About one month ago, I attended the latest Dinner in the Dark dinner at Melange Restaurant in Beachwood. While the streets were snow-covered enough in Akron that employers were letting employees go home early, Cleveland's streets weren't too bad. Well, at 4:00 PM they weren't bad. When I left some time later that evening at 9:30 PM, my drive home was lengthy and treacherous. Really treacherous. That being said, was risking life and limb worth it for this latest installment from some of Cleveland's best chefs? You had better believe it.
As with all of the DITD dinners, there was a beneficiary involved. This time around it was the Rose-Mary Center, a charity dedicated to serving both children and adults with intellectual disabilities. This charity hits close to home for me as my younger sister has lived her entire life with intellectual disabilities. While she is fairly high functioning, she does need checked in on every now and again to make sure she is doing well. Were she living in Cleveland, I have no doubt that she might very well be served by this fantastic organization.
As I mentioned earlier, I arrived quite early at the restaurant and after explaining who I was and why I was there, was invited to sit at the bar and work on my little netbook. When the appropriate time finally rolled around (6:30 PM), I was shown to our table in the corner of the restaurant and I took my seat and prepared my camera to start taking snapshots. First on the docket, of course, was tonight's menu. On the first side was a description of Dinner In The Dark, the charity it would be serving, and a list of tonight's amuse bouche and opening cocktail:
As always, the back side contained a list of chef's and their primary ingredient in the form of a small image:
Within a few moments of arriving at the table, our opening cocktail of the evening arrived, Trouble with Truffles:
A joint effort from Joseph Deluca and Tobin Northrup, this ruby red concoction consisted of freshly juiced beets and carrots mixed with fat washed Boru vodka that had been infused with truffles. In true margarita-style, the rim of the champagne flute had been rimmed with salt and pepper. While certainly an inventive and very earthy drink, the combination of flavors was a bit odd to my palate. It wasn't bad, per se, I just don't think I would be ordering another.
We didn't have to wait long for the onslaught of food to begin and only minutes later, Adam Bostwick, co-executive chef at Melange, started us out with his play on Buffalo-style chicken wings:
This was actually not a chicken wing, but a Frenched frog leg that had been soaked in buttermilk, coated in flour and fried until crispy. It was served over a blue cheese sauce and hot sauce and plated with some micro carrot and celery salad. The meat was succulent and juicy and the combination of playful flavors on the plate worked very well together. As an amuse bouche should be, it was a bite or two of intensely flavored food that made us all crave the next course.
Matt Creghton, the other co-executive chef at Melange, provided us with the first course, a Hot and Sour Fish and Noodle Soup which was paired with a Balletto Pinot Gris from Sonoma:
The bowls actually arrived at the table sans soup and after placing one in front of each guest, a server armed with a pitcher individually filled each soup bowl, softening the rice noodles on the spot. The fish was Paku, a relative of the barracuda. The ribs had been cooked to absolute perfection and the flavor of the meat was rich and powerful. The level of spice and piquancy from the soup broth matched the fish meat perfectly and had I eaten a bigger portion of this for my entire meal, I would have been in heaven. Hands down, this was probably one of the most perfect renditions of hot and sour soup I think I have ever had.
Our second course for the evening was presented by Brian Doyle, chef at World's Fair Culinary, and was a playful rendition of that classic Bugs Bunny cartoon, "Rabbit season! Duck season!" It was paired with a P.B. Hein Syrah from Suisun Valley, California:
This was rabbit meat that had been confitted in duck fat before being wrapped in caul fat and crisped up in the pan for service. Joining in the fun were a parsnip and burdock sauce, a carrot ginger emulsion, baby radishes and carrots, and some micro celery and chervil. It's quite a mouthful to say and it was quite a mouthful to eat. The rabbit was tender, the duck fat lent a wonderful mouth feel, and the carrot ginger emulsion had enough acidity and bite to clean the tongue after the richness from the meat. The parsnip puree was equally as luscious, coating my taste buds with the sweet vegetal flavor from the transformed root vegetables.
Our third course tonight, the salad course, came to us via Chef Eric Wells from Skye Larae's Culinary Services, and was a Mixed Greens Salad over a Crouton with Miso Vinaigrette. It was paired with a Los Loros Torrontes from Calchaquies Valley in Argentina:
For something that was so simple, this dish packed a lot of flavor. Mixed greens, citrus segments, sourdough crouton, and miso vinaigrette were all that adorned the plate, but each bite was packed with flavor. The only real negative here was that the crouton was a bit thick and because of it being toasted, was a bit hard to cut through, even with a knife. The vinaigrette had been applied with a careful hand and just like any properly dressed salad, when I finished the food on the plate, not a drop of leftover vinaigrette could be found.
The intermezzo came next, a simple granita from Ashley Young:
Each spoon contained a combination raspberry, blueberry, strawberry, and blackberry granita that had been topped with a bit of tarragon sugar and finished with a half blueberry for garnish. The balance between the acidity and sweetness was spot on and this was an excellent way to cleanse our palates halfway through the meal.
The first half of the meal now behind us, we focused our efforts on powering through to the end. The fourth course was served by Chris Hodgson, owner and chef of the Dim and Den Sum foodtruck and was a Lobster Pot Pie. It was paired with a Willowbrook Pinot Noir from Sonoma:
The light and flaky puff pasty crust cracked under fork pressure to reveal large pieces of lobster meat, potatoes, celery, carrots, bacon, and a heady seafood-based liquid. The liquid was a bit on the loose side for my idea of what a proper "pot pie" should be, but there was no denying that it was delicious. As is the case with all seafood, during the consumption of this dish, I discovered one or two small bits of lobster shell in the dish, which I discreetly put aside on the side of the plate.
Our final savory course was presented to us by chef and owner of Spice of Life Catering, Ben Bebenroth and was a Seared Pork Loin Medallion served over Sweet Potato Mash with an Heirloom Bean Salad on top. It was paired with a Blue Nose Zinfandel from Sonoma (lots of Sonoma love here tonight, no?):
The savoriness from the pork matched so well with the subtle sweetness from the sweet potato mash. The beans had a bit of a bite to them without being starchy and the roasted poblano chiles added a subtle heat that permeated every bite. If it weren't for the fact that we were one amuse, one intermezzo, and five courses into the meal, I probably would've eaten the entire portion. As it was, I ate about half before declaring a decisive, "Uncle!" Besides, I knew I needed to save room for dessert.
And before I knew it, Katie Pickens, Sous Chef at Lola Bistro, was out with her Meyer Lemon Tart and Sorbet with Bruleed Grapefruit and Salted Caramel. It was paired with a Cloudy Cape Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand:
She had cleverly placed the tiniest bit of lavender on the one edge of the lemon tart. While too much lavender in a dish can immediately conjure up images of sucking on a bar of soap, Katie's deft use of the herb showed that she knew exactly what she was doing. The lemon and lavender flavors truly reinforced one another without overpowering either one. The custard was semi-soft and oozed slightly as I cut into the tender crust. The primary flavor of the dessert was lemon, but with the acidity from the grapefruit as well as the sweetness from the salted caramel, every taste bud cluster on my tongue was electrified.
With that final course came the raffle at the end of the evening as well as the checks. Dinner tonight was $65 plus tax and tip, so it wasn't an inexpensive meal. However, given the level of food, the great charitable cause, and the general level of fun I always seem to have at these once-per-month dinners, I definitely think it was well worth it. Note that the next event will be held at Bistro on Lincoln Park in Tremont on Monday, March 21st at 6:30 PM. While in the past, all you simply had to do was call the hosting restaurant and make a reservation, the organizers have decided to employ a TicketMaster-esque analog called EventBrite to handle payment for your seats ahead of time. While I certainly don't mind pre-paying for my spot at the table, the only downside I see with EventBrite is that it makes its money off of a per ticket fee, namely $5.50 per ticket in this case. So, a single ticket, with tax, tip, and fee will run you at about $86 per person.
I know that I've already bought my ticket for the next dinner and I hope that I might see you on Monday night for the next installment. There are still nine tickets remaining!