When we learned that Chef Matt McClure from The Hive at 21c Museum Hotel Bentonville in Arkansas was coming to town to cook with our very own Chef Mike Wajda at 21c Louisville’s Proof on Main, our interest was piqued. When we learned that he was going to put his spin on Kentucky ingredients and present a five-course meal, we were sold. 21c Museum Hotels are bringing all their chefs into the Louisville location to show off their culinary skills and the public is invited to partake in their meals as part of their 10-year anniversary celebration.
McClure came armed with his best arsenal packed away in a private cooler and checked with his baggage on his flight to Louisville. Inside that cooler were the components of his famous charcuterie boards. We had heard about his renowned chicken liver mousse when we were sitting down at the beginning of the meal, and insiders from Proof were anxious to taste it.
But lest we get ahead of ourselves, let’s first talk about Matt McClure. He’s been at The Hive since the Bentonville, Arkansas location opened in 2012. He’s a native of Arkansas, born and raised in Little Rock. After a culinary tour of duty throughout the Northeast, he settled back in to his home state and his food roots.
Both he and Proof on Main Chef Mike Wajda are supporters of local farmers and purveyors. When McClure joined Wajda in Louisville, they shopped at the farmers market to see what Kentucky produce they could use for this meal. McClure used the produce in a variety of ways, which you will see throughout the menu, and sometimes with an old-fashioned sensibility; we assume many of these techniques come from his grandmother, who taught him how to cook.
The night began with the Five and Dime cocktail, a gin concoction named for the original five and dime store, Walton’s 5&10, that Sam Walton owned in Bentonville Square, a precursor to his Walmart empire. Passed appetizers included mini biscuit BLTs, with bacon marmalade tomato jam. These biscuits were fluffy on the inside and crunchy on the outside, a perfect receptacle for bacon and tomato. We also enjoyed cherry bombs, which were not candy but cherries stuffed with ‘Nduja, a spreadable pork salami.
After sampling all the cocktails and drinks, we sat down together, everyone from a couple traveling through town from Princeton, New Jersey, to another couple visiting from London. The conversation was lively, and everyone had a common passion for food. The recommended wine with dinner was a dry rose, and everyone sipped on that while waiting for the meal to begin.
Back to the famed charcuterie board, which arrived next. Dry-aged beef tartare, with beef that had been aged for one year, was our first bite. Rich and smooth, it was a chunkier tartare and was amplified by a ground mustard that accompanied it. Next was a fennel sausage tartare, which was smooth and rich, flavors of fennel bursting through. I saved the best for last, the chicken liver mousse, that McClure is known for. Chicken livers often have a punch of an aftertaste, which some love or love to hate. All of that typical punch was gone. Its consistency was similar to a foie gras, but did not have the overwhelming richness of a typical foie gras. It was delicate, even and with an incredible flavor that was never inundated by gaminess. If there weren’t four more courses on the way, I could have eaten the entire board of this mousse for my dinner.
The next course was considered the actual “first” course, which was a salad of farmers market vegetables. Ginger pickled carrots, beets, radishes were served over a bed of Grateful Greens with Kenny’s Cheese (the Fromage Blanc) tossed in a light vinaigrette. McClure he referred to these pickled vegetables as Arkansas “sexy veggies.”
The mid-course was a hearth-baked cannelloni filled with salt cod brandade, served over a fresh pea mash. Salt cod brandade is dried cod mixed with olive oil, which is then cooked down with a mixture of potatoes and onion. It served as the filling of the cannelloni pasta and was served with a light lemon cream sauce and fava beans.
The main course was a Mulefoot Heritage Hog duo of porchetta and a smoked shoulder. Let’s break this course down a little further. A Mulefoot Heritage Hog is special breed of hog, one of the original breeds in America that 21c Museum Hotel owner Steve Wilson has on his Woodland Farm. He likes this breed, which has been around since before hogs were commercialized, because the meat has a “great clean fat” and an incredible taste. Interestingly, it does not have a typical cleft hoof, but rather a hoof like a mule (flat and straight), thereby making it a Kosher pig.
The smoked shoulder was a familiar visual and taste, especially to anyone who has grown up in the South with an appreciation for a good smoker. The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender and moist with rich flavor. But, what exactly is porchetta? Seasoned pork loin wrapped in a skin-on pork belly slab and slowly cooked over a rotisserie. The outside fat layer becomes a cracklin’, with guests eager to pick pieces off with their fingers to sample (especially this guest!). The meat inside is packed with flavor, after being surrounded by a fatty layer and cooked slowly over an open flame. While it was all from the same hog, the porchetta and the smoked shoulder tasted very different.
All of this delectable pork was served over a slice of 8ball squash, grown on Wilson’s farm, which was probably the circumference of an eggplant with the taste of a zucchini. The final touch was a savory au jus made with the meaty drippings, and it included barrel-aged sauerkraut for a final kick of flavor. This sauce was passed around the table several times as guests wanted to dip each bite in it.
The dessert was a wise choice after such a heavy mid and main course: local berry terrine. This was a fancy gel mold of sorts, with three fruit layers of strawberry, rhubarb and green apple; notably, McClure used thyme to season the terrine, and the combination of this herb with the fruit was wonderful! Angel food cake was served on the side accompanied by a chantilly cream and white chocolate crumbles on the top. It was a light palate cleanser of a dessert.
In classic Proof on Main fashion, cotton candy came out after the plates were being cleared away. The Brits at our table had never tried it before, and watching them experience it for the first time was priceless. “It tastes like air and sugar.” Exactly!
We think Chef McClure was up to the challenge of incorporating Kentucky produce, meats and cheeses into his repertoire. It was a great dinner concept and makes us desire an entire tour of all the 21c restaurants.
Continuing the summer-long dinner series celebrating Proof on Main’s 10th Anniversary, Executive Chef Mike Wajda has invited Jonathan Searle, of the newly minted Lockbox restaurant at 21c Lexington, for a collaborative dinner tonight at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $72 per person, and reservations can be made by calling (502) 217-6360. Proof on Main is located at 702 W. Main St., Louisville, KY 40202.
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