Last Friday night, I was invited to a three-course vegetarian dinner at the Natural Gourmet Institute prepared by the chef instructors and students from the Institute’s Chef’s Training Program. The curriculum at the Institute is based on the core principle that food should be seasonal, local, whole, traditional, balanced, fresh, and delicious. For our dinner, the menu was created by Chef Olivia in celebration of the end of summer, so tomato played the starring role in all of the dishes. And since it was a BYOB dinner, we picked up a rose wine to complement our meal.
The first course of the evening was an heirloom tomato carpaccio salad with polenta croutons, which was an innovative take on the traditional panzanella salad. James and I usually avoid raw tomatoes at all cost, and to be honest, I was a little worried when I saw it on the menu. But…we both devoured the dish and were surprised that we really enjoyed it! The tomatoes were smoked, which took away the raw bite and gave them a meaty taste instead. The crispy polenta croutons and oak-infused cashew cream also complemented the tomatoes very well, contributing to the dish’s wonderful combination of textures and flavors. This dish was not only creative, but also beautiful to look at!
Our entree was a roasted tomato chowder with corn, spinach, mushroom “scallops”, shiitake “bacon”, and flash-fried Old Bay chickpeas (although I couldn’t taste the Old Bay seasoning). The soup was light, satisfying, and along with the other vegetables made for a very filling main course. The highlight of the dish was definitely the shiitake bacon — I can’t wait to recreate it!
Finally, dessert was a selection of cheeses from a local creamery, Hawthorne Valley Farm, served with warm tomato jam, house-made bulgur raisin bread, and spicy maple-glazed pecans. At first, I was a bit disappointed with this course because I was anticipating a plated tomato dessert, but nevertheless, I enjoyed the cheese plate very much.
After dinner, Chef Olivia and the culinary students who prepared the meal came out for a post-dinner Q&A to answer the questions we had about the dishes. Overall, I was very impressed with the meal and was surprised by how some simple ingredients could be turned into such complex dishes. The menu was clearly very well thought out and this was one of those inspirational meals that have me thinking about ways I can recreate them, especially the shiitake “bacon” and the polenta croutons.
If you are looking for something different to do on a Friday night in New York City, definitely check out the Friday Night Dinners at the Natural Gourmet Institute. The menus are always changing based on ingredients that are in season. Plus, 10% of the proceeds from each dinner are donated to a charity. Good food for good cause — it’s a win-win for all!