If ever there was an opportunity to review a dining experience of recent memory in one word, The Kitchen at Center 1, 3524 S. Peoria Ave., gives me the opportunity.
Absolutely, fantastically awesome! OK, almost one word.
We must have hit it just right and managed both a reservation and a slot at the chef's table. For the record, the chef's table is not a new concept in places like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and other large metros, but it's just making a debut here in the middle of the country, as are a few other dining and culinary concepts.
The chef's table is in the kitchen and affords the diner a unique view of the goings on in the heart of the house and a chance to observe interact with the chef and his staff, which makes for a personalized evening. The diner can almost feel pulled in to the action at times. At one point we even got to decide how many more courses we wanted before the entrée was presented. I highly recommend the experience when you get the chance. The table very comfortably seats four people, plus all the plates, wine glasses and other accoutrements. An additional high bar has actually seated a second chef's table a few times according to chef, but things must get a bit dicey for Van Anglen and Wilson, since that looked to be the plating area the night we were there. I am sure these two young guys figured out something creative though, just as they did this evening with every course we were served.
After a few minutes of conversation -- a time during which we all got the chance to visit with and get to know a little bit about owner/head chef Ian Van Anglen and his associate chef Paul Wilson -- we were presented with an amuse-bouche or "mouth amuser," literally translated. This is supposed to be a one-bite taste bud wake up call, or in the words of the Cajun French, a lagniappe, or unexpected extra. Ours was a delicious cornucopia of paper-thin Genoa salami, richly oozing of natural oils and filled with a truffled bruschetta made with goat cheese gouda, herbs and tomatoes.
Our first course was a twist on an Italian classic, Panzanella -- a bread salad. I'm sure it was originally contrived by the Italians so as not to waste two or three-day-old bread but this transcended the original intent by a long shot. A beautiful mix of pan-toasted mini bread cubes was mixed with extra virgin olive oil, rich, sweet balsamic, fresh basil, tender tomato concasse and smoked oysters. The oysters, chef Van Anglen told us, were intended to balance the un-oaked wine we were served in the first course of the wine flight. A well thought out pairing, and just the first of many perfect couplings of the evening.
While the chefs were creating our courses in the background they were also producing dishes for the dining room in the front of the restaurant. It just added to the excitement of the evening, and was fun for us to watch. When asked where their inspiration for the dishes came from, Van Anglen described what I would define as a fairly typical restaurant evolution: in the beginning, they would sit and labor over the chef table menus, talking the menu out and writing down each course. By then, months into it, the process has become an exercise in on-the-fly creativity. Before each course, we could see them sort of huddle together near an oven, before disbanding to work on our next delightful creation. Any good chef can show you books full of line cook set up sheets, production recipes, checklists and plating diagrams that were used for the first weeks in the life of a new kitchen. Such things tend to fall by the wayside as the staff comes up to speed.
After another brief huddle, chef Wilson prepared our next course, a seared striped bass, beautifully complimented by a smoked tomato and leek coulis and a goat cheese fondue. The two sauces were a perfect compliment to each other, and to the perfectly prepared white flesh of the wonderfully fresh bass. It was paired with an excellent wine, making it a beautiful marriage of food and grape.
In a very creative combination of sweet and savory, our next dish was a panache of tender penne pasta, escargot and a luscious basil and a Galliano sauce. It may have been my favorite of the evening. Well, except for the foie gras, which was served next.
Foie gras is a culinary treat you must try. I know there are folks out there who are upset about gavage, a process by which the goose or duck is force-fed corn in order to yield the unique offal that results. The fact that it is discussed and protested in the United States and other parts of the world is insignificant to the French, where the process has been officially declared as "belonging to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France."
Ours was a caramelized, seared slice that was rich and buttery and served over a bed of perfectly seasoned black-eyed pea succotash with a honeyed corn puree. The dish was heavenly.
Before each course chefs Van Anglen and Wilson joined us at the table, discussed the item we had just eaten and briefly detailed the dish we were about to receive. The wine was then poured and described by our server, who answered any questions. The next course was then served by both chefs in unison.
Van Anglen trained in Portland, Ore., and Philadelphia; Wilson in Michigan and New Orleans. Between the two of them the chefs joke that they have the north, south, east and west covered. We couldn't agree more. Each course held it's own in terms of creativity, diversity, visual texture, beauty and flavor.
The entrée was next, an exquisite dish of perfectly cooked, pan-seared duck breast served on a bed of sweet potato hash, which was then topped with a salad of arugula and balsamic vinaigrette and garnished with a raspberry gastrique -- essentially a reduction of wine and/or vinegar, sugar and a fruit.
Dessert was a delightful chocolate chili mousse. The rich, sweet, creamy mousse had great chocolate flavor and an excellent texture and the chili after-bite was a nice surprise finish on the back of the tongue after each bite. It was beautifully served in a frosted martini saucer, garnished with fresh raspberries and made a perfect finale to a fantastic meal.
Chef Van Anglen rewrites the dining room menu every couple of weeks, so there is always something new and exciting to try, even if you aren't sitting at the chef's table. The current menu hosts everything from a classic French cassoulet; a pan-seared pork chop with apple chipotle relish and creamy polenta; a Risotto with black kale, meatballs, and pecorino Romano, to an orecchiette, a small pasta form southern Italy served with a white truffle crème and course fresh black pepper.
The chef's four-course tasting menu looks brilliant and is served both with and without the wine flight.
The restaurant is small -- maybe 30 seats -- so a reservation is highly recommended. They are available for private parties, which is another reason to call ahead. The chefs will close the restaurant on occasion to accommodate larger groups. It is elegantly, decorated in a modern, minimalistic style and interaction with the staff is a big part of the evening. The Kitchen is an absolutely wonderful dining experience by several up-and-coming chefs you won't want to miss. Definitely check them out while you can still get a table.
A hint here guys and gals: this is a great place to take your sweetheart for Valentine's Day.
The chef's table experience for four with three wine flights was close to $400, and worth every penny.
The Kitchen -- Restaurant Bar Market
3524 S. Peoria
Tues. -- Sat. 11am to Midnight
Sun 9am -- 2pm for brunch.
Food: Almost five
Service: Almost five
Atmosphere: Almost five
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