On the morning of Friday, June 8th, 2018, I woke up to learn that Anthony Bourdain had died. To say I was shaken to my core is an understatement. I had a viscerally raw and physically jarring reaction upon hearing the news. I bolted up out of bed with tears immediately flooding my eyes. I kept saying, “WHAT?!” over and over again. I just could not believe the news. It was as if someone told me a family member had passed away.
I had been a superfan of Bourdain’s for quite a while. I first became aware of him in the early ’00s after his book Kitchen Confidential had been published and as host of A Cook’s Tour on the Food Network which I watched religiously. When his Travel Channel show No Reservations began, I became even more enamored with him as a personality, sparking a more ardent interest in food and cooking. I literally became obsessed with exploring the wider world of food, especially international cuisines, and food’s role in cultures around the globe. I credit him (among others) for igniting a deeper passion for food knowledge and eventually leading me to food writing.
While I never did get to meet Mr. Bourdain, I did get to see him live when he brought his final speaking tour to Philadelphia. It was a great show and I left admiring and respecting him even more, if that was possible.
When Chef David Murray announced a special dinner to commemorate Bourdain’s 63rd birthday, it didn’t surprise me that he would be one of the first (if not the first) to do it. One of the rooms in the old farmhouse where Denim American Bistro operates is called “The Bourdain Room” after all and features a print of the late culinarian.
I debated going because I wasn’t sure what my work schedule would be like this week as I have been working extra, often late, hours for the past couple of months. Last week, Chef Murray reached out and said that even though the event had sold out weeks ago, he had reserved a seat for me and would I be his guest because I had helped promote it. I accepted without hesitation. How could I not?
As soon as I walked into Denim, the restaurant was already packed. Throngs of Bourdain fans had gathered to honor and celebrate the beloved late television host by having a communal dinner prepared by Murray and his staff. The atmosphere was upbeat and convivial. Nobody knew the full menu until that evening. All we knew is that it would feature a 5-course meal of recipes from Bourdain’s books Les Halles and Appetites.
Chef Murray introduced the start of the meal and explained that all of the courses were followed 100% ingredient-wise from the cookbooks with just a couple of his own little spins. He also noted that he’d hoped this would be the first of many memorial dinners every year and that the purpose was not only to celebrate Bourdain, but to help raise money for The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
First Course: Steak Tartare
The first course was Steak Tartare from the Les Halles cookbook. Chef Murray pointed out that one of the secret ingredients of the dish was good old American Heinz ketchup which seems unusual, but the more I thought about it, it began to make sense. I’m not usually a steak tartare girl. I like it fine, but there’s usually something else on a starter menu that catches my eye. With 14 ingredients, this steak tartare didn’t lack flavor. While the texture may not be too pleasing to the eye to the uninitiated, once you take a bite and the flavors come together, it becomes a more pleasurable endeavor. The key was to spread the tartare on the toast points with some dijon mustard for a melt in the mouth experience. My only insignificant qualm? I would have liked a little more dijon mustard. Not because the dish lacked flavor, but because I love dijon mustard. That’s all.
Second Course: Tomato and Fennel Soup
The second course was Bourdain’s Tomato and Fennel Soup served with a goat cheese croquette. As Murray articulated when he kicked off the night’s dinner, “We eat with our eyes first!” So true! The bright orange-red hued large bowl of soup was a vibrant sight to behold and even better one to eat. The luxurious soup was bursting with deep tomato flavor and was quite velvety smooth. I sometimes worry when I see fennel as an ingredient in a dish, it could come off too licoricey, and dominate everything else. The fennel did not overpower the dish at all, in fact, it was the perfect amount and balanced the acidity of the tomato puree very well. But let’s talk about that goat cheese croquette?! Lord honey, I could have eaten 5 of them alone. It was an excellent topping for the soup, adding extra creaminess, and a little textural component. Everyone at my table raved about this soup which also comes from the Les Halles cookbook.
Third Course: Skate Grenobloise
The third course was Bourdain’s Skate Grenobloise. Skates are a type of cartilaginous fish that have a flat body and wing-like pectoral fins attached to their head. They’re actually closer to sharks and rays than they are traditional fish. There are a number of skate species that live in the waters off of the New Jersey coast. Using a local skate wing, this dish was delicately dredged and pan-fried in butter producing a lightly crispy exterior. Served with a lemon-butter-caper sauce and served over a generous portion of crispy, lightly fried kale. I’m not accustomed to eating skate and believe I have only had it once before. Overall, I felt the fish was cooked quite nicely and had good flavor, but I felt there was too much kale on the plate. In my eyes, it begged for a starch! Other than that, I really enjoyed it. Another from the Les Halles cookbook.
Fourth Course: Tournedos de Veau Au Poivre
Talk about a mouthful of a name for a dish! Another one from the Les Halles cookbook, Tournedos de Veau Au Poivre essentially means a filet of tender veal coated in coarsely chopped peppercorns. Such a delicate piece of meat! I never eat veal at home, but I will order it occasionally when dining out. This dish had the starch I was craving in the previous dish, it featured both regular and sweet potatoes along with grilled asparagus and topped with a white wine-based sauce. The veal was cooked flawlessly. A very well-rounded dish that I would order again for sure.
Fifth Course: Deconstructed Blueberry Stilton “Cheesecake” with Blueberry-Port Wine Compote
In Bourdain’s Appetites cookbook he starts the dessert chapter by saying, “Fuck dessert!” He didn’t really mean it, but he was just not a dessert or sweets kind of guy. He much preferred a cheese course. While I have a voracious sweet tooth, I’ll respect that and concur that a good cheese course is hard to pass up!
This dessert was Murray’s homage to Bourdain’s love of the cheese course. He produced a deconstructed cheesecake using Stilton blue cheese, which Bourdain exalted as the “king of cheeses.” Even as someone who doesn’t really like blue cheese (I know, I should turn in my foodie card right now, but hey I do like Gorgonzola on occasion so don’t hate on me too much), I respect the funky English cheese beloved the world over.
Chef Murray might just make a lover of Stilton yet, though. I loved his interpretation of cheesecake. Instead of the usual slice, he piped the blueberry-Stilton cheesecake filling on the plate with a mouthwateringly reduced blueberry-port wine compote and sprinkled with a Ritz cracker “sand” that took the place of a crust. Blueberry and Stilton pair exceptionally well together as the sweet and tartness of blueberries balances out the odorous and pungent cheese. The cheesecake filling was smooth and creamy, sweet and savory. Simply lovely!
Enormous kudos to Chef Murray and his kitchen team for pulling off this amazing five-course dinner. It was immensely satisfying and the night couldn’t have gone better. The service team was flawlessly on their A-game, especially with clearing the tables of empty plates, restocking flatware, and, most importantly, keeping our wine glasses filled with complimentary white and red wines from White Horse Winery! The night ended with a large round of well-deserved applause. I spoke with a few other folks who proclaimed it to be a very successful evening complete with outstanding food and wonderful company celebrating a man we all revered and loved.
The best part? The feeling of being a part of contributing a gift to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Denim hopes that if you were not able to attend and generously donate to the cause, they will reward you by covering your check 100%. If you show your donation receipt this week, they will cover your bill. How about that?
Thank you, Denim American Bistro, for a memorable evening. Thank you, Anthony Bourdain for bringing us all together. We miss you! 🙁