I’ve been to many a guest chef dinners over the years. They are hit or miss and rarely as good as a chef’s cooking at his or her own restaurant, which is where I typically, I prefer to go to try a chef’s cooking, but every once in a while a line-up of chefs comes along or an opportunity to try a chef’s food that I might not otherwise get to try at a particular dinner is too great to pass up. Such was the case for last week’s “Chefs Without Restaurants” dinner at Elements. Dinners like this are one of a kind, memorable and simply fun.
Scott Anderson of Elements has developed a deserved reputation for finding and using unusual and top quality ingredients in ways to bring out the best they have. This meal was no different with the added bonus of including other chefs, who also have a penchant for the same thing.
Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa of Ideas in Food don’t currently have a restaurant and haven’t had one in a few years. Instead, they have focused their creative energy on their must-read blog, Ideas in Food, a book of the same name, Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work, ghost-writing cookbooks for others and working on their second book as well as providing numerous professional cooking workshops and occasional dinners like this. I have been fortunate enough to have enjoyed their incredible food both at dinners like this one as well as at their and my homes. I will avail myself of whatever opportunity I can to eat what they create.
John and Karen Urie Shields came to my attention a few years ago when they started cooking at a small, out of the way, destination restaurant in Southwest Virginia and started receiving glowing reports. I eventually made my way to Town House during an epic Culinary March to the Sea and discovered that the reports were no exaggeration. Our meal was epic. In a rare turn for my household, my wife got to go back to Town House last summer and enjoyed an equally wonderful meal. The Shields left Town House this past winter with a plan to relocate along the eastern seaboard and open a restaurant of their own. Until that time, this would be a rare time to enjoy their food.
Curtis Duffy is a chef who has been on my radar since he left working at Alinea to succeed Graham Elliot Bowles at Avenues, where he earned two Michelin stars. Like the Shields, he left Avenues (last summer) to open his own restaurant. Duufy’s forthcoming restaurant, called “Grace” promises to be a major addition to Chicago’s and the nation’s fine dining scene. Duffy has not rushed to completion, making sure that all the details are attended to before the restaurant opens. I was excited to finally taste his food
Elements is a restaurant that was built in a building that was at one time a garage, but when owner, Steve Distler, built the restaurant along with Chef/owner Scott Anderson, they took the time to do it right. The result is a stellar kitchen with space and all the toys that a contemporary kitchen could want. The space really comes in handy, especially for dinners like this, at which many bodies utilized all the space available, including the area generally used as a kitchen dining area for diners lucky enough tom get to view the proceedings. The staff at Elements made all of the hors d’ouvres and cocktails served to the guests during a cocktail hour prior to the seating for the dinner. We were off to a fine start.
My wife and I were privileged to dine in the private dining room off the kitchen, joining my friend, the amazing human being and extraordinary photographer, Adam Goldberg (aka Adam G. or A Life Worth Eating) and three of his good friends. Aside from the superb company, the main advantage of this space for us, was freedom to raise the lights for our cameras. His photos (which put mine to shame) can be found here. The photo at the top of the post is of the light fixture in the center of the room.
The first course of the dinner, an amuse, was from Elements. called “Pansy” this smooth and silky treat was focused on the flavor and textures of jerusalem artichokes.
Beverage pairings were optional and at additional cost ($65) to the meal ($145pp). My wife and I had a pairing that we shared. The first pairing, to go with the amuse, was this cocktail. The hint of bitterness worked well with the sweetness of the jerusalem artichokes.
John Shields is a master of blending textures, temperatures and flavors and this dish was a prime example with a number of different elements complimenting each other. It was a dish both elegant and primal. The frosty radish milk was a revelation with the briny oyster and the earthy and oceanic greens. This was the kind of cooking I remembered from Town House and look forward to whenever he and Karen open their next venture.
Elements sommelier, Justin Kuruvilla, put together an interesting pairing list for this dinner starting with this lovely Muscadet to go with John Shields’ oyster dish. It was crisp and pleasant adding to the pleasure of the dish without distracting from it. There are times when wine could and should be the main focus, but at a dinner like this, they can be interesting, but should always work to support the dish.
Curtis Duffy’s first course was perhaps the most controversial one of the evening.
It was a beautiful presentation and texturally varied.
It was an elaborate preparation utilizing a number of ingredients. It covered a wide variety of tastes with each bite being different. Some of its elements were sweet enough that this dish could have been equally at home as a dessert, but it wasn’t really a sweet dish. My only issue was that amongst all the flavors, I really didn’t taste english pea! Truth is, this was a daring dish, especially in the context of a group guest chef dinner working in someone else’s kitchen and was amazingly successful given the context. It was a provocative course that I would love to experience again at Grace.
This was also a daring wine choice with a nose and flavors unlike any I had ever encountered before. While I’m not sure that this was a wine that I would care to drink everyday, I appreciated it in this context. The pairing with Chef Duffy’s dish worked.
The husband and wife team of Ideas in food is all about combining technique and ingredients to come up with new approaches. Rarely do they do anything conventionally, but only because of their passion for exploring boundaries of taste and texture.
This dish effectively combined a few unusual ideas to create something novel and delicious. Unripe green strawberries were pickled with Galliano and Champagne vinegar to create a strawberry totally unlike any I’d ever had. These were totally delicious and new, especially when combined with the rest of the dish. The beet at the center of the dish was chewy and intensely flavored. It had been steamed over aromatics then dehydrated.
When combined with the added sweet/sour tang of the concord grape kombucha, the mild bitterness of the walnut and the smooth creaminess of the yogurt, this was a killer flavor and texture combination.
A rosado sparkler, the cava from Juve y Camps was the perfect accompaniment to the beet dish.
Chef Duffy’s second dish was also daring, but ultimately less controversial. This was a seamless array of flavors that blended beautifully together. Duffy’s use of textural variety and contrast was strong as well. Aside from some individual aversion to licorice flavors (anise is a flavor like cilantro that people tend to either love or hate), the dish was universally considered delicious. I particularly enjoyed the citrus notes of the hibiscus, which had mild tannins and just enough sweetness.
The Chinon hit all the right notes with the scallop dish.
Veal Oscar is a classic dish. Alex and Aki re-interpreted the dish with tongue. They took veal tongue, seasoned it and cooked it for 24 hours, resulting in a supremely tender and tasty cut. Breaded tonkatsu style and paired with a variation of the classic dish, this was fun and delicious.
The Italian Merlot from Sant’ Elena was tasty, but managed to stay in its supporting role.
This dish, put together by Elements sous chef Michael Ryan was a real umami-bomb. From the incredible beef to the beef tea to the shiitake and everything else, this dish packed a meaty, flavor-filled punch. There was nothing shy about it and everything delicious. Little bits of crispness were supplied by tortilla niblets. This was a rocking delicious dish.
I was originally skeptical of serving a sake with the beef, but Sommelier Kuruvilla nailed this with the Takane Minori, manabito, kimoto junmai ginjo from Akita, Japan.
This first dessert, from Elements, was sweet, savory and packed just enough heat to make things interesting.
Karen Shields is an extraordinary pastry chef. Her work blends seamlessly with her husband’s and she like him, combines stellar technique with incredible imagination and creativity to come up with novel and delicious desserts. The ingredients that made this dish sing for me was the herbs. They brought the entire dish into balance. Not only did they add color, they subdued the otherwise wild sweetness of the candied carrot and muscavado sugar spread and made the whole sublime. Both elements fed off each other, as the herbs without the rest would not have been nearly so intriguing on their own.
This 2001 Vin Santo was a delicious way to wash down these lovely desserts.
Elements petits fours finished a wonderful meal. While there were some flaws, especially with plating, perfection is not the object of a meal like this. When plating so many dishes at once, there are bound to be imperfections and perhaps some plate to plate variability with flavor. That is inevitable. It was surprising how little variability there was. The food was delicious, provocative, fun and progressed in a way that seemed as if these chefs had been working together, devising combined menus for a long time. The menu flowed well from course to course. There was no clashing of styles, even as everyone maintained their own distinct styles and approaches. This was a harmonious kitchen despite the great potential for cacophony. Chef Scott Anderson was justified in his celebration. It was an exhilarating evening!