On a whim last year we signed up for the mailing lists of several underground dinner party organizations (cabals?) here in NYC. We didn't make it to any of the parties, missing the October event hosted by Foodie NYC for reasons we can't remember, as well as the November menu for Studiofeast because Jack was in London and Ann didn't want to go alone. But on Friday night the stars aligned and we managed to get ourselves to the latest Studiofeast dinner, prepared by Ilan Hall, winner of Top Chef, Season 2.
Studiofeast describes itself as an "invitation only culinary collective that focuses on promoting emerging and undiscovered gastronomic talent." Events are limited to a certain number of guests
and the only way to get an invite is to get a spot on their mailing list. Until this event Mike Lee and Derek Yuen did all the cooking. This was the first of the "Studiofeast Presents" series, and was given on behalf of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger.
We got our invitation (with secret password and a link to the registration page) about ten days ahead of the event and promptly made a reservation. Our confirmation promised an email a few days before the feast with a map to the undisclosed location as well as suggested wines (available at a local wine shop they've partnered with).
Sure enough we got the secret map and suggested wine pairings, and were delighted to note that we'd only need to walk a few blocks to get to the dinner party. We did feel that three full bottles of wine were a bit much for the two of us in combination with three main courses, and decided to offer to share with another couple, if possible. Generally our preference is to just pay for wine pairings and have it all taken care of for us. However, it turned out that the bustling, sociable, unhurried nature of the event was such that wine was flowing freely until after midnight and people were sharing and exchanging contributions quite happily, so in fact it was just as well we brought all three bottles.
The venue turned out to be a beautiful and extensive old loft. We arrived promptly at 8:00 and were greeted warmly by the host, Mike. Things were already in full swing and it was immediately clear that this event was going to be slightly larger than we'd anticipated. By the time everyone was seated we estimated an attendance of around 90 diners. Naturally we peered into the kitchen and were puzzled to see a complete lack of food, food-related activity or, indeed, Ilan Hall! This mystery was soon explained when we met Ed from the loft next door: the food prep was all going on in there. Ed said it would be fine if we went to take a look so of course we did.
The picture above was taken in a hurry because it was clear the prep was at a fairly hectic stage and the look we got from Ilan made us suspect that, unlike Ed, he considered non-contributing gawkers somewhat less
At 9:00 the "amuse" was served. This was more like a full course than an amuse: a lightly-toasted slice of bread topped with a sizeable piece of melt-in-the-mouth-tender foie gras with balsamic reduction, dressed with a thin slice of serrano ham and slivers of spring onion. The toast was circles of rye bread made thin and crispy with the help of a panini machine. A very impressive opener!
We were a little concerned about the first course proper-- Pork Tartare-- and noted a small disclaimer on the event registration page reading 'No menu substitutions or vegetarian options available. Menu is "as-is" and the entire Studiofeast experience is at your own risk. Consumption of raw or undercooked food may result in foodborne illness.' We wondered whether "tartare" was, in this instance, some sort of artistic culinary code for... well, something that didn't really involve playing trichinellosis roulette! But no; when the dish arrived it was clear that Ilan really meant it. Not only were we presented with a pressed patty of raw pork over dressed spinach, it was topped with a raw quail's egg! Well, if you're going to play fast and loose with food health wisdom you might as well do so in a big way, I suppose. But here's the thing: it was delicious.
The picture doesn't do it justice but you get the idea. The little smear of popcorn emulsion (which had a smack of mustard about it) gave the necessary tang to contrast with the pork's almost rillette-like flavour, and the egg simply added unctuous, mouth-pleasing delight (there really ought to be more alternative adjectives for "unctuous" but so often it seems there's simply no better way to succinctly describe that moan-inducing feeling of sheer... unctuousness!)
We weren't keen on the first of the wine selections - the Foxglove 2006 Chardonnay. To be fair we're not big white wine fans anyway, and Chardonnay is one of our least favourite types, but this one just seemed distinctly ordinary. It tasted like a pretty standard, medium-bodied, vaguely buttery example of the breed. Not bad, just... uninspired. We swiftly moved on to the second wine - a 2006 Domaine La Garrigue Cotes Du Rhone. This was better. As young as the Chardonnay, it wore its youth with much more style and freshness. Medium bodied with top notes of light, very slightly metallic acidity but with just about enough fruitiness going on to balance things out. Again, not a stellar wine, but perfectly decent, and it went reasonably well with the pork.
We stayed with it for the next course too, which was bacon poached swordfish with "Ilan Chon" salad (comprising firm, woodsy mushrooms and crisp leaves - possibly Bok Choi). The fish was delicately cooked, wonderfully moist and tender, and the three main flavours were a successful combination: the asian-style veg and the hit of crisp bacon complementing the fish very well.
We moved on to the final wine selection: a 2002 Signa Marques de Concordia Rioja. This, we suspected, would be the best of the three for us, and we were right. We love big, dirty old reds and they don't come much bigger or dirtier than a good Rioja. This one was a sweaty, oaky classic with cellar dust on the nose and plump black fruit flavour in abundance. We loved it, and it was just the thing for the next dish: crispy American lamb breast with ginger and mint vinegar. Just prior to the serving of this dish Ilan had emerged from the kitchen and stood atop a table to explain how we were to eat it. The idea was that the succulent, fatty lamb should be dipped into the vinegar to provide the intended contrast of meaty and minty goodness. However, he had a problem: insufficient mint. So, to much laughter, he asked if anyone had any Altoids! Someone did, so they tossed him the pack and he disappeared back into the kitchen. We have no idea whether he really used the Altoids in the mint and ginger vinegar but we hope he did. In any case, the results were great! Served with thin slices of roast potato, this dish was a satisfying finale to the main courses. Sadly, our attempts at photographing it were dismal (perhaps the wine was kicking in a little too hard by this stage). We had no luck getting a tolerable photo of the dessert - Scottish Rice Pudding - either so instead here's a picture of the three wines.
By the time the meal was over everyone was well lubricated, happy and sociable. Ilan, looking much more relaxed now the hard work was done, held court in the kitchen and chatted with anyone who cared to stop by. We forgot to ask whether he really used those Altoids but Jack complemented him on his, er, audacity with the pork dish and he laughed at the choice of word (at least we think that's what he was laughing at). We wandered out into the streets of Williamsburg well after midnight and decided to round off the evening with a visit to a couple of bars. By the time we got to bed it was well into the early hours and as a result yesterday was a bit of a write off for us both (hence the delay in getting this post up) but it was worth it for a fabulous and unusual evening. I think we may do this again!