Last month, 1000yregg and I went to the Open ChefAMe event in Philly. I love the concept -- it's an open mic night for chefs, giving anyone who's brave enough the chance to cook in a professional kitchen, for a restaurant full of diners.
Held on an off-night in a local restaurant -- in this case, Ava, on 4th Street near South -- it's the chance to taste something totally unexpected. It's also one of the best deals in town. For $35, we were treated to a 6 course meal, made by 2 chefs -- one a former pro, Ali Waks, and the other a super home cook, Diana Martignoni.
We started with an amuse made by Ali -- One Fig Two Ways: Canape of Chicken Liver Pistachio Pate with Brulee Fig, and Crostini Fig Salsa, Begamot Ricotta, wth Chive Blossoms. This was my favorite dish of the whole meal, especially the Brulee fig. The caramelized fig was sweet and delicious, I'm a sucker for chicken liver and the pistachio in the pate added just that hint of complexity. With this as our first bite, we were off to a really promising start!
Next was the salad course - made by Diana - Organic Spring Greens with Gorgonzola, Carmelized Spicy Pecans, and Dried Cranberries, served with a Raspberry/Orange Muscat Vinaigrette.
The soup course that followed was by Ali - Essence of Jersey Corn Soup w/ Truffled Wildflour Brioche, Heirloom Tomatoes & Guanciale. We looked up what "guanciale" was on 1000yregg's iPhone, and discovered it was an unsmoked Italian bacon prepared with pig's jowl or cheeks. Pig lovers that we are, we were looking forward to that, but to be honest, I couldn't discern any meat in the dish at all. My only other complaint was that I wish the soup had been served in a deeper soup bowl so that it would have stayed hot. But it was clean and fresh - a nice change to more traditional creamy corn soups.
Then we were treated to not one, but 2 main courses. Diana's main course was Chicken Enchiladas with velvet chili sauce, fresh pico de gallo, and cilantro/scallion pesto. The chicken was moist and flavorful, the sauce was indeed velvety smooth -- all in all a very satisfying dish.
Ali's main was Smoked Coffee & Espresso Rubbed Hangar Steak, Roasted Happy Cat Farm Potatoes, Rainbow Chard w/ Garlic & Lemon Confit. I loved this - the coffee flavor was amazing, and both of us had steaks that were cooked a perfect medium rare. Everything on the plate was delicious - from the chard to sauce to the lemon.
Finally was dessert - Local Peaches, Vanilla Gelato, Cherry Balsamic Gastrique, Lavender Pistachio Biscotti, served with Earl Gray Lavender Chocolates. This was truly unexpected -- ok, the peach was good (probably should have been served with a knife, as the only way to eat it really was to spear the whole thing with your fork and just bite off it), but what was really amazing was the combination of the vanilla gelato and the cherry balsamic gastrique. Now, I love my balsamic, but I never would have thought of having it on ice cream - but put together with the gelato, it tasted like it could have been dark chocolate. Amazing!
What really struck me during this meal was the difference between the former pro and the amateur. Don't get me wrong, Diana was a great cook - if she had me over to dinner and served me the salad and those enchiladas, I would have been very happy. But Ali brought just that extra imagination to the table - combinations of flavors I never would have thought of. The thoughtfulness that went into the menu, weaving ingredients/flavors from dish to dish like pistachio, lemon, bergamot, lavender. As someone who fancies herself a pretty good home cook, I bow in humble obeisance. I'm way to scared to try it myself!