September 29, 2011 § Leave a comment
I’m pretty sure that the best part of street food Thursdays in Atlanta is the pop up chef tent at 999 Plaza on 10th & Peachtree. Since it rotates out every week with a multitude of talented chefs serving up a limited special menu, you’re likely to get something more interesting than you’ll get from the food trucks. At the very least, it adds some variety, and it’s temporary so there’s that allure of limited time only sampling that gets the best of me. It’s also a great opportunity to chat with the people who make your food in a great laid-back environment that you don’t always get a chance to do in the restaurant. I had the luxury of some good conversations with the crew there today for certain.
I missed the Miller Union tent the last time it was there months ago, but I heard that what I believe was pulled pork and corn cakes was quite good–good enough that they’ve not been lost in the memory of the person who ate them and they feel the need to fondly remind me of their transient existence. I was determined not to miss it this time, and I was pretty intrigued to hear that gumbo was on the menu.
If you weren’t aware, my father is Cajun and I grew up in Louisiana. Gumbo is one of those things that’s extremely near and dear to me to the point of being sacred. I know visitors in Louisiana talk about how good the Cajun food is there, but honestly, I find the gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish etouffee at most restaurants that I have tried to be disappointing at best. It is extremely rare that I even bother with a Cajun restaurant because it’s just not the same as what it is at home. I know it’s easy for everyone to believe that what they grew up on was the best, but there really is a soul and a spirit in a properly made gumbo. It can be anything and everything in there, but it shouldn’t be, and it’s really all about the technique that make it good. The stock and the roux are key, and it’s not often that you can find that perfect harmony outside of a good home kitchen for some reason. The first time I was blown away by gumbo that wasn’t my father’s was at that special meal I had at Kerageorgiou’s La Provence. It was velvety and rich with a lovely stock base that made it warm and comforting. Ever since then even sampling some of Prejean’s in Lafayette that was reasonably good, but way too rich and heavy, I’ve just been at a loss. So going into this experience with Satterfield’s version, I was intrigued, but unsure due to my history of dissapointment. He and the Miller Union crew have not let me down in the past, though, so I had good faith in what I was sampling.
The rest of the special menu was kind of nice as well and the prices were really reasonable. I was happy to see that there was a fresh salad that could accompany the meal too and figured if it wasn’t too heavy I’d delve into the sweet portion of the menu to give their desserts another go. $10 for three courses? You can’t argue with that!
The first thing I noticed was the lovely reddish color from the dark roux, and I could see that the texture was velvety and spoon-coating just the way I prefer it. Taste confirmed that the texture was sublime and certainly evoked the version of the La Provence gumbo from nearly twenty years ago in my memory. A proper amount of care went into the roux, and it was made with a tasty stock and the right melding of ingredients that came together in a nice unity that was rich with roux and depth of flavor but not too heavy. In a way it reminded me of the renowned farm egg’s delicate balance in the way the flavors worked well together within a velvety texture, only it was playing with a deeper spectrum of tones.
Interrupting the velvety base were the two bits of bay leaf that I had to remove; however, this inconvenience made me smile a little bit due to familiarity. When you pluck a bay leaf out of your mouth when eating gumbo, it strangely feels right. Simply adorned with fresh okra, green onions, and bites of chicken, this gumbo felt effortless and not overdone which is perhaps why it wins my approval.
I got a chance to chat with Chef Satterfield about the gumbo, and he talked about his own subpar gumbo experiences in New Orleans and shared a few of his techniques with me including the addition of okra at the beginning as well as at the end and a lighter, finer flour for the roux. I was also informed that they make their own andouille in house, and that this was now on their dinner menu with oysters, shrimp, and andouille. I put my stamp of approval on this version, so I’m pretty confident that one is every bit as good. Please let me know if you check it out; I’m curious as to how someone with a different gumbo past perceives this version.
Also, not to let the salad go unmentioned: it was a simple, refreshing, and pretty trademark farm to table staple. The field peas and green beans were super fresh and mingled with the juice from the slices of late summer heirlooms adorned simply with salt and a tiny bit of basil. When your ingredients are this good, they just play well with each other without much interference.
Unfortunately for my caloric intake of the day, I had a little bit of room for dessert, and I got pressured into consuming the combo of two desserts: banana pudding ice cream and chocolate peanut bar. After I mentioned my previous disappointment in their ice cream in the past, I found myself in a pretty involved conversation about ice cream. The important note was that they had changed their recipe all around, so I was encouraged to try the new version. I can say with authority that it has much improved. They say they swapped the cream and milk ratio and got rid of some of the egg yolk. What resulted was the flavoring ingredient of the ice cream wasn’t drowning in what tasted like butter and was instead happily coexisting with the cream. It was a tiny bit on the icy side, but it had more of an old-fashioned back porch feel and I liked that the bits of wafer still had a bit of bite left to them and I was able to bite down into some creamy bits of frozen banana. The chocolate bar was really simple, but there was a really nice quality to the chocolate and it was deep without being heavy. The texture was nice and silky and chocolate was the clear star with little bits of fibrous oat bits dotted through for texture. Apparently, this was a family recipe from Satterfield’s home, and it had that nice family picnic feel to it.
Final Verdict: Miller Union conquers gumbo, improves their desserts, and gives me some fresh vegetable love on the side. What more could this girl want?
For more of my thoughts on Miller Union, check out my other post.
September 2, 2011 § Leave a comment
This dinner was a surprise event that I had the joy of attending. As much as I adore Flip for what it is, I’ve been anxious to see a little more of Blais’ work unfettered beyond the inventive burger fare since I wasn’t around Atlanta to experience his previous restaurants here. I was hoping that when he won Top Chef All Stars that he would grace Atlanta with his new restaurant. What was presented to us this evening as part of the summer chef series at One Midtown Kitchen involved a few dishes from Drew Van Leuvan as well as a few dishes from Richard Blais that featured some riffs on praised Top Chef dishes as well as some hints of what to expect from him at The Spence which is due to open in January of 2012. As a special treat, we had the rare experience of having a brief introduction to each dish from the chefs which made the meal feel like so much more of a guided journey.
One Midtown Kitchen
welcomes Richard Blais for summer chef series
It was difficult to know what to expect from this dinner, and I wanted to really guess what this was going to taste like before I ate it knowing full and well that it was going to probably be entirely different than what I imagined it would be. The menu described it simply as “sour orange,” and we were warned amply that it needed to be consumed at once or else it had the potential to make a mess. I presumed based on a frosty appearance that this was going to be cold or frozen in some way, but to my surprise it was entirely room temperature. The “rind” encapsulating a rush of unadulterated sour orange juice was made up of a waxy white chocolate cocoa butter which dissolved quickly against the warmth of your mouth, and what appeared a tiny bite felt as if it contained a quite bit of mildly sour juice inside. First, you tasted the warm, buttery, waxy chocolate which subsided under the burst of juice before melting into the chocolate flavor again. It took a fair amount of white chocolate to achieve this affect, so it was by far the most lingering of the flavors. It seemed like a take on those wax bottle candies from childhood only far more edible. As interesting as it was, it felt a strange thing to start with as it was sweet and palate-coating, but I certainly enjoyed the experience nonetheless.
Oyster and Pearls
This was one of the riffs on the dishes that was featured on the finale of Top Chef and was reported to be a homage to Thomas Keller’s dish by the same name. A raw pacific northwest oyster was dressed with a refreshing watermelon mignonette and adorned with liquid nitrogen-created horseradish pearls. Blais wanted to let us experience something that we saw on the show, and yet he was anticipating that the nitrogen tricks that helped him gain popularity will be his “Free Bird” request that he’ll be destined to play over and over throughout the rest of his career. A quick, clean, earthy bite of small raw oyster beauty rested on a “sand” of cornmeal was accented with the little dippin dots of horseradish cream. The beauty of the pearls was that they kept the coldness within the bite and allowed for a variety of cool temperatures at once while distributing a tiny horsey kick. This dish was creative in concept and execution while being elegant and refined, and I agree that he will likely be destined to have it in his repertoire for years to come.
sapelo island clam, smoked scallop, bouchot mussels, burrito melon, chocolate coppa
pairing: plantagenet hazard hill sauvignon blanc semillon, 2009, Australia
Chef Van Leuvan presented us with earthy flesh of tender mussels, clams, and scallops with thin slices of smoky dry-cured capicola resting on a slice of mildly spiced watermelon in a bed of shellfish-stock cream and fried scallions. There were a lot of flavors going on in this dish, but all of them were in just subtle enough of proportions that they played well with each other. What intrigued me most was that this jogged a food memory of gumbo. My father has always made delicious shellfish stocks, and there was something about the flavor of the cream and the way it combined with the flour-coated fried scallions that reminded me of a velvety-rich roux and stock. I don’t know if deconstructed gumbo was on the agenda here, but it got me thinking about how that could be an interesting concept.
crispy sweetbreads, pickled radish, smoked aioli
pairing: barco negro douro, 2008, Portugal
Another classic Top Chef-praised dish from Chef Blais involved the pairing of raw hamachi with crisply fried sweetbreads. This was a surf and turf of elegant proportions as the clean, creamy texture of the hamachi played well with the earthy creaminess of the sweetbreads with a layer of soft crunch between the two. There was an additional contrast between the chilled hamachi and the warm sweetbreads. Pickled radishes added some acid and the smoked, creamy aioli rounded out the flavor profiles. A clean, surprisingly light dish with a unique but worthy pairing is something that I’m sure Chef Blais will be evolving and riffing on for years to come. It’s a mystery to me how this was inspired by the bad canned tuna from his childhood, but hey, if such a memory can propel you this far forward perhaps it all worked out for the best.
I was, however, a little surprised to see this paired with a red wine, but it was light enough that it sort of worked.
prawns, beef belly, burrata
pairing: morgadio albarino, 2008, Spain
As soon as the plate was set before me, I was delighted to smell lots of fennel. This is a dish that Blais considered comfort food from a past where we was claiming an Italian heritage. The orecchiette resembled gnocchi in appearance and melt-away texture and was swathed in a “Sunday dinner” ragu flavored with beef belly and prawns and peppery notes. The little pillow of house-made burrata melted into a cream when prodded which allowed it to migrate its custardy self all over the dish. As lovely as it was and as fennel-happy as I was, I got the short end of the protein stick and don’t recall any actual meat in my dish. I heard from other diners that they had some nice tender bits, but the lack of that is probably something that just happens when you simultaneously serve about 200 diners.
Once again, however, I wasn’t crazy about the wine which was a little muscat-y and fought with the warmth of the flavors.
Chateau of Beef Ribeye
New Yorkshire pudding, chanterelle, onion
pairing: ceago cabernet sauvignon, camp masut, 2002, California
The protein faerie smiled upon me to make up for the previous course with a larger portion of ribeye than my companions. It was so large that it seemed to have taken a little gluttonous roll through the sauce on its way to the table. It even seemed a little more cooked than the much more rare slices I saw on the table as another presumed result of the high-volume simultaneous service, but to my delight was perfectly delicious just as it was and melted away effortlessly. Every bite was consistent. Blais informed us that the beef was slow-cooked for 10 hours and finished on a wood grille. This gave it a magnificent caramelized smoky crust on the outside and yet held on to rich moistures within. The New Yorkshire cornbread pudding was enhanced further with the essence of truffles which is always welcome, and the plate was dotted with a pickled cherry ketchup, pickled onions, and some woodsy chanterelles. It was a whimsical move to add the enhanced barbecue-esque ketchup, and the sweet acidic play worked for a bit of tangy brightness and did play with the comforting combination of having ketchup with red meat.
green tea, jasmine tea, white chocolate, pistachio, cherry, peach
pairing: toro albala fino electrico, spain
Sadly, a lovely progression of dishes came to an unhappy ending with this dessert. Sorry, Chef Van Leuvan. I believe that somewhere and somehow these flavors had potential to work, but because the room temperature tea mousse-custard was so unbearably grainy it was difficult to get past the texture to experience the flavors. The graininess even projected itself on the peach which could have been ripe and lovely on its own, but it was just lost in the floral tea notes and brushed with graininess. If you dug down to the pistachio, that area was lightly sweet and possibly mealy, but it was so dominated by the tea that it didn’t matter. I believe there is potential here, but I don’t know what went wrong. Everyone at our table agreed that we would have preferred the sour orange here instead.
On top of this, the wine was overly woodsy and almost harshly scotch-like which felt strange in a white wine served at dessert and was a strange note to end on. I can sort of see how the idea of this might work with tea flavors, but overall it was just unpleasant.
I really like the direction that Chef Blais is going with his dishes and his idea of elegant and refined comfort foods. The only thing that I was dissatisfied with were some of the strange wine pairings, so hopefully that will be different at the restaurant. This preview could have easily suffered from execution mistakes that can come with such a large service, but I didn’t feel any real negative effects and instead focused on how nice the food was. Another dish to expect from The Spence is duck confit, and he declared his will be better than my beloved Miller Union’s. We’ll see, Richard, but be assured that I’ll be ready to give your version a try as soon as I get the chance.