Midwestern Magic 

Cleveland's Marlin Kaplan and Rick Tramonto of Chicago cast culinary spells at a James Beard benefit.

Chefs Marlin Kaplan (front) and Rick Tramonto dished - up a meal fit for the gods. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Chefs Marlin Kaplan (front) and Rick Tramonto dished up a meal fit for the gods.

"You know who would have loved these?" asked our venerable dinner companion, tucking into a trembling morsel of braised short rib. "James Beard. He probably would have eaten them with his bare hands."

The rest of us at the table bobbed our heads in agreement, too absorbed in savoring those buttery, boneless beef bits to bother with words. In any case, the speaker, Bill Rice (food and wine columnist for the Chicago Tribune), was the only one among us ever to have known Beard -- that larger-than-life figure often called "the father of American gastronomy" -- so who were we to challenge his pronouncement? Furthermore, the posthumous presumption of Beard's approval seemed only proper, given that we were gathered in the elegant dining room of downtown's One Walnut for a benefit dinner to help further his culinary legacy.

Those incomparable ribs were the pièce de résistance of a fabulous six-course meal created, this past June 19, by One Walnut's chef-owner Marlin Kaplan and his guest and colleague, Chicago chef Rick Tramonto. The occasion was a Friends of James Beard benefit, and the proceeds from the $175-per-plate dinner were earmarked to support activities of the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit organization that celebrates America's food arts, provides culinary scholarships and educational opportunities, and serves as a resource for the industry. But more important to regional food fans, this was one of only two opportunities this year to attend a prestigious Beard dinner in Cleveland (the first took place earlier in spring, at Doug Katz's Shaker Square restaurant, Fire), and it was one of just two dozen or so similar events held across the nation annually.

Bill Rice, one of the country's best-known food and wine experts, was present as a representative of the Beard Foundation. Also in attendance were about 58 of our area's most dedicated devotees of dining, drawn together by the opportunity to experience the results of Kaplan and Tramonto's gastronomic synergy in one of the most intimate, sophisticated dining rooms in the city.

Although the two Midwestern chefs had never shared a stovetop prior to this event, their styles meshed as smoothly as the gears of a $400 Cuisinart food processor. Tramonto, chef and co-owner (with his ex-wife, award-winning pastry chef Gale Gand) of Chicago's top-rated Tru, has earned a national reputation -- "part magician and part mad scientist" -- for his witty, cutting-edge cuisine. Take, as one example, the surprising "Fighting Fish Bowl" that he serves at Tru, a feast of marinated tuna, salmon, hamachi, and cucumber-mango salad nestled into the upper compartment of a glass bowl otherwise occupied by a colorful Siamese fighting fish.

Cleveland's Kaplan, too, has drawn his share of national ink, with mention in publications such as Esquire, Food Arts, and Restaurant Business. "There's wit and . . . sophistication in Kaplan's modern Midwestern bistro food," wrote critic Alison Cook in Gourmet magazine's "Guide to America's Best Restaurants." "His high-toned dinners are exercises in the ancient art of putting on the dog."

It was no surprise, then, that Kaplan and Tramonto's collaboration this evening yielded some fine, fanciful fare, beginning with hors d'oeuvres (bite-sized porcini-crusted lamb chops, infused with essence of fig and finished with a dollop of creamy goat cheese) and ending, some three hours later, with dessert, a playful reimagining of the down-home banana split, now gone decidedly uptown with a length of Valhrona-dipped banana, pudgy orbs of vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate mousse, and a topknot of whipped cream and a raspberry.

Both the starter and the sweet ending were Kaplan's creations, as was the appetizer course of chilled, grilled white asparagus, piqued with chive oil, balsamic syrup, and a flounce of baby beet greens. The remaining territory, though, Tramonto had carved out for himself. ("How did you decide who would make which course?" asked a guest during the after-dinner Q&A's. "Oh, that was easy," Kaplan said with a perfectly straight face. "Rick said, 'I'm doing this, and you're doing that!'")

Assorted amuse-bouches -- literally, "amusements for the mouth" -- are the Chicago chef's current passion; at Tru, he serves as many as a dozen of these savory morsels at the beginning of his prix fixe dinners and even offers an amuse-bouche degustation, built around nearly four dozen of the little starters. This evening, though, Tramonto limited himself to just three of what he called his "kisses from the chef": a tiny cloud of mascarpone foam, topped with a minuscule but intensely flavored prosciutto chip; a bit of frog-leg-and-roasted-garlic pâté, with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil; and, best of all, a soulful trifle that Tramonto said was inspired by his Italian grandmother -- one piece of rigatoni pasta, stuffed with fresh, truffle-redolent ricotta cheese and sauced with a thread of basil oil.

Following the lamb chops, the amuse-bouches, and the grilled asparagus appetizers, the fish course could have seemed almost an afterthought. But not here and not tonight. Instead, infused with the ephemeral fragrance and subtle flavors of vanilla and saffron, and settled on a bed of emerald-green soybeans and finely diced purple Peruvian potatoes, a succulent, roasted half-lobster was an eloquent essay on the bounty of the seas. (The most negative comment we can muster on the entire affair is to note that this dish was bordering on room temperature when it reached the table.)

And then came those braised, boneless short ribs, threatening to melt onto the plate like Creamsicles in the August sun. If James Beard had tried to grab mine, I decided, he would have had a hell of a fight on those big, bare hands of his. Tramonto gave the meat an equally dreamy counterpart in the accompanying parsnips. "Buttery" is too weak a term to describe the formerly rustic root crop, now transformed into an object of sheer grace by slow, slow cooking, meticulous straining, and the addition of what tasted like gallons of heavy cream. The plate's final gustatory surprise appeared in the guise of a balsamic-roasted shallot, so dark, sweet, and vaguely chewy that it nearly tricked us into calling it a fig. A fellow diner declared that this was the best dish he had ever eaten, and we had to chuckle: It was a tune that was being sung at every table in the dining room.

Such refined foods require drink of equal importance, of course, and they found it in the evening's extraordinary Far Niente (Napa Valley) wines. One highlight was the progression of Chardonnays -- a 2000 with the asparagus dish and an even more impressive 2001 with the lobster. "If I was buying one of these to put down," advised Rice, a former Food and Wine editor, "the 2001 would be it." Other memorable moments came with the 1997 Cave Collection Cabernet Sauvignon (firm and smooth as polished marble, yet with an enormous explosion of fruit on the palate), served with the short ribs; and with the nectar-like 1999 Dolce, which accompanied dessert. "Thank God for Dolce," Rice declared. "It can surely stand up to the great wines of Sauterne."

As diners drained the last drops of dessert wine from the Riedel stemware, Tramonto, Kaplan, and Rice took the floor for a final bow. The smiling Tramonto, who said he had been "blown away" by Cleveland's hospitality, had an early flight back to Chicago and tried, without much success, to excuse himself forthwith. But Kaplan held the floor, shaking hands, thanking guests, and acquitting the role of gracious host with his usual aplomb.

Rice had said earlier that his bosses at the Tribune had discharged him to Cleveland in the hopes of determining "why so many Chicagoans are going over there to eat." With culinary talent like Kaplan on hand -- as well as a repertoire of other fine chefs, including Doug Katz (fire), Michael Symon (Lola), Parker Bosley (Parker's), Paul Minnillo (Baricelli Inn), and Rocco Whalen (Fahrenheit) -- the answer seems deliciously obvious.


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