Thursday, June 30, 2011

Atlanta Food Entrepreneurs: PushStart Kitchen Dinner

Underground supper clubs are all the rage, don't you know? Between the staplehouses, spice routes, and four coursemen of the world, you hardly need to cook for yourself anymore to experience a more personal dining experience. What I love most about the whole idea of an underground supper club is that it's like a dinner party with new friends and better food. And for chefs it's a perfect outlet and a testing ground for future restaurant plans.

Now comes another such labor of love, Push Start Kitchen, from an Atlanta-native chef and his wife. Chef Zach Meloy and his lovely wife Cristina recently moved back to Atlanta from Costa Rica and wanted to work together (aw how sweet, right?) and give Zach a chance to interact with the people he cooks for in a more intimate dining experience than restaurants can offer.

Zach wrote on his own blog about the impetus for Push Start...

Since coming back from living and traveling in Central America, I have been noticing our proud food heritage here in the South. The ingredients we used to define our table, all overlap with those of Mexico, Central America and further south.  Plates of sweet corn, ripe tomatoes, spicy chiles, unctuous pork, and fluffy rice.  "Grits" aren't too far off from "guisa" and "chow chow" looks a lot like "vegetales encurtidos."  I started to see how foods I would consider distinctly Southern aren't as distinct as I thought.  While we've been serving up plates of humble tradition for generations now, there was an opportunity to grow in a different direction.  To try and redefine what I felt was familiar cooking.  Beans, rice and tortillas for breakfast had become as comforting and normal to me as a bowl of grits and toast.

This is direction.  I've wanted to focus on the similarities and overlaps of the two cuisines while keeping certain traditions and concepts unique.  Bringing together familiar ingredients, with foreign preparations almost as the next step in my own food evolution.  Crossroads cooking.  This is my forum and will be my opportunity to share what I've found along the way.  Soon there will be a long, banged up, wooden, table for ten and I'll be serving all of these dishes to those who want to be there.  This is our jumping off point, our PushStart.

So they set up shop at the Goat Farm. This shabby chic multi-use space is awfully cool with supper clubs right next to book restorers in a location that also plays host to concerts and even the Atlanta Underground Market the very same night we were there.

When Zach, a high school classmate of mine, invited me to the dinner, I couldn't pass up the chance to support a fellow food lover and talented chef (and when supporting equals gorging myself on delicious food, all the better!)

Menu: (included wine pairings)
  • Canape & cocktail
  • Summer tomato and watermelon salad, queso fresco, cucumber, mint, lemon mayonnaise, country white crouton
  • Slow cooked petit beef tender, avocado, charred red onion, smoked chile-tortilla sauce, citrus salad
  • Honeyed goat cheese and peach tart, basil ice cream, macadamia praline, bourbon syrup
  • Homemade candies

We were greeted with a smile, a cold tequila cocktail and little sweet potato apps. We took some time to explore the unusual setting before settling down to the lovely old wooden table. Food of course is paramount at a supper club, but equally important are the other guests, since the whole point of communal dining is to, you know, be communal. 

To one side of me sat the chef's own parents who reminisced with me about the bad ol' days at Walker (I'm still giving you the stink-eye 20 years later) and the much better days at Pope High School. On my other side sat a lovely couple who charmed us as we all revealed our increasingly dorky secret affinities from obsessing over TV shows and building computers to forbidden loves for wrestling, NASCAR and Optimus Prime.

Our first course of salad composed of tomato, watermelon, queso fresco, cucumber, mint, lemon mayonnaise, and country white crouton was inspired by a BLT. I have had many a tomato salad in my time, but this one was truly the bee's knees. The ingredients were of course fresh as can be, but I really think it was the lemon mayo dressing that did it for me. I wouldn't normally think to involve mayo in my salads, but you forget how darn good it is on a BLT. And the watermelon offered an additional sweetness that took this several notches above the typical salad. Total heaven!

Steak was prepared using the sous vide method to cook it to an even medium rare. This dish definitely showed off the chefs years spent preparing Central American inspired cuisine and kept things surprisingly light for a steak dish. 

The meal was completed with a divine honeyed goat cheese and peach tart with basil ice cream (prepared by Cristina). She may not be the professional chef in this couple, but girl can make some ice cream. I now officially want basil ice cream ALL THE TIME. I have a feeling there's some sort of tomato related dessert that this would be epic with.

Throughout the meal, Zach and Cristina were both eager to engage with and take care of their guests. Whether that meant refilling wine glasses or even (gasp!) cleaning the Goat Farm's bathrooms in advance of our arrival, they did everything to make the evening special. It was so intimate, in fact, that I almost expected them to sit down and eat with us. They didn't, though, since like every good host (or mom) learns, when you're taking care of others, you never stop moving. 

Not content to send us away with our bellies full of just three yummy courses, we were plied with homemade Costa Rican candies. After trying one, the guys at our table practically bit our hosts hands off trying to eat the rest. A sweet end to a lovely night!

You have so many choices of where to eat in Atlanta, but I can think of few better ways to spend an evening than getting a unique and delicious Latin-influenced meal and an up close and personal experience with a local chef and other fellow food lovers. Check out Push Start's blog and don't miss out on their next dinner.

Thank you to Zach and Cristina for taking such good care of us!



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