Notes, Quotes and Observations from Last Night's “Mad Meat Men” Bird Finale at Picnics in Costa Mesa

With apologies to the dearly missed former Orange County Register sports columnist Randy Youngman, notes, quotes, and observations from last night's game fowl extravaganza at Picnics Kitchen in Costa Mesa hosted by the Mad Meat Men.

*Fucking Dave, I swear: fucking mensch! Unlike me, he's not a shameless self-promoter, so didn't promote this event AT ALL, like he has in the past. Not that Special Eats OC, the group headed by Anaïs Tangie, needed it: Picnics was packed, and the chef's table in the kitchen sold out.

*So what exactly was the premise of the dinner? Seven local chefs, some famed, some cult classics, each serving a course with birds sourced from Da-Le Ranch and veggies from the SoCo Farmer's Market over the course of two hours. No gimmicky contest, no time trials: just a bunch of guys cooking what they want to cook: a pop-up restaurant at its finest.

First up was Jason Coulston of Hidden Kitchen fame, with pots of chicken liver pâté with red onion marmalade, pommery mustard, and toasted bread as an appetizer.
Fine, if a bit expected. Then again, the chica and I combined our leftover pate to take home and spread over the course of this next week.

Playground's Jason Quinn followed with what was advertised as “Tea and Crumpets,” but being the devilish imp he is, it was actually chicken broth and a Hot Pocket. He went on and on about how he had to strain the chicken through cheesecloth, but the end results were a bit too concentrated and would've worked better as a shot than a full mini-bowl. But the Hot Pocket was genius: luscious chicken chunks accompanies by ham and what I thought was Gruyere but was definitely a buttery cheese. Perfect crust, perfect size, Quinn better start selling these retail…

Our own Dave was next with something called a salade gasconne: mesclun, tomatoes, lardons, duck gizzards preserved in duck fat, croûtons, and potatoes fried in preserved duck fat, with a classic mustard vinaigrette.
The chef's table I was at was skittish about the gizzards, which have no place at the modern-day American table, but they were spectacular: dense, gamy right at the end, as chewy as a sausage. The vinaigrette's spiciness cut through the fattiness of the rest of the salad, which was heavier than a hamburger, which meant it was AWESOME.

Course four came courtesy of bon vivant Michael Harris: roast pheasant ravioli, with browned Butter and sage.
His pheasant was the best-prepared bird of the night: ground, airy, sweet, a meatball from heaven. But the dish suffered from an odd presentation (the great demiglaze at bottom would've worked better in a bowl than on a flat plate, to allow the ravioli to soak it all up), and the pasta was undercooked. Still: Harris could open an Italian spot on the strength of this dish.

Número five came in the form of roast duck in a phyllo nest by David Kim. It was vaguely Asian in flavor due to the orange-spiked sauce on the bottom and the duck inside, but downright Mediterranean in preparation with the perfectly cooked phyllo and the mushrooms inside. But the best part of it was the roasted leek that tied the phyllo together–crispy, unexpected, delightful.

Last course of the night was left to Carlos Salgado of Taco Maria fame. Of course he stuck with Latino with his arroz con pollo, and of course he nailed it with flavors wholly his and firmly rooted in tradition. Instead of rice, he used earthy green farro; instead of chicken, sublime Guinea hen, skin perfectly roasted. And the great surprise was chickweed as a sort of crispy potato, and Meyer lemon shavings instead of orange as the citrus kick the dish needs. And ever the perfectionist, Salgado inspected every piece of hen before placing it to ensure it was properly cooked; those that weren't went back into the oven for extra roasting.

Not on the menu was Tangie's dessert: lemon curd with blackberries, raspberries, fresh whipped cream, and finger limes. Tart, sweet, light, fresh–I saw homegirl myself whip the cream nonstop–a wonderful end to a wonderful night.

*All the chefs helped each other throughout the night, whether plating, cooking, running down an ingredient–all of it. No egos at all outside of the usual ball-busting that goes on when you get a bunch of Type A personalities (save for Salgado, who's as observant as a Jesuit) in a cramped kitchen. May this type of friendly, uplifting camaraderie define OC dining in 2013.

*In attendance were Dean Kim of the OC Baking Company and Dee Nguyen of Break of Dawn. Nguyen also engaged in ball-busting, at one point crying racism just for the hell of it.

*I don't care for wine, so instead went to nearby Hi-Time Wine Cellars for some rum, settling on Flor de Caña and the awesome Pink Pigeon Rum. Dave and Carlos joined in, as did Dee. But when I asked Dee if Dean would like some, he said no. “He'd cry like a little baby after a shot!” Dee cracked. Dean didn't disagree with that assessment.

*No more Mad Meat Men planned for this year, but watch out: these cabrones won't let a good thing die. Congrats, all!

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