So after much deliberation I decided to attend Chris Cosentino and Michael Ruhlman’s Offal dinner last night. I was conflicted about whether to go because on principle it just seems obscene to be paying $250 for what, when taken in historical, anthropological context, should rightfully be dirt cheap. But ultimately, as is usually the case, my appetite made the final decision for me. Well that and the promo code for 15% off I found on the net which, since I was basically trying to talk myself into going, was all the convincing I needed.
The event was held at the brand spanking new Astor Center, a facility established for the purpose of great food and wine events exactly like this one. I believe this was the first large scale dinner event staged there and the Director, Lesley Townsend did a fantastic job executing it. The room was set up with elegantly adorned round banquet style tables throughout. At the front of the room there was a podium and a large projection screen showing a live view of the kitchen where Cosentino was toiling away the entire night with his crew which included, most notably, his fellow Next Iron Chef competitor Aaron Sanchez. The large-screen format worked exceptionally well since there was full audio being fed between the two rooms as well. This allowed Michael Ruhlman to ask questions facing the screen and for Chef Cosentino to answer as if they were in the same room together. Very cool way to set things up. I was also the beneficiary of this setup because I was seated at the frontmost table and that’s where our host, Ruhlman himself, ended up taking a seat for dinner so that he could stay close to the podium. Michael Ruhlman has an easy-going manner about him and regardless of whether he was at the mic addressing the room or just making dinner conversation, you can really tell that he’s a good guy and a people person first and foremost. He speaks with an earnestness that conveys sincere interest in whatever the topic may be. And that’s really saying something because some of the things people were saying to him I’m sure he’s heard a million times before and would elicit instinctive eye-rolling from any lesser person. Anyway, onto the food…
As I was not particularly dazzled by any of the wine pairings I’ll omit their details and stick to the real goodies, the dishes themselves. The evening started with waiters bringing around platters of four different apps. The first was a porchetta di testa, basically a bit of head cheese with pecorino. I love head cheese, so I found it delicious, but to be honest, it wasn’t any more spectacular than any good head cheese from a quality deli would be. Here’s what it looked like:
Next, I tried the crostino of salt cured pork heart and eight minute farm egg. For me, the pork heart flavor didn’t really come through, so it was more like just a good crostini with hard boiled egg. I guess you could say the dish was not offal, hahaha I’m so clever. Ok maybe not. Anyway, it was a good looking crostini:
Next up was my favorite of the passed apps, the beef heart tartare puttanesca. You know how beef tartare is so delicious in part because it requires really tender beef that doesn’t have noticeable grain or fibers and you augment that smooth texture with the addition of egg yolk? Well the flip side of that is those cuts of beef actually have a less meaty, beefy flavor. Well this beef heart tartare was had both things going for it. It had the perfect slick tartare texture and also packed a big earthy, beefy flavor into each little spoonful:
So you think the portions look tiny for $250 a head? Well, that tartare was the last dish served on a small scale. Everything else that night came in generous portions. This includes the fourth of the passed apps- the fritto of honeycomb tripe. It was a delicious batch of fried morsels which could easily have been mistaken for calamari if you weren’t looking too carefully. They were topped with minced olives and marjoram, which since they were not bound into any sauce, did not adhere particularly well to the tripe. That made eating them a little bit of a project as I had to use each piece of tripe like a chip to scoop up bits of the olives out of the cone. It was worth it though because it was a really great combination. Here’s a look at how big each serving was. Remember, these were meant to be hors d’oeurves, and this was an individual portion!
From there we moved onto the actual dinner portion of the festivities, opening with a spectacular plate of fried sweetbreads with shavings of beef tendon. Yes, shavings of beef tendon. Brilliant! This dish was awesome in its interplay between components. There was the textural contrast between the al dente tendon and the silky sweetbreads and there was also the perfect touch of heat from chilis and freshness from mint to offset the richness of the offal. I was extremely happy the portion size was this generous too:
The second plated dish was a surf and turf combo consisting of lobster on one side and pig trotter cakes on the other. The lobster was perfectly cooked and was accented by taragon and two different types of grapefruit. Delicious. I know this dish was supposed to feature the offal, but in this case the lobster stole the show. The trotter cakes were a bit too rich, and as Ruhlman commented, probably could have used a bit more meat and a little less gelatin/cartilage/etc. Btw, that reminds me, Ruhlman mentioned he will be releasing a book about ratios in cooking, an absolutely fantastic concept for those of us who want the knowledge and understanding of how to cook as opposed to chaining ourselves to recipes. That book will be a must-own. In any case, I loved the first two bites of Cosentino’s trotter cakes but after that it was a bit too much even for me. I *gasp* only ate one of the two:
The next dish I am so pissed at myself about because somehow I didn’t get a picture of it. It was the venison liver crudo. Yes, crudo, as in raw. It was served with a julienne of beets with balsamic, and I’m pretty sure there was some good olive oil hidden in the mix as well. I am particularly upset that I didn’t get a picture because I loved it so much I ate more of this dish than perhaps anyone else in the room. During the first bite I was really into the texture but the flavor didn’t quite grab me yet. The black color and slick, resilient consistency was nearly identical to another freakish thing that I love to eat- abalone guts (the part which people usually discard after removing the abalone meat from the shell. I only know of it because Sam at Hajime serves it occasionally, simply dressed with ponzu and spicy grated radish. It’s actually one of my favorite dishes). So I was really digging the texture but really didn’t catch the liver flavor until way into the aftertaste. But when it hit me, I loved it. It was only ever so slightly reminiscent of the flavor of cooked liver, but instead had a lighter, slightly more minerally character which I found rather addictive. So addictive in fact, that after I polished off my own, I moved in on the plates of the two wonderful people I had just met from the yet-to-be-launched AlwaysHungry.com. Apparently they weren’t always hungry for raw liver because they only tasted one piece each. No matter, I batted cleanup for them. 🙂 It’s just a darn shame that despite plowing through three plates of the stuff, I somehow didn’t get a single picture it. If anybody reading this was there last night and has a picture of the liver crudo, can you please forward it along so I can include it here? Thanks.
[ Edit: HUGE thanks to the lovely Lesley Townsend for sending along this gorgeous photo of that sensational venison liver crudo taken by Michael Harlan Turkell ]
The final main course was a spring lamb neck with sheep’s milk polenta. It was friggin fantastic. The exterior of the meat had a crust of what Cosentino said was essentially caramelized lamb fat. To get at the goods we were instructed to hold the center of the neck down with one fork while using the other fork to flake off the pieces of meat. It was a fun little activity and the further you got, the cooler it was because until you finally cleared away the meat and unearthed the bone, you would never have been able to identify that it was lamb neck that you were eating. See for yourself. Does this look like lamb neck to you?
And last but not least came the dessert. How do you round out a meal like that? With candied cockscombs over bay leaf rice pudding, that’s how!
The cockscombs had a chewy texture almost like gummy bears but not as yielding. They were prepared with the right amount of sweetness, not overpowering the rice pudding beneath it. And I absolutely loved the straightforward rice pudding by the way. But the cockscombs came off more like a garnish forced into the composition to meet the requirements of the theme. It just seemed gimmicky compared to all the other dishes. Everything else came more from the perspective of “wow, this could be delicious if we cook it this way and combine it with these things”. At least that’s how it seemed to me. But hey, the rice pudding was delicious as was just about everything else on the night. Cosentino was on his game, Ruhlman was a terrific host and dining companion, and I think Astor Center is going to be a huge success. Now I just don’t know what I’m going to do when I start getting a hankering for raw venison liver!