At last year’s StarChefs New York Rising Stars Revue the food was great, the chefs were available, and the operations were charmingly mismanaged. Standing in a small second-story space in the twenties I perceived it as cute when those of us that paid extra money to get in early were delayed a quarter of our hour preview time while they chilled champagne and got caviar ready. We happily drank wine from coffee cups after the glasses ran out early in the evening, and all in all there was camaraderie in the small group that had assembled joining together with our hosts in the interest of celebrating the talents of the next generation of chefs in New York rather than focus on the trivial.
Apparently the last event and the ensuing year brought about some success over at StarChefs. This year those that paid more money for the early hour preview were only delayed a little over ten minutes, however this time it was outside a night club in a people corral by bouncers dressed in black, the programs for the event had color photography, and the plentiful wineglasses were etched with the event’s theme.
So as we walked in we took a step away from awkward charm and toward the dream event of a contestant on My Super Sweet Sixteen. The good news is no matter how stale the air and awkward the lighting in the room, our rising star chefs are indeed potential stars for all the right reasons and they were still very available:
Upon entering, we (Wife, Misspooz, Ringwald, Soho, Fluffy, Pichon, Helmet, Bear, Dongato, and I) met Josh Dechellis of Sumile, a face from last year’s rising stars event where his poached hamachi with pickled melon and nori salt was a definite highpoint. As host to the VIP reception, Chef Dechellis welcomed us and explained that this year they were going with a push-cart theme. From his cart, Josh was scooping a mélange based around a diced conch into lettuce leaves to produce his JAPANESE CHILI CONCH WRAPS. A bit awkward in the passing and the eating, the flavor was definitely the kind of thing Josh does well. Slight sweetness mellowed a definite chili bite centered on diced conch with a pleasing chew, wrapped in the lightening effects of a lettuce leaf.
We found our way to the main room with the savory fare by a rather circuitous route which involved walking down one flight of stairs and up another and landing squarely in the back of a huge room right next to Zak Pelaccio of 5 ninth and Fatty Crab surrounded by the most wonderful wood smoke smell and group of assistants including a face familiar from the pits at the Brooklyn Brewery Pig Fest. Chef Pelaccio’s offering was FATTY BRISKET WITH PICKLED TOMATOES. A piece of brisket about one inch cubed with the red halo of dry rub smoking on a skewer was plunged in sweet cilantro sauce, dusted with brisket floss, and topped with a pickled cherry tomato. Zak explained that brisket floss was made by immersion frying the shredded leaner end of the cut. The result was crunchy little bits highlighting the tenderness of the deep smoked meat, which was accented as well as tempered by the lightly sweet and sour sauce.
Finding the next cart not yet ready for service, and knowing how quickly the ½ hour lead we had on the larger crowd would dissipate we next made a beeline up a rather grand staircase to try Gregory Brainin of Jean Georges Restaurants’ YELLOWFIN TUNA SASHIMI AND WASABI ICES. The mixture of wasabi sorbet, flakes of Maldon, olive oil, and balsamic that was left once the tuna was out of the way was the highlight of this offering. Hot in the form of spicy, cooled both by the fact that it was ice and the sweet touch of the vinegar, sharpness rounded by oil and highlighted by salt made for a very invigorating dish that made the tuna seem almost superfluous.
On the next level up on the catwalk that surrounded the large room was Iacopo Falai of Falai performing the one man show of handing out HUDSON VALLEY FOIEGRAS CANNOLI, CANDIED TAGGIASCHE OLIVES, AND SALTY SPICY VALRHONA XOCOPILI CHOCOLATE SAUCE. The flavor of the olives in the salty dark chocolate was both intense and interesting and made an exceptional foil for the richness of the foie mousse, which had been piped into baked phylo tubes and frozen. Chef Falai had packaged some of these to take home in those little jewel boxes delivery guys use for high end pot. In this apparatus the foie had time to warm, making it a much better representation than the version he hand-dipped to order which, straight from the freezer, was too cold to let the foie’s subtler flavors to shine.
Next along the catwalk was Galen Zamarra of Mas (Farmhouse) serving PORKBELLY SANDWICH, RED EYE GRAVY AND ONION MARMALADE. A sumptuous amalgam of deep simply pleasing flavors, this was a perfect little sandwich on a mini grilled bun. I assume due to fear of seeming base none of those I attended with would agree with me that this was either the first or second favorite dish of the evening, however it was the only one that each person had had twice, while some of us consumed three or four.
Almost as if a metaphor for his unassuming restaurant, around the corner and tucked out of the way in the dimly lit catwalk was Alex Ureña of Ureña, serving SALT CURED TUNA WITH CAVIAR. Much like for those who venture down the less traveled block of 28th street to try Chef Ureña’s food, those who probed the narrow, far end of the catwalk found waiting for them a delicious morsel straddling lines between traditional and modern, unlike anyone else’s in attendance. A cube of scarlet tuna made both denser and more true by the cure was topped with a dot of chorizo aioli which held in place a small bit of caviar. The caviar drew the attention to its own saltiness, leaving the fish to be about its chew and its sanguine beef-by-way-of-the-sea flavor.
A cloud of white smoke drew our attention and quickly our crowd down to Mark Andelbradt of Morimoto cart where through the haze we saw Chef Andelbradt and his assistants searing SKEWERED WAYGU BEEF, TOKYO SCALLION, MATSUTAKE MUSHROOM, AND SPICY MISO. Resting in the valleys of the waves created by running the beef along the skewer were the scallion and mushrooms. A bright orange sweet and spicy sauce was slathered over once it was off the intense heat. Eaten off the bamboo skewer while still incredibly hot, the entire package was about three bold flavors and unique textures uniting by playing off the sauce’s varying flavors – sweetness against the bite of the scallion, spiciness off the richness of the beef, and acids off the mushrooms’ earthiness.
Just a couple feet away and a couple steps up was Okuwa Makoto, also of Morimoto, doing what he does best and few do as well: sushi in the form of a roll. His SHIKAMAKI WRAPPED WITH PROSCIUTTO DI PARMA was gorgeous. In general, sushi may have been ill fit to an evening where the next most subtle cuisine was fusiony French, but Makoto rose to this challenge making a dish as beautiful and intricate in its assembly as in its harmony of subtle flavors. Sweet egg omelet, bluefin tuna, nori, and Japanese cucumber spreading out in kaleidoscopic color and pattern, bound in a thin sheet of prosciutto, dusted with panko and fried: an original and marvelous “chef’s concept” roll.
Across the dais was Franklin Becker of Brasserie offering HUDSON VALLEY FOIEGRAS HOT DOG, HUCKLEBERRY MUSTARD, ONION CONFIT AND A BRIOCHE BUN. To be nitpicky, the bun was too big for its contents and what you had was a very good mini hotdog-shaped brioche bun with the rest of the listed components. On my second try, I scooted the mini-wienie to the edge of the bun and ate it as well as its condiment with only about a third of the bread and it was quite good. Buttery brioche, rich, smooth, delicately spiced forcemeat, with a tart/sweet/spicy sauce and sweet cooked onions. Perfect finger food once you found a place to ditch the remains of the roll.
In the dead center of the floor Paul Liebrandt, who has recently left Gilt, was offering his FISH AND CHIPS 2006 – a small salt cod croquette made to taste more like fried cod and French fries than brandade, topped with a dot of what I believe was described as a horseradish mayo. Only having had one, I was left with the impression that this familiar thing definitely tasted more like fish & chips than any of the other croquettes I have had recently; I am still not sure whether that is impressive or not.
At the foot of the stairs was Tony Liu of August serving KING RAREBIT OVER SOLDIERS FEATURING HOOKS 10-YEAR AGED WISCONSIN CHEDDAR. August is a European restaurant, even though in most of our minds it is a Mediterranean one (there is a former Babbo sous-chef at the helm and an al forno at its center after all). As if to drive this point home, Chef Liu was making a most decidedly British dish in both name and flavor. Rarebit is basically cheddar and stout fondue (the bit that made it king was a poached quail egg) and soldiers are toast, in this case brioche. These went into a paper basket and were topped with pickled shallots and greens. This is the one I kept going back for. Sure the poached quails’ eggs were a little overdone in most cases, and putting the dishes together was a little slow, but it was melted cheese and eggs with pickled onions and the warm toasty apple finish of stout. Big, bold, pleasing flavors stealing your palate. No one could have served ten dishes like this, but just one was perfect, standing thunderously and perfectly alone while drawing attention to the skill of all the other chefs.
The final vending cart I stopped at for savories was that of Tony Esnault of Alain Ducasse at The Essex House, handing out LOLIPOP OF LAMB LOIN, APRICOT, RAISIN AND PIQUILLOS. The lamb was perfectly roasted, the lemon was only nuance, the dates and raisins were slightly savory, the piquillos were not at all hot, everything was a refined version of itself in that utmost French tradition, but refined past its ability to truly pop among the competing courses of the event.
Overlooking silly things like awkward speeches that include sentiments like "I know no one wants to stop paying attention to the food to pay attention to me, but I am going to ignore that so we can pat ourselves on the back for having enough success to throw this party" or, better, embracing the parts of the same speeches that thank the sponsors and introduce rising star chefs from other areas, this was a very fun food event. The flavors were great, the chefs were proud, the wine and liquor were plentiful, there were even desserts for those of you into that (one of which was a parfait, and everybody likes parfait).