POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 15, 2010:
Basic food groups make for smart eats
Foundations Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of Platt College is to the restaurant and food service world what a teaching or university hospital is to the medical field -- a learning experience for students new to the industry, working to develop a solid foundation (get it?) of skills and knowledge to help them get a leg up in a very competitive field.
It is not Commander's Palace or Spago or Le Cirque. It is a good restaurant, with young people (for the most part, anyway) learning from experienced instructors who have spent years in the industry. If your food doesn't come out quite as fast as you think it should, or the service is a bit unrefined, it's because there is someone taking the time to show them every step of the process, so they learn the right way to do things. As local diners, it is your future, too.
In their final semester of school, after they have acquired all the building blocks necessary, the class next in line for graduation is split in half. For half of them, it is their turn in the kitchen -- an apprenticeship of sorts, providing a variety of appetizers, entrees, salads, sandwiches and desserts for visiting diners. For the other half, it is time in the dining room, waiting on those same folks. Halfway through the semester, they switch. I can remember doing the same thing when I was a young student in culinary school. I asked my chef instructor, Wayne Almquist, what the point was since I was never going to be a waiter. His answer was simple, and seems like basic logic now, some 38 years later.
"Mr. Hamilton" he sighed, "You may never wait tables in your life, and you may never even have to manage a service person, but you will have to deal with them in one form or another throughout your career. And you can't do that effectively, if you don't know what they go through on their side of things."
Sage advice! That real life experience has served me well for all these years, and it will serve those kids well, too. I eventually would have realized the details servers are required to manage, the pressures they deal with and the rewards associated with doing it perfectly, not to mention the satisfaction that comes with it. But it would have taken a long time to acquire that empathetic point of view on my own. And yes, the back of the house has it's own set of issues to deal with, which is exactly why I think career service professionals should spend time walking a mile in kitchen shoes, too. It just makes sense.
My starter was game and duxelle stuffed mushrooms. They were topped with a soft melted cheese and had excellent flavor. I would have liked a bit more filling, but that's just me. A duxelle is a fine-chopped, almost-minced mushroom, usually with minced shallots or onion, sautéed in butter and generally used in some further preparation. The mushroom was a cremini, a dense, dark brown earthy mushroom.
Next on the parade of hits -- a Roasted Beet, Frisee and Goat Cheese Salad with balsamic vinaigrette. It was stunning. Really attractive. The beets were perfectly cooked and sweet, and the goat's cheese was creamy and tasty. Frisee is a sort of wispy, feathery, leaf product often used in a salad mix known as mesclun mix. It is a tad bitter on it's own, but worked well with the sweetness of the beets and a little sweetness from the dressing. This salad was a hit, and could easily hold it's own on a dinner menu as well.
For my entrée, being the sucker for pork that I am, I chose the Pan Seared Pork Chop with Brandy Mushroom Crème. I can honestly say that this was one of the top three or four best pork chops I have ever had. And trust me, that's a lot of chops. It was double cut, with a nice "frenched" rib bone still on, and cooked to absolute perfection. And it was incredibly tender.
This chop was moist and juicy, slightly pink, and conservatively covered with a mushroom crème sauce with undertones of fresh tarragon. It was a pork chop with sauce, not a bucket-o-sauce with a pork chop floating in there as an afterthought. The pork chop I had this day was exquisite -- really, really good. Kudos to Chef Taylor and his crew for an excellent job.
All entrees come with one side, and more are available for a nominal fee ($1.95). I chose butter-glazed carrots, blanched ahead to just doneness, and then sautéed to order a-la-minute in butter and fresh parsley. My second choice was fresh, pan-seared asparagus. Good asparagus, in the prime of its life, only needs to be hot to be great, and this was perfect. It still had a wonderful crunch, and was hot and tasty with none of the stringiness that happens with improperly prepped stalks. When preparing really fresh asparagus a knife need only be used to square off the ends. The correct way to determine where the great vegetable ends and the stalky fiber begins is by gently holding it between the thumb and forefingers of both hands, and bending it till it snaps. At certain times of the year, it's a good idea to peel the stalks as you would a carrot, which adds a layer of tenderness and says to your diner, "I care enough to take the extra time."
Not typically a "dessert at lunch" sort of guy, I couldn't resist putting some poor student on the spot when I noticed the tableside cart in the dining room that had been set up for Bananas Foster. A very personable young lady rolled the cart to my table and did an excellent job of preparing my dessert. I had invited the folks from the next table to come over and watch after noticing a little girl with them that showed great curiosity toward what was happening. Our display chef was nonplussed by the large audience, and made us all comfortable through the process, talking and cooking the entire time. It was a wonderful blend of brown sugar, dark rum, melted butter, bananas and almonds wrapped in a delicate crepe, and covered in "real deal" whipped crème. While I was happy to share the performance part of the dessert with my young neighbor, I stopped short of sharing the actual dessert.
The dining room is simple, understated and open. Lots of windows and light plus several levels allow for intimate lunch meetings in a booth if you're a CIA agent, and open, airy seating if you want the paparazzi to easily find you. A private dining room is available for up to 20 people. Reservations are not required for lunch, although they are always encouraged.
On another visit, I enjoyed an excellent lunch buffet. Fridays are reserved for buffet service only, while Wednesdays and Thursdays are ala Carte service only. There was an excellent selection of pasta, vegetables, salad, breads and protein dishes, as well as a dessert area with a selection of pastries and desserts made in house by the pastry arts students. Platt also offers a degree for students who are looking for a fast track into the world of Baking and Pastry Arts.
According to Chef Instructor Tiffany Poe and Culinary Director Jeff Howard, Foundations will soon open for dinner. In an effort to maintain a balance between practicality and availability, they will only be open three nights a week in the beginning. They tell me that most likely it will be Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights -- the same days lunch is available. Poe went on to add that dinner service will be white tablecloth, business casual, with prices ranging from $5-8 for appetizers, salads and desserts, to $11-17 for entrees. Nothing on the lunch menu exceeds $7.95, with the exception of the Seafood Market Special, and even that is only $8.95.
A few dinner menu items under consideration at this point include options like a fresh chunky lobster salad, flame-grilled rib-eye and a fresh snapper dish. Chef Poe, who will largely be responsible for the minute-to-minute details of the evening operation, said tableside desserts will be normal fare as well. Chefs Howard and Poe estimate that approximately 50 percent of the lunch menu will translate well to the dinner menu.
Eventual plans include a tasting menu of many of the ala Carte items, possibly a prix fixe menu, and closed supper club wine dinners featuring local guest chefs. At this point, Platt is waiting on licensing to be able to serve liquor, but that should happen by the projected dinner opening date in October.
The Culinary Institute at Platt College provides a well thought out, comprehensive curriculum that includes all the basic components of culinary arts, from stocks and sauces, to knife skills, storeroom and purchasing, menu and restaurant design, food costing and baking, to the more advanced skills needed to be a successful restaurateur in today's highly competitive restaurant climate. It is staffed by a group of professional chef instructors with many years of experience in the local as well as global restaurant industry, and an impressive list of adjunct instructors as well.
Foundations Restaurant at Platt College
3801 S. Sheridan Road
HOURS: Wednesday-Friday 11am-1:30pm
Atmosphere *** ?
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