FOR FOOD FANS LOOKING TO TAKE THEIR CULINARY EXPERIENCES TO THE NEXT LEVEL IT’S HARD TO BEAT A WELL-THOUGHT-OUT AND EXECUTED TASTING DINNER. RESTAURANT GOERS ARE ASKING MANY MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT WHAT THEY EAT—HOW IT IS MADE, FROM WHOM AND WHERE THE FOOD IS BEING SOURCED, AND HOW IT IS BEING PACKAGED OR PREPARED. TASTING DINNERS CAN GIVE YOU INSIGHTS INTO ALL THESE AREAS AND MORE!
How are these dinners different from your standard dining experience? While tasting dinners vary greatly from restaurant to restaurant, there are some usual features. First, the menu and price is typically pre-set, with optional wine or drink pairings for an additional fee. Second, the number of courses served is greater than a typical meal—we’ve seen as many as 21 in one sitting. It is often that these dinners are in a test kitchen or open kitchen environment, so you can see how the dishes are made and ask questions. Third, they are equally about the education behind products and process, as they are about actually eating the food. If the dinner is not in or near the kitchen, then there is normally a brief table-side explanation by the chef as to how the course was prepared. This is an amazing opportunity to see first hand the passion top chefs put into each dish. Finally, many say that tasting dinners allow them to try foods they would not normally order. (I was particularly squeamish to the idea of steak tar-tar until a tasting dinner, now it’s a favorite!)
Today opportunities to dine kitchen-side are much more prevalent across the US and in the Tampa Bay area. We dined at St Petersburg’s FarmTable Kitchen and are excited to walk you through the experience.
James Beard Award winner Michael Mina has proven that there is no extreme to thinking outside the box on a very daily level. His inspired work at FarmTable Kitchen can be seen through his influence and ability to present three chef’s table experiences per week. The dinner evolved over time, with the roots of the practice stemming from a wine bar with a tasting menu. Now it is reminiscent of Mina’s San Francisco pop-up style test kitchen, pushing chefs (and chefs to be) to their boundaries and to learn through creative collaboration. It is the fine dining aspect of this, combined with the more relaxed involvement-based environment that makes this a special occasion.
The night of our reservation, eight attendees met downstairs at the source of all ingredients for the dinner, Locale Market. We were warmly greeted by Marketing Coordinator Rodrigo Mendez, with glasses of bubbles and a tour of the market. It was there that we learned much of the history of the market, and its influence over FarmTable Kitchen’s daily dinners. We were also shown the area where picturesque meats are dry-aged for up to 60 days. We were led up to a private room on the edge of the dining area with a single communal table, known as The Chef’s Table. The hanging barn doors were closed and the food preparation and presentation began. As soon as our group of strangers were seated and on our own, conversation amongst us all began immediately. It was a jolly crowd of first time diners –two couples on a date; two charming visitors from Melbourne, Australia; a food writer and his (most eligible bachelorette) friend. Each course was skillfully crafted by a different in-house chef tasked to make a seasonal dish using nothing but ingredients available in the downstairs market.
Most dishes were prepared outside of the room and brought in, however the first was prepared in-room and was quite the presentation. Chef Adam Beckett taught us how to properly filet a whole Gulf-caught American red snapper while Chef Sonia Alvarez formed it into a beautiful “deconstructed” sushi roll. The snapper was atop sticky rice, a ginger garlic yuzu vinaigrette, and nori emulsion. We opted for the drink pairings (we couldn’t resist knowing there are two sommeliers on staff), and were presented with perfectly complementary chilled Japanese sake.
Next we were served what could be named “the fairy tale of salads” because of its playful and whimsical presentation. Chef Kendall Ivy’s grilled summer salad was complemented by cranberry beans, corn crema, and topped with feta espuma (a feta and egg foam). Not only did it take the cake for presentation, it also tasted incredible. The Organic Gruner Veltliner was paired with this, proving to be a light and slightly acidic compliment to the salad.
The third course was Chef Austin Desomer’s charcuterie plate. The all-star of the dish was a rich and creamy Hudson Valley foie gras torchon, served with vanilla short bread, blueberry (and sosa raspberry) puree and pickled mustard seeds. A bubbly Gruet Sparkling Rose made this fine dining moment light, cheerful, and a bit of a celebration. Our culinary journey took us to the Italian world next, where Chef Anthony Petruno presented a delicious house-made ratatouille francobolli, topped with sungold tomatoes, summer squash, and lemon-thyme butter. This dish made it apparent that FarmTable Kitchen takes great efforts to ensure the quality of each ingredient through the freshness and quality of this pasta. Accompanying this dish was a beautiful French Jean Claud Boisset. This was followed by Chef Alicia Silverstone’s course: a fresh and simple intermezzo, a tidy mini scoop of melon-tarragon sorbet.
The sixth course was what we had been waiting for: Locale’s beautifully tender and mouthwatering 60-day dry-aged bison strip. This was served with baby-baked potatoes, Brussels sprout leaves, thin and crunchy bits of pancetta, and artfully garnished with a carrot emulsion and red wine jus. It is one thing to see it dry-aging downstairs at Locale Market, it is another to taste it cooked to perfection. We are firm believers that food tastes better when you are hungry and looking across the table you could see attendees promptly cleared plates as if it were still course one. This dish was paired with a Stolpman Estate Syrah, a California fruity, yet bold, complement to the experience.
Moving on, The Chef’s Table pre-dessert was a liquid nitrogen affogato containing creamy pistachio amaretto ice cream made in-house courtesy of Chef Jamie Dunne. This was served in a glass with rich LAMILL espresso poured over top. We were alert and ready for the eighth and final dish: Chef Alecia Sherrill’s chocolate pâté. This was a perfectly rich finish, comprising 60-70% dark chocolate and garnished with stewed cherries, crème fraîche, a bahibe chocolate ganache, and a pistachio streusel. With this we sipped on our final pairing of the night, a 1927 Solera Alvear Pedro Ximenez Spanish Sherry. Not only did it have vintage traces of the original 1927 yield, it proved to be just as rich as dessert with its dense fruity sweetness (harmonizing with the stewed cherries).
No dinner is the same at The Chef’s Table, where each is a variation and blend of seasonally available goods. Given the task of “creating new” and preparation times of at least 24-48 hours, this is a spectacular accomplishment. Walking out of the dinner, it was apparent that the education behind the meals not only made for a greater appreciation of chefs and their hard work, but also how individuals will only appreciate the art of cooking more. You walk out feeling special, entertained, a little more food savvy and hopeful for continued culinary exploration and growth.
Second Floor of Locale Market
179 2nd Ave N, St. Petersburg
Feeling Adventurous? Try. Taste. Enjoy.
Although FarmTable Kitchen may be unique in that they offer tickets to their one-of-a-kind tasting dinners three times a week, many other Bay Area restaurants offer tasting menus, pairing dinners and special events that should not go missed. With event calendars available online and social media at your fingertips, we encourage you to stay in touch with your favorite restaurants and explore their special offerings and occasions. Here are a few examples to get you started:
Four-Course Tasting Menu, $35
Six-Course Tasting Menu $90
Café Ponte’s six course tasting menu is available with the option to add the Chef’s wine pairing, a 3-ounce pour with each course, for an additional $35. For this tasting menu, like you may see at many restaurants, all guests at the table must order from the tasting menu for the ease of service. You can’t go wrong with Café Ponte’s selections and we’re sure the whole table will enjoy!
Five-Course Tasting Menu, $55
IL Ritorno offers a 5-course tasting menu every night! Chef David Benstock curates a special menu in hopes of delivering a memorable dining experience for new and re-visiting guests. You won’t regret indulging in Chef David’s ever-changing, creative dishes.
Eight-Course Tasting Menu, $180
(Please visit website for future events)
Rooster & the Till recently hosted an eight-course collaborative dinner and wine pairing featuring one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs of 2016, Eduardo Jordan. The evening began with a champagne and cheese reception followed by the eight-course dinner and wine pairing. Stay tuned to their events page for upcoming events like this one.
Four-Course Pairing Dinners, $125–$265
Each month the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tampa offers a pairing dinner at Council Oak Steaks and Seafood (tickets ranging from $185 to $265). The evenings begin with a cocktail reception followed by an innovative four-course menu featuring a specially selected wine or spirit.
Related articles: James Beard Awards—Why they matter to Tampa Bay