[Editor's note: I apologize to the chefs for once again capturing their beautiful dishes with an iPhone. You all deserve better.]
It’s been a few days since we ate our Chefs’ Night Off dinner at Plow & Anchor on Sunday, and the phrase that keeps coming back to me when I think about it is “firing on all cylinders,” which really sounds like a descriptor from a Guy Fieri menu. Fortunately for the chefs, that means that Guy Fieri would have hated this dinner from the top of his dingy white tragedy of a coiffure to the last fat little baby toe. In other words, it was great: balanced, interesting, creative, restrained but complex, with each dish bringing a complete package of great technique and even better layers of flavor.
The first dish was Omar Guzman’s Tamales Oaxaqueños, made with traditional masa, Gunthorp duck, Oaxaqueño mole, green tomatillo salsa and cilantro crema fresca. Guzman, who said he was inspired by the cooking of his childhood roots, has clearly studied for a lifetime under an expert tamale maker (also known as his grandmother). The dish was rich but not heavy, and plated with just the right amount of mole to keep from overwhelming the duck. My first thought when this was placed in front of me was, “Crap, I won’t be able to taste anything after this.” But Guzman’s tamale, like all the dishes of the night, didn’t elbow around in my mouth with too-big pepper, mole or cilantro flavors. Having a first course dish with the potential for a lot of bossy flavors seemed almost too risky at first, but it turned out to have a big payoff when the second course arrived.
Ajo blanco is a cold almond-based soup, which Matt Robey served with a verjus (juice of unripened grapes), all surrounding a perfect—perfect—little piece of sardine. It’s not fair to call it “the best” simply because it was a combination of a few of my favorite things (sardine, ajo blanco, pear), but because everything in the dish was a very gentle, light flavor that ended up melding into what I thought was the best single bite of the whole dinner. [Editor’s note: I have read and re-read the following sentence a dozen times, but cannot seem to rewrite it in a way that excises the inevitable innuendo, which was not intentional and not a ploy to increase readership of the ATSD column.] The thing about using nut milk instead of cow’s milk for creaminess is that the almond cream doesn’t coat your mouth and change flavors as the amylase in your spit breaks down the milk proteins. It’s a clean, pure kind of creaminess, which paired so beautifully with the fish and the acidity of the verjus. My initial instinct was that the fish should have gone in front of the tamale, but upon consideration, I doubt I would have appreciated the subtlety of the flavors had I not had the mole-infused tamale first. Regardless of whether that was planned by the chefs or CNO organizers RJ Wall and Andrew Whitmoyer, it expanded the range of flavors and textures presented at the dinner enormously—very substantial still, but a complete change-up from the heaviness and boldness of the other dishes.
But it was Eli Laidlaw’s pork chop that ended up stealing the show for most of the diners—that is, his whole pork chop, at least an inch thick, on each plate. Laidlaw earned the buzz by using brine on the chops that he had first stored in a whiskey barrel. Then—THEN—he sous-vide the chops (a process by which the food is placed in a vacuum-sealed bag and cooked in a bath that constantly circulates water at the same precise temperature) at a temp just over their being technically “done.” The thing with sous-vide is that the meat never goes above the set temperature, and instead is gently heated in its own juices, which means proteins never have a chance to seize up and get tough or dry in certain spots. Instead, it turns the pork into the most glorious fucking piece of flesh that’s ever hit the plate. If they had turned the lights down a little, you might have thought you were looking at a big slab of beef ribeye on the plate. Also, imagine a steak that’s been forced to hold it’s shape and is, essentially, braised in a vacuum, or try if you can, because it’s difficult to describe the feeling that comes over a food lover like myself when your knife sinks into a juicy pork chop with the ease of a slice of beef tenderloin (filet mignon). Let me put it this way: I ate it all—the fat, the gristle, and the meat. If I hadn't been there on official business, I would have popped the bone in my purse and taken it home as a souvenir. (Haha, just kidding. I would have chewed on it in my pajamas.)
The dessert was really when it all came together for me, though I saw several plates go back to the kitchen unfinished—a tragedy, in my opinion. It sounds crazy, but my heart would have been broken if, after all that, I had been served the expected dessert: something sweet and fruity and with, eh whatever, some chocolate. Instead, I got a dessert that reminded me of a dish I had a few years ago at Gary Danko’s place in San Francisco. It was a little plating of Carr Valley Billy Blue cheese, pickled plums, honeyed preserved lemon, and a pistachio shortbread, the product of a collaboration of all the chefs. I completely understand why some diners might have been looking for a different end-of-meal experience, but it was sharp and bright and turned out to be the bossiest, boldest layering of flavors I had that night, with a bite of the shortbread to smooth it all out. It represented to me a willingness from the chefs to take more big risks, which is exactly the reason I come to these things. Only a few small bites, the sweet sourness of the pickled plums brought me “back up,” so to speak, after putting the absolute hurt on Laidlaw’s pork chop. Had they brought out anything larger or heavier, the dinner would have violated some terms of the Geneva Convention. For a dinner touted as an opportunity for experimentation, both in the kitchen and the dining room, the dessert fell right in line with CNO’s ethos for Indiana dining. After all, the French and the English have been serving cheese at the end of meals for centuries (The English after dessert and the French before because ugh, Franco-Anglo food drama, amirite?); but to see someone do it on a menu with comfort foods like tamales and pork chops reaffirmed their commitment to boundary-pushing.
If Sunday’s dinner was an indicator of the future trajectory of the Chefs’ Night Off concept, it’s safe to say they have their collaborative sea legs under them and have hit their stride in the kitchen. We left feeling full and like we’d really eaten had a “food experience” rather than just a dinner. And yes, we are still talking about that pork chop, if you were wondering. For the $55 price of each ticket, this Chefs' Night Off was an insane bargain and a really fun way to meet some of Indy's up-and-coming chefs.