Michael Ruhlman with Chef Jeremy Holst and Zack Place of Anson
In the cookbook industry you have a lot of voices. Celebrity chefs who offer their take on the new such-and-such fusion. Home cooks who for some reason have a national following despite their annoying personalities offering quick and cheap meals. Nutritionists pulling together recipes involving bark and calorie-free air. Michael Ruhlman is a different cat altogether. An accidental cookbook author, Ruhlman has gone from simple scribe to one of the true authorities on technique-driven cuisine. His books focus on reigniting the fire for cooking that has burned out in a generation of Americans raised on fast-food. His new book, Ruhlman's 20: twenty techniques, 100 recipes, a cook's manifesto distills all cooking to the 20 things you must know, and with those techniques there is no limit to what you can achieve in the kitchen.
For the Charleston leg of his book tour, Mr. Ruhlman choose Anson as the restaurant to host a collaborative dinner, featuring the techniques detailed in 20. Through phone calls and emails, the two men crafted a menu highlighting the techniques that will turn anyone into a master home cook. I admit it has been years since I have thought about Anson. Under the helm of new executive chef, Jeremy Holst, Anson has been charging back to the front of the Charleston restaurant scene. Having seen Chef Jeremy's smart and fresh cuisine on display at a recent Guerrilla Cuisine Dinner, The Girl and I were both excited to see him in action again. Price for the night, $75 a person plus optional wine pairings.
While we congregate with glasses of Bartolotti Prosecco, plates laden with chicken liver paté arrive at our tables. Housed in Charleston inspired Gullah Blue Le Creuset dishes, the saltiness of the paté is balanced by the sweet onion jam and very tasty. Without the onions it could be a tad salty, as The Girl found out, but the richness is wonderfully homey. The clean taste of the high-quality local chicken livers is a delightful start to dinner.
A few lucky folks took home these Le Creuset dishes as raffle prizes
The first course should be familiar to those of you who read the post on our Guerrilla Cuisine Dinner. Chef Jeremy revisited Lox and Bagels. Featuring Ruhlman's cure, wild dip net caught Coho salmon, red onion, capers, bagel chip, olive oil, and creme fraiche gelato, this is one of my favorite starters-period. The delightfully fatty Coho absorbs the citrus cure and gives a clean taste with pleasing texture. The creme fraiche gelato may not be as tasty as the cream cheese gelato from the GC dinner, but I think it works better with the fattier Coho. The Girl and I both clean our plates in record time.
Beats the pants off the fish sticks I had for lunch
For the second course, we were treated to Ham n Egg, a house smoked ham, crispy farm egg, pickled mustard seed, spiced pumpkin seeds, and apple cider aioli, paired with a fun Markus Huber Riesling. The light smoke of the ham combined with the pickled mustard seed (best sandwich condiment EVER) gave a flavor reminiscent of a picnic, elevated to a new level. The star of the dish, though, was the egg. A 63 degree egg, slow poached in a sous vide for 45 minutes, before being battered and fried. Runny yolks are one of my favorite foods, and this delivers in a fun and tasty way. The Girl's dish clearly had more ham than mine. Do you think she traded dishes? Nope.
Before randomly stabbing the egg
After randomly stabbing the egg. Thank you Chris for making things so fun!
The third course, or in The Girl's world 'The only course," is Chef Jeremy's way of showing off the power of the Anson Mill. Local caught gag grouper, hand-milled grits, John's Island field peas, okra, and cornbread crust paired with Benito Ferrara Greco di Tufo. The grouper is mild and flaky, and paired with the ragout of field peas and okra, you are presented with a wonderful, flavorful dish. The stars, though, were the grits and cornbread crust. I HATE grits! To me they taste mostly like creamy sand. These, however, are incredible. Creamy, almost to the point of being a puree. They went in the pot at 9am for a 6:30pm dinner, so time and love are definitely in those grits. They have made me a believer. The other output of the mill, cornmeal, becomes the cornbread crust. This should replace the yellow cake side dish in every meal in the south from this point on. The Girl DEMANDS this go on the regular menu.
Grits. I ate grits.
Fourth course was revenge of the sweetbreads. As you may have read in the Guerrilla Cuisine dinner, I wasn't overly thrilled with the job Jeremy did with his sweetbreads. Well, apparently my words stung a little, and he decided to come back at me guns blazing. The result: Roulade of sweetbreads, fried bone marrow, parsnip puree, Brussels sprouts, confit of royal trumpet mushrooms, and marrow jus served with an overmatched and too-dry Chateau Saint Pierre de Mejans Cotes du Luberon. The sweetbreads, bound together with chicken mousse, were creamy and decadent and a great rebound from the last time out. The fried bone marrow was like a little nugget of God's own butter. Even Mr. Ruhlman had to point out the fun and absurdity of frying fat in fat. I can go on and on about how strong a dish this is.
Let's count the things The Girl ate that she normally won't eat on this plate: Sweetbreads, bone barrow, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts...
For our dessert, Chef Jeremy went all fancy on us with a banana custard, chocolate curd, vanilla wafer ice cream, and powdered bacon. The banana custard (Thank you Gwen Stefani for teaching me how to spell that) was formed into a bar-like log, and cut into portions. The taste was fantastic. The ice cream was fun and light, and the powdered bacon gave a great saltiness. For those of you interested in making powders, the technique is very simple, and any high-fat liquid (such as bacon fat) can be easily converted using a powder called Tapioca Maltodextrin. Everyone at the table agreed on the great flavor balance of the dish, one that truly sealed the deal for the evening's meal.
I'm dreaming of white bacon powder.....
After the dinner, Mr. Ruhlman assisted in the raffling of some Le Creuset dishes, as well as some Govino shatter-proof wine glasses (of which we won a set). The finale of the evening was an auction of two signed magnums of wine provided by Palmetto Distributing, dinner for 8 at Anson, and a great set of Ruhlman's custom cooking utensils. The $900 final bid will go to help Slow Food Charleston change the way we look at the food we eat.
Ruhlman teaches Chef Jeremy the proper way to baste imaginary duck breasts
The night winds down, the applause dies out. Ruhlman has left his soap-box (after passionately calling on us to return to our kitchens, and reclaim the birthright of civilization: the home-cooked meal). Our fantastic server, JP, has cleared the table with deft efficiency. Chef Jeremy, ever the modest artist, shakes hands and looks slightly uncomfortable with all the well-deserved praise. The Girl is more than just a tad tipsy, but as she snuggles in close to me, the crisp December air nipping at our noses (okay, it was in the 60s, but work with me here), she tells me that this was on the short list for best meals of her life. That's twice Chef Jeremy has been on that list. Coincidence?
Overall: 24 out of 25, A delightfully delicious and decadent date night.