With our 10th wedding anniversary fast approaching, I completely stumbled across the perfect gift for Mrs. Hackknife while perusing Twitter one afternoon:
Huge respect for this man, and just over 2 weeks away, a heavy hitter lineup: http://t.co/AlcUig450h— Greg Baker (@gregsbaker) August 5, 2013
The chef providing the tweet is Greg Baker of Tampa's Refinery (a great place that I wrote about in April) and "this man" is referring to Norman Van Aken, whose generally known as the godfather of fusion cuisine; that is, one of the first to incorporate the flavors/styles of Latin America and Caribbean food into American dishes (as you might expect, given its geographic location, Florida has been a longtime base for Chef Norm's endeavors). The event that Chef Baker alludes to in his posting is the 10th Anniversary Food & Wine Gala for Norman's Restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton resort in Orlando, a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of such gastronomic luminaries as Jeremiah Tower, Charlie Trotter, Emeril Lagasse, and Dean Fearing, all of whom have been contemporaries of Chef Norm and have also made their own indelible marks on the fine dining world as we know it today. A who's-who of prominent younger chefs and sommeliers from Central Florida were invited to participate in the gala as well, the centerpiece of which was a black tie dinner (open to the public) where each of the chefs contributed a course. With my mind sufficiently blown, I feverishly began to determine whether or not I could turn this opportunity into the ideal anniversary gift; fortunately, at this late stage, I was able to get 2 tickets (not cheap, but they included two free nights at the resort) and somehow arrange for a babysitter to watch the progeny over the weekend, so off we went.
The main writeup for the fantasy gala feast will be in my next posting - of course, we had to eat a few other meals during our weekend in Orlando, two of which were noteworthy enough to warrant their own blog entry. First up was Primo, Chef Melissa Kelly's Mediterranean-leaning farm-to-table venture in the J.W. Marriott resort (located next door to the Ritz). One of the people we met at the gala's welcome reception on Friday evening (Judge Jim from Tampa) recommended Primo as a good place to grab dinner following a few cocktails. With no other commitments that night, we wandered over to the Marriott and were seated at Primo in short order. Chef Kelly actually has another Primo in Tucson and the original flagship location in Rockland, Maine, which was prominently featured in a 2010 episode of No Reservations (I recall seeing the episode, but didn't make the connection between this restaurant and the Rockland one until after we got home). Oblivious to her background, we happily dug into the following amuse bouche of a seared whitefish nugget paired with a single brown gnoccho:
Feeling a little lubricated from the welcome reception and always cursed with eyes larger than our stomachs, we made no hesitation in ordering 2 appetizers and 2 entrees, the first of which was a spectacular dish consisting of what appeared to be two grilled calamari tubes, each stuffed with sticky squid ink risotto and topped with a spicy red pepper sauce, plus a few fried calamari rings:
Our second starter, veal shank ravioli with demi-glace, grilled pear, and a dollop of white cream (burrata?), was good, but overshined by the two-way calamari:
Nearly as fantastic as the calamari dish was my entree, a sauteed scaloppine of pork saltimbocca, sitting atop a bed of roasted garlic mashed potatoes, spinach, and prosciutto, all covered in a decadent sage-mushroom Madeira jus (my apologies for the lousy photo):
Our second entree was again just a step behind the first, a duck breast (which was a little tough) with pickled peaches, Florida peach butter, porcini mushrooms, and baby carrots/turnips:
Although mighty full by this point (and not realizing just how full until about 2:15 later that night when I awoke to angry noises from my mid-section), we had to indulge in a little tres leches cake for dessert:
By the next morning, food was the furthest thing from my mind as I struggled to get through my bowl of granola and yogurt at the breakfast table. By the time we arrived in Winter Park (a nearby suburb of Orlando) to do a little window shopping, however, I could actually conceive of having a meal for lunch that wouldn't be nursing home fodder. Fortunately, this was the appropriate digestive state for our lunchtime destination, Cask & Larder, billed as a "Southern Public House" serving inventive snacks and goodies cobbled together from fine ingredients throughout the Southeast. Chefs James and Julie Petrakis kicked off this trend in Central Florida with their first restaurant (called The Ravenous Pig) and have carried it over to C&L along with a microbrewery this time to make things a bit more intriguing. And while I wasn't aware that I was already going to sample cuisine from this dynamic duo later that evening at the Norman's gala (they were asked to provide some of the hors d'oeuvres during the pre-dinner cocktail hour), the missus and I were pleased to pop in.
Given the excesses of both the night past and the night to follow, we opted to keep our choices limited to a couple of shared plates and accompanying adult beverages. This included the following order of pimiento cheese fries (topped with pickled gypsy peppers and scallions) and a house Bloody Mary for Mrs. Hackknife:
I'm not normally a fan of curly fries, but I would chow down on these every day and twice on Sundays. I can now also speak to the magical curative properties of cured meat, pickled vegetables, and craft beer (in this case, a glass of C&L's Olde Southern Red Wit, a Belgian White with coriander and lime/lemon/grapefruit zest) as we dug into the Southern Picnic (see photo below):
This tray consisted of deviled eggs (which I happily left for Mrs. Hackknife), country ham slices, two discs of crispy pork terrine, aged provolone cheese, and pickled carrots, eggplant, and green beans. By the time we finished, I actually felt better than I had all morning and was ready to take on whatever outrageous, high-society concoctions awaited us later that evening...