[image-3]There are chefs who dish it up old school, and then there are chefs who leave us thinking, “How the hell did they do that?” Nate Whiting of 492, falls squarely into the latter. A gentle soul with the curiosity of a mad scientist and precision of a surgeon, Whiting’s kitchen experiments leave us both pleased and puzzled, in a good way.

Case in point: his amuse titled “linguine and clam terrine” which was served at Friday’s festival signature dinner with guest chef Alex Harrell of Angeline in New Orleans. Linguine and clams — it sounds straight forward enough. Yet the dish looked more like a miniature petit-four than tousled pasta. Diners took a leap of faith and popped the delicate squares into their mouths. Then one by one eyes widened, heads nodded, moans of approval circulated from table to table. Our mouths unraveled fine layers of perfectly aligned al dente pasta, interspersed with infinitesimal explosions of what I can only describe as velvety clam essence, all layered like a Napoleon or mille-feuille. Perched on top: a single clam and sprig of dill, dotted with peppery Meyer lemon gel for just the right touch of heat and acidity. The culinary epiphany ricocheted our souls from the Ligurian Coast to the brackish shallows of the Ace Basin.  

Quite a momentous start to a dinner themed “Tale of Two Coasts,” named so for Harrell’s Gulf and Whiting’s Lowcountry. I must admit, I love the festival’s signature dinner chef pairings, because true collaboration unfolds. Often visiting chefs will alternate courses with home chefs (it’s easier to be in charge of your own dish), but in this case, chefs Harrell and Whiting opted to team up on each course, and in doing so, to flex their muscles. Harrell tends to let ingredients speak for themselves, while Whiting uses complex molecular gastronomy techniques to stunning effect.

First up: an oyster trio. Presented in order of complexity, from left to right, Whiting sourced succulent oysters from the St. Jude folks just down the coast, plumped them in just a little bit of heat to unravel the proteins and make them more toothsome, then accented the first oyster with little more than a smidge of parsley oil and lemon. Harrell spooned the middle oyster with a bright mignonette of pickled collards (diced collard stems pickled in pure Louisiana cane syrup) and scraps of country ham, a fun play on our Southern staple of braised collards with ham hocks. The third oyster came lightly fried, nestled in Harrell’s fennel-buttermilk cream, then drizzled with an effervescent wild ginger vinegar. All delicious.

Second collaboration: a crab potato salad, inspired by Whiting’s grandmother, chock full of Gulf Coast crab, dotted with fresh parsley, dill, bright red roasted piquillo peppers, and celery leaf, plus Whiting’s little bits of wizardry. What caught my eye were translucent little orbs of crunchy cucumber. So I asked. Turns out Whiting scooped the cucumber with a Parisian baller, boiled down the skin, poured the juice over the cucumber orbs, then vacuum compressed everything to force the cells to rupture and absorb the natural juice. The resulting sphere glistened with an iridescent stained glass effect and tasted more like cucumber than a cucumber. Amazing.

Next came a luxurious sweet potato tortellini packed with shrimp and duck liver foie gras, accompanied by sake-glazed shrimp seared in duck fat, all swimming in a nuanced broth with star anise and aromatics. Whiting created the tortellini, Harrell the broth. 

Then came juicy swordfish poached in beef fat, a trick that both of the chefs employ. Tasty, for sure, but my attention went towards the mystery of what turned out to be roasted, caramelized, puréed, pressurized carrots. That and something called a smoked tea jus (a smear of veggies and bit of chicken smoked out back in local tea leaves and hay). These little touches transcended the already tasty combo of swordfish and farro.  

Chefs Whiting and Harrell got a break when 492’s talented pastry chef, Amanee Neirouz, stepped in for the dessert course. What could have been named “rice three ways” featured Carolina Gold rice pudding infused with a hint of cardamom, coconut, and vanilla, and served over mango panna cotta, alongside a sprinkle of crunchy puffed rice, and scoop of toasted rice gelato. The gelato proved a fascinating bite — like the essence of an ice cream cone personified as ice cream itself.

I had the pleasure of sitting next to winemakers from the Santa Cruz mountains of California (yet another coast) who taught me about under-appreciated appellations and used terms like “pithy bitterness,”“indigenous fermentation,” and “diurnal effect.” My head is still spinning, but this much I retained: drink more Roussanne. It pairs marvelously with crab.

All in all a heady night, and a gracious show of both talent and passion on the part of the kitchen and Big Basin wines.

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