If you were following Paul Kahan's career trajectory from a distance, you might think it was in a downward spiral: fifteen years ago he opened Blackbird, one of the top high-end restaurants in Chicago. Since then, he's opened a more casual small-plates tapas place, then a beer hall, then a taqueria, and most recently, a butcher shop. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. While his projects have been increasingly casual, they are all incredibly successful, and you will eat very well at any of them. As Michael Schwartz, the host for Chef Kahan's pop-up dinner at Harry's Pizzeria Tuesday night, said, if you went to Chicago and only ate at Kahan's restaurants, you would get an excellent cross-section of Chicago's culinary universe.
For the past year, Schwartz has been bringing some of the country's best chefs to Miami's doorstep to cook for an evening at Harry's. On our last visit to Chicago, Kahan's Blackbird and The Publican were two of our favorite meals, so when I saw his name on the upcoming schedule, I made sure to secure a spot.
Though the cooking at these Harry's "pop-ups" is always reflective of the visiting chef, the format of the dinners tends to follow the same pattern: an assortment of passed appetizers to start, including some variation on a pizza; and three or four courses all served family-style, usually taking advantage of Harry's wood-burning oven. Kahan's menu followed suit:
(You can see all my pictures in this Publican Pizzeria flickr set; pictures were taken with my new Sony NEX-5R, courtesy of Sony).
Things got off to a good start with a "fettunta" (the Tuscan version of what gets called "bruschetta" in the U.S.) topped with a creamy chicken liver mousse, tangy satsuma, and spicy, sweet and sour onions "agridulce," all providing great contrast to the rich liver shmear.
Chef Kahan went local style with a crudo of cobia, topped with kohlrabi and mint salsa verde. The mint nicely highlighted the freshness of the fish.
While the bacon-wrapped, chorizo-stuffed dates may be the "signature dish" at Avec, an argument could be made for the "deluxe focaccia," topped with taleggio and ricotta cheese, and just a whisper of truffle oil.
I like how Kahan thinks about salads. No mere rabbit food, his have substance, even heartiness. I still vividly remember the one I had at the Publican, where endive, apples, celery, pistachios, thinly sliced coppa, and shaved ricotta salata provided intriguing variety in each bite. For the pop-up, one plate included luxurious stracciatella cheese, roasted baby beets, wilted dandelion greens and cracked Oregon hazelnuts. Another was a spin on vitello tonnato, featuring tender, rosy thin slices of pork loin in a tuna and anchovy sauce with slivered olives and fresh arugula.
The next dish brought together Kahan's new butcher shop project with Harry's wood-burning oven: Publican's blood sausage, paired with wood-oven roasted squid, tossed in spicy charmoula and served with sprigs of perky frisée. Pork and seafood almost invariably play well together, and this was a great take on "surf n turf."
Whenever I have the house to myself and am left to my own devices for dinner, as often as not my fall-back dish is spaghetti with anchovies. This is in part because the ingredients - dried pasta, canned anchovies, olive oil, garlic, chile flakes, bread crumbs - are almost always available in the pantry. And it's also in part because the stink of the anchovies offends everyone else in the house. This was a much more elevated take on my typical "solo dinner" - fresh pasta, fresh sardines, fresh bread crumbs - suitable even for dining with company.
For the "main course," Kahan and crew sent out platters of wood oven roasted lamb shoulder, rubbed with anchovy and chiles, and served over crispy roasted potatoes flecked with fresh rosemary, with warm bagna cauda served alongside. This was homey, homely, and utterly delicious: browned crispy exterior, tender flesh that pulled apart in ropy strings, with the umami turned up to eleven by the anchovy rub and the bagna cauda. Alongside, a silky polenta topped with lovely mushrooms (royal trumpets? matsutakes?) cooked sott'olio, and roasted escarole in a creamy anchovy dressing.
The dessert included a couple of my favorite things: panettone and lemon curd. I love those mysteriously preserved loafs you find in boxes during the holiday season, studded with raisins and day-glo-hued preserved fruits. This panettone was more elegant, both fluffy and dense, soaked in custard like a pain perdu and rolled in spiced sugar. The rich curd, with the delicate tang of meyer lemon, was a nice accompaniment.
Throughout the meal MGFD sommelier Eric Larkee poured some well-chosen juice: an elegant Reisetbauer Austrian sparkling apple cider to start; a taut, clean northern Italian white blend from Terlano; an Asturian red, the Monasterio de Corias "Guilfa," that was my favorite of the night; and the more structured, powerful Rocco delle Macie "Ser Gioveto" sangiovese blend.
Though the rustic dishes Chef Kahan served at this meal were closest in spirit to what I had at The Publican, they reminded me of things that were common to the more refined Blackbird as well: he regularly uses strong, pungent flavors - pickles, chiles, anchovies, fresh herbs - but always to enhance, never to overpower.
One of the things I really enjoy about these dinners is how they feel more like a dinner party than a typical restaurant experience: tables are seated communally, dishes are served family style, the wine is poured freely, and - if you sit with the right people - diners don't hesitate to ask if they can have seconds, which they usually can. These pop-ups are a win-win all around: out-of-town chefs get an excuse to come visit sunny South Florida and do some self-promotion; Chef Schwartz's kitchen crew gets to work with nationally known talent for a day or two (and maybe even longer: these dinners have served as the springboard for a "stagiaire" program where cooks from Schwartz's kitchen are sent around to apprentice in the visiting chefs' kitchens); and local diners get the chance to eat meals cooked by some of the best chefs from around the country, in a laid back casual format.
For more info, check the Harry's website; upcoming dinners include April Bloomfield and Bill Telepan.
3918 N. Miami Ave., Miami FL