Clandestine chefs and Mangalitza pig done 10 ways

Belting it down the freeway to get to St Louis in time for Cocktail Hour at 6pm was a challenge. We had left Chicago around 10am, and with a quick diversion to one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s first creations left us with almost no time. Always when entering a city, you assume that the action is going to be down-town, but St Louis and other cities that we’ve so far encountered have proved this assumption wrong. We booked into the ‘American Best Value Inn’ which proved not be as good value as the name suggests ($138, the most we have paid since leaving NYC) and contacted John to nudge him that the location of the dinner we had sped to get to hadn’t yet been shared. He called us back, informing us that our timing was a little premature – the dinner was tomorrow. Oh. Well.

This little snag actually gave us a great chance to meet and bond with the crew that were going to cook us a fine dinner the following night. John invited us to join the gang at a local pizza joint and sent us the address to which we promptly dressed and headed out for. We did discuss the option of walking there, sick and tired of the car… thank god we didn’t. Nobody walks in this country. After driving 20 or so minutes on a freeway out of town we arrived at Black Thorn Pizza, a divey joint in the suburbs with graffiti and flashing beer signs.

Warmly welcomed by the burly blokes and lasses, we were fed ice cold beer generously. It was a tight-mixed clan, most knowing each other from school, and all sharing a love of food. No one except the two main chef’s of the night to come, Mr Clandestino Efrain and Mr Entre John work full time in the kitchen. Everyone else holds down other full time roles elsewhere. They do it for the love of it.

I must also mention the new game that I played that night: shuffleboard.. I adore this. I don’t know if I like it because I am particularly good at it, or if it was the game itself. Being known for being a little competitive, I would suspect the former is likely.

The following day, John invited us down to a local suburban backyard farm run by Justin. Similar to others we have seen, this was a serious operation that involved the full cycle of animals that provide manure, which provide worms, that feed the geese, and the soil. We’re in prime tomato season so we picked up some Heirlooms, the same as we had eaten at Outstanding In The Fields, and I could understood why. A few other herby items, and we were off for coffee, and met by John 2, the business brain behind the operation when not moonlighting as an auditor of banks.

Come the evening and we found the dinner situated in a fairly posh neighbourhood, again out of the centre of town, and found them all, again, working on the last final touches of the dinner. Again a friendly welcome, which as an ex-professional of this industry I found so suprising. So much hanging on these events, being that they are infrequent, I expected much more furrowed brows and stress emanating from the workers. Instead we found good tunes playing and a healthy supply of beers cooling out the back.

Dinner kicked off with cocktails supplied by a by the day Apple Store employee, who made us a delicious if not stern Cachaca cocktail with watermelon, tomato and other magical ingredients which I have already forgotten.. I blame the drink. S had a lovely gin and ginger tall cocktail that was amazingly refreshing but had a real ginger kick to it.

We sat down next to  H.O Brown and his lovely wife, Jane, who immediately offered their home to stay at if we were ever to visit Springfield. Unfortunately for us, we had already passed, but they continued to be generous with their knowledge of New Orleans restaurants; H.O is an editor of Zagat so we took his suggestions very seriously and look forward to sampling some of his favourites.

The food was epic; I won’t go through every dish with you now but will highlight the best of the night for you all. The 2nd item on the menu, the Mangalista pork belly with tomatillo plum jelly and fennel slaw was lovely. Rich fatty slices of pork rubbed in an award winning dry rub married lovely with the sweet jelly, and the fennel added some nice aniseed crunch. There wasn’t enough of it, but I am a pig (no pun intended).

The local heirloom tomatoes, yellow doll watermelon, lemon basil was also really good. White balsamic dressing on the yellow doll, and only some of them added a lovely caramel flavour, and the lemon basil added lift. It was so refreshing and multi dimensional – dare I say harmonious without sounding too much of a tool. But it was. I know that watermelon is used a lot in salads in a savoury context and I have always pulled my lip up – not because I don’t love watermelon but because I can’t see it. Now having this salad, I do and can see it. Karen Martini does a watermelon and fetta salad that I have always pondered but never dared, and now I think I just might.

The cucumber gazpacho with melon sorbet was good too. A little too much of it, but I liked the link between the tepid and the ice cold, and the spice with the sweet. The wine flights, although some a miss, worked with this dish – an Alsatian Pinot Gris. Others disagreed on my table link, but hey, that’s what it’s all about.

S loved the pork neck, but I felt that the new addition of the plum jam as used on the belly belted out all the other flavours out of the field and for that I was sorry. The corn flan (pannacotta like in texture) was so subtle that it got no look in. Texture only this time round.

Finale was a jalapeno cornbread icecream, vanilla infused cake and lavender infused honey. First mouth full was great, the second, ok, and finally I found the sweetness all a bit cloying. Less honey – if not no honey would have been better. S liked it as it was, so perhaps I am just being fussy, but all in all a really creative take on corn, and one that still lingers now… so not all is lost.

That night, Garrett, one of the chefs of the night, let us stay with him and his wife. When we arrived, well after 2am, we found our beds already made up, and glasses of water ready for us on our retreat to them. This pretty much summarises our experience of St Louis. Outstanding hospitality. We feel already nostalgic about leaving the team there, and our final catch up, for breakfast the following morning with some of the guys who helped us decide on our next destination, and that took the time to draw a map so we could actually navigate ourselves out of the suburbs. We had such a great time. I say screw the fried ravioli and the cement custard ice cream as the St Louis food experience. I say time your trip to coincide with a Entre dinner, even better with Clandestino also around to truly have a good time…

5 thoughts on “Clandestine chefs and Mangalitza pig done 10 ways

  1. Pingback: TomatoFest w/ Danielle Klinenberg

  2. Pingback: Porky Road Trip – Mangalitza pigs and heritage flours « fat food taxi

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