Portland's new February food fest, Chef's Week PDX, ran smack into a rare Portland Snowmageddon. The first dinner of the four-night series, Hearth and Turf focused on rustic and "West Coast soul food" at Ava Gene's on Thursday, Feb. 6.
I restructured my plans to ensure I could attend, as I was told that no amount of snow or ice could keep it from happening. With the $75 upfront charge, I didn't want to miss out on a great night of food. Luckily, the Bluebird Guesthouse just a block away had space so I could check in without worry about getting home afterward.
Chef's Week PDX brings together chefs from across the West Coast for collaborative dinners showcasing their creativity and artistry. I hadn't yet had an opportunity to dine at Ava Gene's, which was named one of the top five new restaurants in the USA by Bon Appétit Magazine. Their chef, Joshua McFadden, would share his kitchen with Jason French of Ned Ludd (one of my favorites), Gregory Gourdet of Departure, Matt Christianson & Chris Starkus of Urban Farmer, and, from Vancouver BC, Angus An of Maenam.
The dinner was served family style at each table. However, I opted for the kitchen counter seating and got individual portions and a birds-eye view of the preparation. I met another diner who was also solo and we had a great evening of discussion the culinary scene in Portland.
There were some confusing aspects to the ticket-buying process. A beverage pairing was listed but it wasn't possible to buy it upfront. They were quick to answer questions via their Facebook page, however, to say we would be able to buy that at the restaurant. Then ticket buyers got a message to call the restaurant to arrange for dining time and seating. I had assumed the dinner started for everyone at the stated 5 pm start time, but actually you could come later. We saw diners arrive as late at 7 pm. This made sense, but it could have been explained up front. My fellow diner managed to snag his ticket at the last minute.
The dinner was well worth the price. Unfortunately, they didn't match up the chefs with the courses they were most responsible for, so I'll have to guess for a couple of the courses. They also didn't introduce the chefs or have them explain their dishes during the dinner. I think that would have made the evening even better.
First came an antipasti platter assembled under the watchful eye of Jason French. Grilled sausage with apple butter and sweet mustard, cured smoked port loin wiht pickled mushrooms, smoked sturgeon with cippolini agrodolce, an amazing cured steelhead with horseradish and beets, and winter radish with smoked cultured butter and seeded bread. This platter set the tone -- nobody was leaving dinner with any space left in the tummy! The menu in front of us listing 15 items meant we'd each be eating 15, and they were not just a single bite.
Next came the Giardini, three salads each in a bowl with the dressing swathed on the inside of the bowl. We had never seen a salad served in that way, yet it worked perfectly. The bood orange, cara cara, dates and ricotta salad was sweet and packed with flavor. I'm a sucker for roasted cauliflower, brussels sprouts and tonnato and it was very savory. Then a refreshing salad of carrots, anchovy and cashew pesto. I don't know whether it or the next two courses were from Joshua McFadden, Angus An, or the Urban Farmer duo.
I am going to assume that the Primi course, Kao Soi Gai - linguine with chicken and pickled kale, was from Angus An. It was a great bowl of noodles, with charred noodles on top to match the Hearth theme. They added a nice crunchy element without too much unwanted charcoal.
The Secondi e Contorni course was a duo of wagyu short rib on herb pesto (needed just a little dash of finishing salt in my opinion) and ling cod saltimbocca on smoked white beans (I loved it but the diner next to me thought it a bit too dry). The bowl of brussels sprouts with orange, cranberry and pickled onion was super.
Now for the Dolci, crafted by Gregory Gourdet. These were four dessets. Bitter orange and cinnamon cake sat on a coal-charred meringue. A coconut and egg yolk custard tart was topped with gingered apricot. Both nice, but I give raves to the Asian rocky road ice cream with smoked Jacobsen's sea salt and the chocolate wasabi bar with crushed peanut and yuzu jam.
I enjoyed the drink pairing, which started with a Negroni, then a rose wine, white wine, red, and espresso.
It was fun to watch the chefs and ask an occasional question.
Each dinner was followed by a free after-party at a bar next door. Alas, I was very full and so I just rolled back to my B&B.
The other dinners of the 2014 series are Present Culture at Paley's Place on Feb. 7 with Jose Chesa of Ataula, Jeff McCarthy, Patrick McKee, Joël Watanabe and Rachel Yang. West Coast Modern at Castagna Feb. 8 with Anthony Cafiero, Gregory Gourdet, Brian McCracken, Craig Thornton, Dana Tough, Justin Wills and Justin Woodward. And the big blow-out of West Coast 2014 at Departure on Feb. 9 with 24 chefs and 21 courses. In addition to the chefs already listed, they are joined by Greg & Gabrielle Denton, Erik Van Kley, Jeff McCarthy, Carrie Merrill and Jorel Pierce.
This is definitely a series to track for coming years. The prices are excellent for the value.