Fond memories of Saturday night’s Earth to Table Dinner at the Culinary Vegetable Institute (CVI) are still swirling about in my mind. I count it as one of the most unique dining experiences of my life and I’m planning my return trip. Six courses, with optional wine pairings and creative cocktails, showcased a verdant spring season with unique preparations of farmed, foraged, and wild ingredients.
Getting to the CVI takes a little effort – it’s not really on the way to anywhere in particular. You are rewarded with a unique space dedicated to the culinary arts, built solely around the artful preparation and unabashed enjoyment of food. The chilly rain didn’t even dampen my spirits nor those of my spirited culinary comrades. When sitting down to celebrate earth’s bounty, it’s understood that a generous dousing of rain is very much a means to a delicious end.
This dinner featured good friends of Edible Cleveland – Chefs Ben Bebenroth and Joshua Woo of The Spice Companies. Chef Ben and his wife Jackie lead a growing operation that includes Spice of Life Catering, Spice Kitchen +Bar, and Spice Acres, their 2-year-old farm in the Cuyahoga Valley.
A team of CVI staff including Chef Jamie Simpson, coordinated the all day preparation of the six course meal we enjoyed. The dinner featured an array of seasonal spring vegetables, roots, shoots, greens and was complemented with meat – courses of foie gras, pork belly, tenderloin, and ham. The pork came directly from hogs raised by Chef Ben’s team at Spice Acres. While several courses did include meat, it was great to see that the vegetables, purees, sauces, and other accompaniments had equal billing on each plate; a nod to a more sustainable and measured way of eating.
It was hard to decide a favorite course but Ben’s wife, Jackie, stopped by our table and asked us that very question! For me, it was the third course of root vegetables, mint, smoked yogurt, pistachio, fennel oil and pickled strawberry. The idea of smoked yogurt was incomprehensible to me but it appealed to my savory-leaning palate. It was unique and memorable. My husband, and many of the guys at our table, found the fourth course of crispy pork belly, kinome ( a Japanese herb ), wood-grilled ramps, and Korean rhubarb glaze an easy choice for their favorite.
The main dish reminded me of my favorite brunch – eggs benedict. A plate of Spice Acres cured ham – thinly sliced, with the velvety yellow yolk of a farm-fresh egg- enhanced with some smoked peanuts, ponzu, sesame and kimchi spirit transformed some familiar flavors by adding several layers of interest.
A spring knotweed and rhubarb tart, with spice bush berry crème fraiche, and bergamot-infused maple, concluded the meal. Knotweed, we learned, is an invasive stalky plant that has some rhubarb-like qualities that is becoming popular among foragers.
The dish I found most curious, included a yellow beet carpaccio so paper thin you could see right through it. It maintained a delicate, definitive beet flavor, with a fascinating texture was somewhere between tissue paper and a fruit roll up. As a beet lover, I was hooked, and I loved the edible cherry blossoms that were also part of this innovative dish.
CVI’s rustic dining space contributed to my enjoyment with its floor to ceiling windows, and a completely open kitchen that welcomes and rewards curious guests. My husband and I were fortunate enough to sit with two couples who attend events here frequently, resulting in a delightful food-focused conversation, the “Googling” of unfamiliar ingredients and, of course, photo taking.
If you would like to experience such a unique culinary experience, book a reservation at an upcoming Earth to Table Dinner, or take note of the many special events hosted by The Culinary Vegetable Institute. French Master chef Nico Romo will host a dinner May 21 showcasing the Lowcountry’s abundant and diverse seafood, with his signature classic French interpretation, and delicate Asian touches. Reserve your seat here.