Saturday, April 25, 2009

Night of Flavor Exploration at ‘Taste of the Nation’

The Giants are out of town, but if the players were anywhere near their lockers this past Thursday night at AT&T Park, training regimens and fitness diets would definitely be out the door.

That’s because the Field Clubhouse—just a few steps down from the players locker room—played host to notable chefs from around the city for the Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation. The event was a two-parter: 1) a tasting event that ran from 6 to 8 p.m. at the clubhouse, and 2) a sit-down dinner at the nearby Acme Chophouse cooked by celebrity chefs like Traci Des Jardins, Michael Simon, Chris Cosentino and Gavin Kaysen.

The two events all benefit the Share Our Strength organization, which helps fight hunger among children in the United States.

I could only afford the tasting event, so my recap is focused primarily on that portion of the evening. But the exploration of the variety of mini bites was more than enough to keep me satisfied all evening.

This is my first time attending this annual fund-raiser, and the tasting event didn’t have a real organized feel to the layout. Restaurants were spread all over and drinks were on one side of the room, but it would have been nice if restaurants were organized by “greens,” “meats” and “sweets” for example.

Instead, I just ate whatever I ran into. One of the first bites I tried was this incredibly simple but tasty anchovy starter from Chef Staffan Terje of Perbacco. It was a cured local anchovy wrapped around a bit of farm egg and served with salsa verde. The local anchovy was meaty and flavorful, but not overly salty and it was balanced with the egg and salsa verde, which provided a slight acidity for balance. I admit I came back for a few more of these silvery slickers.

Another really nice starter—also featuring a farm egg—was a fava bean salad by the chefs from Coco 500. It was conveniently served on a cracker and topped with smoked bonito, which added a complexity of taste to what sounds like a real simple dish. A Mediterranean pinto bean salad from Zaré at Flytrap was quite filling, and Bar Tartine’s crudo made with sustainable Kona Kompachi was excellent. It was served with a light horseradish and fava beans. Waterbar’s Parke Ulrich served an Australian Kingfish tartar that was nice, but the portion was overwhelmed by the little gem lettuce holder, which was not so little.

A very elegant carrot soup was served up by Chef Mark Sullivan of Spruce. It was still warm when I got a taste, and it continued to warm you inside with the tumeric flavor and bits of dates and almonds.

On the opposite end of Sullivan’s warm carrot soup was the gazpacho served up by Top Chef contestant and Absinthe Chef Jamie Lauren. Lauren was also that night’s host for the tasting event, so she wasn’t always at her Absinthe station. But here’s a shot of the top of her head as she’s focused on prepping her white almond gazpacho with a Point Reyes clam in the bottom. The cold soup was pretty, creamy, rich and tasty.

Right next to Lauren’s station was another former Top Chef contestant, Jen Biesty of Scala’s Bistro. She was serving up a very delicious and meaty olive oil-poached prawn with a fennel puree and smoked sea salt. For drama she added spots of black aioli. Just an amazing small bite. (Sorry, all my pictures of Biesty in action came out blurry but both Lauren and Biesty look exactly like how they did on the show.)

Some of the more substantial dishes included, of course, mini lamb burgers (you can always count on someone making mini burgers at a party), also from Zaré at Flytrap. An interesting burger dish was the Pork Sugo Sloppy Joe from Chef Chris Behr of SPQR. True to its name, this Sloppy Joe was a mess to eat, but tasty. SPQR’s sister, A16, served up a traditional pork and beef meatball cooked up by Chef Liza Shaw. Offering a break from these Italian dishes was the pork belly buns (also kind of messy to eat but still tasty) from Charles Phan of Slanted Door and his new Heaven’s Dog.

I took a break from the munchies to get a much-needed drink. Several bars were serving up specialty mixed drinks, including Beretta and Bourbon & Branch. I got a drink from Bourbon & Branch’s bartender, but I couldn’t really understand what was in it. I think he called it “Favela” and I know it definitely had mint and orange bitters. It was definitely refreshing. Square One vodka was serving up several infused vodkas and I tried the cucumber, which was also refreshing. I was surprised there weren’t as many wineries, but I did try the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from Raymond Vineyards and it was a bit earthy and flat. (Not much real body or complexity.)

Back to the food, there were some unusual offerings from the new restaurant Midi, which served up a country chicken terrine with a French breakfast radish on top. Terrine takes some getting used to eating because it’s served cold and can taste like a savory gelatin. This was probably my least favorite taste of the night. But nearby was this fantastic and unusual looking Crab and Rock Shrimp Verrine from Cortez Restaurant and Bar. It was a tiny cup layered with the crab and shrimp along with grilled ramp, avocado, cucumber and crème fraiche with an interesting crispy nest on top. It looked really unusual and the diversity of flavors was incredible. I would give this tasting bite from Cortez the Blue Ribbon if I were into judging people. ;-)

But also yummy were the beef carpaccio from the Ahwahnee Restaurant all the way from Yosemite and the crispy pork cake with strawberry and jalapeno jam from Maverick all the way from the Mission.

There were several other bites that I tried, and some more successful than others. But by this time I was focused on the sweets, which were actually limited to only a few places. One place that went all out was Postrio and its chefs Seis Kamimura and Ian Flores, who offered up an array of dessert options from chocolate-layered cakes to truffles to meringues. Scala’s was also nice enough to offer a dessert — an incredible Bostini Cream Pie, a mini play on a Boston cream pie. And Perbacco had one of my favorites, which was a pretty ricotta panna cotta with strawberries.

It was an impressive collection of chefs and food, and all for a good cause. It’s slightly ironic that to put the spotlight on hunger in America, we have to put on an almost decadent tasting event. But chefs cook, and bloggers eat. We each contribute what we do best as our way of helping — as long as we never forget those who can’t attend special events like this.


foodhoe said...

That looks like there were a lot of interesting things to sample. I'll have to check it out next year - Monterey was lovely but then the focus wasn't on the food... The crispy pork cake looks delicious!

Jackie @ said...

Wow I love visiting the backstage. I could feel all the pressure and organization involved. Thanks for posting.

Jenster said...

Those were some delicious-looking photos!

Terrines always remind me of those gelatine salads that I hear were popular several decades ago. I have an older copy of "The Joy of Cooking" and they actually have some recipes for that. I'm not in a hurry to try them.

Carolyn Jung said...

Pork sugo sloppy joes! Oh man! I got invited to this, but didnt' have time to go. Man, if only I knew there would be pork sugo sloppy joes there....
Single Guy Chef, did you save me one? ;)

Single Guy Ben said...

Carolyn, you passed up an invitation for free tasting?!! Sorry, but the sloppy joe's were too sloppy to carry home!