On Wednesday evening I helped Waldy Malouf with an experiment. The executive chef of Beacon restaurant got rid of two tables and added a six-person bench that faces the open kitchen. For the time-being he’s calling it The Kitchen Counter and is thinking of making it a burger or pizza bar at lunch and, at dinner, something akin to the mini-bar at Café Atlantico in Washington, D.C., at which patrons sit for the night and eat whatever nibbles the chef feels like making for them — usually a couple dozen of them. It can take several hours.
Waldy wants his Kitchen Counter to be more casual than that, and although he’s not sure what he’s doing yet, he said he was thinking of doing about a dozen small plates over the course of two hours.
I was taken to Beacon by my boss, Pam Parseghian, who actually worked for Waldy on the line at La Cremaillere years and years ago (David Burke was working there at the time, too). She also invited a friend of hers and our intern Stephen, a career-changing former teacher who wants to go into publishing.
Joining us were New York magazine's Gillian Duffy and her equally entertaining husband David, a former British military officer who has fascinating tales of colonial Malaya.
We actually had 13 courses because after eating fried saffron lobster in tarragon aïoli at the bar, which we ate while drinking a “smoking” Kir Royale (a chip of dry ice was placed in the bottom of each flute), we had a couple of breakfast radishes that we dipped in lime butter with red volcanic salt and chile.
Here’s what else we had (skip down if you don’t want to read the list, but read on, because there is more to this tale; after all, I haven’t mentioned smoked vanilla yet):
Wild mushroom pizza with red onion and basil
(paired with Leffe Blonde Belgian ale)
roasted oysters with verjus, shallot and herbs
(and we started drinking a 2005 Serge Batard Muscadet made with Melon de Bourgogne grapes — from the Loire Valley)
seared scallop with tomato-ginger chutney and freshly grated ginger
smoked striped bass with corn-potato-bacon chowder broth
(and from Italy, a 2004 La Segreta Planeta Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc blend)
risotto with corn, fava beans and chanterellles
chilled soup with jalapeño, cilantro and tomato
(Then for the meat we drank a 2004 Artigas Priorat Grenache-Carignan-Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Spain)
grilled summer squash, lamb chop, caper and garlic
steamed pork belly rillette with foie gras, served with Kobe beef cooked tableside on a hot stone
Valley Shepherd cheese from New Jersey with mustard dates.
(the wine, from Piemonte, was a 2005 Gatti Piero Brachetto)
cherry sorbet with roasted apricot
Chocolate chip soufflé with (here it comes!) smoked vanilla ice cream
I had never had smoked vanilla before. Waldy put the vanilla in a smoker, then steeped it in the ice cream base, then sprinkled the dried, ground up bean on the ice cream.
It’s unusual that I get served something I’ve never eaten before, so this was exciting for me.
“But did you like it?” Bob Okura asked me the next day.
Bob is the corporate chef of Cheesecake Factory and is one of a couple dozen corporate chefs who have come to Charlotte for the Global Culinary Expedition that Nation’s Restaurant News put together for one of our big advertisers, Smithfield.
We’re focusing on Latin American food this year. So Smithfield got datassential to put together a presentation on the cuisines of Latin America, highlighting Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Costa Rica, Cuba and Puerto Rico. And of course the presenter mentioned Mexican food, too.
Then chef Leticia Alexander, an instructor at Universided del Claustro de Sor Juana and Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico, did a cooking demonstration. She made a pumpkin seed crusted pork tenderloin with a pasilla-piloncillo sauce, focusing on the best ways to heat a chile to release its flavors without overcooking it and making it bitter. She also talked about how to select good pasilla chiles (they should be flexible and shiny, not brittle and dull).
Piloncillo, in case you’re wondering, is raw can sugar pressed into a cone shape.
Then she made an escabeche sauce, which she said was great for dressing cold cuts. The Smithfield chefs obviously were pleased that the demonstration dovetailed so well with their products.
It is nice when things work that way.
None of this had happened yet when Bob asked me about the smoked vanilla. We were lingering over our welcome lunch.
I told Bob about the thrill of trying something new, of enjoying chefs’ experimenting and ...
“But did you like it?” he interrupted me.
I don't remember my answer.
By the way, Waldy’s chef de cuisine, Michael Smith, like me, comes from the Denver area. He’s from Arvada.
Stay tuned for interesting facts I’m learning at this conference. Here’s one for you: About 11 billion sandwiches were sold in the United States in 2007