We were first-timers at last night's Dinner in the Dark, the monthly six-course-plus feast put on in various venues by an ever-changing cadre of local chefs. Founded some 18 months ago by top toques Brian Okin (formerly of Verve and Fountain), Jeff Jarrett (Amp 150), and Ellis Cooley (formerly of Amp 150, now relocated to Florida), the meals are intended to raise funds for local charities while letting the culinary types have some fun in the kitchen, with dishes that they wouldn't normally try out.
Last night's bash was at Washington Place Bistro in Little Italy. And no, it wasn't in the dark. The moniker refers to the fact that the menu and the participating chefs are kept secret until dinner is served.
As it turned out, dinner was a symphony of springtime tastes, with a repeating chorus of herbs, flowers, and micro greens showing up everything from the pre-dinner cocktail — the herbal Botany Collins from master mixologist Joe DeLuca, with its blend of gin, liqueurs, and fresh-picked posies — to a show-stopping seared scallop from chef Nate Barker (Welshfield Inn), accompanied by fiddlehead ferns, caramelized fennel bulb, a ruby red salad of pickled beet, red onion, and shiitake mushrooms, and a garnish of micro celery and sea salt.
The meal began with a pretty amuse bouche from the Washington Place staff: stacked English-pea and coconut-milk panna cottas, accompanied by a pea tendril and lemon zest salad, piqued with a swoosh of black-truffle honey.
That was followed by a lick-the-bowl delicious lobster salad from Umami's Matt Anderson that combined a vivid sriracha-tomato vinaigrette with local watercress, baby basil, and baby swiss chard, then added a slice of vine-ripened tomato from a Wooster hoop house and plush bits of buttery, parmesan-crusted lobster meat.
Barker's gorgeous scallop dish came next, followed by a towering toss of local asparagus and lettuces from chef John Selick of University Hospital's Ahuja Medical Center; piqued with nearly translucent wafers of sliced parmesan, the delicate greens were served in a sheer dressing of truffle-oil-tweaked balsamic. (Each course was accompanied a a meticulously chosen wine. With this course — featuring the notoriously hard-to-pair asparagus — a Piersporter Reisling went gangbusters!)
From Washington Place's executive chef John Roskowski, we got moist filets of salt-crusted bronzini, paired with jet-black squares of squid-ink polenta, a swipe of smoked red-pepper sauce, and a slim French radish.
The palate-cleanser that followed was one of the more unique intermezzos we've ever encountered: a mousse of durian (that "I dare you" piece of Malaysian produce that many describe as smelling like rotting flesh) topped with limoncello and blueberry gelee, and garnished with a crisp, aromatic thyme tuile. Smooth, creamy, and with a pleasantly tangy flavor far more reminiscent of sour cream than corpses, durian clearly owes the Washington Place culinary team a debt of gratitude.
The piece de resistance followed: an Asian-influenced "sirloin ramen" dish from Club Isabella's chef-owner Fabio Mota. Ramen noodles luxuriated in a rich beef-and-chicken broth, serving as a pillow for a piquant cabbage slaw, chopped nori, and rosy ribbons of rare sirloin; a poached egg added a sunny bit of richness.
For dessert, chef Adam Bostwick (formerly of Melange) went to the ballpark for inspiration, and returned with a risky piece of business: soft-pretzel bread pudding, topped with a scoop of Stadium Mustard ice cream, drizzled with beer-based caramel sauce, and finished with a bit of homemade "crackerjacks." Loved the bread pudding, the caramel sauce, and the glazed popcorn. But I'm not a mustard fan, and the in-your-face flavor of the ice cream was a non-starter in my book. Still, mustard-lovin' companions declared it a home run.
The dinner attracted more than 60 guests who each paid $65 plus tax, tip, and fees, to take part. Because the chefs' labor and most of the ingredients were donated, that means a good chunk of money went to this month's select charity, Dancing Wheels.
Jarrett ended the evening by announcing the location of next month's June 11 dinner: Fat Casual BBQ in Macedonia. "Stay tuned for a few twists and turns," he hinted. "It could get interesting!"
Find out more on Facebook/Dinner in the Dark, or at dinnerinthedarkcleveland.com. — Elaine T. Cicora