COOK’s primo Center City location puts it in super-close proximity to some of Philly’s best restaurants. Two of those near neighbors — Lacroix and Rittenhouse Tavern — provided the whisk-wielding warriors for the 10th installment of the always-a-blast Open Stove battle. In addition to being the first COOK-off of 2013, OSX (catchy!) also marked the first-ever participation of a female competitor. Hilary Hamilton (second from right), sous for Tavern chef/COOK regular Nick Elmi, toted her knife roll across the park to Rittenhouse Square-off against Doug Allen, one of the many talents to be found in chef Jon Cichon‘s next-level Lacroix kitchen.
Hamilton and Allen, joined by faithful teammates Tom Branighan (far left) and Jake O’Donnel (far right), were greeted by a slightly different Open Stove format now that the monthly series has reached its tin anniversary. The four-course format — amuse bouche, appetizer, entree, dessert, with the middle two courses based around surprise ingredients — remains intact, but dastardly Open Stove mastermind Jason Sheehan threw in an even wackier wrinkle this time around. Dropping a basket filled with random ingredients on the counter, the Philly Mag food editor informed the two cheftestants that they’d have the chance to land extra points if they used any of these wild cards in their cooking. That explains all the scribbled-in +1s you see on the chalkboard above.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Hamilton started the crowd-wooing off right with her amuse, a spoonable play on a gin fizz. Coating the bottoms of shot glasses with a gin-and-citrus gelée, she popped a meringue-style dollop on top to ape the inclusion of an egg white in the classic cocktail. She finished each puckered-up bite with fizz-inducing sprinkles used to make homemade sodas. The pre-packaged solid bubbles are known as “effervescence,” which O’Donnel picked up at Di Bruno’s despite the fact that it sounds more like a magick spell from Harry Potter’s Defence Against the Dark Arts class than an actual thing you can purchase with muggle money.
Allen went a different route for his first course, slicing bite-size portions of hamachi sashimi and placing them into glasses that looked like extremely small fish bowls. Accompanying the high-quality jewel-like tuna: a salad of fennel and daikon radish, a ring of pickled Fresno chile, salty peanuts and a foam flavored with star anise. Both chefs’ meticulous starters let the crowd know that they’d be in for quite the treat at OSX.
Soon it was time to reveal the first secret ingredient of the evening: fancy tins of fancy salmon roe, glistening like oddly hued jelly beans beneath the COOK kitchen lights. This also marked the intro of the aforementioned random ingredient basket of doom, featuring everything from coffee and cocktail sauce to soju and juniper. Being surprised by an element as singular and salty as fish eggs is daunting enough — now Hamilton and Allen were offered the tempting option to work in the disparate elements of a clinically certifiable person’s pantry for bonus points.
After a quick confab, Hamilton and O’Donnel busted out these portions of snapper, which they pan-roasted and plated over roasted black trumpet and enoki ‘shrooms. Informing the encompassing beurre blanc sauce: the roe, plus grated/juiced yuzu fruit, juniper and the Korean booze soju, grab-bag ingredients that earned Hamilton extra scoreboard love along with her garnish of matzo. Mazel!
Allen, representing the ever-cerebral approach of Lacroix, employed symmetry for his starter — both halves featured raw and cooked elements manipulated in different ways. He started by topping a seared-off scallop with a raw salad that featured ingredients like blood orange, salmon roe and bonito. Across the plate, the cooked scallop’s roe-topped raw foil was paired with bok choy cooked in a broth flavored with soju, dashi and currant. On-the-fly creativity is a hallmark of Open Stove, and the random ingredient basket of doom really brought it out of everyone present.
The theme of OSX came into clearest focus once the secret ingredient for the entree course was unveiled: incredible, edible (chicken) eggs. In no way daunted by the versatile but notoriously fussy ingredient — they say one’s skill with huevos is a universal metric for how good one is at cooking in general — both chefs immediately heated up pans to get cracking on their main-course meats. Hamilton started by cooking up beautiful hunks of dry-aged New York strip (left) she got from her boyfriend, who’s also a local chef. Allen went piggy with it, busting out pressed portions of braised pork belly (right) with fatty ribboning that resembled metamorphic rock.
O’Donnel whisked and sliced like a madman as he and Hamilton tasted through a bunch of ingredients to construct their main. (“Lavender and parsnip? That’s a good combo, man.”) They also strongly suggested some people in the crowd taste their handiwork in R&D (see above). The finished product: the steak, a from-scratch bernaise (there are the eggs!) with cocktail sauce, a surprisingly flavored parsnip puree and blackberries cooked down in beer, mustard and currant. Damn dude!
On the other end of the kitchen, Allen and Branighan served up “Breakfast for Dinner.” This translated to his pork belly, crusted with oatmeal, matzo and apple, served on top of a delicious fried egg puree (!) accompanied by beer-deglazed black trumpet mushrooms and a butter made with Kona coffee (another grab-bag addition). This was the toughest course of OSX to judge — both chefs brought it and made every secret ingredient, involuntary or not, bend to their will.
Dessert concluded things on yet another intriguing note. Garnished with crunchy cashew brittle, Allen’s white chocolate tapioca pudding (top) worked celery into the proceedings in a number of different ways, including celery seed toasted into a creme anglaise, compressed celery soaked in vanilla syrup and garnishes of micro celery and celery leaf. (This explains that AstroTurf-y mini golf color.) Hamilton relied more on earth tones, plating a caramel-white chocolate-vanilla pannacotta with caramel VersaWhip, pears poached in mulling spices and a small pour of Ommegang’s Abbey Ale. Sweet sweet sweet.
Once the audience votes and grab-bag extra points were tallied up, Hamilton came out the winner of Open Stove X, but all the competitors were in heightened spirits throughout. (It might’ve had something to do with the continual consumption of actual spirits.) This promising beginning of 2013′s Open Stove season started with a bang, and ended with whatever this is:
Open Stove is taking a break for the month of February, but the action will be back in March.
Photos: Drew Lazor