I’ve been running full-steam the last couple of months and have desperately needed a break so I was happy that this Memorial Day Weekend kicked off a week-long vacation filled with family, parties and just general relaxation. And what better way to get it started than with a trip to New Orleans at Emerging Chefs‘ Mardi Gras en Mai?
Each month, Emerging Chefs partners with a local chef to design a wildly distinctive event. With names like ThEATrical and Sacr-licious, their “big flavors, bold venue” dinners find unique inspiration in very different concepts.
In April I attended my first Emerging Chefs event, Dinner by Design (read the review here), and when they announced this month’s Mardi Gras en Mai, I looked forward not just to savoring another delicious meal, but to also see how different the event would be compared to last month’s.
For Mardi Gras en Mai, Emerging Chefs teamed up with Executive Chef Chris Quinn, whose background in the restaurant industry has led to his current consulting role as the divisional corporate chef of U.S. Foodservice in Cleveland.
The bold venue for the evening was 2020 Center Street on the West Bank of the Flats. As soon as Scott and I walked in, we could immediately see where the idea for Mardi Gras en Mai came from. In the sprawling open space, huge sculpted masks adorned the walls and multi-story windows filled the room with the beautiful light of a late-May afternoon.
Encouraged by this setting, Chef Quinn took the big flavors of New Orleans’ hugest party and put his own seasonal twist on them to celebrate the long-awaited arrival of Cleveland Spring.
We were welcomed to the event by David Moss, one of Emerging Chefs’ partners (he’s joined by Rick Turner and Michael DeAloia), who had really gotten into the spirit of the event and donned a jester’s costume.
After such a festive greeting, Scott and I picked up a few pairs of beads and joined WhyCLE?, Hungry in Cleveland, Cleveland Food and Brews, Poise in Parma, The Journeyman Cook, and Edsel Little at a table.
After settling in, Chef Quinn presented an amuse bouche of microgreens with jambalaya puree and fleur-de-lis cracker. As he continued to prove throughout the evening, he has a very fine grasp on heat — with the jambalaya’s flavor slowly and evenly building as you sampled it. It was the perfect balance for those who like spice (me) and those who favor a milder dish (Scott).
As the evening progressed, each course that followed offered a completely different flavor — fitting of NOLA’s vast culinary richness. In the first course, Chef Quinn put a twist on the classic Cajun ettoufee by serving an ettoufee pierogi with an herbed creme fraiche and crispy crawfish tail. The smooth freshness of the creme fraiche was an excellent touch – pairing very well with both the spicy filling of the pierogi and the sugar-encrusted crawfish tail.
The second course, Muffaletta Points with Sea Scallops Mousse, was my (and most of my tablemates’) favorite of the evening. Inspired by the muffaletta loaf and olive salad used in New Orleans’ signature sandwich, Chef Quinn put together a bite size version that packed a taste just as big. Instead of deli meats, though, Chef Quinn’s own take included a scallop seared with a bit of tangerine sugar and a sea scallop mousse. I cannot say enough about this dish – the sweetness of the sugar and mousse coupled with the saltiness of the olive tapenade made this the evening’s savory winner.
While introducing the third course, Chef Quinn reflected on how New Orleans is known for its great music, delicious food and voodoo. Well, he did his own bit of culinary black magic with his Voodoo Chicken dish. With the help of some liquid ice, smoke billowed from the bowl giving off a mysterious air. However, the spell weaving didn’t stop at the plating — although I’m not a huge fan of chicken, the corn meal encrusted okra and tangy Southern Comfort infused marinade added a lot of taste.
Next up was the Intermezzo. One thing you can always say about Emerging Chefs is that imagination runs free in each dish. And Chef Quinn’s Intermezzo won for the most playful of the meal. When the menu was released a week before the event, I knew that the Mango Habanero Popsicle was going to be something different.
The neon-colored popsicle rested in a glass filled with mango salsa. And whether or not you chose to dip the popsicle in the fresh chunks of fruit, each bite popped in your mouth. First, the icy touch of the popsicle hit your tastebuds, followed by the freshness of the mango. Then the heat of the pepper sneaked up on you. It was fun, complex flavor wrapped on a stick – an excellent break in the meal.
With our palates cleaned by the popsicle, we could enjoy the fourth course – a veal strip loin with an espresso rub and bourbon and Dr. Pepper glaze. Chef Quinn is known for his Dr. Pepper glaze with good reason. Combined with the dark flavoring of the rub’s coffee beans, brown sugar and Cajun spices, the glaze flavored and moistened the meat making for a very rich, delicious dish. It was accompanied by haricot verts, a corn fritter filled with zucchini and other fresh vegetables, and a skewer of Dr. Pepper jelly beans — a creative complement to the evening’s main course.
Every course was paired with a creation from the imaginative mind of Joe DeLuca. Joe had been at IngenuityFest’s Cocktail Party Redux in March and again blew me away with some daring drink choices. Throughout the evening, he took us on a journey of reinvented NOLA cocktails – from a deconstructed Hurricane (the alcohol and rim sugar were in jello form to be mixed with the grenadine in a glass) to a modernized Sazerac (although a bit strong for Scott’s taste, I loved the bite once I figured out how to sip it).
I think my favorite, though, was the ramos gin fizz. Made with gin, egg white, orange flower water, and sugar, DeLuca and his team painstakingly filled empty eggs with the concoction. The time and effort spent were worth it because it wasn’t just delicious but so much fun to drink. DeLuca’s mantra of drinking well and drinking what you like was very easily accomplished with the cocktails they served up on Friday night.
Because we also had plans to see the Rare Birds perform at the Beachland that evening, Scott and I had to sadly miss the last course – homemade beignets served with melted chocolate ganache, cream anglaise, and flavored sugars. However, before I left, I did have a chance to grab the evening’s takeaway — mini king cupcakes which I enjoyed later. It was an excellent reminder of another delightful night out with Emerging Chefs.
With June right around the corner, Emerging Chefs is moving outdoors for their next event — Sushi at Sunset on June 16. I will have more details up soon so keep an eye out for how to get your tickets. And if you’d like to read more about the festive Mardi Gras en Mai (including the last course I had to miss), check out WhyCLE, Poise in Parma and Cleveland Food and Brews‘ reviews.
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**Disclosure: I was invited to attend Emerging Chefs Mardi Gras en Mai with a Media Pass. Scott’s admission was paid for on his own. As always, all opinions in this post are 100% my own.***