Tommy: Brothers don’t shake hands. Brothers gotta hug.
That’s the kind of atmosphere at an event hosted by Jen & Ryan Hidinger (the line of course is a quote straight out of Tommy Boy). In fact, we tried to get out of there on a handshake, and the better half insisted we hug it out. For those of you not privy to my past posts on Staplehouse, let’s get ya’ll up to speed.
Ryan Hidinger is the Chef de Cuisine at Muss & Turner’s. He, with the help of his lovely wife Jen, hope to open their own joint sometime in the foreseeable future. The restaurant will open under the name Staplehouse (formerly two words – now one). The concept will be a neighborhood eatery backed by fresh, staple-driven food. In the meantime, what we have is A Prelude To Staplehouse. Prelude is quite simply a small gathering where a handful of diners get together, sample a good amount of Ryan’s food, and then are given an opportunity to give him some feedback. PS … before you hit “read more” you may want to brace yourselves. This is another post that’s far too long for the net.
The dinners are put on by an army of four. Ryan and his sous-chef Ben Barth handle the food, Ryan Turner (of Muss and Turner’s fame) acts as the sommelier, and Jen handles the crowd control, clean-up, and general hosting duties. By now, these four operate as one well-oiled machine. The goods were prepped by the time guests arrived and the flow throughout the evening was smooth and uneventful (in a good way). As we waited for a given course (and there were a whopping six of them), our wine glasses were filed with an ample sample of the paired selection and Turner’s compendium description. Shortly thereafter, we were presented with a full portion plating of food and a voiceover from the chef.
My plus one for the evening was Chloe from Chow Down Atlanta. So let’s all give her a warm round of applause for adding most of the digital photography to this post. Her full album is up on Flickr. [A couple of the shots are mine – as is the link at the end of the post to my album]. I pestered her to do the post, but she spurned my requests … and thus, here we are.
After the little meet and greet, we all settled into our seats. There is a free standing table that seats six and a kitchen-side bar that seats four. We chose the bar when we made our “reservation,” and I would recommend subsequent visitors do the same. While I would have been happy to join fellow diners at main table, the opportunity to hang out in the kitchen was all I needed.
The crudo came with Belgian endive, preserved lemon, marinated olives and sea salt. The thick chucks of tuna were fresh and, when combined with the accompaniments, very bright. A simple and traditional take on the Italian classic, the tuna had been chilled long enough to make each bite a bit more meaty in texture. For me, this dish was solid. Nothing envelope pushing, but solid ingredients and very good execution.
Next on our plate was a truly transcendent dish. While none of the ingredients were outrageously exotic, Hidinger’s execution, combined with a top notch balance of flavors, and farm fresh ingredients, was nothing short of delicious. The risotto dumplings were added to some hen of the woods mushrooms, sweet corn and basil. The jus allowed us to slurp up every possible hint of flavor from the plate. Not only did Chloe and I clean this one clear off our plates, so did the two sisters to our left. When Staplehouse becomes a reality, this is a dish that both Chloe and I will demand with fervor.
Pan Seared Halibut
The chances of me ordering a piece of fish unprovoked are slim to none (unless it’s sushi). Shellfish will usually grab my attention if seafood is on my mind. That said, I found the halibut, served over a bead of Spanish chorizo, fried potatoes, and grilled Cippolini onions, to be a thoughtful and well executed dish. Still, the preparation was easily the most fun to watch during the evening. You could tell that Ryan was frustrated by something. Still, his ability to adjust to the circumstances of the present was evident and the subsequent results were more than passable. Though neither Chloe nor myself were moved by this like we were from the dumplings, many others at dinner really seemed to dig this. The smokiness of the chorizo and the flavor of the onions were the driving force behind each bite. Meanwhile, the halibut was moist and flaky.
Chloe craves pork belly like crack addict hits the pipe. Me – well I’m not rabid around the stuff – but pork belly is goooooooood. This dish, my fellow foodies, was gooooooooooooood … verrrry gooooooooooooood. The pork belly, which cooked in a reduction, came served up over a heaping mound of grits from Riverview Farms and underneath a large serving of pickled green tomato relish. This mound of deliciousness came smack-dab in the middle of a light jus. This dish was sweet and savory, creamy and crunchy, thick and light. Much like the risotto dumplings, if Hidinger doesn’t put this on the menu, there’s a good chance Chow Down and Foodie Buddha will burn the place down.
Grilled Hanger Steak
This dish was probably the most mundane of the evening. That said, the elements within the dish were all top quality and this is the type of dish that a place like Staplehouse will have to offer. While it may not elicit truly inspirational feelings in the more critical diners (like my dining buddy and me), it was similar to one of the alternative options you’d find in a traditional steakhouse. The hanger steak may not have been the best cut to utilize in this dish. While this is just one diners opinion, the number of other elements would have been better suited against a more subtle cut of steak
Served over a bead of local zucchini, heirloom tomatoes, brown butter, bacon, and thyme jus. Individually, the brown butter, bacon, and jus were flavorful. When mixed together, I just felt that a little more refinement will still go a long way. Mind you (and this is the most important part of this section), the dish was solid and we heard some rave reviews from other dinners. It’s the type of fixture that will serve those of us less inclined to try goat brains very well.
Sweet Corn Custard
Last up for the evening was a homemade sweet corn custard that had been layered with strawberry jam. The jam was also made in-house. The thin layer of jam coated the top of the yellow custard in such a way that the dissection of the custard offered up an eye-catching experience. Something about the golden yellow against the thick red was really fun to look at, especially in the subtly lit environment that had become the setting. Not a dessert guy by any stretch, I appreciated the muted sweetness of the corn custard. The texture of the jam, in addition to the sweetness of it, really played well with the creamy corn concoction.
The wines from the evening were carefully selected by Ryan Turner. Early on, Turner remarked about an unusual decision that was made. Often times, food is made to pair with the wine. Here, however, Turner was put in a position whereby he had the food and had to find wines to go along. For brevities’ sake, I won’t go into details about the wine. However, each was an excellent choice within the given varietal family. If you aren’t a fan of rose wines, then you probably won’t love the Friuli. However, if you are receptive to the given genre – drink up. The wines for the evening were as follows:
- Château Peyruchet Sauvignon, Bordeaux 2008
- Bastianich Rosato, Friuli 2008
- J. Lohr Valdiguiem, Monterrey 2007
- Domaine La Terre Rogue, Sierra Foothills, CA 2005
- Vina Hermosa Riserva Rioja, 2001
- JC Vizcarra, Ribera del Duero 2006
- Mairena, Bonarda, Mendoza, Argentina 2005
- Elio Perrone Sourgal Moscato d’asti 2008
Turner himself is a passionate foodie, a knowledgeable businessman, and a friendly guy. His involvement with the Hidinger’s is nothing short of smart business combined with good ole fashioned friendliness. As Ryan H. is employed by Turner, Turner’s decision to be a part of their dream is a classy act. So kudos to him for that.
Speaking straight to the 23rd, our meal was six full-sized courses. Priced at $60 with the pairings, there is no doubt that the meal was worth far more than the charge at hand. As I suspect the gang is taking a hit in the pocketbook, please don’t hesitate to tip and tip generously. It’s kind of funny that a meal involves six courses of fixed deliciousness and hard-to-come-by reservations. Neither is a feature intended for Staplehouse. The portions are too large for a true prix fixe, but that’s not the point here.
In speaking with Ryan Hidinger, his own plate drifts toward the salty goodness of the flavor scale. I too share that love. Meanwhile, his appreciation for everything from the finest steak to the simplest order of Buffalo wings tells me we have a lot in common. It’s no surprise then that I think what this guy does is really good. He and Jen both understand what they want, what they are trying to do, and where they are going. My only hope is that while they continue to take input and feedback, they find their courage to stick to their guns and focus on what they know and what they do.
Opening a restaurant is a very different endeavor than putting on a prix fixe meal home-side. They will have to adjust to the rigors of that new engagement, and they know that. As for now, they are rocketing along toward success and if you aren’t too shy – I recommend you see if you can grab your seat at the Prelude To Staplehouse.