Last Friday night, experienced local chef Ryan Barnett hosted his fourth and final dinner in a series themed Sea, Air, Land and Earth. Intrigued by the pop-up concept and a themed dinner with a bunch of strangers, I brought a friend along to check it out.
Let's back up a bit and talk about the dreaded "V" word. Veganism, vegetarianism's uptight cousin, is pretty foreign to me, because I can't comprehend a lifestyle that doesn't include cheese, coffee with cream or a proper brunch. At the same time I recognize there are many vegans out there who can't understand how I can down half a wheel of brie, some pizza or even a Greek yogurt a couple times a week and still live with myself. Thus, we will continue to agree to disagree.
I wasn't at all worried about the food tasting good, as Barnett is a French-trained chef cooking within vegan guidelines, not a vegan chef who may or may not have lost all ability to know what good tastes like. I do fear such a chef's taste buds may have all given up and died. But I figured, if anyone could make vegan food taste good, it's a legitimate gourmet chef.
I put my sarcasm on pause and walked into My Private Chef, a very unassuming space on Elm Street in Deep Ellum. The dining area held two long tables full of guests, some vegan and some not, stocked with wine (the dinners are BYOB) and ready to enjoy the fruits and vegetables of Barnett's labor. As he introduced each dish, it was clear he had paid close attention to the guidelines of veganism and had prepared each dish with care. Later in the evening I chatted with Barnett about the concept of his pop-up series: the themed dinners that help give his culinary creativity direction without too much blue-sky opportunity, and specifically in "Earth," the challenge of using ingredients within the vegan diet prepared in gourmet style.
But enough with philosophy and ideology, as they are not at all edible. Let's get to the dishes. The first course was a chilled melon soup. It was light and refreshing, sweet and still slightly savory, topped with cava foam and fennel fronds. A great start, I thought.
The second course was a bit less my style. Three different types of peas made up the Texas Pea Cassoulet, each less enticing-sounding than the last. But it certainly tasted healthy, and I ate as much as I could of my substantial portion, particularly relishing the crispy-fried quinoa-dusted onions that graced my little pea mountain. "Vegans must develop the ability to eat large volumes of legumes as an evolutionary way to keep up with the protein requirements of daily metabolic life," I thought to myself. All that protein was going straight to my head.
Paquet of courgettes, which is French-vegan for "many squashes inside adorable handmade pasta pouches," came out next. The pasta, made from a simple mixture of semolina flour and water, was a bit gummy for my taste, and I thought the squash mixture could have benefited from some tomato or onion to add flavor.
Our final course was a financier with summer fruits. Or more plainly, a vegan cake topped with macerated strawberries and blueberries. Despite the lack of butter, eggs or even sugar (Barnett used agave nectar instead), this cake was surprisingly rich with a bit of a savory edge from the somewhat liberal use of salt. It tied the dinner together nicely and in the end, I felt good about what I'd eaten.
Admittedly, that didn't stop me from hitting up Pacuigo for a late night snack. I'll never be vegan, and I likely won't ever truly understand veganism, but I can certainly appreciate the desire to prepare good-tasting food within the challenging confines of thought-provoking dietary restrictions. Barnett says he will likely develop another themed pop-up series, after a little R&R, in the coming months.