I am in a heart-pounding, sweat-slicked run for my life. From behind is an odd rhythm of ka-thump-thump-drag, joined by rustling, the clanging of metal and an increasingly loud chopchopchopchop. Terror propels me forward through an opaque, greasy rain that sizzles and pops as it hits the ... hmmm ... rubber? ... ground. I am being chased by giant, knife-wielding vegetables -- hundreds of them. Several fruits (is that a lobster and a 10-pound block of bittersweet Belgian chocolate?) have joined in the effort. They're gaining on me, but I can't hold my footing. I fall to the ground and slide belly-up into a pool of ...
Whew! Beurre blanc! OK, I'm awake. Butter sauce. Giant, vengeful, irate vegetables. A dream. I get it -- some fears to face. OK, OK! You don't have to hit me over the head with a rutabaga. I'll do it. I'll call Slims.
When Patrick McCafferty, chef and co-owner of Slims in Northside, invited me to be a guest chef at one of Slims monthly events, I thought he had gone daft, given in to desperation, and been drained of all his creativity. Of course, I said no.
Is he half-baked?
Does he know that I haven't cooked in a "professional" kitchen in seven years? That cold food you can make in 10 minutes or less -- in one bowl -- is very popular at my house? That my intimate circle of the past six years, with little evidence to support otherwise, believes me to be delusional when I claim, "I once was a well-known, award-winning chef." And that, as CityBeat's contributing editor for dining, I write excessively about food, replete with unnecessary flourishes, and am paid to eat the meals of other hard-working, real chefs?
Apparently, Chef McCafferty had been duped.
After two nights of the angry vegetable dream, I rang him up. "I'd love to!"
On a Tuesday evening at 7 p.m., 50 customers arrive for a reserved seat at the handsome communal tables of Slims, where they will dine on a four-course meal of Gazpacho, Salad, Seared Scallops in Green Curry and Espresso Semi-Freddo with Biscotti.
The staff of Slims and I have been working all day. I'm quite nervous. The tables are turned. The reviewer is about to be reviewed. I know about half of the customers from various threads of my life, the other half are a mix of Slims regular patrons and curious CityBeat readers, sort of oppositional defiant supporters. I've given everyone review sheets similar to the format we use for CityBeat, complete with a grading key:
A+ = I have a near-fanatical loyalty to all things Donna.
A = I would like to support Donna in the manner she deserves and was once accustomed to.
B = I am challenged by her unique point of view.
C = Really? She made a living as a chef?
D = Oh, I get it ... like food, but different.
F = I see she has set aside this special time to humiliate herself in public.
I begin the evening by leading the entire dining room through a 10-minute food meditation, asking the guests to close their eyes; slowing down to smell, feel, taste, marvel and contemplate the whole, unpeeled orange that sits in front of them, in a hyper-conscious manner I'm sure they are unaccustomed to. After a bit of nervous chatter and sophomoric jokes, everyone settles in. It works. They are surprised by their connection to the exercise. I am thrilled, but that was the easy part.
The Spicy Gazpacho is up first. I'm trying to appear calm, but I am really apprehensive about serving the gazpacho because I think it's off, the flavor of the summer vegetables overpowered by the strong sherry vinegar. We have tried to counteract the vinegar by cutting it with the sweetness of watermelon. It's helped, but I come close to scrapping the entire batch.
My own critique proves fiercer than the guests: "The gazpacho was perfumed, rich in a variety of flavor, both fruity and veggie," writes one guest. (All reviews are handed in anonymously.) I'm impressed that this reviewer and two others notice the watermelon, considering how little was added. That requires attention. No one mentions the vinegar, and every bowl returns empty. So far, all is well.
The second course is ready to plate -- a salad of spring greens and baby spinach with paper-thin red onion and cucumber slices, fresh blueberries and lemon basil vinaigrette. The salad is beautiful with the addition of the perfect blueberries, but the vinaigrette is a bit flat. It needs more "bloom" time.
"The flavors were so different, I was not sure my palate could handle them," writes a guest, pondering the onions, blueberries and lemon-herb flavors of the salad. He's right. Although I adore fruit with onion (I'm a big fan of chutneys for this reason), a simpler vinaigrette, such as raspberry, would have tied it together and made it more accessible.
I bet all of my culinary chips on the main course -- seared scallops on a bed of julienne carrots in green curry sauce with crispy ginger -- due in part to the labor of love that goes into making the curry. Mango, banana, apples, cinnamon, star anise, celery, carrots and onion are stewed in white wine and broth, to which is added blanched greens: spinach, mint and basil. All are pureed together and receive an addition of coconut milk; it is a divine sauce. However, the reviews were mixed.
"The sauce could have been more memorable," one diner feels. "A lovely green curry sexed up with crispy ginger strings," writes another. "Sublime," "exquisite" and "a tad complicated" offer several others.
If I felt all of my neurosis in the first three courses, I was confident by dessert, my area of expertise. I've made semi freddo, an Italian, "half-frozen" custard, for years. I'm devoted to Italian desserts, and I consider it one of my best. And, quite frankly, my biscotti rocks.
So why did a third of the dessert cups return unfinished? Reviews were positive enough: "Wonderful and flavorful," "great textural contrasts," "a memorable dessert," "orgasmic." Perhaps they're full. Perhaps it's more than a plate of this or a bowl of that. It's certainly more than grades or stars. I'm giving up the possibility of near-fanatical loyalty.
Surveying the room, I am profoundly moved by the community, conversation and connection. While immediate and sensual, the dining experience is not always about the food itself: A good meal is the beginning or end point. It is the way we feel, how the entire experience grabs us. It is intimate and subjective. It is performance art, with little division between chef and diner.
A truly insightful guest sums it up beautifully, reflecting how I choose to embrace the restaurant arena as a reviewer and as one who has been reviewed: "Being conscious of the senses, grateful and present, taking time for communal gather ... texture, scent and flavor will last longer than what our typical meal usually envelopes. Life is not so much the distinct flavor or hint of individual ingredients, but the simple pleasure of receiving and giving." Well said.
Thank you to the staff of Slims for a truly creative experience and to the guests for re-affirming why I love the culinary world -- from every perspective. ©