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Monday, March 15, 2010

We Kissed Mario Batali: An evening in culinary wonder

I am desperately going to try and keep this as brief as possible for you, but it's an epic story and I don't want you to miss anything. 

I don't really know where to begin. The beginning? The staff of the wine shop/theater had a "staff dinner retreat" to Publican last night, the brainchild of Donnie Madia, Chef Paul Kahan, and several others. I've been dying to go there since it opened, and was super excited that we were all going together. Joining us was the wonderful Joe Shanahan, owner of such legendary establishments as Chicago's Metro and Double Door, as well as a partner in the restaurant. Turns out, it was to be a prix fixe beer dinner with one of Michigan's finest breweries, Dark Horse. This made the experience even more enticing for little old me.

Chef Paul did not disappoint--not that I ever had a doubt. This meal was perfection, and the beer pairings were some of the most spot on I've ever experienced. It's still unclear to me which was my particular favorite course, but I know both J and I  wanted  to eat the entire thing over again just as we were finishing. The Bouchot Mussels au Gratin were HUGE and luxurious, the wagyu short ribs and smoked grapes were an explosion of flavor. I had a particular fondness for the black cod...I swear there was heaven in that bowl. It was the perfect balance of all things flavorful while managing to be beautifully simple. I love food like that. Where the ingredients are so divine and the cooking method so perfect, you need nothing else. (But the good crusty piece of bread to sop up the broth!) The dessert was oatmeal cookie "sandwich" with smoked maple, raisins, and walnuts.

I have to say, I don't often get starstruck. This will be important for you as you continue reading. But chefs change the game for me. I'm impressed, amazed, stunned...and when Chef Paul came over to the table to say hello to Joe and meet the table, I blushed, clammed up (so not like me, obviously) and just listened. If you don't know who Paul Kahan is, google him immediately. He is a culinary force to be reckoned with.

Of course, I had nothing but high expectations for Dark Horse. Their beers are gorgeous, and if you haven't had them, I highly recommend them. The brewery is based in Marshall, MI, and is next on my list of things to do. Travis, the general manager who was representing the brewery that night, could not have been nicer or more attentive, and the whole experience was phenomenal. I'm a HUGE fan of their smoked stout, which paired with the short ribs and smoked grapes might have been the most perfect example of beer and food in one sitting.
Mike, Becky and J with Emeril
What happened next is honestly a blur of hilariousness, phenomenal cuisine, outstanding service, and some of the finest beers to be consumed. And pork rinds. (Oh the pork rinds...)  Chicago was hosting the Home and Housewares show this weekend, which was "culminating" in a benefit dinner tonight for the traveling sextet eighth blackbird. Chef Paul and Mario Batali are cooking together, and the entire culinary world seemed to be in town for the Housewares show. So when we sat down to dinner and in walked Mario Batali, orange clogs and all, it seemed perfectly normal. And then Emeril Lagasse, looking impeccable, entered the dining room. And so, again, I was starstruck. Though my dining colleagues encouraged me to get up and go get a picture, I just couldn't. Until I consumed some more liquid courage, and then I did. And so did J. Needless to say, they couldn't have been cooler, and Emeril told us to call him when we go to New Orleans next month so that he can "hook us up." We spoke to Alain Joseph, Emeril's Culinary Assistant, about our upcoming trip, and he was incredible. (And also, very well dressed!)

Publican is set up as communal seating--something I absolutely adore. The woman sitting next to me, who was just beginning her 1st course as we were eating dessert, asked if the cookie was good, and we struck up a conversation. They, too, were in town for the Housewares show--a group of All-Clad reps. Something to remember about me, and how I cook, is my unabashed love for All-Clad products. (I often joke that my three reasons for getting married were my love of Jayson, All-Clad, and a Cuisinart food processor.) J and I chatted with them throughout their meal, discussing the courses, the All-Clad, and of course, this blog. They couldn't have been more fun to enjoy our experience with, and I hope they travel back to NYC safely!

As we closed down Publican (the remaining members of our group, J, Becky, Mike and myself were thoroughly enjoying several more beers as the evening continued) it was time to leave. Until the entire entourage of celebrity chefs invited us to continue our evening with them at another of Madia and Kahan's restaurants, Big Star. And we did. And somehow ate the entire left side of the gorgeous Mexican menu. (Oh my god the beef tongue tacos!) The celebrity chefness did not stop with the three aforementioned total rockstars. Joining them at Big Star were Ming Tsai, Curtis Stone, and others. When asked if he would come take a picture with Becky, Curtis Stone draped his enormously long legs over the booths, jumped into ours next to Becky, and planted a smacker on her!

I felt so taken care of by Madia and Kahan in both of these experiences that I can't even tell you. I mentioned pork rinds, right? Well, they were not on the menu for the evening, but Publican is famous for them. When I mentioned to Madia that I was going to have to come back to have the pork rinds, within 5 minutes a glorious cone of them appeared on our table. Chef Paul came to our booth at Big Star, talked smack about Js old favorite burrito joint in Chicago, and helped us in our efforts to finish off the last of our tacos!

What these chefs do for the culinary world is why I'm here right now. It's why I cook, and blog, and eat the way I do. It's why I went from never ever ever wanting to eat pork or chicken on the bone to grilling pork tenderloin with a beer reduction (a recipe I'm working on) and why I have no issue eating organs. They're inspiring, creative, and masters of their art form. Some people work in paints, some in music. These people work in food, and strive to keep our planet sustainable and healthy while encouraging we, the home chefs and grocery store shoppers, to buy local, organic, and in season.

And they make some killer food while doing it!

For more information or pictures, let me know in the comments. I'm happy to continue to wax nostalgic about my evening.


  1. great blog! ur living la dolce vita. whodda thunk! i luv all clad too. glad u stay away from any of that teflon stuff. lol! jo

  2. Thanks Jo! No teflon here. Absolutely none. I rarely cook in non-stick, aside from eggs, and it's the non-teflon kind. Any sign of scratching means the nonstick goes in the trash, regardless. Really love that you're digging the blog!

  3. What? When? How? Man, I’m jealous.