Monday, June 11, 2012

Andrew's All-Star Pop-Up Jam

Chef Andrew D'Ambrosi is probably best known for being the wisecrackingest culinarian on Season Four of Top Chef. In fact, I'd wager that the term "Culinary Boner" is probably on his business card.

And for any of those who followed my (long neglected) Top Chef blog a few years back, you'd know that I had, er, let's say a little crush on the man. (I believe the restraining order has been lifted now, so I'm good.)

In any case, after the husband hacked my Facebook account and sent him a friend request, which he accepted, I was able to track his every step follow his career post-show. Operating out of New York for a while, I didn't really imagine I'd get to finally meet the man or try his food.

But after a while, I noticed that he was now working out of the Netherland Antilles, specifically St. Maarten. And, with my own move from Columbus, Ohio, to South Florida the odds were getting better that I'd be able to get a taste.

Suddenly, last week, something "popped up" in my feed. Andrew, it seemed, was going to be headed to South Florida (where he grew up, it seems) and taking over a restaurant in Surfside, Florida, a town conveniently located on the northernmost end of Miami Beach probably most famous as the locale of the '60s detective drama Surfside Six.

Well, before you can say "Yellow Love Vanilla", we were making plans to head from Jupiter down to Miami Beach (an hour and a half drive, in case you wanna know) for the opportunity.

So, we were on for Andrew's All-Star Pop-Up Jam experience as My Favorite Chef takes over Josh's Deli for a few days in June. Woo hoo!

We arrive at nine at the small restaurant (normally, or formally, the Chow Down Grill Restaurant) where we are two of six who will be dining on this, the first night of the endeavor. We sit alongside two great chefs, a married couple, who I gather are legendary in the area. I feel ashamed I was not aware of this.  (They are beyond lovely, by the way, and gave me excellent advice on getting over my "I totally can't cook" and "I don't even understand the basics" thing.)

We meet Andrew, who is as charming as ever. The soundtrack is a hysterical mix of heavy metal,  gangsta rap and REO Speedwagon. "It's all love songs," he quips as he continues his mise en place.

At this point, I'd like to offer a reminder about myself. I love food. I love fine food. And I am the farthest thing from a cook as one could get. (As mentioned above, I'm working to get over this.) And, as such, I really don't have the vocabulary to explain what I was tasting. In fact, I didn't really plan to blog on this, save for the fact that I knew The Webmistress would vivisect me should I not do so, something I spent a good amount of time considering on the drive down.

So, with all that as prologue, here's what we had.

We opted to go the simpler route of ordering the "tasting menu." I don't know how I would make the right choices and having a bit of everything sounded like a good idea. Pricey, yes, but you only go around once, right?

And it was all excellent. But when we were told the portion sizes would be the same any way we ordered, I really didn't imagine I'd be eating that much food. Great food, yes, but, I feel like one of those boa constrictors who eat an entire deer and are found in the Everglades bloated and the size of an earth-mover.

The Food

The first dish of the first course was a Quick Cured Hamachi with a Squid Ink Vinaigrette, Myoga, Soy Caviar, Shiso and Crystallized Ginger. Cheekily served in a Burger King "Whopper™" box, the dish (not pictured) was a delightful opening to the night. And the presence of the soy caviar (not caviar at all, I am told) is inspired.

Next, we have a Smoked White Tuna Tataki with Cucumber, Lime, Pickled Onion, Toasted Garlic and Roasted Jalapeño Vinaigrette. Brilliance. Chef Andrew explains how he created the roasted jalapeño vinaigrette and cracks a few more jokes. A few more sips of our paired beer, a craft beer appropriately named "Clown Shoes," we move on to ...

The Corina Ceviche served with Local Soy, Yuzu, Jalapeño, Sweet Potato and Melon. Phenomenal. Our host explains how he infused the melon with the jalapeño using ... using a device that looked to me to be whipped cream canister. I think that's what it was. There were jokes made about nitrous whippets, so that must be it. (Remember, I'm a guy who's still working on how a Chop-Slap works.)

Now, on to the second (?) course.

Up first (fourth?), Crispy Braised Bacon, served with Watermelon, Herbs and Pickle. Bacon, crispy. And I have officially fallen in love with basil and watermelon. I understand that's a somewhat common pairing, but it's rather new to me and I can't get enough.

This is followed by Roasted Gnudi with House Lardon, Cauliflower, Egg, Hen of the Woods and a Chicken Jus. I love it and the husband is over the moon. The texture of the gnudi (a gnocchi made from ricotta -- Thank you, Wikipedia!) and the runny poached egg was a delight. At this point, though, the fat content and cholesterol levels were starting to do a job on me, a factor of the volume, not the quality of the food. 

The second paired beer, another craft beer called Rogue Dead Guy Ale helped. The name, though, did  feel for how I'd feel the next day. Because, next we had the third course of the heaviest dishes of the night. 

First, Lamb, Lamb, served with Belly, Brussels Sprouts, Sweet Corn Polenta and a Mustard Jus. Again, delicious. The husband was overjoyed. And while the Brussels sprouts were wonderfully crispy and the polenta was perfection, I think the fat content of the belly and the lamb bacon had me reaching saturation levels pretty quickly.

The Duck, Duck, Duck, a Roasted Breast, served with Confit Presse, Roasted Cippolini Asparagus and a Duck Fat Mash. The chef rather lamented that the plate looked like "airplane food," but it was certainly delicious. The duck was prepared perfectly and his explanation of the creation of the confite pressé was fascinating, even if way over my head. Sadly, though, I wasn't able to have much of it at this stage. I really don't understand how it is the judges on these shows do it unless theres a vomitorium stage left which is to be used between courses.

Really, it's all my own fault for not pacing myself.

Still, you can't have a fine meal without ending it on a sweet note (or at least  not one such a fatty one), so it was time for my favorite Top Chef Drinking Game™! And, as is the custom, we polished off our beers at Andrew's exclamation of, "I am not a pastry chef." Chug! (Our neighbors seemed amused by our TV drinking game. Strangely, I thought it was something everyone did now, like jam on dubstep tunes and spend time futzing with something called Pinterest.)

To finish off, our dessert course was a cheesecake with a chocolate and peanut butter marscapone. It was just what I needed and had an interesting flavor that seemed almost flan-like. (Andrew and our celebrity chef neighbor suggested it was the crust I was tasting.)

 Once dinner was over, it was time to party! Andrew brought out the party hats, a Mexican wrestler  mask (for him) and assorted facial hair accessories and eye patches. Pictures!

In deference to the other diners who may not be keen on being on this blog, I'll leave the photo to your imagination. 

OK, here's a taste.

Andrew & Josh
So, after a few pictures and some more chatting with our host, I thanked him for making it all happen and I got to check another thing off that bucket list.

Now, I need be sure to run a good 12 miles to work that all off before the upcoming class reunion!

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