Cooking “Menu Americana” at Vagabond, Seattle, WA

As of late, tastingmenu has begun to offer you a second point of view. Originally the documentation of Hillel’s journey through experiencing cuisine at tables around the world, I have recently come aboard to offer a second point of view. Not from the seat next to him, but from behind the doors to the kitchen.

Occasionally, Hillel and I share an experience from inside the same restaurant. We thought it would be interesting to bring you a true review of one of these experiences, starting from the kitchen to the table. Last month, an underground dinner with Vagabond, myself as the guest chef, and Hillel in attendance offered us just that. The Monday night supper-club is housed in Portalis, a small wine bar tucked down the old main street of Ballard.

Vagabond emerged from Gabriel Claycamp’s collaboration with Portland’s irreverent Michael Hebberoy, who created a hip dining empire out of an underground restaurant. Seemingly built on quick sand, the empire crumbled and Michael found his way to Seattle looking for new aveneus. Here in Seattle the tragic tale of Hebberoy’s “Ripe” empire filled the gastronomic gossip forum enough to pave his way directly into the heart of our food scene. He came, he saw, and he vowed to undermine the restaurant by launching an underground movement here called “One Pot.”

One Pot’s anarchist intentions caught the attention of the people behind Seattle’s largest underground dining movement, Gypsy. Of these parents, Vagabond was born. Stripped of Gypsy’s white tablecloths, but cooked in more than “one pot”, Vagabond is an supper of 3 courses, humble in nature and rooted in tradition. “Sexy peasant food” the founders call it. After a month of collaboration, One Pot left the well versed waitstaff and restaurant style service behind for an experience more chaotic.

Originally, I was asked to prepare the desserts for every dinner. A challenge I wasn’t prepared to turn down, the format shifted, and I agreed to create an entire menu instead. I dug deep into my own tradition and came up with a “Menu Americana.”

Using dishes that are rooted not only in deep american tradition, but in comercial pop culture, I set to work. The first course was a salad of romaine lettuce, sliced red onion, and soft toasted croutons tossed in a Roasted Garlic Ranch Dressing.

Ranch Dressing’s roots grow deep into American culture, beginning at Steve and Gayle Henson’s Hidden Valley Ranch guest house outside Santa Barbara, California. The proprietors created this simple dressing of mayonnaise, buttermilk, fresh herbs and garlic for their guests as early as 1952. The popularity grew with every new guest and soon they were preparing enough of the dressing to send home with each. The demand for the dressing became stronger than their kitchen could produce and the Henson’s set up a small plant that manufactured seasoning packets to be mixed in the home.

In 1972 Ranch Dressing took it’s leap into infamy when the brand was purchased by Clorox, formulated for stability on the grocery store shelf, and sold nation wide. Since then Ranch has surpassed all other prepared dressing sales, dominating the market and our daily eating habits. From down home American roots to commercial prominence, Ranch is a flavor every American can relate to.

Recreating this popular flavor while surpassing the store bought standard was the challenge I gave myself. I began with a mayonnaise base made with roasted garlic cloves and the oil they were cooked in. The base was mixed with a thick Bulgarian Buttermilk, fresh chopped parsley, a hint of lemon, and seasoned with salt and fresh cracked pepper. A fancy ranch indeed, but to hold this flavor to it’s roots, it needed the bite of raw shallots. Less aggressive than the raw garlic flavor of the commercial product responsible for the lingering “ranch breath”, the shallot added just the dynamic Ranch needs.

The second course possesses the most recognizable American brand in the entire world, Coca Cola. The dish, playfully called “Pork and Beans” featured a coca cola braised pork shoulder served over Boston style beans. The dish, I must admit, grew entirely out of my desire to serve corn bread as a side dish. From there, I began pondering American flavors that worked with corn bread like chili and barbecue. My corn bread, it must be said, is made in the northern tradition of sweet, moist cake-like bread. Southern style corn bread is dry and crumbly, ideal for absorbing the syrup that is a staple on the southern table.

The highly marketed term “Pork and Beans” stuck in my little ol’ American head, and the dish began to take shape. Five varieties of heirloom beans were cooked in the Boston style with bacon, brown sugar and molasses, mustard and tomato paste.

The pork began with a simple braise with onions and ginger, following a generous rub of Garam Masala. Garam Masala, an indian blend of spices that includes cinnamon might insinuate a straying from american flavors. But as all american cuisine was carried from other continents, to absorb and assimilate the cultures that continue to come ashore is a truly american statement, and Garam Masala will forever live in my cupboards. The pork however truly took shape when I witnessed the sous chef at the Rainier Club pouring Coca Cola into a pork braise for mexican carnitas. My face beamed, “Eureka!” and with just under a week to put the finishing touches on my dinner, the crowning American touch came to be.

The resulting pork melted in your mouth, spicy from the ginger and garam masala, and deep from the coca cola. Served over a bed of the heirloom Boston beans, the pork was topped with a layer of crispy fried shallots. The crispy fried shallots are a play on Durkee’s french fried onions, an american grocery store staple, and something every green bean casserole would be empty without.

Two side dishes were served, corn bread, and corn. While corn was not in season, a better-than-your-average-bear frozen brand was purchased, and brought back to life with a quick saute in honey butter. The dish was brightened with roasted red peppers and a pinch of cayenne pepper. The corn bread was served with honey butter on the side, a touch my friend Amanda introduced me to in culinary school.

The last course was a pie born of this country. “Apple pie!” you might say. You’re right in thinking that. What’s more American than Apple Pie? Well, I argue Fluffernutter pie. Peanut butter is a flavor that not only boasts of being born of this country, but also experiences it’s only true popularity in this country. A chocolate crumb crust was filled with peanut-butter cream mousse, and topped with a greasy spoon diner-style rosette of marshmallow cream, toasted just before serving. A fudge sauce based off of cocoa made for an American chocolate sauce smeared on the plate. Bittie little cubes of rice crispie treats garnished the top, making me confident that this pie is surely more American than apple pie.

My labor of love does not stop here. If I have spoken to the american in you, then read on. The recipes follow, and you too can create my American dream on any given night.

One Response to “Cooking “Menu Americana” at Vagabond, Seattle, WA”

  1. [...] Dana said in her last post(s), we’re experimenting with giving you a view of a single meal from both her and my [...]

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