Thursday, October 25, 2012

Eating & Meeting: Iron Chef José Garces & His Cuisine

One of the greatest perks of living in a culturally vibrant city like Philadelphia is obtaining access to a grand food scene. During Center City Restaurant Week, I took full advantage of the scrumptious food being offered at discounted prices and dined at Garces Trading Company…owned by none other than Iron Chef José Garces! I’ll admit it: I’m a T.V. junkie. The Food Network, especially, is one channel that I watch rather religiously, with Iron Chef being one of my favorite shows. When the opportunity to eat at one of Garces’ amazing restaurants arose, of course I seized it! The culinary gods awarded me another dream come true when I found out he was going to appear at Penn Bookstore for his newest cookbook release later that week!

But first, let’s discuss the restaurant. The clever décor of cargo, barter, and ship wood emanated an aura of a voyager’s journey, priming the diner for a culturally diverse synthesis of a meal. Now, allow me to give a descriptive rundown of my menu choices (I agonized over the delectable options for quite some time, by the way). For my first course, I had the Salmorejo, a chilled tomato soup with Serrano ham and egg yolk, garnished with mini croutons, crab meat morsels, flat-leaf Italian parsley, cubed, hard-boiled egg whites, and drizzled olive oil. Never had I seen a soup with a color so rich and vivid. I also loved how the dish reflected the consideration that chefs put into presentation. On the visual level alone, you can see the various colors, textures, and placement distributions upon first glance. It’s a wonderful sight to behold, and an even greater marvel to taste. With the initial spoonful, your palate detects a sourness and acidity from the tomato that are not too assertive, for the plainer, calming flavors from the egg whites, the grating crunch of the croutons, the dairy creaminess of the soup, and other interactive factors present themselves in conjunction.

Next, I ate the Jardiniére Sandwich, which consisted of radicchio relish, shaved zucchini, quince paste (fruit jam), and fontina val d’aosta (artisanal premium cheese). It was a lovely vegetarian dish, and I liked the inherent sweetness and refreshing quality it contained. The bread was perfectly toasted (a must), and the quince paste gave an exquisite sheen to the center of the sandwich, as it glazed the zucchini ribbons and seaweed-looking radicchio into charming undulations. The cheese was nicely melted as well and complemented the other components of the sandwich. Another accompaniment was a bowl of magical, salted potato chips that provided almost a cotton candy-like experience. You pop them into your mouth, and poof—they dissolve like air. The crunching moment is so phenomenal but short-lasting, which makes consuming the entire chip bowl even more desirable.

Lastly, I ordered the French 77 for dessert. Presented in layers, the dish was comprised of a macaron, champagne strawberry, and elderflower, lemon panna cotta strata. It was pictorially adorable, for one, but don’t let the cuteness deceive you. The power of the elements behind that dessert forever changes any diner who tastes it. Floral and citrusy, the divine, palate-cleansing French concoction was a delightful note to end on.

However, in terms of notes to end on, it came second to me actually meeting Iron Chef José Garces! I’ve had a few celebrity encounters in my lifetime thus far, and I never manage to play it cool, always succumbing to starstruck-related embarrassment. But this time, I was calm, cool, and collected. I waited in line at the bookstore, and at the table where Chef Garces sat, they provided another seat for people to sit down and converse with him for a few minutes. Once it was my turn, I began by introducing myself, saying I blog for Penn Appétit (name dropping, holla!) and that I had the pleasure of dining at Garces Trading Company. I told him about my sensational experience of those three courses, showering him with culinary praise for his ingenuity in constructing all the flavorful intricacies present in those menu items. He said he was happy to know I enjoyed his food so much and encouraged me to maintain my foodie passion. I bid him “good eating” and left all smiles, with an autographed business card and a popcorn goodie bag! I honestly could not have asked for anything better. The opportunity to eat an extraordinary meal and subsequently meet the mastermind behind it and discuss his creations with him? Never in a million years would I even imagine such an experience. It’s of gastronomical proportions, yes, but ‘tis possible if you just believe.

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