Sunday, June 26, 2011

Philly's Top-Tier Tasting Event Aims to Leave No One Hungry

Taste of the Nation, an annual culinary benefit organized by Share Our Strength to raise charitable funding for the fight against childhood hunger, was held in Philadelphia on Monday, June 20th at the Loews Hotel. This year's fête took place in the Millennium Ballroom, which served as a perfect entry point for guests who rode the escalator up from 12th & Market Street. Top Chef contestant and local kitchen icon Jennifer Carroll of 10 Arts Bistro & Lounge by Eric Ripert acted as the event's Chef Chair, organizing and directing an all-volunteer squad from over 30 restaurants. Phoebe Esmon, Head Bartender & Cocktail Bar Manager at the Farmer's Cabinet and founding president of the United States Bartenders' Guild Philadelphia Chapter, led a team of talented mixologists who presented creative, refreshing drinks using Finlandia vodka, Plymouth Gin, Woodfood Reserve bourbon, Herradura tequila, and Veev Açaí.  All ticket proceeds contributed to Share Our Strength's efforts, while providing support to local organizations Philabundance, The Food Trust, The Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, and The Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center.

While incorporating a utilitarian ambition, Taste of the Nation also employs a serious focus on    the preparation and delivery of memorable bites and sips. Some of the city's most acclaimed chefs stand elbow-to-elbow while offering their flavorful creations to patrons who may not typically enjoy such close proximity to the "kitchen." Standing in front of one of your favorite bartenders also yields insightful feedback on a drink's origin and recipe. In either scenario, the chance to casually chit-chat with the talented denizens of Philly's dining establishments while learning about a dish's or cocktail's inspiration is worth the ticket price. General admission was a fair $85 while VIP entry cost $135 to access the room an hour early. Philadelphia Magazine's Foobooz offered a 15% discount on online purchases, as did Punch Media, the Public Relations firm that handled the media and press buzz for Taste of the Nation. 

I arrived at the Loews just as the event was getting underway at 5:30PM, immediately immersed in the energy that permeated the entry area to the intimate ballroom. Most of the tables outside the doors were showcasing desserts that heavily emphasized cupcakes. The Khyber Pass Pub was also offering its ridiculously addictive Benton bacon grease popcorn as a party-starter, but I passed it smilingly, nodding in homage to the city's top beer snack with which I have an ongoing relationship. I wasn't about to let chocolate and popped corn affect my taste buds so early in the game, although I willingly welcomed them in the second half.

Upon walking into the main space, music blared and tables hummed with excitement as cocktails were shaken and platters purposefully prepped for the onslaught of attendees. Arriving early is the optimum way to insure sampling from every establishment, as well as beating the heavy crowds that usually peak around 7PM. As soon as I began my walk in the far right corner where PorcSalt playfully served its trio of treats in a mini picnic-like box, I bumped into Jen Carroll. Despite her recent television fame, she remains down-to-earth, approachable, and extremely polite. I asked her about her role as Chef Chair for the second consecutive year, and she relayed that it was about giving her time to an organization she respected and admired. Her position demanded many meetings in which she provided culinary direction, and based on what I ate over the next three hours, Jen's focus was clearly on flavor and fun. The Philly native has stayed close to her roots, and that local upbringing is shown in her casual and friendly manner in conversation. Her food, however, speaks in a serious tone that requires full attention.

After meeting PorcSalt's Matt Ridgway and relishing his fried, red wine bacon cinnabun, foie-gras parfait, and whipped smoked potatoes Aligoté, all of which imparted porcine flavors in a clean, pungent and quite balanced way, it was only natural that I took a step to my left and immediately stood face-to-face with a laid-out, resting roasted pig that appeared in the middle of a nap. McCrossen's Tavern presented perhaps my favorite dish of the evening: a roughly 2 to 3 month-old oinker (slightly older than a suckling) that had been gutted and broken down, re-filled with the loins and house-made stuffing, and topped with a pan sauce comprised of the animal's liver, heart and kidneys. Carved in front of you by chef Tod Wentz and sauced by Bill Strobel, the pork was generously and theatrically portioned along with the crispy skin, the meat tender and tasty, with a bit of gaminess from the offal reduction. I literally ate three platefuls throughout the night. Gluttony prevailed on this evening: it started from the first bite, and McCrossen's was partly to blame. 

Proceeding in a counter-clockwise direction, I then enjoyed the tomato and spicy shrimp crostini served by Walter Staib of City Tavern and the television cooking show A Taste of History, both of which honor the cooking of 18th century colonial America. Khyber Pass Pub offered a pleasantly peppery crawfish étouffée (similar to gumbo) with a slightly dark roux base over white rice, a tip of the toque to the Cajun cuisine it has perfected at the restaurant. Scott Schroeder of  South Philadelphia Tap Room added a Mexican twist to his salmon tartare that was blended with red onion and guacamole, served atop a crispy tortilla chip and topped with sour cream. Gene Giuffi, the chef at Cochon, the Queen Village BYOB that pays tribute to the pig in its name as well as French-inspired menu, assembled a hearty, complex cassoulet blending white beans, house-smoked garlic sausage and braised pig head that transported me to southern France. Tashan, the sophisticated spinoff of Tiffin that translates to "style" in Hindi, paired a beautifully colored sweet mango lassi (a yogurt-based drink served in India) with a malai kofta (deep fried potato-based dumpling) lollipop that resembled the crunchy truffle-porcini arancini on a stick served by Ristorante Panorama on the opposite side of the room. 

Truffle-Porcini Risotto Lollipop from Panorama

Before making the turn to the next row, I stepped into the retro and modern pop-up lounge created by Mae & Company Productions where Plymouth Gin setup its bar stations and the DJ belted out funky sounds. Theo Webb of Mike Stollenwerk's Fish shook up a "sandia picante," my favorite liquid concoction of the night that blended gin, fresh watermelon juice, roasted jalapeno, mint simple syrup and lime juice. Served over ice in a rocks glass and tinted blue, this was a crisp, refreshing drink that cooled off Fish's salty and spicy pastrami-smoked salmon chips with which it was paired. Cocktail in hand, I visited SoleFood, the Loews Hotel restaurant that fuses soul into its cuisine and heavily emphasizes seafood. I devoured the rolled tuna topped with an aioli drizzle before snacking on a few sesame salmon tartare crostini from Fond, the tiny French-American BYOB on East Passyunk Ave in South Philly that boasts clean cuisine by Chef Lee Styer, delectable desserts by Jesse Prawlucki, and top-notch front-of-house service by Tory Keomanuvong. 10 Arts beckoned me with its own crostini, a truly addictive chicken liver mousse topped with a thinly-sliced grilled peach, perhaps my favorite hors d'oeuvre of the night for which I kept returning like a well-trained dog begging for more treats. 
The team at Fond 

Near 10 Arts, LaCroix at the Rittenhouse was serving its own haute cuisine treat: a strawberry, foie-gras macaroon. This party-popper worked as both a finger food and a dessert, walking the line between sweet and savory. It represented the creative approach most chefs took for the event. Funky Lil' Kitchen, an establishment offering "seasonal domestic cooking" in Pottstown, also deceived the eyes with a  strawberry soup that looked like gazpacho from afar. The vibrant red puree was balanced nicely with a black pepper cornbread and goat milk creme fraiche. Close by, Oyster House left no doubt as to what they were offering: freshly shucked Delaware Bay oysters presented beautifully on shaved ice. Sam Mink Jr., who has returned the business back to the family, refurbished the spot on Sansom Street into a modern, refreshing destination that shines with classic white subway tile and a seafood-centric menu that even makes an outstanding grass-fed burger topped with a fried oyster. 

Walking across the center of the ballroom floor, you could peruse and bid on the silent auction items that ranged from stays in Philly hotels to multi-course dinners at city restaurants. If cocktails were not your thing, craft beer was poured along with wines from Sonoma-Cutrer. San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna sparkling and still water were also provided to cleanse the palate and re-hydrate the taste buds. Philabundance had representatives on-hand to provide feedback about its mission as party-goers mingled and sampled.

On the left side of the room, chef Han Chiang of Old City's Han Dynasty brought his infamous heat to a noodle dish that attendees assembled at the table. Peter McAndrews of Modo Mio and the newly opened Sicilian joint Monsu offered a bite as large as his personality: a porchetta-tonnato, which combined braised pork, sesame tuna loin, apricot mostarda and caper mayonnaise on a thickly sliced piece of Italian bread. David Katz's Meme served up a playful Jewish deli bite of cool pastrami-spiced NY strip atop a pumpernickel toast with a dash of horseradish cream. DiBruno Brothers represented its heritage with an array of cheeses, along with a deceptively simple-looking but tasty ravioli filled with rapini. Nearby, Herradura cocktails were being shaken by Felicia D'Ambrosio (who shakes it up at Monks when time permits), Keith Raimundi of Village Whiskey, and Phoebe Esmon, who created a very memorable tequila libation topped off with micro cilantro greens that enhanced each sip by elevating the senses. 

Happy employees of Modo Mio & Monsu

Keith's co-bartender Stephen Seibert at Iron Chef Jose Garces' corner drinkery on 20th & Sansom mixed up Finlandia vodka drinks in tall glasses on the rocks a few steps away. Fish offered a unique deconstruction of its popular skate entree by transforming it into a crispy chip topped with shaved parmesan and truffle that resembled a chicharrón. Mike Stollenwerk told me the snack took three days to create, and I hope it shows up as a bar item at Fish or his new casual Fishtown bar Fathom Seafood House. The Capital Grille showed off its meaty side by searing filet mignon strips and topping them with sauteed mushrooms in a red wine reduction. Mark Tropea of Sonata in Northern Liberties, an under-the-radar BYOB destination serving contemporary American food, delivered a knockout corn ravioli tossed with generous chunks of blue crab and served in a red pepper broth. Across the way, Valanni cooled things off with a tomato gazpacho drizzled with a balsamic reduction and topped with a grilled shrimp that had me thinking of Barcelona. My mind stayed in Spain as I walked over to the table helmed by Bar Ferdinand, one of the original restaurants in the resurgent Nolib neighborhood that continues to shine. Chef Akiko Moorman delivered the drama by offering larger-than-life preparations of tortilla espagnole and seafood paella that contained mussels, clams, shrimp, and squid. The former was served squarely and topped with a fantastic aioli, while the latter was as colorful as an artist's palette, glistening with bursts of red and yellow. El Camino Real, the BBQ spot that is steps away from Bar Ferdinand in Nolib, slung a tooth-picked house-made smoky Texas sausage atop perfectly cooked braised lentils, a creative play on "franks and beans." The subtle heat in that plating was lassoed by the classic Manhattan made with Woodford Reserve and shaken by well-known mixology expert Katie Loeb of Oyster House. 

As terrific as the savory servings proved, the sweet samplings of desserts left their own impressions. Undoubtedly, the winner of the night for color, plating, and taste was the chevre mousse prepared by 10 Arts pastry chef Monica Glass. Served alongside a lavender-poached blackberry and roasted tomato, and topped with brioche streusel and a beautiful edible flower, the dish was a study in textures, both creamy and crunchy. Impossible to resist, I indulged twice. Nearby, Davio's offered a golden-yellow key lime pie that was sumptuously sweet and very hard to pass up when I strolled by early in the night. Not to be outdone, Trio, a BYOB located in the Fairmount neighborhood, delivered its own version of the Key West concoction that was lighter in color and density but just as delicious. Before exiting the ballroom to locate the cookies and cupcakes in the entry area, I visited Preston Eckman, a bartender at Opa who was making his own magic with VeeV, a spirit made with açaí, a Brazilian purple berry that is high in antioxidants. His "Red Mule" blended VeeV with cranberry juice, ginger beer and bitters, all of which combined to produce a cocktail that complemented the countless confections.

After I ventured through the doors, I first landed at Max Brenner, the chocolate haven in Center City where I indulged in a chocolate-covered praline that was small in size but loaded with flavor. Cupcakes are all the rage these days, so they were easy to find. Both A Cupcake Wonderland and Mad Batter Bakery presented tiers of mini creations that included red velvet, dark chocolate and buttercream frostings. The night could not be complete without a visit to Capogiro, the premier gelateria in Philadelphia whose flavors mystify each visitor and call for dozens of sample bites before making a final choice. This evening, there were only two options to make life easy: champagne mango and Cioccolato Scuro, a rich black chocolate. By the time I arrived, the former was all gone, so I "settled" for the latter, which was a cupful of decadence. The only thing missing at this point in the night was a double shot of espresso.

Before approaching the exit sign, guests were given the choice of four flavors of jarred DelGrosso tomato sauce, a nice giveaway that left every attendee hungry for more. Taste of the Nation remains my favorite food event of the year, in that it blends philanthropy and party-going perfectly. The recipe works, but it somehow seems to taste better every June. Keep an eye out for the 2012 lineup at

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