Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fun Playing with Food in the Dark

Cleveland's place as a jewel among food towns just got a little higher and a little brighter. And all because we ate in the dark. Well, not exactly - the name of the event was "Dinner in the Dark," and the concept was that a bunch of Cleveland chefs would take over a restaurant and cook what they wanted to cook, for a change. They and their restaurants donated all of the labor, and worked with their purveyors to obtain donated food, and wine (the wine purveyor also donated proceeds on retail wine bottle sales) so that a donation could be made to a worthy charity at the end of the evening. The concept grew from there, and Bob and I were among 60 or so lucky participants in the first event, Monday night. For $50 per person, a full house at Brian Okin's Verve Restaurant got to enjoy a six+ course dinner paired with wines. The evening offered several opportunities to direct additional revenues to the chosen charity, Veggie U. And to top it all off - Mister The Chef's Garden - The Culinary Vegetable Institute  - Veggie U. himself, Farmer Lee Jones, was in the house! And as if that wasn't enough - Farmer Jones provided all of the produce for the dinner. We couldn't wait to taste.

Autumn Snapper - Joe Deluca from Apothecary

This welcoming cocktail consisted of Aperol, Campari, Cinar (Artichoke Liquor), Freshly Pressed Honey Crisp Apples, Heirloom Tomatoes, and Micro Parsley.

Bob was the first in our group to say something to the effect of, "the heck with ceremony - I'm tasting these tomatoes in the bottom of the glass." We who followed his lead were well rewarded by amazing tomato flavor.

Amuse Bouche: Stuffed Micro Bell Pepper

This delectable morsel was prepared by Chef Brian Toomey of Verve. Chef's Garden Micro Bell Pepper was stuffed with a combination of Butternut Squash-Goat Cheese Puree, Pepita (Pumpkin Seed) and Bacon - an auspicious beginning!

Garlic Pudding - Chef Matt Mathlage of Light Bistro

Heirloom garlic pudding, gai lan (Chinese Broccoli) sauteed in duck fat, pesto broth, compressed squash, rye bread puree, pickled black radish. Now, I love garlic, so the notion of Garlic Pudding was just fine with me.  I loved the perfect balance of pungent garlic and creamy pesto, offset by the gentle bitterness of the broccoli.  My dining companions were wowed by the pickled radish (I'm not a huge radish fan myself). The only negative any of us could come up with was the lack of bread to scrape every bit of the goodness off of the bottom of the serving bowls!

Pig Ear - Chef Chris Hodgson of Dim and Den Sum

A certain Cleveland chef  appears on a Food Network show called "The Best Thing I Ever Ate." If I was on that show (or picking a dish for it), these pig ears, confited in duck fat and served with roasted delicata squash, dandelion greens and frisee, sour polenta, pepper & lemon vinaigrette, would have a starring role. The texture of Chef Hodgson's pig ear was like no other pig's ear I've ever sampled before, bringing together intense creaminess with crispy porkiness. Some of it actually stuck to my teeth - and I liked it, I liked it!!

Deconstructed Caesar Salad: Lettuce, Flash Fried Egg Yolk, Egg White Meringue, White Anchovy, Crouton, Olive Oil - Chef Adam Bostwick of Melange

Another amazing dish. Though my flash-fried egg yolk was not runny as the Chef intended, it was the exception among our group, and still tasted delicious. The deconstructed dressing worked nicely, in part, because the white anchovy popped with flavor without overpowering the other ingredients.


This Lemon Verbana Sorbet was the second contribution from Chef Brian Toomey of Verve. It was exquisite, and the perfect way to clean said popping white anchovy off of the palate.

Dry Pack Scallops with Coconut Curry Sauce, Heirloom Cauliflower, Moroccan Oil - Chef Brandt Evans of Blue Canyon Restaurant

IMHO, Brandt Evans is the undisputed sea scallop king of Cleveland - no one makes them better.  The curry sauce added to the flavor parade, and the radish garnish was sliced so thinly that even I could enjoy it. That heirloom cauliflower burst with so much good flavor that Bob actually tracked Farmer Jones down in the Men's Room to learn where he might get seeds for next year's garden. Ok, I lied - it was happenstance that they met and discussed the cauliflower in that location. But yes, it was that tasty.

Short Rib with Chocolate Sauce, Polenta, Root Vegetables, Sorrel - Chef Jeff Jarrett, North End Hudson

We should have been too full to do justice to this plate. Still - the aroma, as the servers began to distribute them, got us all salivating. While the concept of beef and chocolate is hardly novel, Chef Jeff Jarrett really nailed this one and made it his own. Was it the chocolate-infused sauce? The melt-in-your-mouth beef?  The creamy, yet toothy polenta? The amazing vegetables, featuring turnips that had us oohing and ahhing (and who oohs and aahs over turnips, after all?)? I have no idea - but I think that I could happily eat a plate of this dish for dinner every day during the winter and never tire of it.

Beet Cake with Creme Fraiche Ice Cream and Chocolate Ganosh - Chef Ellis Cooley, AMP 150

Yes, you read that correctly - Beet Cake. A flour and sugar dessert, starring beets. Another brilliant use of the garden from Chef Ellis Cooley. Though the ice cream melted swiftly, the taste was worth the hurry to eat it (and the cake loved being immersed in the creamy puddle that remained). Chocolate provided the counterpoint, as did the "tire track" of candied garden flavor across the top of the plate.

The first Dinner in the Dark embodied the very concept of Fun Playing With Food, and both the Chefs and the diners had way too much fun! We also learned a little bit more about Veggie U, which takes the gardening experience into public school classrooms around the country by setting them up with the start of a fully functional garden (including composting materials). Veggie U. thus tries to bridge the knowledge and experience gap for school children who are otherwise part of the national disconnect between human beings and the food we eat.  I cannot imagine a more worthy cause for people passionate about food.

The next Dinner in the Dark is scheduled for November 15, 2010 at Verve. I do not know the chef lineup or the charity to benefit yet - but reservations are highly recommended.


  1. I'm hungry all over again. what a great event. looking forward to November's "Dinner in the Dark"!

  2. It sounds like it was a great event, and a huge success for the three chefs behind the concept. I was sorry to miss it, but I plan on attending an upcoming one!

  3. Perfect reflection on the meal, Nancy.

    I agree with your assertion that Brandt is the king of scallops. The first time I had scallops that made me take notice (other than fresh ones)were ones prepared by him many years ago at Kostas (sp?)

  4. The Micro Bell Pepper just made my mouth water. That looked and sounded so good!

  5. Sounds like a great event. I love your descriptions of food and photographs. Like the look of the drink and micro bell starter.