Saturday, December 7, 2013
A few random thoughts on the premiere of Top Chef Masters last night, which marked the debut of two Maine chefs, Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier, on the show:
How old is judge Krista Simmons, 12? And why are the chefs so afraid of her? She just started eating solid food a couple of months ago, right?
It’s pretty clear Art Smith is going to be the entertainment this season. The other chefs made fun of how slowly he shops (“Now where is the cilantro?), and I predict the most over-used phrase on the show will be “Honey, please!”
Mark of MarkandClark is much more chatty on TV than in print. In the interviews I’ve done with them, Frasier has usually carried the water for the couple. Loved hearing Mark speak up.
The Arrows chefs are really, really nice guys in person. I worry they may be TOO nice for a cuthroat TV competition. Watching Frasier worry over the quality of his Quickfire dish, you could see the light coming on inside that this adventure was not going to be a cakewalk. (“Quinoa doesn’t go with langoustine…”) Let’s all cross our forks for them and hope they can channel their inner Gordan Ramsays long enough to whip the competition and bring home the bacon for their charities. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)
Meanwhile…Carmen Gonzalez and Tony Mantuano were supposed to be at the big Top Chef Masters premiere party in Las Vegas last night, celebrating the kick-off of the new season of the reality TV show.
Instead, they were cooking several dozen guests at Gonzalez’s restaurant in the Danforth Inn.
The two chefs competed together on season two of the show and became good friends, so Gonzalez invited Mantuano, chef at Spiaggia in Chicago, to come to Portland to launch the first of a series of guest chef dinners at the inn.
Before dinner, the two chefs came out of the kitchen to mingle for a few minutes with guests at a pre-dinner reception that featured sparkling wine and a couple of hors d’oeurves taken from the restaurant’s menu, salt cod fritters and Berkshire pork bites.
Chatting with a few guests, Mantuano said of Gonzalez: “She’s going to be a big star.”
The first course was a New Bedford sea scallop atop boniato mash with Criolla sauce. We were off to a great start.
The second plate, from Mantuano, was a plate full of gnocchi that I was told had been made at Spiaggia and shipped here. The gnocchi was topped with fresh Maine lobster, slices of zucchini, local fava beans and basil. An unexpected star of the dish (after the gnocchi, of course) was the fava beans. Everyone at my table said they wanted to go right out to the farmers’ market and buy some.
Pairing for first two dishes: 2011 Sauvignon, Tramin, Alto Adige.
At one point between courses, we caught a cameraman stalking the inn’s piano player. A crew from MGM Latin America is in Portland this week getting footage for Gonzalez’s Spanish-language cooking show, “La Chispa de Chef Carmen Gonzalez.”
Just when we thought we had eaten some special food, the chefs went and kicked it up a few notches. The next two courses were out-of-this-world good, centered around meats cooked to perfection.
First came Gonzalez’ Berkshire pork loin, sweet plantain and chorizo fufu (yes, we liked saying this, too), rainbow chard and pork demi. I’m not exagerrating when I say this was probably the most tender pork I’ve ever eaten. Expertly seared on the outside, the center was just lightly pink and could be cut through easily with a fork. Before the night was over, I was joking to my tablemates that our servers shouldn’t bother bringing more knives because we didn’t really need them. Mine kept going back unused.
Cathy Mantuano, the chef’s spouse and well-known wine expert, kept our glasses filled throughout the evening with a number of interesting selections. The pork was paired with a 2011 Argiolas Serralori Rosato from Sardinia. The strong notes of berries made you feel like you were sitting in the Mediterranean sun, having lunch with a few close friends. Most striking was the amazing pink color that filled the glasses throughout the restaurant’s two dining rooms. I want to pour another glass of this at home sometime, just to look at it.
And then came the strip steak.
One of my new friends, who had raved about the pork, leaned over and said after tasting the beef he couldn’t decide now which dish he liked better. Cathy Mantuano pointed out that he didn’t really have to rank the dishes, just enjoy them, but that’s human nature, isnt it?
This dish from Tony Manutano consisted of Painted Hill Farms strip steak served with arugula, lemon, rosemary and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Drizzled on the plate was Spiaggia’s own extra virgin olive oil and aceto balsamico.
Again, this steak was cooked to perfection – an amazing, flavorful “crust” on the sear, and a deep pink on the inside. The peppery arugula and the tang of the parmigiano-reggiano were just the right accompaniments, adding some extra zip to each mouthful.
The beef was paired with a bold, cherry red 2008 Gravello from Librandi in the Italian region of Calabria. The men at my table raved, saying this was their favorite wine of the evening.
The pork and beef courses were hard acts to follow, but the clever presentation of dessert made up for anything lacking in flavor. (Seriously, we were still talking about the pork and the beef.) The pudding was served like a tamale, with some spoonfuls of cajeta sauce and a dollop of vanilla bean ice cream alongside.
The dessert wine was an apricot-colored 2005 Tenute Marchese Antinori Vin Santo Del Chianti Classico from Tuscany.
After dinner, the chefs once again came out and mingled with their guests. Mantuano told us he started out in music, but then began cooking and found he enjoyed it more. (Sounds like Sam Hayward of Fore Street.)
Meredith Goad has harvested oysters on the Chesapeake Bay, eaten reindeer in Finland and sipped hot chai in the Himalayas. She writes the weekly Soup to Nuts column and enjoys a good cocktail.
Susan Axelrod's food writing career began in the kitchen; she owned a restaurant and catering business before turning to journalism more than a decade ago. To relax, she bakes, gardens and hikes with her husband and their two dogs. A newcomer to Portland, she is an online content producer for the Press Herald.
Susan can be contacted at 791-6310 or saxelrod [at] pressherald.com.
On Twitter: @susansaxelrod