Monday, May 28, 2012

Ian Kleinman at Studio F Part I: Putting the Nitrogen Tank in Culinary Entertainment

Not too long ago, on a lazy Friday morning while busy not doing my wage-earning work, I opened my inbox to find an invitation to dine with Chef Ian Kleinman of The Inventing Room at the new Studio F. I continue to be genuinely surprised and flattered when I get invites to events like this, as I consider my contributions to the Denver food community questionable at best--so before the anyone had a chance to change his or her mind, I replied in the affirmative and marked it on my calendar.

A couple years ago I met Chef Kleinman-- smiling and with smoke coming out of his nose-- as he prepared nitrogen-laced sorbet for my wife and I tableside in the middle of an incredible multi-course meal. It was a most enjoyable evening: a pleasing mixture of delicious food, interactive chemistry-like cooking demos--and a cocktail-paired six-course feast. It was such an entertaining experience that I vowed I would eat with Kleinman again as soon as I was able.

Chef Kleinman

Studio F is a new venue that takes the place of the former Mise en Place cooking school. Chef James Mazzio re-opened the doors of this comfy and cozy home-kitchen-on-steroids this past March with the goal of hosting events that involve more than just sitting down for a meal in a restaurant. In fact he calls it a "Culinary Entertainment House"--and while I've never been a fan of fancy naming, its actually a pretty straightforward description of what he wants to do with this space. The best I could come up with is "James Mazzio's Fun-Time Dining Kitchen." (By the way I heard the "F" in Studio F stands for "Fun". For the record: I really, really wish he called it Studio Fun.)

But I digress. I can't think of many Colorado chefs better to dole out culinary entertainment than Chef Kleinman, so it makes perfect sense that he would be one of the first chefs to be featured at Studio F. Anytime a man travels with a five-foot tall tank of liquid nitrogen, something entertaining is bound to happen, and Chef Kleinman not only knows how to use his chemistry set, but he is also passionate about explaining and sharing his techniques with any and all of his diners.

We were part of the early crowd (we always are now) on a Saturday night and picked a prime seat in front of the television monitor relaying images of Chef Kleinman's burners to the small, open dining room. The TV was part of the original cooking school, which Chef Mazzio has gladly left mostly the same. It is a glorious open space with four large islands, glistening stainless steel everywhere, slick granite counters and glass-paned wooden cabinets lining the back wall. Pots and pans hang from the rafters and the space is at once modern and large, yet homey enough that you instantly want to grab a stool, sidle up to a counter and stay all night.

Before we were seated, we were given a freshly prepared bag of smoking popcorn lightly flavored with tomato--that is to say, Chef Mazzio poured liquid nitrogen into a bag of popcorn. It is always fun when smoke pours out your wife's nose as she eats across from you. Oh, and the popcorn was pretty good, too.

Muching on the bruschetta popcorn, we purusued the enticing list of cocktails. I chose the only whiskey-based drink in the bunch: a mix of ginger beer, Maker's Mark and lime juice. On the side was a shot glass full of bright blue maple-syrup-laced cotton candy.

Mixing the cotton candy in with the cocktail sweetened it slightly.

And when it all dissolved my drink turned green. The whiskey still came through and although I usually don't like anything else touching my whiskey, it was a tasty drink.

After I was done playing with my drink we turned our attention to the food. We ordered a seemingly simple appetizer of strawberries and tomatoes. Simple, however, is not in Chef Kleinman's vocabulary, as these sliced fruits were topped with a thin sheet of Mozarella spiced with a Tandoori rub, a cold, foamy balsamic vinegar and frozen, candied micro-basil. It might seem extraneous but the cold balsamic foam and the extra-sweet basil provided wonderful textural and temperature sensations. Together with the spiced mozzarella, it was a bright palate full of familiar flavors and classic combinations yet with Kleinman's distinct twist, making it all the fresher and more fun.

Even better than that was the lusicous lump crab served with ginger-poached pears, crisp bits of caramelized soy sugar and a creative, subtly spicy "habanero tabiko". Placed carefully on top was a small cilantro leaf. This was one of those plates where every flavor blended perfectly. It was my favorite dish of the evening.

As a palate cleanser, our server strongly urged us to order a sorbet, or some of the Kleinman's infamous Space Foam (this one flavored with chile relleno). The reason was clear. For this course, the chef came to the table and invited each guest up to his workspace as he whipped up fresh batches of the stuff with, of course, copious amounts of liquid nitrogen.

"Space Foam"

We had something similar at our previous dinner with Kleinman, but I was far from tired of it. Liquid nitrogen sorbet is delightfully creamy--something about the speed in which it freezes--and probably some other more smart-sounding reasons that I am not qualified to delve into. On top of this strawberry version were sprinkled chunks of frozen olive oil, which melted in my mouth delightfully with the sorbet, making it even creamier. And if that wasn't enough, a quenelle of creamy (and frozen) "goat cheese jelly" put this course over the top. As rich as a dessert, but wildly refreshing. Next course please.

sorbet, covered in smoke

My wife decided on the fried chicken. It sounded good: sous-vide potatoes, a corn pudding and a coconut gravy. It also sounded vaguely familiar. "Didn't we have that at our last Kleinman dinner?" I asked.

"I got so drunk, I can't remember," she giggled, bringing back the happy and hazy memories of that cocktail-paired meal, "I'm getting it either way."

It turned out we did have something similar then, but I was glad to sneak bites of her crispy and buttery-moist chicken. When I complimented the chef on such a fine piece of chicken he chalked it up to his 18 spices, "The Colonel only uses 12," he added. Oh, and it doesn't hurt that he also fried in a vacuum-sealed bag full of butter.

I ordered--surprise-- the pork belly, which was served over a bed of pork-laced Isreali couscous. The only thing better might have been serving it in the mouth of a pig's head so I could dig out some cheek meat to complete the pork trifecta-- altough it might be hard to find an immersion circulator big enough for a pig's head, and the perfectly poached egg was a good substitute for the pig's head. The yolk spread wonderfully over the couscous, the pork belly itself succulent and crispy-- and with its berbere spice-rub packed a respectable amount of heat.

The beer I ordered with my pork was the night's only disappointment. Advertised as the "World's coldest beer" it came out smoking like half of the kitchen was at the time. I realize I do not have the judicious sensibility of a Guinness Book of World Records official, but my home fridge does a better job. In fact a cooler of cold tap water would probably have worked better. There was smoke (which was again, pretty cool), but I am not sure the nitrogen got past the thick head of foam on top. World's coldest beer foam? Could be. Maybe I missed the fine print.

World's Coldest Beer foam

I realize I have gone on and on at this point, but it really was a great meal. And it wasn't done. Dessert was next and is worthy of a post all of its own. Please check back soon for Part II of my first Studio F meal.

By now it is too late to eat with Chef Kleinman at Studio F this time around but check in on the website to see what's coming up next. Chef Kleinman can be found on the world wide web and is even available for hire--keep an eye out and don't miss him if you ever have a chance to eat his food.

Stay tuned.

Click here to be taken to part two, the dessert. Studio F on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. Almost identical to our meal there- sub the pork belly for Lobster Crepe (my favorite dish). also really enjoyed the sensory experience of the nitrogen, as well as the palate cleansers. Thought the cocktail could have had a little more acidity in the mix, but otherwise a cool idea with the 'build your own drink' spin.



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