The fifth annual James Beard Foundation’s Taste America event made a stop in LA last Friday before continuing on its national epicurean tour. Taste America focuses on regional flavors from coast to coast, heading to great American food cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New Orleans.
The courtyard at Vibiana is one of LA’s most beautiful and elegant event spaces. At the cocktail reception last Friday, light bites were provided by pasta “maestro” Evan Funke of Felix, Worldly Justin Hilbert of Maude, former Broadway star Sara Kramer of Kismet, the pioneer of “kappo” cuisine in LA, David Schlosser of Shibumi and the incomparable Johnny Ray Zone of Howling Ray’s Chicken, which always has a line snaking down the courtyard.
Several of the dishes seemed to be geared towards the highly developed palate of a serious gastronome. Chef Justin Hilbert of Maude took a look back at last October’s chicory tasting menu with creamed endive, super high-end Osetra caviar, and dried scallop chips. The endive was so concentrated, it was extremely intense considering it is a pretty bland ingredient most of the time. And if you have ever had banana chips, you can imagine what a scallop chip must taste like. Very strong flavors for a very strong showing.
Chef David Schlosser of Shibumi set up an assembly line for his uni shiokara, a salted, fermented seafood that is usually chased with a shot of whisky. You first tasted a very small sample of the uni, then took a bite of daikon radish, then did a shot of sake, followed by a shot of some very lemony stuff that may or may not have been liquor. But it was probably liquor. Sometimes the process got mixed up and there was a lot of giddiness and laughter. But they lose a point because nobody laughed when I sang, “Shibumi, Shattered Shattered.”
The other chefs created somewhat more accessible dishes. Chef Sara Kramer of Kismet, who was recently lauded as a best new chef and a “Rising Star,” served a bright and refreshing clear spiced tomato broth with watermelon.
When it comes to pasta, Chef Ethan Funke does not mess around. His tortellini en brodo was just a little al dente, and I can imagine the comfort it would bring on a rainy night. I was able to tease out his recipe. The tortellini was filled with prosciutto de Parma, pork shoulder, Mortadella, Parmesano-Regganio and eggs. The brodo is made with beef shank, chicken, carrot, celery, and onions. Now all I have to do is perfect making homemade pasta.
Howlin’ Rays came with all of their energy and personality. I love how they shout back and forth and joke like sushi chefs. They also brought their killer chicken, of course. There was some trial and error choosing between mild, medium and hot. But even if it was too hot, you couldn’t stop eating it because it was so good. Sometimes you have to suffer for your chicken. I overheard some women laughing, “All this fancy food, and we can’t stop talking about the chicken!”
The cocktails were also smashing, especially the Buffalo Trace Kentucky Cardinal Bourbon with Amaro, roasted oranges, cloves and champagne, which is a nice drink to take you from Autumn into the holidays. The Chopin Vodka, orange juice, blueberry juice and cherry was fruity and easy to drink.
After the cocktail reception, many of the guests continued their “Night of Culinary Stars,” with a one-of-a-kind benefit dinner prepared by Taste America All-Star Barbara Lynch, Local Star Michael Cimarusti, and pastry chef Shannon Swindle. I noticed that the silent auction bid for a year-long front-of-the-line pass and gift certificate for Howling Ray’s was still within my price range. But I was talked out of it. Once again, it was within my grasp, only to slip through my greasy fingers.