Last week, I let you in on the secret that Riffs Fine Foods would be staging their second pop-up restaurant dinner at Corsair Artisan Distillery
. Since I strongly suggested that you attend this event, I figured I'd better take my own advice and made two reservations for the early seating. (Despite the fact that earlier in the day I was a judge at this barbecue cook-off.
Although I was still full as a tick, I wasn't going to miss out on this experience and had great hopes that the cocktails from the talented mixologists at Corsair could cut through all that barbecue to stimulate some appetite for Riffs' repast. Luckily, I was correct on that count.
Tables were set in the intimate courtyard between Corsair's two tasting rooms. The atmosphere was cool and romantic, and I'm sure it was even more so for the lucky diners who took advantage of the 8:30 seating after the sun went down. Dirty Delta blues played from small speakers at an appropriate sound level to set the ambiance for the meal, which was divided along musical themes into a prelude, verse, solo and encore. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was a choice of dishes for each course, except for the dessert, which was a trio anyway. Normally at a small prix-fixe tasting menu event like this, I expect to eat what they bring me without any input on my part.
In an example of the food truck genius that comes from consistently producing fine food from a limited pantry, many of the dishes used some of the same ingredients, but in markedly different preparations and flavor profiles. Noble Farms goat cheese and Benton's bacon were included in both starter options, but I don't think anyone complained about that. The second-course options both featured tuna, and two of the three main-course choices included duck cooked in different ways.
The cocktails paired with each course were inventive and quite tasty. As you'd expect at an event that was mainly publicized on Twitter, diners used smart phones to photograph and tweet about every dish. Overheard conversations revolved around the Great Food Truck Race coming to town and some genuinely thoughtful deliberation about diners' favorite dishes and cocktails of the evening.
One notable trend was that each cocktail that came out seemed to take the lead as crowd favorite. That's a sign of good work. I'm a big fan of the rum-and-ginger-beer Dark and Stormy cocktail, and Corsair's version made with fresh rosemary syrup and garnished with a big sprig was an excellent starter, especially when paired with the two preludes of a white grape gazpacho and a flavorful spring vegetable salad. The cheese and bacon didn't hurt the dishes either ...
The second cocktail was a Mayday, Corsair's goof on a gin and tonic. Their version of the tradition G&T included watermelon, muddled cucumber and plum bitters and was incredibly refreshing. I could have enjoyed two of these to accompany my tuna tartare, which was served with two ice-cold Gulf oysters. The oysters actually surprised and slightly disappointed me with their lack of brininess. Even though I've become a fan of coldwater oysters lately, when I see "Gulf oysters" on the menu, I expect a little Appalachicola funk. There was plenty of salt in my dining companion's tuna crudo, which was served with a spicy Mediterranean olive tapenade and caper berries. We shared all the plates, so I got my saline fix from her olives. No harm, no foul.
Service was brisk and professional up to this point, but then I realized that other than a five-second sear for the crudo, really nothing on the menu had actually been cooked yet. There was a bit of a slow-down before the main courses came out of the kitchen, but the staff was very attentive and came around with another pitcher of the excellent third cocktail offering, the Dear Mistress. Made with Corsair's Triple Smoke American Single Malt Whiskey, more muddled cucumber pureed with cilantro and a house-made sweet-and-sour syrup, this cocktail was a welcome distraction as we waited expectantly for our entrees. The delay wasn't too bad, and once the dishes started flying out of the kitchen, I sure didn't hear any grumbling.
Since I was at a table for two, I can't speak to the vegetarian option of black bean ravioli. I'm not sure I even saw one pass by the table because both of the duck dishes read so well on the menu. The duck leg confit with Anson Mills coarse grind potatoes and grilled lamb lollipops was served with a passionfruit caramel and farmers' market spring vegetable. It's pretty hard to read any further once you see that on a menu, am I right? The flavorful confit was cleverly tucked inside the grit cake, and the earthy duck complemented the creamy polenta wonderfully. The other duck option was as part of a house-made sweet potato gnocchi with guck and organic pork loin medallions. Already a great home-style comfort food meal dish, it featured the addition of some nice stewed Swiss chard and a delicious tomato butter that put this dish over the top.
Dessert was served with a Sorrel Cocktail, which mixed sorrel tea with vanilla bean vodka, chocolate bitters and a spritz of blood orange soda. The spicy sorrel plant has become one of my favorite greens lately, even after Wikipedia told me that it can be fatal in large quantities. Oh well, you gotta die of something.
The encore course was presented as a "Three-Note Chord," with a pumpkin flower with a sweet pumpkin puree filling, a passionfruit Bavarois with white chocolate mousse and a ramekin of sweet corn/lemongrass ice cream. I could have taken a gallon of that ice cream home with me at 6 p.m. and called it a night, but then I would have missed out on a delightful dining experience. All three elements of the dessert complemented the cocktail well, and vice versa. Although I have to admit that at the end of this day of eating dangerously, I could only manage a bite or two of each dessert. I should have brought my stretch pants with the Tupperware pockets.
At the first Riffs pop-up, they were actually overstaffed and some diners felt a little cramped by the excess of attention. At this event, things ran much more smoothly, even though they were in a new venue. As Riffs does this more and more, I'm sure they'll work out whatever little kinks they encounter, but the whole evening was already well worth the money. I don't know if chefs Carlos Davis and B.J. Lofback's ultimate goal is to get their chops down for opening a bricks-and-mortar location of Riffs. But if they ever do, I'll be first in line for reservations.