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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Creating a memory

There's nothing quite like watching a chef spread his creative wings and soar.

Steve Marques (formerly of Burger Guys and Yelapa, now executive chef for Tasting Room Uptown) treated some friends and myself to a special dinner. It explored some ideas we had discussed earlier, and a few cultural challenges. And I learned that Steve salivates over the idea of a culinary challenge. With gusto.

Our meal progressed much like a cooking show judging session, with Steve explaining what each course was to be, and began with a sashimi of tilefish, dressed with salt, serrano chile, and heated olive oil. A simple start. Auspicious.

Gumbo. In this case, oyster and mushroom gumbo, incorporating three kinds of mushrooms (including the meaty maitake), and served with an expertly prepared potato salad. Yes, potato salad, not rice. Turns out, this is actually more traditional, and works beautifully. The creamy tang of mayo, the sweet snap of pickles, and the dusky heat of the gumbo combine in a very satisfying manner. I have to add that the textural range of this dish was very much on point, from the lovingly caramelized roux, to the contrast of the mushrooms, to the barely cooked oysters and then the al dente potatoes - this was a knockout. 
"Kare-Kare" Or, rather, an interpretation of it. Kare-kare is a Filipino dish of stewing meat (nowadays mostly oxtail, but any number of parts can be used what benefit from a long braise) cooked in annatto, ground peanuts, and toasted ground glutinous rice, and served with steamed vegetables and bagoong (fermented fish or shrimp paste). Steve's version braises high quality beef short ribs for 22 hours, in a jus containing the annatto, peanuts and glutinous rice, served alongside a packet of short grain rice steamed in a lotus leaf. That package (an homage to the Chinese zongzi) contained bits of tripe and vegetables and more toasted peanuts.
The Cheese Course. Two quenelles of house made ricotta, spiked generously with lemon peel, and covered with two different kinds of honey, accompanied with glasses of port wine. The one in the foreground is rosemary honey, the other is chestnut honey, each displaying remarkable differences in flavors, but both complementing the creamy ricotta admirably. I loved the herbal notes in the rosemary honey, but there are others who preferred the more robust chestnut honey by a little bit more. Just a little. 

The Best Chocolate Ice Cream in the World. Steve credits learning to make this ice cream to Fergus Henderson and reveals that one secret is the use of duck egg yolks. But there's so much going on with this ice cream - a dark chocolate profile that lingers on the tongue, accompanied by the tang of dried cherries, and crunch of pistachios. And the herbal complement of the fresh thyme. Strangely, I think a touch of fleur de sel would just finished it nicely, but that's splitting hairs. 
All told, an incredible edible milieu. Returning briefly to the "kare-kare" course - Steve asked me if he successfully captured the memory of kare-kare, having never had it himself. The tender short rib carried flavors and textures that were reminiscent of kare-kare - but it didn't capture the memory. That's not a complaint, though - it's inherently a significant challenge to recreating and reinterpreting a cultural memory from the just having it described. One can be inspired and create something delicious - as this was - but it isn't the same thing. And for many, once you attempt to evoke that memory, matching that archetype becomes the goal. Experiencing the different dishes and cultures are part of the maturation of a chef, and as close as Steve got to the real thing speaks volumes about his repertoire.

Though not quite kare-kare, this dish, in and of itself, is good. Instead of capturing a memory, it is creating a new one - one that a group has chosen to remember and describe for others.

Disclaimer: Dinner was provided gratis. Many thanks to the chef and to The Tasting Room Uptown for a wonderful dinner and experience.


  1. This dinner was SUPERB! Thanks, Chef, for taking us on a true culinary adventure!

  2. Holy moley. That's one fine looking dinner.