If you’re into shows like Iron Chef and Chopped, and you’re looking for a special occasion to drop $175 a person on a 6-course meal paired with wine and cocktails, you might want to catch the last “Planes, Trains and Traveling Chefs” dinner on August 19th at Matt’s in the Market. The series, that began last summer, brings chefs from all over the country to cook with Chef Shane Ryan at Matt’s. But unlike the highly competitive shows where chefs vie to beat their competitor, the atmosphere at Matt’s is more of a low-key collaborative one. This last in the series brings Chef Jenn Louis from Portland, who was recently seen on Top Chef Masters, where she was eliminated for making a banh mi sandwich with a faulty baguette....
Though each of the courses is “owned” by one of the two chefs (with one being a full-on collaboration), there’s no judging, no clock, no frenzied chefs shouting. I went last week when the visiting chef was Jamie Malone of Sea Change in Minneapolis (Food & Wine magazine named her the “Best New Chef “of 2013). She and Ryan visited the Ballard Farmer’s Market together the Sunday before the dinner and talked over all the dishes. “It was fun to hang out and show her what we have here in Seattle” Ryan said. Malone concurs: “They [the farmers] care so much here. The sun-gold cherry tomatoes we found were amazing.” (I can attest to that.) Speaking of a dish she prepared—a Raviolo filled with an egg yolk and served with a garlic, anchovy and tomato broth—she excitedly explains how the idea for the entrée came to her after finding “a Skagit River egg at the market that wouldn’t break” in the pasta.
Though anything can happen when chefs are scoping out a meal just a day before, especially when they haven’t worked together before -- I was thoroughly impressed with the meal, the wine pairing and the service. At 6, we started with glasses of Rose and an amuse bouche while awaiting the upcoming meal at 6:30. With the windows wide open, we had a wonderful view of Pike Place Market and the sound, and the atmosphere was familial, with owner Dan Bugge introducing the chefs and sitting down to dine with his own brood. About eight chefs were on board to carry out the meal in the open kitchen, and we enjoyed peeking to see what was being plated.
Some stand outs: Uni on toast with Fennel, Bottarga and Celery and served with a tiny dollop of Kosho – a Japanese salt-cured paste made from yuzu peel and chilis. The bright, citrusy spice of the condiment took just the perfect edge off what can often be a too briny (for me anyway) Uni. Perhaps for the first time, I enjoyed it on the level of which I enjoy a delicacy like Foie Gras. But, speaking of the Foie, it was the one miss on the menu (and a creation of Malone’s). It was blended with a peanut Koji sauce (a Japanese seasoning base that goes into miso). Unfortunately, the peanut was heavy-handed and turned beloved Foie Gras into something that tasted like a tepid peanut milkshake. Speaking to the chefs afterwards, I told them that dish didn’t do it for me and Malone replied, “I don’t really like Foie Gras.” Touché.
But back to what was wonderful: Salty, lightly fried Smelt with heads on from Port Townsend served with pickled and fried Goat Horn Peppers (a Basque pepper), Lemon Cucumbers and an Herb Aioli that was a spoonful of herbaceous summer. A rack of lamb cooked to medium rare perfection came with lobster mushrooms and an elderberry mostarda that wasn’t overly sweet (a common mistake I find chefs make when serving a fruit sauce with meat). The Sushi dessert sounded corny, but it was truly a feat of imagination and execution: coconut sticky rice topped with sashimi-like slices of compressed watermelon and lemon plums and blackberry and raspberry “roe” alongside a Tomago (sweet egg) sponge cake so light and moist and a perfect foil for a tart, delicious apple seaweed leather, pickled rhubarb and shiso marshmallow.
The wine was wonderful as well. I particularly enjoyed a 2009 Belle Pente Vineyard Chardonnay from the Willamete Valley in Oregon that we were told was the only Chardonnay they knew of that was aged in Oregon Oak. It was crisp and almost effervescent, and nicely paired with the salty smelt. Most of the wines were white, but a 2010 Numanthia Termes Tempranillo (served with the lamb) was delightfully drinkable and full-bodied; according to the server, “they can’t believe it’s a 2010.” Another favorite, served with the flawed Foie Gras, was a semi-sweet Rose, a French NV Patric Bottex ‘La Cuielle Cerdon’ that wasn’t too sweet and just dry enough.
To say that we left sated is an understatement. In fact, there was so much food and wine that I actually left feeling more gluttonous than comfortable. But if you’re paying that much for a meal, rest assured you’ll get more than your money’s worth – plus a lovely evening as the sun slips down over the Sound and the chance to check out a notable chef from beyond. Seattle vs. Portland sounds like a great way to end the season!
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