Sunday, July 27, 2008

No Standing Ovation for the "Cooking by Hand" Dinner at Ford's Filling Station

I don't often go to special restaurant events just because generally the cost of attending one is equivalent to several dim sum and/or ethnic food outings, which tends to be my foodie passion anyway. However, thanks to a friend's kindness as well as a little good karma that came my way, I got invited to the "Cooking By Hand" Dinner at Ford's Filling Station with a menu designed by Chef Ben Ford, Chef Neal Fraser of Grace and BLD and Chef Gino Angelini of Angelini's Osteria and La Terza. Impressive line-up, don't you think?

The "Cooking by Hand" six-course menu wa
s created with the idea that all the food would be primarily handcrafted using strictly seasonal ingredients. By handcrafted, it's mortar and pestle instead of an electric grinder and it's a hand-cranked ice cream maker as opposed to an electric one and so on. Apparently, this back to the basics kind of cooking was intended to inspire discussion which the chefs were supposed to lead about what it means to taking cooking "slow" and literally putting a little bit of muscle into it.

Unfortunately, the discussion didn't happen. While Chef Ford gave a little speech about the theme of the evening before the meal, no inspired discussion really followed. I think it just had a lot to do with the crowd. They were more here to grub than chit chat about the food's preparation, but at the very least, if the menu itself had a description about what hand craft methods were used to create the dish, that could have at least been a subject for discussion at the various tables.

By the way, just a quick backwards, before we even sat down to our main dinner, we were served 3 different appetizers first: a tomato soup, a sturgeon confit on toast and steak tartare on housemade potato chip. The tomato soup was at room temperature and the crouton inside the soup was a bit jarring or should I say hard? I'm not sure if the soup was meant to be hot or not, but regardless, it was too tangy for my taste. The other apps weren't memorable in flavor, but at least had a nice presentation.

So let's get on to our six c
ourse menu that started with Chef Angelini's salt cod served two ways: one as a Baccalà Mantecato and other with Tomato, Arugula, Roasted Pine Nuts and Raisins. The Baccalà Mantecato is salt cod fish that's creamed with milk, salt, pepper and other ingredients. It was a nice starter dish that was light and creamy and not too fishy. As for the salt cod salad, although I found it overdressed, I surprisingly liked the slight chewy texture of the fish itself and with it being a pretty mild fish, it paired well with the peppery arugula.

Next up was Chef Ford's Summer Cassoulet, which was made up of beans, Tuscan black kale, duck confit and bread crumbs. First, I really liked how the kale was fried. It had crispy, slightly bitter taste to it that I enjoyed a lot. As for the cassoulet itself, I felt that it was just okay. Not bad. Not outstanding. I appreciated how the duck added a nice hit of fattiness to the beans, but other than that, everything felt a tad under seasoned for my taste.

The highlight of the meal for me was our next course, a family recipe of Chef Angelini's, and that was the Lasagne Verde "Ommagio Nonna Elvira". Ingredients for this dish included fried spinach, spinach lasagna with a beef and veal ragu. Liked the fried kale, the crispy texture of the fried spinach was a definite hit. As for the dish as a whole, it was perfect in every way. The pasta was just right, not too firm, but also not too soft. The beef and veal ragu added a meaty richness that balanced well with the fresh flavor of the spinach. Of everything we ate that night, this is the one dish that I hope to actually show up on the Angelini Osteria menu (if it hasn't already), just so I can have a second chance to enjoy it.

As for the next couple of dishes, both came from Chef Fraser and unfortunately, I was not a fan. First up from him was his Pig in a Box, so called because it was cooked in a La Caja China Box earlier in the day. The pig was portioned out and served with spaetzle in a peach mustard drizzle. My disappointment mainly had to do with me getting a more fatty section of the pig plus I didn't get any crispy skin. The meat, while moist, was way too chewy. I did like the peach mustard because it gave a nice zing of fruity-spice to the meat and thank goodness, since it was quite under seasoned.

Then out came the Beef Cheek Daube with seasonal mushrooms. The meat was meltingly fork-tender, but that was the only thing I really liked. What bothered me was the sauce. It had a strange tangy/bitter after taste that I couldn't get past and the flavors didn't work with the woodsiness of the mushrooms. One of my dining companions mentioned that she thought that there was orange zest in the sauce and that may be that was contributing to the tangy/bitterness I was tasting. Our waitress confirmed the orange zest, but regardless of whether the orange zest was the culprit or not, this was my least favorite dish of the night.

Finally, it was time for dessert. To get in the spirit of using handcraft methods to create food, Chef Ford actually had two rotating hand-cranked ice cream makers circulating the restaurant. Almost everyone got a turn at that crank and in fact, contributed to the making of our ice cream with fresh peaches. Perhaps because of the work we all put it into or it there's something to be said for cooking by hand, that ice cream was one of the best I've ever had. Refreshing and oh-so-creamy, it was the best way to end the meal. One thing I wanted to note was it surprised me that the peaches were a little salty, but according to Chef Ford, by adding a little salt to the peaches, it helps balance the ice cream so that it doesn't taste over sweet. It's a trick he learned while cooking in Spain.

Even with highlights like Chef Angelini's lasagne dish and Chef Ford's housemade ice cream, this wasn't the best meal I've ever had. It lacked consistency. It ranged from okay to good to fabulous to dishes I rather would have just skipped altogether. But I got to spend time with two fun foodie friends and sometimes, that's what makes the meal more than the meal itself.

To see pics, go to:

Ford's Filling Station
9531 Culver Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232

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