Thursday, November 18, 2010
I have this fantasy of being able to walk into any restaurant, throw down some large bills, and have a chef take me through their menu - playing the hits, making up some great dishes on the spot with what's fresh, and generally acquainting me with their culinary ethos. In my fantasy restaurant land, the [handsome, rugged, but nerdy and funny] chef answers all of my questions and introduces me to ingredients, methods, and, ideally, the people growing and raising the food that goes into the meal. Other than the fact that my dreams are depressingly food-related, I bet you can understand the impulse behind my fantasty (typo, but I'm going to let it slide. It's too appropriate). This dream is akin to omakase, or "chef's choice" at a sushi bar, where eaters declare what they're planning to spend and essentially put their meal in the hands and mind of the chef. However, short of the few restuarants in town serving up tasting menus or prix fixe meals, customers are all too often left to the guessing game of their own perusal of a menu, or worse, the wastelands of Yelp reviews. In waking life, due to the stubborn constraints of reality, I usually have to visit a restaurant a handful of times before I know what a chef is all about. When I'm faced with a menu, I'm daunted, not because I'm a picky eater, but because I don't want to miss out on those few dishes that absolutely scream "I AM A CHEF AND THIS IS WHAT I LOVE TO COOK!"
I think this is what I enjoy most about Portland Food Adventures - you really get a full-scale tour of everything a restaurant is about. Last night at his cozy restaurant Ned Ludd in Northeast Portland, Chef Jason French opened his doors to a hungry crowd of gastronomes, and from the oratory pedestal of his open kitchen, delved into a full explanation of his attitude towards food. In between stories of the kismet, or cosmic chance, that lead to the birth of Ned Ludd, the farmers that sourced his kabocha squash (Wobbly Cart Farming Collective) and the origins of the goat whey that started the fermentation process on his house-pickled cukes, Jason dove in and out of his wood-fired oven, compiling a multi-course meal of Ned Ludd's signature dishes. Simply to have Jason answer our questions about the charcuterie plate and his restaurant history would have been a dream-worthy event, but at every table around the small jewel-box of a restaurant sat a veritable celebrity of the Portland food and drink scene. Matt Mount from House Spirits mixed us up a classic cocktail called a Martinez (with Aviation gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and orange bitters) and shared his love of Aquavit, Doug Reynolds from Integrity Spirits - distillers of Lovejoy Vodka, Trillium Absinthe, and 12 Bridges Gin, sat next to John Stewart from Meat Cheese Bread and Wille Yli-Luoma, owner of Heart Roasters, all more than happy to share their personal connections and classic stories of the explosion of our city's love of great food. Like the previous Portland Food Adventures, everyone left with an overstuffed envelope of gift certificates to the distilleries, coffee shops, and restaurants owned by our fellow dinner guests. What's more, we all walked away with a real sense of what Jason French and Ned Ludd are doing, just as I now feel incredibly comfortable with the menus and culinary approaches of previous PFA hosts Cathy Whims' Nostrana and Scott Dolich's Park Kitchen.
While I could go on and on about the company, let's get to the food. Oh, my friends, the food. We started with olives, a colorful plate of pickles including chard stems, beets, apples, mushrooms, and cucumbers, and a charcuterie platter with lamb rillette, bacon, parchetta di testa, and liverwurst - all made in-house. Inspired by the rainy weather, Jason decided - last-minute - to throw together a kuri squash soup with sage brown butter, served up in a delightful mug like a shot of espresso. Next up, a salad of autumn greens, watermelon radish, smoked trout, and lemon cream approximated a delicate Caesar, the creaminess of the dressing acting as a great balance for the heartier greens and crisp, peppery radishes. The salad was followed by my favorite dish of the night, perfectly charred Brussels sprouts and kabocha squash with orange juice, cilantro, and harissa. Full-bodied, smoky, and deceptively simple, the paring of these two veggies seemed like a heartfelt tribute to the season, and I could have eaten the family-sized plate myself. My tablemates felt the same, and we roped Jason into a lengthy discussion of the process of wrestling with the squash, pairing harissa and kabocha, and extolling the virtues of the y-peeler. We bonded over the discovery of the magic of blackening "bruss" - as Ned Ludd lists the little cabbages on their menu - and laughed while the wind and rain created swimming-pool sized puddles outside on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. We were further warmed by the (two!) main entrees, a ruby trout with shaved fennel and preserved lemon and pork shoulder with farro and matsutake mushrooms. Like most everyone else I've met in the past few months, Jason and the assembled foodies-in-the-know were enamored by the chocolates being produced by Xocolatl de David, and we were treated to the best s'mores ever. No competition, no exaggeration, those three bites of homemade graham cracker, marshmallow, and melted dark chocolate put to shame every other s'more I've ever had. What's more, dessert was accompanied by a freshly brewed cup of coffee from Heart Roasters' Wille. A perfect end to an amazing meal, but that end was only the beginning... we're all meeting up next week for a distillery tour of House Spirits and Integrity Spirits, two of the stars along Distillery Row in Southeast. We're also looking forward to free return visits to Heart Roasters, Perierra Creperie, Bakery Bar, and Ned Ludd.
I've written three long paragraphs about the night, and full recaps of the two prior Portland Food Adventures, and I still feel like I have no words to explain how awesome these dinners are. And that, my friends, is why I carry my camera everywhere I go. Check out the photos, and don't miss the next Portland Food Adventure event. Just don't. They're truly an experience worthy of a fantasy.