Lucky #7: A Dinner by Ben Grupe
I arrive at Hammer & Hand Imports early, hoping to get some good shots of chef Ben Grupe finishing up prep. I'm expecting him to be working on a portable stove or some other similar pop-up friendly cooking mechanism, but instead I find him tucked away at the back of the store with a makeshift kitchen larger than some restaurants. He's got induction burners, tables, carts, immersion circulators, and 3 cooks helping him out. There are at least a couple hundred plates stacked around. This guy came prepared.
But that makes sense, I guess, considering Grupe is a member of the ACF Culinary Olympic Team. He's used to working under pressure in strange locations (like Germany).
While Grupe briefs his team on final details, I head to the front and check out the table settings—fresh flowers in Chinese to-go boxes. Pretty smart, Hammer & Hand team. I'm stealing that next time I want to impress my girlfriend.
The impeccably dressed wine expert, Angela Ortmann, is getting her wines prepped at a front table. I try to get her to sneak me some tastes, but she refuses. (I wasn't feeling 100% this evening, so I didn't take part in the wine pairings, but my table seemed to be enjoying them greatly.)
The first dish of the night is quite possibly the biggest umami bomb I've ever eaten. A nori (seaweed) macaron with shiitakes and green tea. I was hesitant when I saw it on the menu—too much of any one thing can be overwhelming—but he pulled it off in impressive fashion. Plus, it's a huge macaroon, and when it comes to macaroons, bigger is better.
Miso cured hamachi hits the table next, ribbons of fish topped with ginger and chilies, hiding an incredible lemongrass gel underneath. So many crudos and raw plates end up tasting the same, but this one stands out. The sweet brightness of the lemongrass absolutely makes the dish for me. This dish makes me think of Japanese food made by a Thai chef.
I can't say enough about that lemongrass aspect alone. It was so good.
Halfway between the table and the kitchen, the smell of roasting meat pelts me in the face. My pace quickens, because I want me some of whatever smells so good! Grupe is slicing glistening cuts of tritip, marinated in a housemade XO sauce. It's got funk, it's got spice, but man, it's good. A little goes a long way. To the side, he throws down a few plays on broccoli, along with a chicharron-esque fried beef tendon. A few bites in, and I see what he's done: this is a play on beef and broccoli. All plates around me are scraped clean.
The chicken dumpling soup hits the table and the room quiets for a minute, before exploding in a lot of adults making vaguely sexual sighs. This soup is legit. The dumplings are absolutely packed with flavor, the sous vide egg is perfect (almost like an onsen egg, if you know your ramen), and the green onion kimchi makes for a nice, slightly bitter bite. Crumbled fried chicken skin sits on top of the dish. It is, so far, the fan favorite, and mine as well. They could have just given us a very large bowl of this and I would have been pretty happy. The last of the entrees is pork belly, sous vide in char sui sauce. For the unfamiliar, char sui is basically Chinese BBQ sauce made with fermented soy. Meat is often roasted with the sauce on, which results in an exterior that's extremely caramelized and sweet. The belly is fall-apart tender, accompanied by curried cauliflower, roasted eggplant, and pickled bok choy.
Dessert for the evening was my second favorite, behind the soup. Individual honey miso cheesecakes, seared just before service, with lychee sorbet, yuzu curd, Thai basil, and black sesame. What I love about this dish is that it combines so many different Asian cuisines into a beautiful, simple dish. If I steal anything from this dinner, it's going to be using Thai basil with cheesecake.