How can you not love these people? They work on their day off for no pay. They prepare incredible food, giving guests a truly unique dining experience. And they donate the profits from the sale of tickets to a local charity. I’m talking about Dinner in the Dark, the roving meal events organized by Brian Okin of Luxe and Amp 150’s Jeffrey Jarrett, and the participating professionals. Each month a mixologist and six or more chefs come together at a selected restaurant and each one prepares a course. They’re free to color outside the lines, flex their creative muscles and cook whatever they wish. The roster’s always changing. I was a guest at the July dinner benefiting The AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland held in Crop’s basement vault and was impressed from beginning to end both with what was served (as well as the wine pairings) and the spirit behind it all.
A welcome cocktail arrived moments after I was shown to my seat. Nathan Burdette (Crop), whipped up what he called a Sangrita Construct featuring aged Herradura Reposado tequila, flavored with Peychaud’s Bitters, lime, and a gelatin foam cap that made me think of whipped cream on jello. An ice cube made from tomato juice, orange juice, and orange cordial spiked with ancho chili powder, chipotle powder, onion powder and lime zest added character. The Amuse Bouche by host Steve Schimoler was an excellent crab salad with white truffle, fennel, and red onion on pain au lait.
Course #1 really knocked me out: smoked sturgeon done sous vide in bacon fat and smoked butter with red currant jam, smoked creme fraiche, chicken cracklins, fennel fronds, chile. The fish was just plush and I couldn’t get over how well all the flavors came together for a wholly original taste experience. Credit for it goes to Andrew Gorski, someone I knew nothing about even though he’s been cooking at the Tremont Tap House for the past 13 months. This Culinary Institute of America grad has some impressive names on his employment history including David Burke’s Modern American Cuisine, Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, and Alain Ducasse’s Mix. Came back to Cleveland, his hometown, to live near family. I have no doubt he’s a talent to watch.
Eric Williams (Momocho) did Course #2: chicken and turkey albondingas (meatballs), with a vibrant tomatillo mole that was lick the bowl delicious. Adam Lambert (Bar Cento) was responsible for Course #3, an intriguing presentation of twenty-six hour brined beef tongue accented with powdered caraway and pickled mustard seeds. Next up was a refreshing salad of homegrown mixed greens, ricotta salada, roasted Ohio peaches, pork cracklins from Mike Nowak who will soon open The Black Pig on W. 25th Street.
Nolan Konkoski (SOHO Kitchen & Bar) really showed what he could do with a Brunswick Stew of chicken, rabbit, duck, and vegetables in broth and finished with an egg yolk- the dish managed to be rich and nuanced while also feeling light and summery. The ending, courtesy of pastry chef Lindsey Auten (Crop), was delightful brown butter and blueberry financier (cake) with lemon cream cheese frosting, lemon curd, and blueberry coulis. No one in my line of sight left even a crumb on the plate. Every cook came out to tell us about his or her preparations, heralded by Schimoler banging on a pot with a spoon to get our attention.
Portions were just right- small enough so I didn’t get full too soon but enough so I could enjoy the dish and really experience what the chef intended. Some tables are full of couples and friends. Mine was mostly strangers but we introduced ourselves and came together with a starting toast to food and fun. In the three hours that followed the conversations never flagged. I didn't learn until the very end that I was seated near Andrew Gorski's dad Peter, who proudly presented his to me as we were saying our goodbyes. It was a memorable evening in every way and one I won’t soon forget. Tickets are already on sale for the next Dinner in the Dark, to be held at The Black Pig August 13th. Get yours now. I mean right now. Before it's sold out. You’ll be so glad you did.
All photos by Tom Noe, courtesy of Dinner in the Dark