The thing I was most excited about for my trip to Food & Wine Magazine's Aspen Classic 2006 was the Best New Chefs Dinner. Saturday night, after a day spent in seminars and walking around in the sunshine and air of a beautiful 87-degree day in the Rockies, Wife and I joined about 998 other people under a rather elaborate network of party tents in the backyard of the Ritz Carlton Club to taste a dish from each of the ten men and women named Best New Chef in the magazine's July issue.
Before I go on to give you my thoughts on the dishes each chef prepared, it is worth mentioning a couple things:
1. These people were awarded best new chef, not best new caterer. I will, as always, be as honest and frank as I can about what my thoughts were regarding the dishes and their execution, but must note that each chef probably made about 3000 samples of their dish, in the mountains, under a tent with a support staff of students. I say this more in praise then as an offered excuse.
2. The team that organized this deserves a huge amount of credit. Besides being able to make it through each line about twice with little more than an eight-minute wait, there was also space away from the tables to stop and talk, enjoy a cocktail with friends, or listen to the music. I have been to a lot of multi-chef/multi-tasting events and seldom are their enough plates, napkins, and glasses (let alone plenty of food) accompanied by a sense of calm.
Ordered according to my preference, the chefs and their dishes were:
Michael Carlson of Schwa in Chicago, Illinois made Prosciutto Consommé with Melon. A demitasse cup contained a consommé so focused aromatically it tasted as if it was being sprayed directly onto your soft palate as opposed to being drunk, while staying ethereal enough to perfectly show off the aroma of the small balls of cantaloupe floating in it. On top of this were a couple of micro-arugula leaves and a dried chip of prosciutto that was the distillation of the taste of an entire plate of the ham in one small, crisp bite.
Pino Maffeo of Restaurant L in Boston, Massachusets offered Slow-cooked Veal Breast, grains of paradise, maple glaze. The yielding rich bite of veal breast was complemented by light notes of smoke and earthy sweetness with black olive while contrasted by a slight onion-like bite. Along with this, Pino served two amuses, a red wine gelée with root beer leaf and crumbled French meringue, and a black truffle popcorn soup. The soup was irrefutably my hands down favorite flavor of the evening and, had it not been just the smallest of tastes to compliment, I would have put Pino at the top of the list. As is, I am planning a trip to Boston as soon as I can confirm this soup will be offered at least by the cup, if not bowl and take-home container.
Stewart Woodman of Five in Minneapolis, Minnesota put forth Au Bon Canard Seared Duck Breast, celery root slaw, lobster vinaigrette. The duck breast was a simple sear focused on crisping the fat side, the slaw was a crunchy light rich counter to its chew and flavors of carmelization. The lobster vinaigrette went almost unnoticed until I was about to put my plate down and realized that the aroma of lobster perfuming my entire head was born of that brick colored sauce I was about to let go of, causing me to reclaim the plate and go looking for a sauce spoon.
Douglas Keane of Cyrus in Healdsburg, California proffered Thai Marinated Lobster, avocado, mango, fresh hearts of palm. Walking a beaten path, Douglas showed his talents in not letting any one of these or the other flavors, like basil, cilantro and oil, take over, so in the long run you had a very fresh tasting bite about the lobster's sweetness and how it plays off flavors at the higher end of the spectrum.
Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia passed Braised Leg of Lamb in Gelée with Braised Leg of Lamb. A simple pan-seared slice of individual lamb muscle set atop a slice of a terrine of lamb meat and aromatics in gelée. Complex richness serving as counterpoint to a simple, pure, slightly gamey version of a component of itself.
David Chang of Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York, New York gave us Steamed Berkshire Pork Buns, hoisin, scallions, and pickled cucumber. The toothsomeness of the pork-belly versus the light flavors and crunch of the pickles and scallion was perfect, each becoming more for the contrast. The bun wrapped around it was also perfect in its lightness, both in texture and sweetness. I am just not sure these two elements should have been combined: the depth of the pork and the etherealness of its bun seemed to be of such different worlds that they may need not have met.
Christopher Lee of Striped Bass in Philadelphia, Pennsylvainia presented Tasmanian Sea Trout, honey-white balsamic caviar, ricotta cheese, fine herbs. The flavors around the piece of fish were great, the caviar a slightly sweet/slightly acidic refreshing, inspired use of espherication played well off the lactic acidity/richness of the ricotta, and the herbs added many little touches of flavor variation. All this went so well together that the fish seemed a superfluous nonentity.
Jonathan Benno of Per Se in New York, New York bestowed Pickled Gulf Shrimp with Ajo Blanco. A shrimp that had been lightly pickled, enough so that its inherent sweetness was masked but not enough that the pickling offered its own identity, balanced impressively and precariously on the edge of a teacup over a medium-thick white liquid that had the tang of fresh yogurt. In an evening of precious little dishes, this one seemed most.
Jason Wilson of Crush in Seattle, Washington was doling out Slow Braised Short Rib "Burgers," tomato jam , truffled pecorino, horseradish. Jason's flavors were composed in an un-ignorable manner. These were great earth flavors layered one on top of the other. In execution, though, the sear on the burger brought out the tough chew of the short rib, and the truffle-scented bun (a stroke of genius aromatically) was crumply so that it disintegrated in your hand and spilled down your chin after the first bite.
Mary Dumont of The Dunaway Restaurant at Strawberry Banke in Portsmith, New Hampshire conferred Seared Maine Scallop sweet corn, fennel confit, haricot vert, smoked bacon, and fennel pollen vinaigrette. The scallop was one-side-seared so that it had the awesome depth of the flavors of caramelization, while maintaining a giving bite. Along with it were wonderfully fresh vegetables as snappy as you could want. The problem was that until a very nice finish of fennel about a minute after swallowing, the pervasive smoke flavor was too overwhelming for the components. You could tell they wanted to flaunt their natural sweetness but weren't allowed.
All the chefs put an amazing foot forward and I look forward to getting to their places as I travel about. If you have the benefit of starting out close, I would get there soon.