Saturday, September 5, 2009

I visited a Top Chef contestant's restaurant

Note: Sorry for the absence. I’ve been running around a lot lately and I just haven’t had time to finish a post. Interesting that I’ve had several posts started but just haven’t completed anything. I’d like to get back to my weekly ranting this month. Also please excuse the photo quality. I used my iPhone. Olivia had her 1st day of Kindergarten while I was on this trip and I had to leave my camera at home. Now on with the writing:

After circling the globe a few times, there are a few constants about traveling that I have come to understand. Such as: never get behind mother with a stroller at the airport security line (you’ll be there forever) or, even if you don’t deserve it, always ask for a complimentary upgrade or never assume a familiar menu item on a foreign menu will even remotely resemble something you’ve had at home. There are so many silly little things like this that many books and guides have been written to help the occasional traveler navigate the gauntlet of uncertainty. One rule I found to also be true is that hotel food is horrible; usually real horrible. Of course there are exceptions at major resorts in the Caribbean, Las Vegas, the pacific islands and a few other rare gems –but in general, your average business traveler’s hotel food sucks. I’d swear that the salmon I had in a Marriott in downtown San Francisco came out of the same unseasoned vat of goo as one I tried in a Boston Hilton.

Imagine my surprise (actually giddiness is a better word) at walking into a hotel lobby last week and seeing a poster congratulating their executive chef for being a contestant on this season’s Top Chef on Bravo. Top Chef has become iconic for any true foodie. The façade of the Hollywood Beach Marriott in Hollywood, Florida is unassuming for a full service hotel. Built in art deco style, it was absent the charm of the South Beach art deco less than 20 miles to the south. If it hadn’t had the typical red lettered “Marriot” signage, I’d have thought it a wanna-be beach hotel. The exterior of peeling whitewash and lime green pastel accents are contrasted by a beautiful interior of dark woods, exquisite marbles and a charm reminiscent of an early 1900’s elegance that Teddy Roosevelt would enjoy. Management is not shy about their new celebrity chef either. A poster on an easel immediately greets you with a larger than life picture of Chef Ron Duprat. I didn’t even complete the check in process before asking to meet the chef. He’d already left for the day, I was told. I was crushed.
“What about tomorrow?” I asked.
“He’s usually here for breakfast. You can either see him in the main dining room or in the concierge lounge”, the exceptionally attractive young lady at the desk replied.
OK, fine. I’m here 2 nights, so certainly I’ll catch him tomorrow.

That night, I met my colleague for dinner at the pool bar. I couldn’t wait to eat hotel food this night. If Bravo selected this guy to be one of 17 contestants on a popular television show, he does something special in the kitchen. His menu seems a fusion from his French-Creole roots in Haiti combined with traditional south Florida fare. Simple preparations with clean flavors go a long way with me.

I decided to go with the “price fix” menu. Not a new concept, by any stretch, but it seems I’ve seen more restaurants offer this lately. Here, for $35, you get 4 courses with several choices for each course. If you eat out even just once in a while, you might recognize that this is a killer deal. My first course was a crab cake over a black bean and corn salsa with a remoulade drizzle and a few micro greens. As pretentious as this sounds, it wasn’t the slightest bit haughty.

It tasted exactly like a crab cake should: like crab. Void of heavy fillers, the sweet crab came through perfectly. I could have eaten 10 of these, seriously (they were small). Next was a curried green tomato gazpacho.

Slightly tart, a little sweet but perfectly curried, this was another hit. Next came the main course and my absolute favorite.

Atop some perfectly tender and bright green bok choy sat a magnificently seared miso crusted sea bass. This was a cross between fish and butter, heaven and perfection, Jennifer Anniston and Angelina Jolie (I still can’t believe Brad had both). As if the miso needed more help to make this dish stellar, there was a ginger butter sauce that made me weep as if I were walking my little girl down the aisle.

Lastly, the desert course was a rum cake with candied ginger, mango and blueberries. I was taken off guard when I was presented with something that looked airy, like a mouse. I’ve had rum cakes and I expected something more cake-y.

One bite into this fluff and my vision narrowed only to see the beach, a single shade-producing palm tree, a blue and white striped beach chair next to a table with a coconut with a straw hanging out. The waves crashed rhythmically onto the shore. The sun was high. It was hot. OK, I might be a bit dramatic but this was good. Really good. Thrilled with dinner, I retreated to my room and called it a night.

The next morning, I looked for Chef before breakfast but he wasn’t in. Damn. I might miss this guy. After a long day at work, I returned just sure he wouldn’t be in and I was checking out the next morning early. Bellying up to the beach bar, I once again asked the bartender if Chef Duprat was in.
“Let me check.” She said as she walked off.
5 minutes later, Mr. Duprat emerged. He looks every bit the part of a Caribbean chef. I found his appearance commanding and his tone soft. He introduces himself with a smile that fills his entire face.
We spoke for about 10 minutes and he told me about his past. I asked him how he liked being on Top Chef and he made a bit of a scowl. I’m guessing he doesn’t go far on the show. Chef Duprat freely admits that he doesn’t know how to cook fast. He goes on to talk about his French training and his penchant for slow braising and long cooking times. I had to ask if Padma (show’s host) was as beautiful in person as she was on TV and he responded, “She’s even more beautiful in person.” (I was secretly hoping he was going to tell me she was a hag.)
“What’s Tom Colicchio (the other host) like? Mean? Nice?” I asked.
Being very gracious, Chef went on and on about how kind he was.

Ron Duprat is a pleasant fellow. He’s a joy to talk to and his passion for his art comes through in conversation. At first, I wanted to meet Ron Duprat because he was a Chef on Top Chef but after our conversation, I was glad I met him just because he’s a really nice guy; the kind of guy you want as a neighbor or drinking buddy. I’m headed back to Miami next week. Any guesses where I plan to have dinner?

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