When I think New Orleans, I don’t often think Italian food.
Correction: I didn’t often think Italian food. Now, it might as well be called New Rome to me, after my experience eating the transcendent Italian food of Chef Alon Shaya, of Domenica.
This James Beard Award nominated chef came to Avery Island to cook for the Tabasco Tastemakers trip, and brought with him some incredible food. He also gave an hour long cooking lesson, where I learned a few very useful tips and techniques. The first thing I learned: I am using too much liquid when I make stock. You probably do the same thing. The liquid should just barely cover the veggies/shells/bones in your pot, so the flavor is incredibly concentrated by the time it is done. The second thing I learned: Tabasco is not just a condiment. It is an ingredient that can be used like other spices, herbs, and flavor enhancers. It changes as it heats and reduces, and can be used in every course from soup to nuts. As part of the trip, Chef Shaya made an entire meal featuring Tabasco sauce and the result was superb.
Crispy Eggplant and Beet Salad with Whipped Feta, Tabasco Green Jalapeno Pepper Sauce, and Basil
This eggplant was very light and creamy, encased in an impossibly crispy crust. Topped with tangy goat’s cheese and sweet beets, this would have been great on its own, but the pesto really made the dish. Fragrant with garlic and floral with basil, the pesto managed to be nuanced and punchy all at once. There was a slight spice from the pepper sauce, but nothing lingering or burning. This was the first time that i realized that Tabasco can be a background flavor versus a pervasive taste.
Chicken Liver Pate with Grilled Bread and Tabasco Chipotle Onion Jam
The most refined chicken liver pate I have ever tasted. It takes a lot of technique to make chicken livers taste upscale,and Shaya is up to the challenge. Incredibly light and airy, almost the texture of whipped cream, but with more heft. Just a little offal-y, mostly tasting vaguely meaty with a kick from the sweet and smoky jam. Here, the heat was really non existent – I would never guess that there was a pepper sauce in there. It was all smoke (no mirrors), counteracting the savory pate and the jammy onions.
Handmade Fusilli Pasta with Shrimp, Celery, and Tabasco Pepper Sauce
The piece de resistance of the meal. Shaya actually made this fusilli by hand in front of the Tastemakers that afternoon, deftly rolling the pasta. There is nothing like fresh pasta – chewy, swirly, catching the sauce in every nook and cranny. The sauce was on another level. Tomatoes, onions, the sweet background of fennel, and nuggets of salty shrimp were cooked until tender but still snappy. The celery added a light, herby note that echoed the fennel, and the Tabasco sauce was an inspired touch. It added the front-of-the-tongue heat that is associated with Tabasco sauce, but the vinegar taste mellowed out so it really felt Italian. I couldn’t imagine a better pasta dish anywhere in NYC or in Italy, and this approached the level of pasta at Vetri.
Slow-Roasted Porchetta with Spring Onions, Artichokes, and Tabasco Garlic Pepper Sauce
Again, Shaya impressed with his cooking of all things treif. The pork was robustly flavored, almost wild tasting, like boar. It stood up to the aggressively garlicky sauce and the soft, herbal onions and artichokes. The sauce was rather sweet, playing with the vegetable’s fresh qualities and the inherent taste of the pork. The interplay between textures was phenomenal – crispy, fatty, tender, toothsome, smooth…each bite was more exciting than the last. And with a portion this big, it really says something that I cleaned my plate.
With my fingers.
Dark Chocolate Torta with Tabasco Sweet and Spicy Ganache and Brandied Cherry Gelato
Fudgy chocolate cake, dense and incredibly dark, melded with lush icing and sweet cherry ice cream. The sweet and spicy Tabasco really was the star here – combined with the cake, it tasted first like mangoes, sweet and light. Then, right at the end, there was a quick burst of heat that burned away the heavy chocolate taste and begged for a cooling bite of ice cream.
The entire meal blew me away. Not just the way that the food tasted, but the progression of flavors, the many textures, the ingenious interplay of Tabasco into classic Italian technique, and the manner of Chef Shaya himself. He brought along a sous chef for the cooking demonstration, and between seeing his gentle, calm presence with her and his sincere humility in teaching the class, he won me over completely. So many talented people, chefs included, are conceited and arrogant, often frustrated in teaching techniques to novices. Chef Shaya could not have been more patient about answering questions. When explaining dishes, he did it with such clarity and conviction that I never doubted that he tried many different versions in efforts to create the perfect dish. Though I haven’t been to New Orleans, when I do get there I am headed straight for Domenica. In the meantime, you can bet that I will be twirling fusilli pasta in a Tabasco-laced sauce.
*Disclaimer: My meal and travel expenses were paid for me. I was not required to write a review, and my opinions are my own and, I feel, unbiased.*