I had the privilege of attending a charity dinner for the Carol G Simon Cancer Center at Escape in Montclair. I often enjoy Escape because there are not too many other places where one can get farm-to-table food at reasonable cost. For the charity dinner, Chef Bryan Gregg was joined by Chef Todd Villani of Terre à Terre.
The intimate scene of 40 people in a small space just west of Lackawanna Plaza reminds me of a barn with a modern twist, the aluminum metal doors and exposed ductwork. The black and white photos of farmers at work and chalkboards listing the farms where the food has come from makes sure you never forget the reason you chose to come here.
First, the amuse bouche of scallop, grapefruit, poppy seed and avacado by Chef Villani. You can taste the desideratum of the Chef, a need to keep food to its simple flavors. The showcase flavor here was not the blank canvas of scallops, but its relation to the grapefruit. It was an intriguing journey, who’s course was set by this first course.
Next, a surprise unexpected from the night, Chef Gregg’s cornbread madeleines. Soft, spongy, sweetly kissed by honey, the cornbread madeleines always has some memory for the patron. I have heard stories of mothers and grandmothers and trips to far lands revealed by the madeleines. For me, it is a reminder of my own grandmother teaching me how to cook on chairs turned backwards against the counter so I can see what is going on.
The next course came, a mirepoix-ish soup. The mirepoix, traditionally added to flavor and color a stock, here was the the soup. A pickled white carrot suspended in a creamy celery root soup. This was a soup. The creamy kind that is hard to find in homes anymore. Chef Villani again keeping the flavors simple and delicious.
And now the dialectic becomes defined, between Chef Villani’s complimentary flavors that hint toward one end and Chef Gregg’s bold view of food: the sot-l’y-laisse. There is one morsel of on the thigh of poultry, sometimes called the chicken oyster. It is one of the most flavorful and tender parts of the chicken. Chef Gregg displayed it for us atop a soaked rye bread and a green pea puree. The chicken, rye, pea not fighting for your attention but dancing boldly together on your tongue. A stark transition from Chef Villani’s compliments. If Chef Villani was the tango, Chef Gregg is the capoeira. Both beautiful, both mesmerizing, but this dish was bold.
Fourth plate, the fish. That ugly fish you have to stop and stare at in the grocery store. It’s wide mouth of many tiny sharp teeth, its flat head, laid out for display atop a bed of fresh ice, its dark scales looking greasy in the sunlight, a fish you would stop swimming if you saw one coming at you, the monkfish. Plated foraged mushrooms, turnips, the haricot, green cover vert and mussel cream. The light flavor of lobster and a similar texture, all complimented by Chef Villani’s choices for bedding. The roasted haricot was visually an appealing touch.
The auroma of seared beef filled the room, as the quinto corso was prepared. A dry-aged beef with the Jerusalem star, the Aztec’s food of the Gods, Mexican truffle or huitlacoche and miner’s lettuce by Chef Gregg was the sensory winner of the night. miner’s lettuce, who’s flavor is akin to the bitter bite broccoli rabe, with the sweetness of the huitlacoche, meet the beef cooked perfectly. In a dither for how these flavors would meld together, the chef managed to do so with such a beautiful dish.
The journey of the night near complete, every course prepared perfectly, every dish more interesting and delicious than the last. Chefs Villani and Gregg masters of their craft allowing us a peek into their culinary genius. As this journey comes to a close, the final course, the dessert simply listed as: brioche, white chocolate, hazelnut and orange. This by Chef Gregg where the hazelnut and orange, made the white chocolate more, exquisitely more. The brioche soaking up the flavors and covered in a whipped cream made moments before.
If there was every a way to support cancer research and care, through the kitchen of Escape would be the most enjoyable way to do so.