Monday, November 8, 2010

The Culinary Illuminati At Dinner In The Dark

It would seem a touch cruel of me to write about a meal that you, gentle reader, couldn't actually go out and eat yourself. On first glance, you might think that this review of the Dinner In The Dark event which happened on Monday, October 11th, 2010 might be exactly that. The bad news is that the dinner on the 11th is over and done with, the menu not to be repeated. The GOOD news is that the Dinner In The Dark is a series of dinners, not just a lone event. In that light, use my review of the first instance as preparation for what to expect at future dinners.

As opposed to what the name suggests, Dinner In The Dark has nothing to do with the lighting at the restaurant and everything to do with going into the dinner knowing nothing of the menu. Six local chefs, representing six different cuisines and approaches, agreed to get together at Verve Restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio to cook a multi-course meal complete with wine pairings in a charity event that benefited Veggie U, a non-profit organization run by farmer Lee Jones to help promote fresh and healthy fruits and vegetables to children.

Verve, normally only open for breakfast and lunch from Monday through Friday, opened up its kitchen and its dining room to 60+ eager diners, ready to try out whatever the chefs put together. Verve was located at 1332 Carnegie Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115 and can be reached at 216-664-5500. Parking was in the lot directly next to the restaurant and while there may be a charge to park during the day, at tonight's event, it was free.

After parking, I took a shot of the front entrance to Verve:

Entrance to Verve Restaurant
Once inside, I gave the hostess the name of my party and she sat us at a long table set for twelve diners (there were at least five or six of these tables set up for tonight's dinner). Once seated, I noticed the menu sitting in front of me. Here was a shot of the front, detailing the courses and the paired wines:

Dinner In The Dark's Menu Front
And a shot of the back of the menu listing individuals and organizations:

Dinner In The Dark's Menu Back
Shortly after being seated, a server was over to fill our water glasses and hand my dinner companion and I a starter cocktail, the Autumn Snapper:

Pre-Dinner Cocktail
Made with freshly pressed Honey Crisp apple juice, heirloom cherry tomatoes, Campari, Aperol, and Cynar (pronounced chi-nar) shaken over ice, it was garnished with just a few sprigs of micro parsley. To my nose, the cocktail definitely smelled of the earthiness of fresh tomatoes, but upon tasting it, the crispness of the apple juice definitely shined through. The other bitter components in the drink, the Campari, Cynar, and Aperol, added a subtle bitterness that offset the sweetness of the apples and tomatoes. This was a nicely balanced cocktail and a quite refreshing way to start off dinner.

Before dinner started, servers were suddenly walking amongst the guests delivering an unexpected surprise, an amuse bouche:

Amuse Bouche
An amuse bouche is generally a one or two bite morsel of food that allows a chef to set the tone for the rest of the meal or stimulate the diner's appetite for more. In tonight's case, this was accomplished with baby peppers that had been stuffed with roasted butternut squash, goat cheese, pepitas and chopped bacon. The crunch from the seeds and chopped bacon matched well with the creaminess from the squash and goat cheese. If the chefs were trying to stimulate our appetites, it was definitely working.

Our first course was delivered to us by Chef Matt Mathlage from Light Bistro and was paired with a Oremus, Fermint Dry, MandolisTokaji, Hungary 2006:

Course One: Garlic Pudding
This remarkably inventive dish contained garlic pudding, pesto "soup," pickled radish over a rye bread puree, and a single stalk of gai lan, or bitter Chinese broccoli. I couldn't help but take individual tastes of each component before combining them together and the minute I tasted each component, I knew that they could've only been made by the restrained hand of Chef Mattlage. Other than the strongly bitter Chinese broccoli and the pickled radish, every other component was so subtly presented on the plate. The rye bread puree was simply amazing: he had taken rye bread essence and made a smooth sauce out of it. The sharpness of the pickled turnip helped to cut through some of the richness of the garlic pudding, itself having been loaded with quite a bit of butter. I wished the gai lan had been a touch less bitter, but I still appreciated how the flavor bounced off the others on the plate.

The second course was presented by Chef Chris Hodgson, owner of the Dim and Den Sum truck, who decided to play with pigs ears tonight. His dish was paired with a Domaine de Piaugier, Les Ramieres Vaucluse, Rhone Valley, France 2007 :

Course Two: Crispy Pig Ears
Here you had a Delicata squash ring that had been filled with an ultra-creamy polenta and topped with a bit of mosh, duck fat-confited crispy pigs ear strips and sauced with a mustard vinaigrette containing chopped capers. The pigs ears were fried to perfection and my dining companion, having never eaten pigs ears before, said that she actually liked them. Crispy on the outside and just a little sticky to the teeth on the inside, they matched well with the strong vinegar flavor of the vinaigrette. The Delicata squash was cooked all the way through and complemented the smooth polenta that the chef had prepared. Even the salty bite from the capers was appreciated in this vast flavor explosion.

The third course was presented by Chef Adam Bostwick from Melange and was a playful re-interpretation of a Caesar salad. It was paired with a Corta alla Flora, Giugglio Bianco, Montepulciano, Italy 2008:

Course Three: Ceasar Salad
Here you had a toasted piece of brioche, a fried egg yolk with still runny center, a single sliver of white anchovy, purple romaine, slightly sweetened and ever-so-slightly toasted meringue, and a drizzle of agrodolce ... a sauce both sweet and sour. As the chef described it to us, we were instructed to combine the various flavors in one bite. The resulting combination should reconstruct the flavor of a Caesar salad. For me, this was the least successful dish of the night; not because it didn't taste good, but because to me it failed to achieve the goal of tasting like a Caesar salad. The fried egg yolk was beautifully runny on the inside and after cutting a bit of each of the other components, I placed them on my fork and took a bite. Missing for me at a minimum was the garlic. I think the addition of a handful of freshly grated Parmesan cheese may not have been in the original recipe and I can overlook that, but the garlic I definitely missed. The slightly sweetened meringue was also a bit of a mystery to me, seemingly out of place in this quite savory dish.

Thankfully, when you let a group of chefs cook for you what they want, they know when to give your palate a break. Following the first three courses, a simple intermezzo was brought to the table:

Intermezzo: Lemon Verbena Sorbet
This was a single small scoup of a lemon verbena sorbet topped with just a few thinly sliced strands of the freshly infused herb. This was simple, it was delicious, and it fulfilled its purpose spectacularly.

The fourth course was prepared and presented to us by Chef Brandt Evans from Blue Canyon and was a seared scallop dish. It was paired with a Max Ferd Richter, Estate Reisling, Mosel, Germany 2008:

Course Four: Scallops
The impeccably fresh, dry-packed scallops had been seared to a perfect golden brown, topped with impossibly thin slices of fresh radish, and served with an Indian curry coconut sauce, fresh basil oil, and some of Farmer Jones's amazing colored cauliflower. I've had some delicious dishes in my time, but this plate of food was amazing. The perfectly cooked scallops were sweet and tender and the interplay between the creaminess of the coconut milk and the barely perceptible spice from the Indian curry matched so well with the pristine seafood. Not being a huge cauliflower fan myself, I eagerly gobbled up every last bite of food from this plate and was half tempted to lick it clean. Bravo, sir! Bravo!

Where I thought I had achieved epicurean nirvana with the fourth course, when recently departed Chef Jeffrey Jarrett from North End Restaurant presented his plate of braised beef short ribs with sauce, polenta and vegetables, my mouth watered even before I tasted it. This course was served with a Wild Hog Petite Syrah, Sonoma Coast, California 2006:

Course Five: Short Ribs
The short ribs had been braised to absolute perfection. They were so soft and tender that not only was a knife not required to eat them, but its use would have been an insult to the chef. After the short ribs finished cooking, the braising liquid was reduced, chocolate was added and eventually the whole lot was mounted with butter and used as a sauce for the ultra-tender meat. I actually started with the polenta and was shocked that even though we had eaten polenta as one of the components of our second course, Chef Jarrett's polenta was wholly different. With just a little bit of texture from the medium-course corn meal, this polenta screamed "Corn!" at me.

While walking around and talking to groups of diners, he insisted that he hadn't done anything particularly special to the polenta to enhance the flavor, so clearly he must have started with stellar cornmeal. While the vegetables on the dish were nice, nothing, and I mean not even the marvelous polenta, could prepare me for the short ribs and sauce. All around me people were moaning in ecstasy as they ate the meat and sauce combination and as soon as I took a bite myself, I could see why. The level of complexity was exquisite. I've eaten very few things in my life where I immediately shut my eyes and focused solely on the enjoyment of food. This was one of those moments. If there was a superlative to "Bravo," I would be using it here.

Not knowing if it would even be possible to top the fifth course, Chef Ellis Cooley from AMP 150 surprised everyone by serving up a freshly baked beet cake adorned with foam and a single wafer-thin piece of beet paper paired with creme fraiche ice cream over a crumble:

Course Six: Beet Cake
The beet cake had been made using fresh beets and I was simply amazed that not only was the cake hot, moist, delicate and most importantly, delicious, but you could actually taste a very subtle beet flavor in it. The creme fraiche ice cream was silky smooth and because of the tartness from the creme fraiche, it helped to cut the fattiness from the ice cream and the cake. I tried each component individually and combining the flavors together and no matter which way I ate it, I was a completely happy camper.

The other benefit of tonight's dinner was that in addition to the dinner cost per person going toward charity, all of the wines we had with dinner were being sold by the bottle and proceeds of the sale were also going toward Veggie U. By that point in the evening, myself and my dinner companion had to hop back in the car to drive back to Akron, so we missed out on the auction portion of the evening, but at the very least, dinners for four were being auctioned off at the various chefs' restaurants.

Dinner tonight was $50 per person, excluding tax and tip, so this wasn't an inexpensive meal. However, and I can speak for all those seated around me, too, the food went from fantastic to mind blowing, the service was efficient and friendly, and all of the money spent was for a very worthwhile cause. I am eager to return on November 15th, 2010 at 6:30 PM for the next installment of this series. If you have the wherewithal to attend, I highly encourage you to do so. To make a reservation, simply call AMP 150 at 216-706-8787 and give them your name and the size of your party.

Perhaps I'll see you there!


bonnjill said...

Normally I would write you to correct the verb tense ("was located"), but in this case unfortunately it is appropriate since Verve closed this week. I hope I can eventually make it to a Dinner in the Dark event, because the food and company looks amazing.

Tino said...

@bonnjill: Wow, I had no idea. Although that would explain why the dinner for next Monday got moved to AMP 150. Sadly, I never had the opportunity to eat at Verve before this and it looks like it certainly won't happen now.

I suppose if the restaurant was to have its last "Hurrah!" this would be the way to go.

Thanks for the information.

Bite Buff said...

Looking forward to attending the December dinner!

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