Here at Slow Food Columbus we usually focus on the Columbus food scene, but occasionally we like to write a bit about the national food scene as well. The best of Columbus’ chefs and the city’s most engaged diners always seem eager to discover more of what’s going on in other cities, and if we can combine an outstanding meal with an opportunity to bring a new or unusual experience home to our community, we’re more than happy to do so.
An occasion to do just that arose during a Memorial Day trip to Philadelphia. I’d been tipped off by friend and destination diner Andrew Hall that a terrific collaboration would take place that weekend: enigmatic Philadelphia Chef Shola Olunloyo would be teaming up with H. Alexander Talbot of Ideas in Food to prepare a tasting menu at Shola’s flat. Andrew and I were intrigued, so we decided to sign up.
I couldn’t be happier that we did. The meal was truly wonderful—sixteen courses of the most creative and fascinating pairings that one could imagine, greatly enhanced by a heartwarming degree of old-school conviviality and charm on the part of our host. It was a delightful experience. And because Shola took the time to take better photographs than I ever could have with my cell phone’s camera, I can at least try to do it justice.
After we were welcomed to the table with a refreshing watermelon gimlet, the first food course arrived—one of the most intimidating, as far as I was concerned: lovage ice cream that had been frozen with liquid nitrogen and powdered, with steelhead trout roe and a celery-jalapeno relish. Lovage, the evil cousin of celery, seemed a particularly challenging ice cream ingredient, and the relish sounded equal parts intriguing and alarming.
It was brilliant. Save for the initial contact, which immediately evoked a frozen pole in the deep of winter (“Ge the spoo off my ongue!!”), the ice cream melted into an aggressive herbal savoriness that was accented by the slightly salty pop of the steelhead roe. The roe had a long finish and stood up to the lovage. All in all, it was an inspired combination of flavors, one of my favorites of the night.
The next dish consisted of “torn” scallops with kimchi, coriander-kosho yogurt (kosho is a generic Japanese word for a spice mix, like “masala”), and Asian pear pickles. This was another hit, and it spoke well for the cautious, moderate use of kimchi as a seasoning (David Chang’s kimchi-apple salad is one of my favorite salads ever). The bite of the kimchi nicely balanced the cool pear-yogurt combination, and—improbably—they both let the delicate scallop flavor shine through. A very good dish, and very surprising in its subtlety.
The next dish was a morel mushroom custard with Chinese long beans, sesame dressing, and a chicken “nugget.” There was a striking contrast in temperatures and textures here—from cold, creamy custard to hot nugget to crisp beans—that made it very enjoyable. The sesame was a pleasant accent to bring them all together. And I don’t think I’ve ever complained about anything that contains morels. Actually, I’m pretty certain of that. This custard was exceptionally delicate, and I enjoyed the last of it with a tinge of regret.
The next course—for which, unfortunately, there’s no photo—was an onion-lobster soup. Cipollini onions had been sous-vided into submission, then blended with maple and sherry vinegar, thyme, and I think bay. The idea was to use lobster rather than beef broth in an onion soup… and as ideas go, this was a very, very good one. The soup was good. It was accompanied by a sliver of grilled cheese sandwich: grilled aged cloth-bound Jasper Hills cheddar, absurdly good on its own, and a beautiful pairing with the lobster soup. Really an outstanding dish.
The next dish has a special place in my heart both because it was delicious and because I think there’s an outside chance that I could cook something like it myself at home. (Maybe.) It involved King Trumpet mushrooms, the thick-stemmed oyster mushrooms that can be found in Asian markets. The mushrooms were sliced lengthwise and roasted, then wrapped in the speck and drizzled in garlic miso. I’m not sure how the speck-mushroom combination was cooked, but I think it was (maybe roasted quickly).
The result was one of the meatiest near-meatless dishes I’ve ever encountered. The mushroom already had a great meaty texture and flavor, to which the speck added a hefty wallop, and the garlic-miso accent completed the illusion. I’ve had steaks that I enjoyed far less.
The dish after that was one of the highlights: broken foie gras with smoked Worcester sauce and honey. ”Broken” foie gras is frozen with liquid nitrogen and then shattered and allowed to thaw. The combination of these elements was nothing short of inspired. The dish combined fat, sweetness, and smoke, each almost elemental in its purity, in a way that brought them together in perfect proportions.
The next dish, a carrot stew with XO sauce and an onsen egg, had me discreetly scrambling for Google. XO sauce is a spicy Chinese seafood sauce, and although I’m fairly up on my zoology I was puzzling over what on Earth an onsen might be (roughly chicken-sized, to be sure) until our host mentioned that onsen is Japanese for “hot spring” and I realized that the name must refer to the Japanese practice of soft-boiling eggs in hot springs.
So, at least I knew what the damn carrots were. Anyway, the dish was flavorful, umami-loaded due to the XO, quite delicious; the only qualm I’d have is that I didn’t think the flavors and textures were as distinct as I would have liked. But it was definitely craveworthy.
The next dish (sadly for you, not pictured) was a rigatoni with seaweed butter, duck confit, and sea urchin bottarga (a bottarga is a cured sack of fish roe; Shola explains the sea urchin variant here.) This dish was my Everest. It was frustratingly difficult, impossible really, for me to articulate why this dish worked as well as it did, but it just did. (My fellow diners were, almost without exception, amused by my frustration: why should you have to be able to explain why a dish works? Because it matters!, is the answer; and it does, and I still can’t tell you why this dish worked, but it did.) When you pulled all the flavors together they hinted at tuna and noodles—oddly and comfortingly familiar; but decomposed they shone in their component elements.
I hadn’t mentioned, up to this point, that the dinner was BYOB, but it was. Andrew’s remarkable wine knowledge (not to mention his generosity) were very much being felt at this point, as our hosts had no doubt anticipated, and the menu started shading into dishes that had a bit more… how should I put it… visceral appeal. Think less refined, more “oh hell yes.” The first of these dishes was the country paté with watermelon, picholine olives, and gnocchi made from barbecued potato chips. The paté had glistening bits of Mangolitsa pig fat in it. My notes read, “Outstanding savory pâté with herbal olive notes and balance from sweet gnocchi and watermelon. Damn.” I’m not sure I can improve on that, really.
Then came the blackened hiramasa (yellowtail), with rhubarb harissa and escabeche vinaigrette. I’d imagine that this dish was designed to wake up your palate after the savory richness of some of the previous dishes, and it did it with authority. There was a balance of acid (from the escabeche vinaigrette) and richness (harissa) that was palate-wakeningly good. The rhubarb was a great accent around the periphery of the palate, adding an unexpected dimension to two well-known (and loved) flavors, and a hint of smoked paprika slid in delicately at the end. All in all, it was a remarkably complex and subtle mix of bold flavors.
And then came… the lamb belly.
The lamb belly, served with peas, parsnips, and chorizo soffrito, had been cured and then sous-vide‘d at 72°C for a full two days. It was savory beyond belief. It was big, it was sexy, it was the essence of meat. Not fatty at all, it was straight-on full-throttle meaty goodness. It wasn’t as subtle as some of the other dishes, nor was it trying to be, nor should it have been: stomp on the gas, full speed ahead.
In the aftermath of that veritable foodgasm came the skirt steak with roasted grape jus, pine nut praline, and Benton’s bacon. It was a grass-fed skirt steak from Painted Hills Farm; actually, it was two of them, held together in the center by an enzyme glue, which produced a cut that was twice as thick as usual.
I loved the beef, and to my surprise the bacon-pinenut accent complimented it beautifully. The grape jus sweetened the mix a fair bit, producing what was, all in all, a terrific, and very surprising, combination. My notes include the words, “Terrific. Replicate, steal, riff.” (No comment.) When I asked Shola to explain why this worked as well as it did, he suggested that sweet and savory act like two opposing armies, counteracting one another—much like pineapple and Thai basil. It certainly worked in this instance.
Next up was St. Agur, a blue cheese from central France, paired with toasted strawberries, purslane, and sauternes-saturated raisins. These were epic flavors, fighting it out, and when they came together the combination was terrific. I noticed that I had a hard time getting them to do so—that often one or the other would dominate—but when I mentioned this to Andrew he said that he hadn’t noticed anything of the sort. In retrospect, I wonder whether my palate wasn’t getting a bit worn down by that point in the evening, especially given the acidity of the wine, and whether that might not have an effect on some more knife-edge flavor combinations. Just a side note… but another winning set of flavor combinations.
Fortunately, dessert was less challenging, though no less good. The drunken milk jam (dulce de leche) ice cream with shaved chocolate chip cookies was a grown-up version of a children’s classic, a two raw-milk milk-jam ice cream, icy cold, not complex but delightfully refreshing and delicious.
The final course (not pictured) was a French toast with citrus marmalade and lemon-brie ice cream. I don’t have any notes about it, and only a faint recollection of it, because when our hosts brought it out they also stopped cooking and serving and started talking—about the meal, its inspiration, and what drives them when they are creating a menu. It was a very engaging and fun discussion, with most of the table taking part, and despite the excellent food it was probably the high point of the meal for me—it’s always a genuine pleasure to be a part of an informative discussion with passionate, knowledgeable people about what they do.
The after-dinner discussion also highlighted a part of the meal that I should underscore, emphatically, one that isn’t part of most writeups. I admit, I was a bit surprised, and felt a bit awkward, when I realized that this event was being held at the home of one of the hosts—and when I saw that most of that home was a tricked-out kitchen laboratory of enviable proportions, you could add a tinge of guilty voyeurism to the list as well. In short, I was out of my element.
No one could have made me feel more at home than our two hosts. Shola, in particular, was charming, fun, energetic, and convivial, while at the same time polite in an understated and reflexive way—a natural host. Alex was focused, intense, exceptionally professional, seemingly everywhere in the background but happy to take time to discuss whatever he’s doing in depth if you stop him for a moment. It’s obvious that they made the food, which was excellent. What’s less obvious, but even more important, is how they made the evening.
As we were gathering to leave, Andrew and I were chatting with Shola, who asked us about Columbus. I forget exactly what we said, but I do remember that he said, “I’ve never been to Ohio. Perhaps I should come visit you this summer.”
Well, Columbus… what do you think?