Executive Chef Michael Corvino brought a starter of cauliflower-infused panna cotta accompanied by a spoonful of osetra caviar, carefully arranged into a tiny cluster of black pearls, to my table at The American Restaurant. Moments earlier, I watched him assemble this dish in the kitchen.
Corvino invited me for a visit after he had settled in at the restaurant. His July arrival marked a time of transition at The American. Corvino’s initial focus was to update the line-up of dishes with summer well under way while looking ahead to fall, the first full season when he could implement his ideas and create a cohesive menu. Gradually, summer tomatoes and delicate greens yielded to autumnal dishes such as Duroc pork served with persimmon mustard, Szechuan peppercorn, savoy cabbage and black garlic.
As a whole, Corvino’s fine dining dishes were refined but accessible. His culinary approach reflected a keen emphasis on the interplay of ingredients as he juxtaposed texture, flavor, shape and color. The final dish maintained a sense of harmony, enticing me to explore without the need to pause and figure it out. He transformed the traditional presentation of a dish without veering into molecular wizardry.
For example, this caviar dish shunned the culinary canon of arranging portions of minced onion, egg and capers around spoonfuls of roe. Instead, the panna cotta and caviar appeared as an edible landscape. Golden dots of egg yolk, gently cooked at a precise temperature of 65 degrees, added richness and color. Pale amber shards of dashi – a kombu and bonito broth that forms the foundation of miso soup – fortified with gelatin here, added pleasing umami to the dish. Dark crumbs of pumpernickel bread, a nod to the traditional use of toasted bread served with caviar, contributed crunch as a counterpoint to delicate, silky textures. Slim stalks of chives and traces of pickled shallot invited a sharp bite of acidity. Creme fraiche, another standby served with caviar, was tempered with citrusy yuzu to offset the overall creaminess. Finally, slivers of cauliflower florets reinforced the earthy notes of the panna cotta and tied the dish together.
Only the taste of each spoonful surpassed the visual presentation. Corvino execution of the dish demonstrated forethought and mastery. By re-working a classic combination of ingredients, he challenged expectations of what a dish was supposed to be.
Originally from Walla Walla, Washington, Corvino worked at several restaurants before he landed a position at the Marcus Whitman Hotel in his hometown. Over his career spanning more than a decade, he graduated to successive stints in kitchens at the Peninsula Hotel, the Ritz Carlton Resorts and The Nines. Later, he was appointed Executive Sous Chef of the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Texas prior to his present tenure at The American Restaurant.
While cooking at Urban Farmer, a steakhouse in Portland, Corvino gained a keen appreciation for distinct ingredients and their point of origin. He said, “They served beef sourced from seven different ranches specifically for prime, grass-fed and wagyu. Portland is one of the few places in the country where local, sustainable ingredients are pulled right there from the source.”
The chef cited the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast as two of the best areas in the U.S. for sourcing regional ingredients year-round; however, local origin wasn’t – and still isn’t – his primary criteria. He said, “Quality comes first. Then I try to get fun ingredients and work from there.”
For example, he recently ordered hidden rose apples from Dragonberry Produce in Clackamas, Oregon. At The American, he prepared the aromatic apples with sour apple sauce, shaved white truffle and a touch of olive oil and fleur de sel.
Corvino said, “I enjoy pulling ingredients from the Northwest. It speaks to my heart.”
He also shipped in sturgeon from Idaho and introduced it on the menu. “It is a meatier fish. Sturgeon is where our caviar comes from,” said Corvino, comparing the fish to salmon. The added explanation helps to increase the comfort level of diners and build trust.
“I don’t want the menu to be unapproachable for diners,” Corvino said. “A lot of it is in the delivery, describing food on the menu and providing server knowledge.”
Corvino is no fan of the term “farm to table,” especially as it applies to The American. He pointed out that a certain level of fine dining, it is a given that food is sourced from local farms, butchers and vendors when available. Again, quality still matters most.
Hidden rose apples, matsutake, or pine mushroom, and Australian perigord black truffles are examples of specialty foods found in his pantry that he carefully sources to obtain the best quality. He just received blocks of katsuobushi blocks and a shaver that he ordered from Japan eight weeks ago. Katsuobushi is dried, fermented and smoked skipjack tuna, or bonito in some cases, used with kombu, or dried kelp, to make dashi – the flavor-filled pieces found in Corvino’s caviar and panna cotta dish.
Corvino’s cuisine doesn’t depend on exotic fare. Homespun ingredients prepared with a twist also make appearances. Shaved wafers of the subtly earthy-smelling black truffle were paired with a soft-cooked egg, carrot marmalade, truffle salt and creamy grits. Carrot blossoms, dried carrot tops and raw shaved carrot evoked the anchor ingredient with a panoply of shapes, textures and concentrated aroma. The first forkful became an introduction to a carrot’s quintessential essence as it greeted the senses. The grits communicated a sense of being taken care of; it was comfort food with a pedigree.
Corvino delivered a third dish that underscored his practice of incorporating Asian flavors into dishes. A strip loin of Japanese Akaushi Kobe beef, ordered from Arrowhead Specialty Meats in North Kansas City, was seasoned with salt and pepper and seared. Served with a confit of potatoes and herbs, tomato jus and fermented Korean chili paste, each bite impressed with its depth of flavor. Smoked garlic Bearnaise, a reduction of white balsamic, sweet garlic blossoms, bits of dried okra slices and fried Swiss chard added complexity to the dish.
The meat entree didn’t pack a heavyweight punch to the gut. It delivered big, bold flavor, easily paired with a red wine or robust beer, without inducing a subsequent food coma.
When asked about what fed his inspiration for dishes, Corvino identified two main sources. “I may have an ingredient that’s interesting. Then I ask myself, ‘What am I going to do with it?’ Or, an idea spins off of a technique that I want to use.”
For instance, Corvino mentioned Piedmontese chuck flap that appears on the current menu as a fun spin on beef and broccoli, a Chinese-American classic dish. Corvino braised the beef and prepared a version of oyster sauce that incorporated three types of soy sauce, citrus, ginger, lemongrass and other ingredients. He also whipped up XO sauce from dried shrimp, dried scallop, Chinese sausage, garlic, shallot, ginger, and, well, you get the idea. This goodness is served with salt water-poached Chinese broccoli, plus pickled shallot and crispy jasmine rice.
Chef Corvino’s knowledge of ingredients, coupled with his mastery of technique and creative instincts, results in an idiosyncratic style of food.
When we spoke over the phone this week, Corvino expressed this line of thought more directly. “I’m completely replaceable as a chef, but no chef can do exactly what I do,” he said. Other chefs can perform the same function and use the same technique, but there’s a human element to the craft as well. “The dish you do, no one else will come up with the same flavor and presentation.”
Fine dining at The American Restaurant isn’t merely the product of using the most expensive ingredients. Corvino excels at taking the best quality ingredients available and preparing a dish that elevates flavor and presentation above the mundane and expected. It’s making ho-hum beef and broccoli into a lively, interesting meal that appeals the senses and sidesteps perfunctory versions another restaurant might deliver.
With the first six months under his belt at The American, Corvino is preparing to introduce some exciting changes to the menu next year. He hints at development of a new menu format that, let’s say, will change how dishes are presented to guests.
Corvino said, “It’s still in development, but should be in place by the end of January. Combining ingredients into a dish is easy for chefs. Changing the menu format is the part that needs to be the most thought through. Considering the entire dining experience is the hard part.”
Next year promises to be an interesting adventure at The American, where Chef Michael Corvino produces bold, elevated food that reassures and rewards at the same time.
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