expertly fried and seasoned. By themselves, they had almost a "BBQ chip" flavor. Accompanying the chips were a homemade lemon aioli (think garlic mayonnaise) and a tarragon mignonette. Both dips offered an interesting contrast to the flavor of the chips and gave you that difference between creamy chip dip and a salt and vinegar chip.

Seeing that we hadn't yet met our fried food quota, the Hand Cut Sea Salt Fries showed up next at our table:

Served with more of the homemade lemon aioli and regular ketchup, these fries were actually quite good on their own. Not normally a fan of hand cut or fresh cut fries, these had none of the negative qualities that plagues the category in general. These were crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside, and seasoned with just the perfect amount of salt. While I did try the two dipping sauces, I ate most of my fries just naked because they were so good.

When we figured we were finally done with the appetizers, another showed up just to prove us wrong. Here was the Chicken Liver Pate served with grilled bread:

Accompanying this appetizer was a selection of relishes to pair with the chicken liver spread:

On the top was a barely sweetened cranberry compote, on the bottom was more of a traditional cranberry jam, and to the right was a spicy and sweet cranberry jam. One of these was Jorgensen's Jam as noted on the menu, but no one bothered to identify which was which, so I tried all three. Interestingly, cranberry does pair well with chicken liver pate, but it was the sweet and spicy cranberry jam on the right of the plate that proved to be the best pairing for me. One other interesting flavor to note was the charred bits of bread. The flavor actually worked well to cut through the fattiness of the pate. I don't think just toasting the bread would've been enough. It was the actual char that worked so well.

When our server began dispensing soup spoons, everyone at the table pretty much figured our next course would be a soup. Here was the simply named, but complex Chicken Soup:

Made with homemade chicken stock, this clear broth contained bits of shredded chicken, avocado, jalapeno, radish, tomato, lime, and a few small pieces of freshly made sweet cornbread. Oddly enough, the cornbread was the key to balancing all of the flavors in this dish for me. Savory, acidic, spicy, and just slightly sweet, this was an unusual but delicious chicken soup.

Thinking we had finally progressed beyond the Appetizer section of the menu, the chef mixed it up again and sent out two shellfish dishes. First, Black Mussels with ginger and lemongrass served in a spicy chili broth:

The mussels were exceedingly tender and the flavor of the ginger and lemongrass showed through brightly. While I did manage to get some of the broth in the mussel shells, apparently it wasn't enough for me to sense the spicy chili flavor the chef intended. However, a fellow diner who ate a spoonful of the sauce directly said that she could definitely detect a bit of heat.

Our second seafood course was something that wasn't currently on the menu, steamed cockles with bacon:

Again, these were exceedingly tender, especially for being such small examples of seafood. The bacon was tender, not crispy, and added much needed smoke and salt to the cockles. I think had we not already had so much food and knowing that more was to come, I would've loved to have seen both the mussels and cockles served with some nice French bread to soak up all that amazing cooking liquid.

Full yet, gentle reader? You'd better loosen your belt a notch because we are about to hit a few more highlights off the menu before getting to dessert. Next up? The salad courses, of course.

First up was a Bibb Lettuce Salad with toasted pumpkin seeds, paper thin shaved red radish that was dressed in a pumpkin seed vinaigrette:

If you've never had the opportunity to taste toasted pumpkin seed oil before, it is a really unusual and delicious flavor. You won't find it in most grocery stores, but it can be found in specialty food stores and health food stores. Incredibly good for you, it has a wonderful deep and nutty flavor that is most distinctive. The Bibb lettuce in this salad served as a wonderful vehicle for getting the pumpkin seeds and vinaigrette from plate to mouth.

The second salad we were served consisted of Baby Arugula with candied walnuts, blood orange supremes, shaved Parmesan cheese, all dressed with a citrus vinaigrette:

The saltiness and savoriness from the cheese, the pepperiness from the arugula, the sweetness and acidity from the blood oranges all worked so well together. It turned out that I had an entire plate of this salad sitting in front of me most of the time the salads were on the table. Consequently, I nearly finished this, even knowing that more was to come.

The next course, Chicken Paprikash, had been specifically requested by the coordinator of the event. Apparently it had been on the menu in the past and according to the chef, would most likely be making a return since it sold well. The chef had decided that he wanted to offer Austrian Goulash on the current menu and didn't want the two dishes competing. Here was a shot of the Chicken Paprikash:

Essentially a chicken roulade that was comprised of whole strips of breast meat chicken combined with a forcemeat of the dark meat chicken, the entire mixture was placed onto a piece of plastic wrap, rolled tightly into a log and then gently poached until cooked. It was then cooled and sliced into rounds for service before being reheated on the flattop. The rich paprika-laden sauce and crispy fried shallots gave this dish incredible depth of flavor. That being said, this was the only dish of the entire evening where I felt the seasoning was a bit too aggressive. When I shared my assessment with a fellow diner, I received a nodded head of agreement. I enjoyed the real depth of flavor each of the elements gave to the dish, but I definitely had to finish the rest of my glass of water afterwards to restore balance to my palate.

Next, the fish course. First up was a Pan Roasted Arctic Char with honey-glazed turnip matchsticks, charred onion puree and frisee salad:

In case you are unfamiliar with Arctic Char, it is somewhat of a cross between salmon and trout. The fish was cooked perfectly, the skin being nice and crispy and the flesh being translucent and creamy in flavor. The bed of honey-glazed turnips sitting underneath the fish were cooked, but still firm and the sweetness from the glaze went well to soften the charred onion puree. Overall this was a very nicely balanced and seasoned dish.

Our second fish course was the Glazed Chesapeake Bay Cod:

Served over a smoked onion broth, the dish also contained fresh edamame, bok choy and broken shrimp. The smoked onion broth tied this dish into the previous fish dish quite well. The cod was moist and seasoned well and the soy glaze added a lot of savoriness to this dish. The edamame popped in my mouth like fresh (but actually delicious) lima beans.

Ok, gentle reader, are you still with me? We've now covered nine appetizers, one soup, two salads, one entree, and two fish courses. What could possibly be left? Meat, of course!

The first of the two meat courses was the Austrian Goulash:

This was served with a creamed herbed spaetzle. Upon further inspection, the "creamed" portion of the description turned out to be coconut milk, giving the spaetzle a wonderful floral taste to it that worked well against the heaviness of the beef. Having been braised for hours, the beef was incredibly tender and flavorful. Eaten together with the creamed spaetzle, my palate began picking up additional flavors such as hints of cinnamon that didn't exist in either primary component. Perhaps more of that culinary alchemy that I've experienced in the past?

Our final meat course was a seared lamb tenderloin that currently was not on the menu:

Seared medium rare and sliced and fanned over brown lentils and Merguez sausage, this was both a hearty final dish as well as a nicely spiced one. The tenderloin slices were mild and still juicy and the lentils were cooked perfectly, retaining just a bit of their integrity. I don't know if the chef intends to put this dish on a future menu, but if he does, order it. You won't be sorry.

Lest you think that we could get this far into a meal and skip dessert, here are the three that the kitchen sent out for us to sample. First, a lemongrass creme brulee with palate cleansing sorbet:

Next up, vanilla bean ice cream spiced with honey-glazed peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and more of that lovely pumpkin seed oil:

And finally, while not totally original, when made with Valrhona bittersweet chocolate, a decadent way to end a meal even for the most ardent of chocoholics; chocolate lava cake with some of Jeni's chocolate ice cream:

Cutting into the round of cake reveals the most luscious liquid interior that serves as the cake's own sauce. I've actually had this chocolate ice cream once before, during a trip to Columbus for the Ohio Linuxfest. If you've never tried it and you consider yourself a true chocoholic, you must track some down.

When I looked at the clock at the conclusion of the final dessert, it read 10:30 PM. We had been eating our way through the menu since 7:00 PM and I can safely say that every single one of us was completely stuffed. The chef came out to a warm smattering of applause and began a Q&A session with the entire table. I had thought about asking him where he drew inspiration from, but on reviewing the menu we had been served as well as the rest of the menu we hadn't, it was clear to me that no cuisine was off limits to Chef Cooley: Irish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Austrian, Hungarian, Korean, Japanese, North African. These were but a small sample of food cultures represented on this menu. Considering that "AMP" stands for "America's Modern Palate," I can only conclude that AMP 150's clientèle consist of the modern eater, one who eats out several times a week or month and isn't happy with basic meatloaf and potatoes any more.

Like many modern restaurants in the Cleveland culinary scene, I think AMP 150 is best enjoyed in the company of friends and family. The ability to share so many disparate flavors without breaking the bank makes the restaurant stand out in my mind. That you can get this level of food at a Marriot hotel impresses me even more. As I mentioned before, tonight's meal was gratis; however, in what turns out to be the ultimate assessment of what I thought of the food tonight, would I return and pay for a meal at AMP 150? Without a doubt, absolutely.

And since I didn't mention it specifically before, AMP 150 was located at 4277 West 150th Street, Cleveland, OH 44135 and can be reached at 216-706-8787. Reservations are recommended.

Amp 150 on Urbanspoon


Joe Harvey said...

That was a TON of food! Nicely written, Tom... sounds like Chef Ellis was not lacking in culinary options, nor were you lacking in culinary descriptions... Got thesaurus? :)

bonnjill said...

Too bad you didn't get to try the milk chocolate pana cotta. It is to die for! Go back soon and order it. I did. You won't be sorry!

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