By Will Carroll
Chefs’ Night Off took over the City Market on Sunday night, and it was my first opportunity to take part in this exciting new concept, where several area chefs get to show off in a showcase dinner. I was astounded by the creativity and the taste of the food.
Why was this my first? I’m a vegetarian, and most tasting menus, especially special dinners like what CNO puts on, just aren’t vegetarian friendly. This dinner gave me the chance to take part. Most of the chef’s were from Cerulean, and the meal did have a organization that was understandable. There were four courses, and with 90 people to serve (plus steps!), the servers and chefs did an outstanding job.
The first course was a play on a Waldorf salad. Cerulean executive chef Alan Sternberg told a story about how he got his start at Ruby Tuesday and played off their pumpernickel croutons to make a “dirt” for this salad. It featured very fresh tomatoes, celery and a crunchy mushroom that was made to remind us vegetarians of pork. It worked extremely well as a starter.
The second dish was simply brilliant. Again using local produce, Cerulean sous chef Jessica Selkirk made an asparagus dumpling. It was placed on a lemon ricotta that was light and refreshing, playing off the bite of the asparagus. On top was an innovative watermelon prosciutto. Selkirk told me that she did it with a simple dehydrator. All I know is I need more watermelon prosciutto in my life!
The third dish was perhaps the most challenging, but came together well. Jimmy Edwards, from Chicago’s Acadia, roasted cauliflower in curry, added a salad of raisins and garbanzo beans, then put fresh naan on harissa to give it a peppery finish. There was a purple puree that no one at my table could identify by taste, with my guess being broccoli. Instead, Edwards had used purple cauliflower to give the dish an unusual bright spot. While there were several unusual components — and I’m not normally a cauliflower fan — the dish came together well.
Dessert was gorgeous and tasty. Cerulean pastry chef Peter Schmutte put together a geometric dessert that combined a cherry hibiscus gelato on a basil cake alongside a chocolate verbena. Stewed cherries gave a burst of flavor that amplified the gelato. I’d have never thought to pair cherry and basil, but the dessert capped the night perfectly.
Daredevil Brewery was also a part of the dinner, with several of their beers on tap at the Tomlinson Tap Room. While I like their flagship Liftoff IPA, I got the chance to try their Vacation Kolsch for the first time. It was a nice refreshing beer with a bit of a vegetal taste rather than the more often seen citrus. It was very clean, very drinkable and a good pairing with my excellent meal.
The next Chefs’ Night Off dinner is already on sale and will take place at Cerulean. The crazy cats have plenty more in the planner, and it sounds like they’ll do another vegetarian version down the line as well. Until then, I’ll have to just look on with envy, knowing just how good it can be.