Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dinner Lab - Heterarchy

I was again invited to an underground dinner hosted by Dinner Lab recently.  This dinner was part of a chef tour in which they brought 10 chefs to 9 cities and the chef that was liked best overall would get their own restaurant in one of the cities that they toured.  The chef for this dinner, Jacob Cureton, was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, but he spent much of his culinary career in New Orleans in such places as Cuvee, Johnny V's, Emeril Lagasse's Delmonico, and Bacchanal.  The food that he was serving was inspired by the food he grew up eating in Alabama and Louisiana.  His restaurant concept was called Heterarchy which is defined by Wikipedia as a system of organization where the elements of the organization are unranked.  I read this in the context of restaurant organization as a system where there is no single leader.  Personally, I am not sure how this would work in a restaurant organization, but I wish him luck if he gets the opportunity to try it.  The space where we had our dinner was a partially rehabbed building that was formerly occupied by the Salvation Army.  The space we were in was enormous and open and the five tables that we were using for dinner were practically swallowed by the space.  The ceiling was unfinished as were the columns holding the ceiling and there was some damage to some of the walls, but the hardwood floor looked as if it had recently been refinished.  The finishing/serving area was open and close to where the tables were so we could see what was going on if we were interested and the bar was situated in one corner of the space.  There is a separate prep kitchen that is actually a kitchen where the cooks can actually get started.
Our first drink, before dinner, was a spin on an Arnold Palmer using tea-infused vodka and lemonade.  While it was creative and definitely Southern, it was also a bit too sweet for my tastes which seemed to be a recurring theme with my alcohol.
We were seated and served our first course which was Cured Cobia and Duck Liver with Sugar Snaps (Peas), Popcorn, Chili Oil, Spring Onion Puree, and Crispy Shallots.  For the most part, I really liked this.  There was a wealth of flavors and textures in this and the chili oil added spice.  I wouldn't have thought that cobia and duck liver would have gone together, but they worked.  As the cobia was cured, it had a texture that was a bit more firm than would normally be expected.  The duck liver seemed not to be the fattened duck liver that would be foie gras, but it still had a relatively mild flavor.  The peas were fresh and sweet, the crispy shallots were like mini onion rings and added a little crunch.  Eaten with everything else, the popcorn added some crunch, by itself though, it was popcorn and I would have been happy without it.  With this dish, we were served a cocktail that they called Death From A Buzz which had Gin, Honey and Cucumber in it.  Gin is my favorite liquor, and I do like honey and cucumber, but the cucumber overwhelmed everything else.
For our second course, we were served a classic combination in an interesting way.  The menu listed the course as Summer Root Vegetables with Charred Eggplant, Pan-Seared Black Eyed Peas, Chevre Crumble, and Fried Herbs.  What the course was was essentially a beet and goat cheese sandwich with black eyed peas.  The beets were both solid and pureed, the chevre was firm, and the kale was crispy.  The black-eyed peas were on the bottom and added some depth of flavor.
 The next course was very definitely Southern.  It was a Corn and Groundnut Stew with Shiitake Bacon and Boiled Peanuts.  The groundnuts in the groundnut stew were peanuts, so this was a very peanuty dish.  I was a little confused as to what shiitake bacon might be but it turned out to be shiitake mushrooms fried crispy like bacon which added a crispy texture.  Boiled peanuts have a slightly different flavor than do fried peanuts which most people are used to.  They have a more bitter peanuty flavor and don't have the salt that most peanuts do.  I have had ground nut stew before as an African dish, and while this was not bad, it needed something like the spice found in the African groundnut stew.
The last savory course was Coriander and Sumac Crusted Venison with Pickled and Roasted Carrots, Blueberry Infused Butter, and Kohlrabi.  While this is not a complaint, I generally do not think of venison as a Southern meat even though deer are found throughout the United States.  The blueberries, carrots, and kohlrabi as well, make this feel like a very midwestern dish.  In any case, I liked many things about this a lot.  The venison was perfectly cooked, the spices with which it was crusted added a bright and fresh flavor.  The carrots and blueberries were firm and fresh and everything tasted good, but it could have done with a little less sauce. 
Immediately before dessert was served we were brought a small glass of champagne with slightly macerated strawberries.  I figured that it was to be paired with dessert (especially since champagne was listed as one of the dessert elements), so I waited for dessert.  We were served a Chocolate Panna Cotta, with a Vanilla Muffin, Dried Strawberries, and Sour Cream Sherbet.  There were many things that I liked about this.  There were chocolate chips in the shortcake that tied it to the panna cotta, the sour cream sherbet was good on its own.  The strawberries with the sherbet and muffin made it like a strawberry shortcake and also tied it to the strawberries in the champagne.  While I liked the edible parts of this, the champagne kind of fell flat (pun not intended).

I enjoyed my experience at this dinner.  The staff were friendly and professional, the space was entertaining, and I liked the chef.  While I did like the food and wish the chef much luck in his future endeavors, I do think that his menu could do with a few more tweaks.    

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