Archive for the ‘Rival Reviews’ Category

Rival Frivolity Part 1

June 11, 2009

It is rare in this day and age I think, where one invites the competition to an open house. In years past it was a display of power, proof positive that you were confident in your craft and they are restricted to the sidelines watching your prowess unfold on unwitting guests. But we live in a land of industrial espionage and back stabbing back room deals. Where as once it was a chance to pay homage to those that you suffer with in your field of choice now it is a calculated risk full of worry, intrigue and general malcontent.

This is sad because I personally love a challenge.

When I’m invited to an open house that says to me, “This is my best, I invite you do to better, punk.” And I love this kind of open challenge! So often are we restricted from real emotion in catering, constantly having to prostrate ourselves before ungrateful guests and humorless hosts that the very spirit of business is beaten out of us by bottom lines and bean counters. And thus a challenge was issued yesterday in Seattle. The Powers That Be insist I keep things anonymous to avoid legal battles and other lawful trifles but those that were there or heard about will know exactly who I’m referring to.

The event site, tucked away in sleepy industrial George Town, WA came complete with its own biker bar across the street. Lemme tell you, there are few sights funnier than the gentlemen elite having to park and circumvent their grittier neighbors. But no cross words were said or threats made so all in all the physical location of the building met my standards for interest. The building it’s self is an aging brick number that hadn’t been used for it’s initial purpose as a brewery in decades, and this rustic charm is preserved on the outside. You can feel the bygone eras wafting from the pitted brick and ancient lamp lighting. But inside it was a different story.

The concrete floor was brushed to with in an inch of its life and smooth as the day it was poured. The high vaulted ceilings, 50 feet or more up, were all painted as clean and white as the walls supporting them. And in the setting afternoon sun you can still see the traceries of the brick that lies just beneath a coat of paint. The large bay windows, reminiscent of the factory style of the industrial revolution were clean and allowed plenty of natural light in. The only complaint I could muster was that it was very warm and no source of climate control could be found outside of opening the two double doors to the shaded and very large parking lot. (On a side note for all caters reading this and caught unawares at this sight. There are 6 very steep stairs leading to the front entrance so either bring a ramp or travel light, you will be hand hauling things.)

The decor, I only mention because it was done well despite my lack of interest in such things, was a calm motif with old world charm.

And now on to my favorite part, the Food! First the Appetizers:

At a station we had Crab Cakes with Cumin Sauce, Spicy Chicken Wantons, and Starfruit with Ahi. These were presented by an offshoot company part of the whole but doing business in other sectors. I didn’t have any official names for these dishes as there was no signage or person explaining things, but as an industry member I had little trouble discerning the goal intended.

The Crab was colored strangely, no unappealing but not my cup of tea either. There were presented well on micro greens and garnished lavishly. There were VERY crabful, almost 80 percent as such, and they appeared to be done in the dumpling style with egg and flour or possibly tempura flour based on the color and texture. The cumin sauce was good, but it lacked dimension. Perhaps some finely minced red pepper or onion. Some variance of texture and flavor. My only suggestion would be to keep them hot in a small chaffing dish instead of tray. Crab cakes always struck me as a hot item; where as the cold style reminds me of a deli class presentation.

The Spicy Chicken Wanton cups were interesting to say the least. I’m curious as to how they got the cups to form like that, as they appeared to be house made, and fresh by the flavor and crunch. I envision a variation where the wanton wrapper is cut into a shape and pressed into a mold under the oil similar to a taco salad bowl. The chicken inside was flavorful and had just a kick of flavor to round off the dish. I couldn’t be certain but I think the green chunky sauce inside was a chimichuri, and a rather well crafted one. The only real downside to the dish was they were a might bit too large for two bites, even for my big mouth, and fell apart after your compromised the wantons structural integrity. But best of all, and this is a marvel the more I sample other folk’s food, the wantons weren’t over cooked and crumbly, or undercooked and oily. They were just right, and this is harder to achieve than one might be led to believe.

The last item was a Starfruit AKA Camambola and Ahi Tuna snack. It was by far the most beautiful and decadent of the three hands down. I would expect to see something similar in a Food and Wine Magazine cover or centerfold. This is the kinda avant garde visual that gives aspiring cooks food boners. The Ahi was well seared, with a moist pink center and given a light coat of black and white sesame seeds. Sadly, there was little tuna flavor but unless you buy the Grade A sushi product it’s hit and miss on the flavor. There was a creamy drizzle as well as a fruit and veggie salsa garnishing it, like a firework of explosive color, flavor and texture. The only real downer to the dish was the camambola, it’s bland flavor, albeit excellent texture, dominated the dish and it was just supposed to be the platform. And while I complain I’m hard pressed to come up with solution. A marinade would make it even more over powering, grilling would make the watery fruit purge and make it flimsy. Cut it any thinner and it wouldn’t be able to support the rest of the dish. I could see it as a pallet cleansing course part of a much larger dinner but not as a stand alone item.

Next were the two passed appetizers, bleu cheese endive and a beef tartlet.

I heard mixed reviews on the endive, but I always hear mixed reviews on endive. It is a hold over from our French inspired past and while it’s making a come back in the more blue collar arena it remains a more sophisticated item complete with over extravagance and opulence. A hard sell in today’s day an age of cut backs and down sizing, but still welcome on the occasional show of plenty. I thought the damn things were awesome, and I don’t use that word lightly. The bleu cheese was nice and smooth with out being over powering, and the walnuts were small and easy to chew.

The beef tartlet was another matter, while the shell was a new item to me. A small bready tart shell instead of the more traditional pastry dough I would be eager to get my hands on such a product for my own nefarious purposes. But industry secrets are to be kept close to the chest so it’s off to do some research and development of my own. The filling was quite the disappointment, despite the medium cooked and moist roast beef the large cut sage and gritty mustard made the dish try and strangely enough flavorless. Had I a crack at the item I would make the sage and mustard into a light but flavorful mousse, adding a hint of moisture to the much needed dish and then putting the swirls of a finely sliced meat on top, kind of like an open faced sandwich pie.

And then the buffet, the ear mark of a caterer and where the chef truly shows his mettle. It was an L shaped affair, tucked in a corner to allow for more seating and mingling for the crowd. For this, we were given a menu handed out by service staff as we sat down so the contents were no mystery.

The first item was a vegetable tray, a common buffet opener for both appeal and pricing. Couldn’t say I cared for the presentation because there was so little to see, the tray had fallen below 25% which is long after I would pull something to be restocked, and I was there early so it’s not like they were letting it ride at the end of an event. The cucumbers were good, but the eggplant was oily and cut too large for their purpose as a crudités. The carrots were grilled or possibly roasted, they had an odd texture and the flavor wasn’t there, but they looked good.

Next came a Ravioli in Lemon Browned butter, and with out a doubt the most disappointing dish on the table. Pasta, while a simple dish is one of easiest to screw up by not paying attention to the service style and mechanics of the pasta. Ravioli is a nightmare for the caterer, finding its safe lodging with the restaurant chef where he makes them to order. Ravioli does not hold well and drinks up sauces like orzo or penne. This stuffed pasta is also notoriously hard to keep to temp and I would never suggest it for a buffet unless specifically asked for. Even then I would shingle them in the chaffing dish to allow uniformity of cooking and sauce, because the ones I got were stone cold. The garnish was adequate but the arugula was cut to large and limply draped across the dish instead of adding some sort of intrinsic flavor or color. And lastly the sauce, I work for the Saucy Wench and personally believe that sauce is my strong suit and this was the most heart wrenching of all. The Lemon Browned Butter had no lemon flavor, wasn’t browned, and amounted to little more than an oily coating separating what could have been a show stopping dish.

Further down the line was the Lavender Pear Salad, presented in dual small mixing bowls so that fresh additions could be made frequently. So what it lacked in presentation it made up for in crisp greens. No mean feat when you consider that only micro greens wilt faster than spring mix when it comes to salad. The pine nuts and pecorino were good choices, adding both crunch and natural salty depth to the dish. The pears, were a little under ripe, and could have done with a night marinating in the dressing. The dressing it’s self was the confusing part to me. I couldn’t detect any lavender in it at all, I could tell from the tang that it was supposed to be vinaigrette of some sort and I know lavender isn’t the most brilliant flavor. But all the same, it just wasn’t there but then again, I have a hang up when it comes to sauce.

Next came a roasted potato medley, which was indeed fresh cut despite my cohorts inquires as to if it looked pre-bought. They were roasted perfectly, allowing for a firm skin but fluffy texture inside. The only problem with the medley is purple potatoes bleed their vibrant color and turns everything in the dish gray. This is why when ever I do them I roast three pans of one color separately and mix them on site. This is especially useful because red potatoes cook faster than yellow, and yellow faster than purple. The fresh herbs and olive oil that were supposed to complete the dish again were a let down. The herbs obviously dry and not nearly enough to make an impact on the spuds were drunk up with the oil into the potatoes. I would mix a bit of veggie broth with the oil, making a hot dressing of sorts and boil the herbs there to really awaken their flavor. Or if all else fails and I’ve the option, do small bits of partially cut up fingerling potatoes, which add both stability and more fluffy starch flavor. I’m noticing a pattern with the sauce craft and it really makes or breaks what should be excellent food.

After that we had another cold dish, a pair of small fruit trays, which looked like the lids to the salad bowls from earlier. Perhaps I’m spoiled at AGA but I would never choose some of the display pieces they used for this event if I had something more impressive to choose from. While I do consider the tray to be the least important part of the dish it is still important to a degree. The fruit more than made up for that though, the claim that it was hand picked definitely shown through in the quality and texture of the dishes. Not piece was soggy or had the old “I’m past my prime” texture. The pieces were good and small, so you could take a bit of what ever you liked with out compromising half your plate space which is something I see more and more chef’s forgetting. If they want more fruit they’ll take it, but by and large it’s just healthy filling till you get to the good stuff. My only question to the chef would be why you would put that it has dried fruit on the menu if you weren’t going to put any on the platter. Truth in menu is truth in value people.

Essential breads made an interesting on the buffet buffer, something we ourselves do quite often though I’m more traditional in insisting that bread is a valid menu item that deserves a basket instead of table mortar. But alas, with only 12 feet of table to deal with space cutbacks must be made. Essential does good work and their all natural approach provides level of quality I could never hope to duplicate in years of practice. The only down side is they slice the pieces too thick and they go stale very quickly in the afternoon sun. I also wouldn’t garnish the butter balls with bits of greenery. They just wilt where the melting butter is purging oil and it gets in the way of adding your fat to the starch.

By over all voting the salmon was voted to be the pinnacle of the buffet presentation. Its thick side with fluffy flakey pink meat was perfectly poached and the salsa added for an accent of color and flavor was masterfully done. It was presented well on a bed of greens and despite being Atlantic it was of excellent quality. I’m not a big poached salmon fan, preferring the hot smoke variety, but I would have no qualms ordering that for my own event should I get the chance.

Next came a grilled flank steak with bleu cheese and shitake mushrooms. My bit of steak was tender but Moe’s was tough. Which leads me to believe the chef didn’t tenderize the meat enough prior to marinating, or that the marinade wasn’t acidic enough to break down the firm connective tissue prevalent in flank steak. More likely, based on the flavor, it just wasn’t marinade long enough, we chef’s always run out of time even under the best of circumstances but the difference of an overnight soak can not be denied. The bleu cheese is classic on a steak while shitake mushrooms is a fairly recent infusion of the Asian persuasion. To be honest, it had little to no shitake flavor. And I actually like the earthy woodiness of the fungus. Reminds me of a teriyaki version we did at Jazzbones with flat iron steaks. So it is possible to leech a bit more flavor out of them. The trick I’ve learned is to use a mixture of fresh for the garnish and dried ground up in the sauce. Makes a world of difference and adds a much needed flavor profile to the occasionally two dimensional flank steak.

The last dish and my personal favorite was the basil and sundried tomato chicken. I know people generally scoff at chicken because anybody can make it and it doesn’t have any outstanding flavors on it’s own but I consider it the true test of any cook. Chicken is the blank canvas that you can do anything and everything to, freedom of expression in protein format. And this dish was excellent, could not say a bad word about it if you bribed me. The chicken was moist, kept so in an abundant but not overly coating sauce of creamy goodness. This sauce was not studded with bits of sundried tomato that made the sauce that awful orange nor were they leathery and flavorless. The basil, obviously dried with a little fresh mixed in, made a nice background note for the sweet and tender chicken breast that took it all in.

All in all it was interesting to see a presentation on par with our own. There were many similarities in both menu item and buffet set up that couldn’t be denied. Usually when I see other companies their setups seem cumbersome or alien and I could envision almost everything there on a buffet some where down the line. And so the challenge is accepted, and I have learned. Then when my own open house rolls around again I will invite my foes to sample my rebuttal. And would welcome them to critique my work and have the cycle continue.

Kitchen is closed.

-KMCD

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