There are not many things that would entice me to give up my hard-to-get Restaurant Week reservation at Rasika. But when an email arrives announcing the Celebrity Chef Tour dinner at The Source by Wolfgang Puck, it catches my attention. It goes without saying that I am going to be intrigued by any event that features Top Chefs’ Mike Isabella and Bryan Voltaggio. But the event also features a prestigious list of additional “top chef”s including Cathal Armstrong, Patrick O’Connell, Victor Albisu, Scott Drewno, and Tiffany MacIsaac. This is a fundraiser for the James Beard Foundation, the goal of which is to “celebrate, nurture, and preserve America’s diverse culinary heritage and future.” This is a goal which I wholeheartedly embrace.
|chefs at Celebrity Chef Tour DC photo courtesy of Paul Kim | www.paulkimphoto.com|
As it does whenever the possibility of exceptional food is looming, my heart begins to pound. Can I really forgo Rasika? I can and I do…at least for one night. I contact three food-loving friends (without dietary restrictions) who may be willing to embark on this not inexpensive adventure with me. They are.
I try to come up with an analogy for the Celebrity Chef Tour as I describe the evening to my husband the next morning. He listens to me explain the multitude of courses, each prepared artfully by a celebrated chef. He nods and says it sounds somewhat like the baseball All-Star Game. I much prefer my friend’s analogy, who likens the experience to shopping in Chevy Chase, where you can drift from one exclusive store to another.
As we enter The Source, I immediately take note of the crowd. My conclusion…buy myself a cute new cocktail dress for next year. Drinks are flowing freely and my friends and I eagerly rush to take advantage, although we are cautious not to overindulge. Most of the time we share drinks. My favorite is the “Green Eyed Geisha” featuring rum, yuzu, orange and basil syrup by Adam Manson of the Source. Well-known mixologist Todd Thrasher is vigorously shaking up his “Norfolk Dumpling” macchu pisco, anejo tequila, house-made lemon and cherry bitters, and house-made duck sauce soda. It’s a little difficult to hold back on the drinks, but I know I must keep my wits about me.
|Todd Thrasher mixes it up photo courtesy of Paul Kim | www.paulkimphoto.com|
The only negative of the evening occurs early on. There are supposed to be four different passed appetizers. I only am able to score two and that is by moving my position closer to where the servers are coming out. The first is foie gras with peach membrillo, toasted almond butter, and brioche by Haidar Karoun of Proof. I am not a fan of foie gras or almond butter, so I don’t care for it. The second is branzino tartare with fennel, radish, and chili by Mike Isabella of Graffiato. It’s light and refreshing with the chilis providing just a touch of heat. I never see the other two appetizers prepared by Adam Sobel of Bourbon Steak. I comment on this to two of the staff once we are seated upstairs. To their credit they each bring our table some additional appetizers. Unfortunately, they are the foie gras and branzino, which I’ve already tried. But we are impressed by the effort.
|Mike Isabella photo courtesy of Paul Kim | www.paulkimphoto.com|
|branzino tartare by Mike Isabella photo courtesy of Paul Kim | www.paulkimphoto.com|
|foie gras by Haidar Karoum, photo courtesy of Paul Kim | www.paulkimphoto.com|
I am not going to let two missing appetizers affect my enjoyment of the evening. Instead I sip on a refreshing glass of Lucien Crochet Sauvignon Blanc, which is to be paired with our first course of sashimi of fluke with heirloom tomato and basil vinaigrette, presented by Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve. Let the flavor explosion begin! We are beginning to sense the true depth of quality of the food we are about to receive.
|sashimi of fluke by Cathal Armstrong, photo courtesy of Paul Kim | www.paulkimphoto.com|
The next course is lamb carpaccio with caesar salad ice cream presented by Patrick O’Connell of The Inn at Little Washington. This is our favorite dish. It is unanimous. The savory lamb contrasting with the cool bits of ice cream is unexpected and unparalleled. We are told that Patrick O’Connell is unable to be here, but his team has prepared an impeccable dish in his absence. (Note to husband: must get to The Inn at Little Washington).
|lamb carpaccio by Patrick O’Connell photo courtesy of Paul Kim | www.paulkimphoto.com|
My friend texts me from Rasika, where I am supposed to be on this night: “it is not possible that you had a better meal tonight.” My reply: “oh yes it is, and we’re only on the second course.” She understands that coming from me, these few words speak volumes.
I don’t need to look at the menu to know who’s dish is up next. It is Nunavit Arctic Char with applewood smoke, flavors of everything bagel, fennel, and creme fraiche, presented by Bryan Voltaggio of Volt Restaurant. My favorite part of this dish is the everything bagel seasonings that are sprinkled over the fish, perhaps because my freezer is never without a few everything bagels stashed away I am not as enamored of the fish roe on the plate, which adds a fishy taste that I don’t care for. I sneak a peek at my twitter and see that Tiffany MacIsaac has tweeted “Love watching chefs cook. @BryanVoltaggio is killing it on the wok.”
|Nunavut arctic char by Bryan Voltaggio photo courtesy of Paul Kim | www.paulkimphoto.com|
|Bryan Voltaggio prepping his dish photo courtesy of Paul Kim | www.paulkimphoto.com|
|lacquered Chinese duck by Scott Drewno photo courtesy of Paul Kim | www.paulkimphoto.com|
Each dish is paired with wine. We are not connoisseurs, even though one of my friends is married to a wine writer. In fact, a table of his oenophile friends are seated nearby. We are dumbfounded by but respectful of their capacity to drink. My friend reminds us that her husband always says that it doesn’t matter how expensive the wine is, what matters is that you like it. We are comfortable with this sentiment, as we have no idea about the true value of the wine we are drinking. But from our perspective, they pair perfectly with the food.
At this point, our own capacity for both food and drink is pretty much at the limit. This is a shame because the next course is a hefty portion of grilled wagyu ribye with top cap roulade, local corn ajo blanco, and burnt onion chimichurri by Victor Albisu of BLT Steak. While at first it is difficult to slice the meat with a knife, it is perfectly tender on the inside. I am so disappointed that I am only able to enjoy a few bites of this dish. The server takes it away. Later we notice other people are taking their leftovers home. I wish this would have been offered to us as an option. It hasn’t occurred to me. I take comfort in the fact that I really do not need to eat this the next day. Instead I will have a salad for lunch to atone for all the calories packed into this wonderful meal.
|grilled wagyu ribeye by Victor Albisu photo courtesy of Paul Kim | www.paulkimphoto.com|
One of the highlights of the evening is when Jeff Black, President of the Celebrity Chef Tour, stops by our table to check in. He wants to know how we heard about the event (thank you Visa Signature Card). After learning of our fascination with “Top Chef” he regales us with some great stories about Carla Hall, who participated in a recent event in Crested Butte, Colorado. I tell him about The Night I was Pushed by Carla Hall.
I’ve seen Mike Isabella floating around the dining room during the evening, but haven’t yet spotted Bryan Voltaggio and shamelessly ask Jeff to send him up to say hello. (I am becoming bolder as time goes on.) Meanwhile, Mike, who now has met me enough times to recognize me, stops by our table to say hello. As he is chatting with my friends and I, Bryan stops by as well. It’s a deja vu moment, hearkening back to my recent dinner at Graffiato, when my husband took a photo capturing me smiling ecstatically as I’m surrounded by the two chefs. I decide that another photo is overkill, and I pride myself on my restraint. But not before admitting to Bryan something that I know about him because I saw it on Twitter. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen him tweet much since then. Could it be something I said?
My friends and I are re-energized by our visitors, and we welcome the next course which is described on the menu as “a pastry amuse.” A dessert before our dessert. It is a sorbetti duo of lemon opal basil and cucumber mint vodka. These aren’t your average super-sweet sorbets. They are refined and refreshing. I particularly like the rice-crispy like crunch underneath.
|sorbetti duo by Robb and Violeta Duncan of Dolcezza photo courtesy of Paul Kim | www.paulkimphoto.com|
It is getting very late and I can only take a bite of the dessert by Tiffany MacIsaac of Birch and Barley and my favorite Buzz Bakery. It is Gianduja panna cotta with cherries, hazelnut crunch, and chocolate curl. I am actually saddened that I am so stuffed, even though I would have avoided the hazelnuts.
At this point we look up to realize that most of the diners are now gone and the clock is quickly approaching midnight. We are not sure how this has happened. We are exhausted on the Metro heading home, but at the same time reveling in the deliciousness of our journey. As one friend states “it was so amazing to really be in the moment with the food. It was a very sensory experience.”
Some people find the term “Celebrity Chef” cringe-worthy, perhaps including the chef’s themselves. I don’t subscribe to this train of thought. I’m on board with the Celebrity Chef Tour, so much so that I wonder if I can rationalize a trip to Philadelphia in October, when Top Chef‘s Jen Carroll will host another leg of the tour.