Review the Reviewers – Dan and Susan Chef the Underground Kitchen

Can you see the relief on our faces?

Now that we’ve had a few days to recuperate, we’d like to tell you all about our fabulous experience as Chefs for Underground Kitchen III on September 6.

Susan says…

As you will recall, Dan, Tracey, Ron and I attended UK II at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore back in July.  (You can read about that one here and here.)  A delicious meal was served in a unique atmosphere among a varied group of friendly strangers.  We had a great time.  So much so, it only took a mention by the UK organizers that they were looking for chefs for the next event to trigger the start gun of my mind…racing with thoughts of what I might like to serve, what my ideal location would be….

And so we did it.  We volunteered.

Tracey and Ron jumped ship immediately, knowing all too well from past experience how much work is involved with an undertaking of this magnitude.  Ron gets enough of it enduring our own private parties for 30-40 of our friends and the luncheon I did for 75 preschool mom’s last Mother’s Day.  Ron was immediately thinking: poor Dan, he has no idea what he’s getting himself into, agreeing to work with a redhead.  I can admit that I am very detail-oriented, I plan ahead almost to a fault, I make spreadsheets for every occasion, and I might get a teeny weeny bit stressed out near the actual event.

First order of business: secure a fabulous location.  It had to be beautiful, unique, near downtown Charleston, with adequate parking, room to feed 30+, a generous owner willing to donate it’s use to our cause, and there must be kitchen.   After tossing around several ideas, I kept going back to one, visualizing people milling about the antiques, gazing at the fine art.  My dearest friend, Christy, works in this picture-perfect historic home that belongs in the pages of magazines – the Tabor Lindsay & Associates law office at the corner of Virginia and Morris.

Dining room at Tabor Lindsay law office

This place is unbelievable.  Layers of carpets, posh furnishings, draperies, tassels, works of art, even decorative ceilings which transport you to another era.  I have never been anywhere in Charleston more ornately adorned.  The kitchen was well-equipped for a dinner party with a gas range, two ovens, a refrigerator and dishwasher.  The courtyard outside was an ideal al fresco venue.  And even more unbelievable: the owners were willing to loan it to us for the Underground Kitchen!

With the fabulous location secured, menu testing began.  Daniel and I discussed dozens of themes for the evening and decided upon my specialty: appetizers.  Or the trendier label for a dinner party: tapas.  Popular throughout Spain in bars and restaurants, tapas are appetizers that usually accompany sherry or other cocktails.  They can also form an entire meal and can range from simple items such as olives or cubes of ham and cheese to more elaborate preparations.  Our goal was to serve tapas that showcased fresh fruits and vegetables and inject an Appalachian influence.

Much discussion ensued concerning what to serve with our beef course: fried polenta…creamy polenta…smashed garlic potatoes…potato gratin…test dishes were prepared and subsequently rejected.  Dessert was undecided – it had to be a memorable ending as the pinnacle of the meal.  Something diners would be thinking about favorably on their drive home.

I used my scrapbooking skills to make the menus

When Daniel tested his dessert, he sent me an email stating “no go – too rich”.    Well I am here to tell ya that the words “too rich” and “dessert” DO NOT accompany each other in my vocabulary.  Especially when chocolate is involved.  Thankfully, he brought a sample to work for Misty & I to taste and we LOVED it.  I tried cleaning up the dish but Misty would not let it go until she had scraped up every last drop of the yummy sauce.  That would be our grand finale for sure.

The rental order was placed, the proteins were ordered from Capitol Market, we were forced into taste-testing at Ellen’s for a sorbet (oh, the sweet agony!), I worked up cost estimates for the dishes on spreadsheets and prepared a budget, wine pairings were researched, decorations were planned, ingredients were purchased…and the day was upon us.

The team was hoping for outdoor dining but the sky was menacing Saturday afternoon.  It looked as if the clouds would spill their raindrops at any moment.  A burst of sunshine made us reconsider the placement of the tables, but we didn’t want to risk soaking the guests in the middle of their gazpacho.

View of the front yard from the porch

As the guests began to arrive, they were greeted on the front porch, directed to a giant galvanized tub of ice in which to park their white wine, and offered two hors d’oeuvres.  The first, Dan’s endive leaf filled with Boursin cheese and garnished with a sprig of dill.  The second, my miniature Swiss cheese quiches.  Both paired nicely with the 2007 Chartron La Fleur Bordeaux Blanc and the 2007 Martin Codax Albarino suggested by the experts at the Wine & Cheese Shop located in the Capitol Market.  All recommended wines were available there in the “10 under $10’s”.

The gazpacho is plated and waiting to be served

The first course of the evening was gazpacho served in frozen WV homegrown tomatoes.  The tomatoes are finished with a decorative zig zag edge.  The gazpacho is a chilled soup of tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, green onions, celery, garlic, cilantro, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar and hot sauce for a spicy kick.  A cucumber star garnish adorns the top of the soup.  Alongside, a seed-covered flatbread adds crunch.

Gazpacho is a cold tomato soup originating in the Andalusian region of Spain.  My Appalachian take on it is to utilize WV homegrown vegetables in the recipe.  Gazpacho is sometimes pureed until smooth, and sometimes served with small or large chunks of vegetables.  I like a chunky puree so the colors of the vegetables are still visible in the finished dish.

scallop on tortilla with guacamole and corn relish

Scallops were the star of the second course seared and served on a fried corn tortilla, topped with guacamole and corn relish and garnished with a lime twist.  The main ingredient in the corn relish is WV-grown sweet corn roasted in the oven.  I combined that with red onion, anaheim pepper, cilantro and more of those WV tomatoes.  A splash of lime juice brings the relish together.

A local favorite, Ellen’s Ice Cream, created the sorbet we chose to serve next: mango lemongrass.  The two flavors distinctively discernible, marry together in the smooth frozen treat to form a fabulous flavor.  The pleasing orange color is complemented by the mint leaf garnish.

Dan slices his meat

Halfway through the parade of tapas, the third course featured beef tenderloin seared and roasted low and slow to a perfect medium rare.  Props to Daniel for expertly preparing the beef.  Oh yeah, there was that surprise visit by the firemen.  They arrived with lights flashing on their shiny red fire trucks after Daniel’s searing set off the fire alarm in the building.  Oops!  I promise, the meat was not burned!  The beef rests on a toasted baguette slice and is dressed with bright green Chimichurri sauce.  The baguette is leaning on a square of gorgonzola potato gratin and the plate is garnished with a criss cross of breaded, fried asparagus.

A staple of Argentina, the essential elements of chimichurri originated in Spain and Italy.  It is a blend of flat-leaf parsley, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, shallots, red pepper flakes, red wine vinegar, sherry, cilantro and oregano.  This sauce packs some serious flavor and can be used to top any meat or fish.  In Argentina, it is usually the only seasoning used for steak and chorizo.  I suppose you could say it is Argentina’s version of A-1 sauce.

Gorgonzola potato gratin, tenderloin with chimichurri and breaded asparagus

The potato gratin consists of layers of very thinly sliced russet potatoes smothered in a decadent sauce made simply of cream and gorgonzola cheese.  My Appalachian twist for this course is the idea of “meat & taters” – my father’s generation didn’t consider it a meal if meat and potatoes were not present on the dinner table.  The asparagus is lightly breaded in egg white, panko and parmesan cheese.  Eating your vegetables is so much more pleasant when they are breaded and fried.

We suggested the 2007 Tilia Malbec, the 2007 Costal Vines Pinot Noir or the 2007 Cono Sur Pinot Noir to compliment the beef course and the fourth course – a stacked salad of melon and ham.

Crenshaw melon, country ham & arugula with white balsamic vinegar reduction

Italian cuisine birthed the classic combination of cantelope and prosciutto.  Googling these two ingredients will yield thousands of recipes for this pairing.  To give it an Appalachian flavor, Daniel uses country ham in place of Italian prosciutto.  Crenshaw melon, described as the king of melons by famous food critic Jeffrey Steingarten, and peppery arugula alternates with the ham to form the salad.  The dressing is a reduction of white balsamic vinegar and the garnish is a slice of star fruit.

If you are thinking that salad after the beef course seems a bit odd, consider that The New Book of Etiquette by Lillian Eichler, published in 1938 advises when serving a formal dinner:  “The first course-soup, as a rule-is placed directly on the service plate…The main course follows the fish course, and the salad follows the main course.” Emily Post’s Etiquette (Fifteenth Edition), published in 1992 concurs with Ms. Eichler’s proper service order and adds: “Notice that the salad is served between the entree and dessert.  This is correct in spite of the custom in almost all restaurants of serving it as a first course.” Besides reading cookbooks, m find etiquette texts compelling.  It is amazing to learn how many infractions I commit during an ordinary meal when compared to the standards of the 1930’s!

Espresso brownie with white chocolate-hazlenut sauce

As already mentioned, the climax of the meal was a sinful chocolate dessert.  Daniel’s brownie consists of high-quality dark and semi-sweet chocolate and espresso with a cinnamon finish.  He places the brownie atop a pool of white chocolate cream sauce flavored with hazlenut coffee beans.  Garnishes are bittersweet chocolate shavings, a dusting of confectioner’s sugar and a drizzle of chocolate sauce.  If you are in the mood for a dessert wine, the 2007 Bosio Moscato d’Asti is recommended.

After dinner, many guests enjoyed conversation on the porch with a view of the beautiful fountain, floating candles, and tiny white lights outlining the circular landscaping around the fountain.

A few words of thanks to the people that made this event possible:

  • Dan and Katie, founders – website, invitations, reservations
  • Alex, Heidi, Mike, Herb – set up, rentals, decor, clean up
  • Christy – facility management, set up, problem-solving, shooing away the fire trucks, plating, serving, clean up
  • Megan and Jodi – serving, clean up
  • Wine & Cheese Shop – wine consultation
  • Chef Dale Hawkins of Stonewall Resort – menu consultation
  • Michael and Colette – additional photos
  • Pamela Tabor Lindsay – the facility

I hope the guests felt the evening was as successful as we did in the kitchen.  My one regret: eating only a single brownie!

A note from Dan…

I really don’t have much to add to Susan’s description of the evening.  Planning a September menu is a challenge.  Sourcing local products was hard considering that summer is on its way out and fall is knocking on the door.  Tomatoes were a home run, but we were nervous about the melon the whole time.  In the end the melon was good, but I wish it could have been better.

When I tested the brownie I baked it in a glass dish and it never finished baking.  It was a gooey mess.  I was holding my breath the morning of the UK.  I had unearthed a cake pan that I had not used since I got married 11 years ago.  I said a little prayer as I poured the double batch in the pan and to my surprise it came out perfectly.

Cooking is an artform.  As with art everybody knows what they like and has an opinion about what they don’t like.  I hope that everyone that attended enjoyed themselves and left with a positive opinion!

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9 responses to “Review the Reviewers – Dan and Susan Chef the Underground Kitchen

  1. I think it was very brave of you both to follow the second installment of UK (I wasn’t around for the first one). I certainly wouldn’t want to follow any of y’all, ever. The evening was dazzling; everything was so delicious. The gazpacho? Best I’ve ever had. There is no way it was made by human hands. It was soupernatural. And with that horrible pun, I’ll end by saying: Y’all rocked.

  2. Yes, kudos to both of you for preparing such a memorable meal!


  3. Damn. After attending last month’s UK, I decided to sit on my hands and to give others a chance to go. Now I wish I hadn’t been so kind. Your menus sounds incredible, especially the beef dish.

  4. Blair and I have wanted to attend for a while. We promise to clear our calendars for the next one.

  5. Pingback: Underground Kitchen No. 3: Fork You @ Tabor-Lindsay « Underground Kitchen *~* Charleston, West Virginia

  6. Susan, it was great meeting you at UK II, and I regret not making it out to this one, for sure. Your description of the menu was positively mouth-watering.


  7. Kudos to all! I still have the menu as a keepsake, the menu was delicious and well thought out. Great touch on going local with ingredients. I am sorry to sit out the upcoming UK dinner.

  8. Pingback: Prix Fixe Menu at south hills market and cafe « Fork You…

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