At the recent charity event Cleveland Chefs Cook for Jewel, I happened to run into an until then only virtual friend, Phil Ridolfi. Phil, the proprietor of Now Dining Deals, a restaurant advocacy company seeking to connect restaurants with customers through social media like Facebook and Twitter, was at the event to support a great cause as well as to eat some wonderful food. It was actually Phil who recognized me as I wandered from table to table. I stopped and we chatted a bit about how great the turnout had been.
During the course of our conversation, Phil mentioned a special dinner being served at AMP 150 the following night featuring the Killbuck Valley mushrooms. I had heard of these mushrooms before from other friends, but had never had the chance to experience them myself. He indicated that there were several spots still open and that if I and any of my friends would like to come, he would take care of making arrangements for us to do so. I asked around and it turned out that two fellow foodies took me up on the suggestion. I let Phil know the next day about our merry trio and at 7:00 PM that evening, the three of us convened on AMP 150 for a six course mushroom extravaganza.
Joining us for the evening to talk about the mushrooms were the proprietors of the Killbuck Valley farm, Tom and Wendy Wiandt. While they do not have a website of their own, they are referenced on the web here. They were already in the private room when we arrived and greeted us warmly. It turned out that we would be lucky enough to have them join us at our table. While Tom did most of the speaking between courses explaining a little bit about the mushrooms used in Chef Cooley's dishes, it was fun to engage both of them during the rest of the dinner as they were a wealth of knowledge.
From what they told us, they both left the corporate world around thirteen years ago having tired of it. Three years later, they opened up Killbuck Valley and began producing organic mushrooms. They started out in the farmer's markets and have gradually expanded their reach into some of the finest restaurants in Cleveland and Akron. They still work at least two farmer's markets a week, giving out free samples of cooked mushrooms to entice market-goers into giving their wares a try. They are a growing business, but have decided that controlled and sustainable growth is the right way to operate. Tom readily acknowledges that his product is not inexpensive, but he so firmly believes in his farming methods and his mushrooms that he'd rather lose a half-serious customer who doesn't also see the potential in his product than make a quick sale.
As we retired to our table tonight, each place setting had a menu placed on top of the mat:
First out of the kitchen was the demitasse of mushroom soup:
Served as if it were a cup of coffee, the luscious warm mushroom soup was topped with a frothed milk and a slightly dried shiitake mushroom cap. The soup was velvety smooth and seasoned perfectly and the entire dish made a perfect introduction to what we were going to sample again and again tonight ... umami! Umami is that fifth sense of taste that allows us to taste savory and mushrooms are just loaded with it. Speaking of shiitake, it turns out that -take is the Japanese word for mushroom. The first part of the word, in this case shii- actually refers to the origin of where the mushroom is found. Shii is actually Japanese for oak. Thus, matsutake, maitake, etc. all refer to a mushroom that is found most commonly under (or on) different trees.
Of course, following the soup course in American cuisine was the salad course:
In this case it was a wild mixed green salad with roasted baby shiitake caps, pickled radishes and cucumbers, and was lightly dressed with a shiitake vinaigrette. Having this much mushroom flavor in a dish can weigh the palate down a bit, but the acidity from the vinaigrette and the radishes worked very well to keep everything balanced. Once again, Chef Cooley did an excellent job balancing textures and flavors. What surprised me most about this dish was the size of the mushroom caps used. When I buy shiitake mushrooms, I normally look for a good size to the caps. In this case, nothing but baby mushroom caps were used.
The third course was comprised of a homemade mushroom ravioli topped with an aged goat cheese and a sunchoke puree:
While the free-form mushrooms dotting the plate were shiitake caps, the filling was made up of the most savory oyster mushroom filling that I've had in a long time. The ravioli itself was perfectly cooked and had a lovely toothy bite to it without being chewy. The aged goat cheese, having been shaved over the top of the ravioli, had a real nuttiness to the bite that reminded me of a good Pecorino Romano and not of a goat cheese at all. While the real star of the plate was the oyster mushroom, I couldn't but also drool over the sunchoke puree with fresh chives. Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, and a small fibrous vegetable that can easily be substituted for potatoes in part or whole and adds another dimension of flavor.
The chef told us after the dinner had concluded that his preparation of "white" vegetables like sunchokes and the salsify puree we enjoyed during a later course was made by boiling the vegetable in a 50/50 water/milk bath until the vegetable was tender and the heat caused the casein in the milk to separate out and actually form curds (kind of like making ricotta). The whey is then strained off and added into the combination of the pureed vegetable and curds to thin it to the right consistency. I don't know if the chef enriched the puree at the very end with a little bit of cream or butter, but I have to tell you that both purees we enjoyed tonight were creamy, smooth, and delicious.
Our pasta course now complete, we moved on to course number four, the fish course:
This was a mushroom crusted cod served over a watercress and garlic chive brodo. The application of the mushroom crust was interesting in that it seemed more to be a mushroom and breadcrumb application that adorned this amazing piece of fish. Having been steamed to utter perfection, the minute I placed a bite of the tender and moist fish in my mouth, I actually sighed in complete contentment. Cod can be a subtly flavored fish, and the treatment that Chef Cooley gave it tonight was so well thought out. After all of the badly prepared cod I had eaten during the course of The Lenten Project, tonight's preparation showed that cod can be a magnificent piece of fish when done right. The accompanying broth was also quite lovely and the only thing I could've wished for to make the experience better was a spoon. Sadly, I think drinking the broth straight from the bowl would've been bad form.
It was at this point during the meal when I realized that there was a method to the madness in which the courses had come out. We had started out light and small and worked our way up to more assertive flavors. The fifth dish to come from the kitchen tonight was a grilled strip loin of beef with mushroom ragu and salsify puree:
While I was a little worried because the first slice of beef on the plate was nearly medium well, the rest of the beef slices were perfectly medium rare. The mushroom ragu was tender and seasoned just perfectly. The salsify puree, a vegetable that often is often compared to actual oysters in flavor, was beautifully pureed and had been dressed up with some fresh dill which gave it a wonderfully sweet finish on the palate. With the subtle sweetness from the salsify and the earthiness of the mushrooms paired up to the savoriness of the beef, this was truly a bite to sit back and savor. With another course coming, I saw several others only eat part of this course. Me? I ate the entire plate and would've licked it clean if I had known no one else was watching.
After the heavy fifth course, our sixth and final course, dessert, would serve to clear out the heavy flavors and wake up the taste buds just a little bit:
Here you have a roasted fig compote sitting next to a scoop of goat cheese ice cream which is sitting next to a goat cheese panna cotta, itself topped with maple glazed shiitake caps, all of which was surrounded by a maple-infused sauce. After a bite of each of the ice cream and panna cotta, it was clear that a younger goat cheese had been used as that little bit of acidity and tang gently sang through the sweetness and creaminess of each dessert. I didn't detect a huge maple flavor in the mushroom caps that topped the panna cotta, so mostly I considered its use to be as a textural contrast to the gelatinous milky concoction below. I paired the fig compote with the ice cream and it worked well. The maple flavor from the sauce worked well to unify the flavors on the plate and didn't overpower anything else. For being an unusual dessert, it worked quite well, in my opinion.
While tonight's meal wasn't inexpensive at $45 per person, for the amount of food and the quality of the dishes presented, I considered it to be an excellent value. This was only my second dining experience at AMP 150 and between the two of them, I am certainly looking forward to seeing what else Chef Cooley will be bringing to the table ... LITERALLY. If you have the chance to sample either the food at AMP 150 or the mushrooms from Killbuck Valley from one of the farmer's markets they frequent, I strongly urge you to do so. You won't be disappointed.