I have had the great fortune to have experienced the cooking of Alex & Aki and Shola on a number of occasions both fee-based and not and have come to know all of the them to the point of considering each of them a good friend. Being acquainted with them and their cooking, it has struck me for some time that they would work very well together in the kitchen. Their styles are complementary and their outlooks similar. I have been trying to get them to come up to my area together, but for various reasons doing so jointly had previously been unable to come to fruition. With the recent move of Alex & Aki to Buck's County, PA, essentially becoming neighbors to Shola, everything changed. Though it wasn't happen in my backyard, I was thrilled when I heard that they would be collaborating on a Studio Kitchen style dinner. I simply would not miss their first effort together, which as fortune would have it, would occur on the weekend just prior to my 50th birthday. What better way to start a celebration?!
I will post my experience in three parts, including the first post, published to provide a preview of the event.This post will focus on the food, offered under the theme, Shades of Green, Tastes of Spring and the last on Shola and Alex in the kitchen.
Upon entering the studio, introductions were made by and for those who had been previously unacquainted, while those who had previously been acquainted renewed those acquaintances under the anticipatory energy of the coming dinner. As with all previous Studio Kitchen dinners, guests were encouraged to bring libations to share. We started with a delicious little French bubbly.
After a period of time to get to know each other, we guests took our seats for dinner. The initial four courses were described as an amuse, but they were served separately and in succession.
The first dish, called "Liquid Lovage
" was a crisply flavored, delicious lovage soup that enveloped succulent crab, a combination heretofore unique to me and simply delightful, providing a sensational jumping off point for the rest of the meal to come. The dish captured spring on the palate and in it's palette, wearing the color that I like to call "incipient" green
"Mozzarella Pudding, frozen rhubarb, olive oil
" wasa nice concept with a pretty presentation. The most subtly flavored dish of the evening, however, was probably the least memorable dish for me. Neither a bomb nor a home run, this dish paled next to the others presented, yet it was still good. In another situation it may have excelled.
One of the reasons the mozzarella may have lagged was its placement between the snappy Liquid Lovage and this, "Cream of Watercress Ice Cream, sake cured steelhead trout roe (Blis), croissant croustillant
." This dish was the epitome of synergistic balance with the salty, smoky roe popping in the mouth, along side the slightly sweet peppery creaminess of the ice cream
and the crunchiness of the croustillant. This dish would thrive on either end of the menu.
"Wild King Salmon, pecorino, fava beans, pimenton" consisted of three main parts. The first was a slice of salmon sashimi, the second was a salmon tartare that incorporated oregano and the third, resembling wasabi, was a combination of favas, pecorino and pimenton. Those three ingredients along with lemon olive oil and some others were combined and ultimately extruded via the Paco Jet. The dish worked nicely. Somehow I neglected to photograph it myself. Fortunately, Shola was kind enough to let me use his photo.
The first four courses were paired with a Sake from Granville Island near Vancouver brought by David & Rachel from a recent trip. We drank the JunMai Nama which was excellent.
The first four plates were billed as amuses. The "meat" of the meal followed.
Once again, balance reigned with "Russet Potato Gnocchi, ramp leaves, country ham, shaved l'etivaz
." This dish was not one of contrasts working off each other, however. It was a seamless blend of silky, pillowed goodness. The benton ham provided some salty and smoky notes, but the over-riding sense of this dish was one of supple luxury.
"Wild King Salmon, grilled zucchini puree, lemongrass sabayon, rye bread" – how do they come up with these combinations? How can something like this work so well? I don't have the answer to either question, but clearly they do and I can attest that it does, very, very well. Justice was done for this magnificent salmon.
At this point I opened the first of the wines that we brought, a 2000 "Y" from Ch. D'YQuem. I brought this wine specifically, since I had brought one to my first Studio Kitchen dinner
on March 17, 2006. This was a tribute to that amazing dinner and experience. Despite the difficulty extracting the corks, the wine drank well. It was served with the following course.
"Chicken Marsala. egg yolk, morels, nasturtium" – this was not my father's chicken marsala, though it was no less enjoyable. The deceptively simple looking chicken was the product of an elaborate process. First chicken carcasses were pressure cooked with marsala wine and other ingredients to make a stock. This stock was then used to poach the morels, which were then set aside. The remaining liquid was reduced and pureed with the white and dark raw chicken meat, mixed with activa and set in blocks. The blocks were cooked sous vide, chilled then sliced thin. For service the silky, mortadella-like chicken ribbons were warmed in a C-Vap. The chicken itself contained all the flavors of a classic chicken marsala. Combining it with the morels, nasturtium leaves and a sauce from rich egg yolk created a delicious, fun and unique dish all their own.
This was the second wine we brought, 1997 Gaja Barbaresco
. Still in its youth it paired well with the next course, my favorite of the evening.
"Skirt Steak, honeydew melon, rosemary, fermented vadouvan" married perfectly cooked skirt steak with the plate's principle green element, the honeydew in sublime fashion. Cooked sous vide and finished on the grill, the meat melted in my mouth. The best part was that additional meat remaining after the initial plating was passed around for much appreciated seconds. The rosemary actually came from rosemary flowers, which left a lovely, yet subtle perfume. The vadouvan provided a perfect compliment.
This dish surprised even though the menu description was explicit. "Langres, strawberry-lychee mostarda, red ribbon sorrel
" clearly stated lychee and not rhubarb as one would expect from looking at the strawberries and considering the season. This was an original and tasty composed cheese course.
Our final wine of the evening, 1993 Royal Tokaji Co. Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos. Made from botrytised Furmint grapes, this was the dessert wine of choice for the Russian Czars. The 1993 vintage was one of the first after the fall of communism in Hungary. It provided an excell
ent much for the evening's final course.
Listed on the menu as "Aero Chocolate, blood orange infusion, crispy cashews", this was a tasty and satisfying dessert despite the fact that the "cashew" missed its intended "crispy" texture. It was chewy rather than crispy. Ironically, the texture worked anyway. The flavors were on and the chocolate was indeed light and airy. If any of the descriptions had to miss a little, then ththe cashew's was the best one to do so.
Ever since Ferran Adriá participated in a Q&A on eGullet in December of 2004, I have used a quote from that session in my eGullet signature: "Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster." Since then, Adriá has expounded further on that idea, emphasizing the pleasures of taking ordinary, non-luxury ingredients and using the alchemy of a chef, creating something special from them. With the possible exceptions of the beautiful wild Alaskan King Salmon and the morels, none of the ingredients utilized by Alex and Shola for this dinner can really be classified as "luxury." There were no truffles, foie gras, bluefin tuna, Wagyu beef or Ossetra caviar. Neither lobster nor Mediterranean gambas found their way onto the menu. That is not to say that the ingredients were poor or inferior. Far from it.The ingredients were chosen with care and were top quality. The Blis roe, though not readily available, are the product of a superior artisan who has taken relatively mundane ingredients and created something special. The same goes for the Benton ham, the vadouvan spice mixture, the cheeses and any other quality ingredient that was used to prepare this meal. The greatest alchemy, however, came from the minds and hands of Alex and Shola themselves. Their creations are original, beautiful and most of all delicious. Combine that with the intimate setting of Studio Kitchen, fine wines and great company and the result is an unforgettable evening. An experience like that makes a drive from upstate NY a no-brainer. I look forward to the possibility of making that trip many more times for any future collaborations between these talented individuals that may occur.