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Event Mon Jul 02 2012
Last Thursday, designers, friends and food lovers gathered on the penthouse level of the Murdoch Building together with some of the city's best known chefs in a food and design inspired event presented by Jenn-Air and CS Magazine called Chef's Table to raise money for Diffa/Chicago -- read that as an evening filled with good wine, amazingly crafted signature dishes and beautiful people. I knew that Jared Van Camp of Nelcotte, Tony Quartaro of the Bristol, and Celeste Campise of Spiaggia were among the few featuring some signature specialties -- like most who journey to Mecca, I was sure to have a religious food experience.
The event was set up similar to a Next Food Network Star tasting -- with chefs claiming a spot in one of the Jenn Air decked out kitchen spaces. I started out at Moderno, a minimal ingredient, Italian-inspired concept located in Highland Park with Chef John des Rosiers and Phil Rubino. John presented a sake-braised guanciale with summer grits and a watermelon garnish. I learned after I was two bites in that guanciale is really pork cheek, traditional to central Italian cooking. The basic texture is more gelatinous than anything, and if you're into gelatinous things you'll love this. I was good after two bites, probably because the pork cheek threw me off (I still have yet to fall in love with bone marrow as well, and there's something about finding out what you're eating after you've already taken a bite that I still haven't gotten over), but the summer grits -- made from milk (and not cream, hence the summer) - took grits to the next level. If I had a piece of crusty French bread and wasn't wearing a cocktail dress, I might have gone Louisiana on it.
Next, was the soft shell crab "panzanella" from Kevin Hickey of Four Seasons' Allium paired with the Aviation cocktail, their take on the Manhattan.
The soft shell crab nestled on bed of arugula was like summer on a plate and almost too pretty to eat. The crispy bite of the shell mixed with the tender crab reminded me of an old-school fish fry, only mine were never in a penthouse and this was better. (I would have a Manhattan later that night that paired weakly in comparison).
Chris Pandel, the young new star to hit the Chicago food scene with Bristol and now Balena was serving a salad of fennel and puntarelle (chicory) with a pine vinaigrette and cured pork loin. Pandel is known for his Midwestern-inspired comfort food dressed in classic French technique (i.e. approachable), and this didn't fall short. Pork loin is cured through brining, similar to what most people do for their turkeys every Thanksgiving. Pandel's result was a melt-in-your-mouth tender bite of something I normally overcook. Paired with the crunchy fennel, the combination of the two made an hors d'oeurve that was light and flavorful.
Next door, chef de cuisine Tony Quartaro from The Bristol, had a char terrine with sea beans, pickled mustard and dill crowns. Char looks like salmon and tastes like salmon, but is lighter in texture and fat content. It referenced fatty tuna and the big seller was the sour cream -- the secret -- it was smoked sour cream. This was my first time of hearing about smoked sour cream and I almost launched into a monologue of my new love for smoked Spanish paprika.
Jared Van Camp from Nellcote (sans wood-burning oven) had a beef ribeye with sweet and sour cippolini onions and roasted baby beets. The ribeye was tender and lean and the sweetness of the beet gave a normally heavy dish a summer lightness. James O'Donnell from Michael Jordan's Steakhouse similarly brought the beef with their signature Delmonico steak. I'm not an aficionado of beef so I couldn't appreciate it for what it was worth, but that, with Nellcote's ribeye, satisfied my quarterly craving for beef.
Ashlee Aubin of Wood, known for their wood-burning oven and seasonal menu, served a pork confit with radishes, pickled mustard seeds and market pickles on a crostini.
Beef and pickled things seemed to be a theme of the night so I was excited to come upon Jim Kilberg of Coco Pazzo, who was serving an interesting twist on lasagna with his lasagnette all zafferano con fagiano (Saffron and Pheasant Lasagna).
The pheasant wasn't gamey at all and, while I first thought the saffron was in the sauce, it was actually in the fresh made pasta (made daily at the restaurant), which gave it a nice yellow color. It was a bit saffron heavy but I appreciated the twist and the use of saffron, a normally non-Italian ingredient in an Italian dish.
The surprise of the evening, however, was Spiaggia. I, like most, thought Spiaggia would have brought something savory to the table, but Celeste Campise served a citrus- and chocolate-inspired cannoli edged in pistachios. I'm glad she did. I'm not a cannoli fan, but the citrus and chocolate mixed in with the nuttiness of the pistachios elevated what I normally consider a boring dessert to something more than one bite.
My last stop was at Jacques Torres for gourmet chocolates. The best part -- chocolate-covered Cheerios. That with a glass of Moet; enough said.
I was able to attend this foodie event due to an awesome boss that volunteers on awesome boards. These opinions, however, were my own.
Photos courtesy of Jenn-Air