Eli Kulp Dinner at James Beard House

Oh my gosh people, this dinner was awesome.  And not just because I got it for free either (tickets were normally $170 per person!).

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I had the opportunity to go to the James Beard House in New York City for a dinner prepared by chef Eli Kulp of Fork restaurant in Philadelphia.  He was recently named one of the best chefs by Food and Wine, and was also named the best chef in Philadelphia, quite a feat in this city of truly great restaurants.

Chef Eli
Chef Eli

My co-blog editor Chase and I were invited to this dinner on press passes on behalf of Penn Appetit, the University of Pennsylvania’s food magazine.  When I got the notice that we were invited, I immediately cleared my schedule for Thursday afternoon and got a ticket for NYC.  I have to say it was thrilling to just get on a bus after class and go to New York for dinner.

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When we got there, we passed through the kitchen to get to the foyer of James Beard’s house, which was absolutely packed with people sipping pink Pennsylvania prosecco and nibbling on intriguing-looking appetizers.  In the kitchen, we could observe the chef and his team painstakingly putting the appetizers together, using tweezers and all.  The servers returned from the crowd seconds after leaving the kitchen, holding platters licked clean by the hungry hordes.

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The servers returned empty particularly fast if they had been holding the much-sought-after pretzel bites filled with homemade “cheez whiz”, a nod to Philadelphia.  When I finally managed to worm my way towards a server and snag one of these before they disappeared, I promptly oozed cheez on myself by stupidly biting it in half rather than eating the whole thing it one bite.  Gotta uphold my reputation for always spilling something on myself.

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baby carrots with black bread crumbs and seaweed yogurt
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cured fluke on a buckwheat crisp

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crispy chicken skin with smoky almond
crispy chicken skin with smoky almond “cheese”

We were also served tiny cooked carrots crusted with squid ink bread crumbs and seaweed yogurt, cured fluke on buckwheat crisps, and crispy chicken skins sandwiching smoked almond cheese.  I really liked the fluke appetizer, which was topped with an adorable red radish coin.

Finally, it was time to go up into James Beard’s historic dining room.  We were seated at a table with Ellen Yin, the owner of Fork and High Street on Market (two amazing restaurants in Philadelphia), blogger Alexandra of the great food blog Alexandra’s Kitchen, and an executive representing a.kitchen, a fantastic restaurant in Rittenhouse.

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The table was laden with wine glasses of different shapes and sizes, once again giving me the opportunity to pretend to be a wine connoisseur.

The dinner was meant to represent the “terroir” of Pennsylvania, so all the ingredients and the courses were chosen with the goal of representing the flavors of the Pennsylvania area.  We were given a little notebook with pictures drawn by the chef when he was planning the menu and descriptions of each dish explaining where he got the inspiration and how they represent the terroir of the area.

Chef Eli's drawing of the dish
Chef Eli’s drawing of the dish

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The first course was a sort of clam ceviche served on the half shell. Juicy strips of surf clam were mixed with a refreshing combination of lemon juice, olive oil, and apple and were punctuated with the crunch of shaved radishes.  A dash of horseradish lent a gentle burn to the back of the throat which contrasted nicely with the coolness of the rest of the dish. It was an excellent palate cleanser to prepare us for the rest of the night.

venison carpaccio
venison carpaccio

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The second course was a thin strip of raw venison served on a pine nut puree and accompanied by charred cabbage and pine shoots.  The richness of the meat was cut by a pine tea vinegar drizzled on top, and the single crispy purple kale chip provided a counterpoint to its buttery texture.  I have to say, this truly tasted like a pine forest (as far as I could tell, as I don’t often taste forests).  I really started to get the idea of what Pennsylvania tastes like from this dish.

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Finally, a carb! And what a carb it was.  Mini loaves of vollkornbrot were brought out thickly sliced on equally mini cutting boards.  For all you heathens who don’t know what vollkornbrot is (because I totally knew before I looked it up), it is a hearty German bread made with rye and spelt flour, in this case from local producers.  The bread had a heavy, moist crumb and a crunchy coating of sunflower seeds, and that fabulous nutty whole grain taste that I really like.  It was served with a cultured butter streaked with spruce ash, which I couldn’t pass up even though I don’t usually put butter on my bread because when am I ever going to come across spruce ash in butter again? I helped myself to two slices of this bread, in no way pacing myself for the courses to come but thoroughly enjoying it anyway.

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This dish was super interesting.  I’ve seen “risotto” made from farro (farrotto), but that’s too mainstream for Chef Eli.  Instead, he served us a “risotto” made from sunflower seeds braised in sunflower seed milk until they became soft yet still more toothsome than rice.  The nuttiness of the seeds was accentuated by a very flavorful local pecorino cheese and the whole thing was topped by thinly shaved local white button mushrooms.  The mushrooms cooked in the steam of the “seedotto” and kind of melted into it.  Delicious.

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Up next, meat! Specifically juicy pork loin with fermented broccoli rabe, a rib, and a crunchy dried provolone shard.  I can’t remember the last time I had ribs, so this was a revelatory experience.  The pork itself was flavorful and not dry at all, and the fermented broccoli rabe added an interesting funky hit of flavor.  According to the little notebook, this was an ode to the Philadelphia roast pork sandwich.  I told myself I wasn’t going to eat this whole thing but that was a lie.

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Finally, we got to the dessert course.  By now I was sufficiently stuffed, but this was too intriguing of a dessert to skip.  It was a sunchoke custard topped with a black walnut crumble and poached apples, and adorned with a sunchoke chip.  Sunchokes are the roots of the sunflower plant, also called Jerusalem artichokes.  I cannot begin to describe the flavor, only to say that it was very complex and not too sweet.

After the dinner, the chef came out of the kitchen and we got to ask him some questions.  Then, Chase and I made our way back to the bus stop and headed back to Philly.  Not too bad for a Thursday night.

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