Beach dining takes two giant steps closer to the leading edge
It’s a proven fact that the visual appearance of a dish (chefs call it “presentation”) has a direct influence on how it tastes. We know that smell is also an essential part of taste, but that still leaves three senses - what about them? Well, the adventurous among us found out last week as a big-city dining trend finally made it to the Delaware coast when we dined in the dark at Nage Bistro! It was strange, wonderful, engaging, a little bit messy, and lots of fun.
GM Mark Harrison and Executive Chef Ted Deptula fretted for weeks over the Blindfolded French Wine Dinner. It sold out immediately, so things had to be right. What to serve? Too big? Too small? Hard to cut? How will they know the food’s there? Will we have to hose everybody down? Do we have Stanley Steemer on speed-dial? All these questions were answered last Friday when about 20 brave souls gathered at Nage to try something new. Rather than darken the restaurant (most full-time dining in the dark venues actually do that, and often employ blind and sight-impaired waiters), Mark and Ted distributed blindfolds. We were warned that servers would be approaching from the left and retrieving from the right. We were told where forks, spoons and wine glasses would be. (Riedel-style stemless wine glasses @ 12 o'clock high!)
A mild sedative was applied in the form of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut (Harrison does not skimp) and then we were instructed to don our blindfolds. It was disorienting at first. Fingers were dragged through juices on the plate. We stabbed our forks ineffectively into nothingness. But by the second course - it could have been that extra flute of Clicquot or the first-course pairing of Les Aphillanthes Cotes du Rhone - we relaxed. We returned our utensils and glasses to exactly where we found them. We could hear the servers moving about. We become sensitive to direction, and knew when our wine was being poured. We moved slowly but deliberately.
At the end, Harrison displayed photos of each course on the big screen, and we discussed our impressions of what we had eaten. Remarkably, those impressions were strongly influenced by our auditory sense, in the form of hearing others’ reactions as they tried to figure out what was on their plate. Of course, Ted’s food was delicious, and in spite of the self-imposed handicap, plates were surprisingly clean when the adventure drew to a close.
Just 48 hours earlier, another unusual event took place in Ocean View as SoDel Concepts’ second annual Girl Scout Cookie Throwdown unfolded at Northeast Seafood Kitchen. All the company’s executive chefs and management teams were there, and even Matt Haley made a cameo appearance. By the way, as I was writing this I found out that Matt has won the “triple crown” of humanitarian awards. Not only was he honored by the James Beard Foundation (I wrote about that a couple of weeks ago), but we can now add the National Restaurant Association and the International Association of Culinary Professionals to that list. This is the first time in history that any chef has won those three coveted awards in the same year. Who would’a thought - right here on our very own Delaware coast. Congratulations, Matt!
OK, back to the topic: The rules were simple: Each chef from each of Haley’s seven restaurants was assigned a specific Girl Scout Cookie from which a fine-dining dessert was to be created. In Food Network’s classic “Chopped” style, the cookie had to be effectively repurposed and integrated into the dish. Oh, and it had to taste good. Oh, and even better - I was one of the judges!
The results were nothing short of spectacular and included a banana cream waffle made with Trefoils by Fish On!’s Maurice Catlett; peanut butter cheesecake w/sea salt and white chocolate from Chef Desmond Edwards at Catch 54; Casey Cunningham’s (Matt’s Fish Camp) Do-Si-Do oatmeal/peanut butter cupcake with toasted marshmallow and cookie crumb icing; Northeast’s own Ron Burkle’s Savannah Smile lemon bar with blueberry-basil sorbet; Papa Grande’s Samoas layer cake by Chef Scott Visilli; and a Bluecoast collaboration between chefs Jesse and Billy: Brown butter Thin Mint cake with white espresso ganache and pickled strawberries (!). Though one of the most clever creations was Fish On! Chef Chris Parks' Short & Scout (chocolate cream pie spiked with a sweet stout brew in a Trefoil crust), the judges’ final choice was Lupo di Mare’s Thin Mint mousse terrine with a chocolate rice crisp topping crafted by Chef Max McPike.
If Nage’s cutting-edge sensory deprivation dining and Haley’s Girl Scout cookie extravaganzas (not to mention his international recognition) are any indication, the business of eating here at the beach just keeps getting better all the time.