Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Extra Helpings: Blogger Dinner At Chowder House Cafe

One of the self-imposed job requirements I have for myself as a food blogger is the responsibility to help drive as much traffic as possible to the independently owned, northeast Ohio restaurants as I can. My routine modus operandi is to do this via anonymous restaurant visits where I show up unannounced, do not identify who am I or why I am there, and pay for everything I eat. While this may work for the first visit or two, when my identity is eventually discovered, my relationship with the restaurant and the chef is bound to shift.

The first two times I reviewed Chowder House Cafe back in October and December of 2009, Chef Louis Prpich had no idea of why I was there or what I intended to do. Having no website of their own at the time of opening, my initial review served as the landing point for many, many Google searches for the restaurant (and still does, actually). It must have been one of my readers who alerted him to the fact that someone had not only written about his restaurant once, but twice. He reached out then by leaving a comment on my second review. Interestingly, he reached out to me again about a year later in October 2010 with an email.

Seeking to harness the power of those most concerned with writing about the vibrant food scene in Cleveland and Akron, he wondered if I would mind stopping by the restaurant before the dinner shift on a Saturday evening. When I arrived, we sat down at a table in the back of the restaurant, he brought out a few dishes for me to try, and systematically began to pick my brain about the notion of doing a blogger dinner. A blogger dinner, for those of you who don't know, is where a restaurant will organize a comped (meaning, free) dinner for local food bloggers in the hopes that they will then return to their respective blogs and write about it. While writing honestly about gratis meals is a tricky affair, I always make it a condition of attending such a meal that I am free to write about my experience, good or bad.

After making some recommendations about how best to structure a menu for food bloggers (we are an adventuresome bunch, after all), I agreed to bring together several of Cleveland's and Akron's top current food bloggers; Chef Prpich was tasked with putting together the menu. We had originally scheduled the dinner for a Tuesday in December before the Christmas holiday, but because of bad weather, had to reschedule to last Tuesday. At 6:30 PM, representatives from six blogs, evenly split between Akron and Cleveland, convened at the restaurant for what would be a nine course tasting menu.

Here was a list of the courses we were to be served tonight:

Chowder House Cafe Blogger Dinner Menu
Wisely, Louis put together a list of roughly half of the items coming from his seasonal menu and half what he would consider "specials" that might rotate in and out depending on ingredient availability. Before starting the meal, the chef came out and gave us a nice background of the highlights of his culinary career. Having graduated from Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, he had founded and run several kitchens in the Cleveland and Akron area, including the original Grotto location in The Valley, Coaches, and Office Bistro. It was in 2009 he decided to open Chowder House Cafe as a small little cafe featuring fresh seafood and homemade cuisine that would still allow him to balance his work and personal life. The cafe has been such a hit, however, that they've already expanded into another area of the building and grown from a small, one page menu to two full pages of seasonal, sustainable, locally purchased food whenever possible.

Introductions now finished, he directed our attention to the first course, soup. We each had our choice of the signature potato-less clam chowder, the lobster bisque, or the traditional French onion soup. Having already had the clam chowder, I went for the French Onion Soup:

French Onion Soup
Topped with a crouton and melted and bubbly cheese, the soup was delicious. The onions were soft, the broth was both slightly sweet and savory, and it really did a good job of warming my soul on this cold wintry night. I heard moans of gastronomic ecstasy from diners around me, equally enjoying their soup selection. When you go, gentle reader, start your meal off with a bowl of soup. You won't go astray.

Our second course was Crudo:

Consisting of thin slices of raw tuna, scallops, and walleye, the fish had been dressed with Meyer lemon and olive oil and topped with a warm, wilted arugula salad. The fish was immaculately fresh and gave off no hint of off-smells or flavors. In fact, the flavors were remarkably clean and blended together quite harmoniously. The wilted salad also gave a nice temperature contrast to the fish. Chef Louis had clearly designed tonight's menu to impress and by the end of course two, every single person sitting at that table was definitely salivating for more.

Our third course was a Portobello Streudel using fresh phyllo dough from Athens Food and served with a small salad and a pool of house-made demi:

Portobello Streudel
The mushrooms had been poached in cabernet sauvignon and mixed with Provolone before being wrapped in these burrito-esque logs and subsequently baked until perfectly golden brown. The phyllo was so delicate that the outer layers broke into a thousand little shards when I first lowered my fork into the streudel. The filling was rich and earthy, and the Provolone lent a nice creaminess to the filling. The veal demi-glace saucing the plate added another layer of richness and flavor.

For our fourth course, Chef Louis gave us the second of what would be five courses involving seafood, Baked Oysters:

Baked Oysters
These were Chincoteaque oysters that had been shucked, topped with spinach, bacon, Manchego, and sherry cream and then broiled until golden brown. Each diner got three oysters and I have to tell you, these were rich and decadent. Each of the ingredients lent its own flavor without taking away from any of the others. The oyster, essentially protected on the bottom by the shell and the top from the toppings, were plump and juicy.

For our fifth course, plates of Crabcakes with Oven Roasted Creamed Corn arrived at our table:

This was an interesting plate of food. While the crab in the crabcakes had come already pre-picked and packaged, there was also no filler in the cake itself. This led the cake to have a very intense crab flavor. Normally paired with a sauce remoulade, the creaminess instead came from the creamed corn, infused with cream and Adams Reserve white cheddar cheese. The small salad in the back of the plate had cleverly been dressed with a jalapeƱo vinaigrette, adding a modicum of chile heat that caused it to pop on my taste buds.

Our sixth course was an item that I have actually never had before, line caught Wild Shark:

Wild Shark
Seared nicely and finished in the oven until perfectly cooked, the fish had the texture of swordfish. Had one sworn off of meat in favor of fish, this particular dish would satisfy that primal urge for meat. The Caribbean spice-rubbed shark filet was served over a julienned vegetable medley of baby leeks, bok choy, and red peppers and finished with a ponzu fish sauce. This was an interesting pairing of protein and vegetables and up until this point in my life, I would have expected to see something like salmon in its place. The shark, however, stood up well to the other flavors on the plate.

It was also at this point in the meal where the chef stopped and informed us that he always tries to make responsible choices for the fish he serves at the restaurant. Believing firmly in the role of sustainability, he pointed to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch website to determine which fish he bought and which he passed on. I am in total agreement that this is a great website which I use all the time when determining which fish selection I will be having for the evening. Since the website is perfectly browsable on my smartphone, I have it with me wherever I go.

By this point in the dinner, the strain on our guts was beginning to manifest itself with moans from the diners and physical stretches to make sure we had room for the remaining three courses. Course number seven was a recent addition to Chowder House's menu, Cassoulet:

This incredibly hearty meat and bean casserole had been made with chicken and homemade pork sausage, confitted in duck fat and stewed with white beans before being topped with a garlic-infused, almost Panko-like bread crumb and toasted to utter perfection. It was interesting to note that when Chef Louis originally put this on the menu and made it with the more traditional ingredient, duck, he could barely move them out of the kitchen. Changing the protein to chicken and pork sausage apparently made this dish highly accessible because it is now a wonderful seller. After tasting the earthy, creamy, rich and complex flavors, I could tell why. While the crudo course was probably one of my favorites for how light and delicate it was, the cassoulet course was right up there for the complexity and depth of flavor.

Our eighth, and final savory, course was a Proscuitto-Wrapped Monkfish over House Stewed Tomatoes:

Monkfish with Stewed Tomatoes
Monkfish is considered to be a "poor man's" lobster. It has a similar texture, but I find it isn't quite as sweet as lobster meat can be. That being said, the monkfish was cooked properly and more importantly, served over the most luscious stewed tomatoes that I have ever eaten. When Chef Prpich stopped back in to check on us, he told us that during the late summer months, when tomatoes are at their peak, the restaurant madly stews and jars these tomatoes for the cold winter months. Sadly, he informed us that they are about to run out of their reserves of this dynamite condiment until the summer months bless us once again with ripe tomatoes. The tomatoes were acidic, savory, unctuous and sweet all at the same time. Simply amazing.

Our gargantuan task nearly completed, there always seems to be room for dessert, right? Our ninth course was the classic Creme Brulee, Chowder House-style:

Vanilla Creme Brulee
The creme brulee itself was fairly standard, but the inclusion of a cayenne and chocolate tuille and a cocoa infused whipped cream really amped the dish up. The vanilla infused custard was super smooth and creamy and the tuille added a nice textural contrast to the dish. The only part of this dish I was a little disappointed with was the lack of chili kick from the cayenne pepper. Otherwise, this was a fantastic way to end our journey from "soup to nuts." While it's obvious that Chef Prpich had time to prepare for us and present only his best dishes, I think I can safely say that our expectations were equally as high coming into this meal. Having sat through this momentous meal, I can safely say that he delivered with aplomb.

Our meal at its inevitable conclusion, we thanked our host and servers, left a tip for the waitstaff that we thought was commensurate with the value of the food we had eaten tonight, and headed back out into the cold January air. Going into the dinner, I already knew two of the other food bloggers in attendance. One of the benefits of tonight's meeting was the opportunity to meet three more. The incredibly cool thing about these dinners is that in addition to being able to talk about the cuisine of a local chef or restaurant, you get to hang out with some very cool people.

As I have done in the past, I highly recommend you check out Chowder House Cafe. The restaurant is incredibly charming, the chef has the desire to present local, seasonal, and sustainable food in a way that truly highlights the ingredients, and the vibe of the place is ... well, just really cool. They currently don't have an alcohol license, but the chef informed us before we left that they are working on the final stages of getting a beer license. Of course, should you want wine or beer with dinner, you are free to bring your own and they will charge you a nominal corkage fee for opening and storing your beverage of choice.

I encourage you to check out the other bloggers' entries regarding last Tuesday's dinner. Links to their articles are provided for your convenience:

* Interesting Akron
* Carano's Cucina
* Fun Playing With Food
* The Chubby Cook
* Eating Around Town

(I'll update this list as more articles post, so check back.)


Bite Buff said...

Was sad to miss it! Thanks again for the invitation and I hope there's another in the future. Great review.

AJ Halliwell said...

I tried this place for the first time recently after hearing about them at a downtown Akron cooking presentation for a Holiday event. I loved it! My only issue is that they do not accept credit card, I had to (got to) pay with a check for the first time in my life. But the food was stupendous!

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

I deleted my first post. Wanted to say I love your blog. Just to clarify, was the chef serving Spiny Dogfish, specifically from the BC area? Thanks, and keep up the good work.

Tino said...

@Chris: I read your first comment and felt it wasn't out of line at all. I simply took Chef Prpich at his word about sustainability (et al) and didn't bother to look up the Monterey Bay Aquarium's seafood watch list ... when I did, I discovered the same bit of information you did.

I've sent off an email to Chef Prpich to see what he has to say. It could very well be a nomenclature issue. As soon as I have an answer, I'll post an update here in the comments.

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