If you've been around long enough to remember Gregory's World Bistro -- it closed in 2004 -- then you probably won't be surprised to hear that Tuesday night's dinner at The Gladly, which featured chef Gregory Casale, was a sold out event.
To a whole generation of today's tops chefs -- people like Bernie Kantak and Cullen Campbell -- Casale is like a god, a culinary hero. In the 1990s, Casale was a pioneer, turning out innovation and delicious food way ahead of its time. These days, he's the director of culinary innovation for Peter Piper Pizza but partakes in events like these every so often.
"They know I want to come blow off some steam," Casale says of his corporate bosses.
But Casale wasn't the only star on Tuesday night's lineup of talent. He was joined in the kitchen by Citizen Public House and The Gladly chef Kantak and Kelly Fletcher. In February, Fletcher left Tempe's House of Tricks, where he had been executive chef for more than 10 years.
And because it was a cocktail-focused affair, you can bet the mixology was in good hands. In addition to The Gladly's Brian Goodwin and Citizen Public House's Brandon Casey, Micah Olson of Bar Crudo shook up a few boozy creations for the event. All the cocktails featured St. George Spirits of Alameda, California. In 2007, the distillery became the first in the country to produce absinthe since the lifting of a 1912 ban on the drink.
Fletcher, who created the first two courses of the night, started the dinner with a delightful cauliflower bisque with toasted pine nuts, basil syrup, melted aged Manchego, and micro basil. The pairing with Goodwin's take on a French 75, which featured pine nut fat-washed Botanivore Gin and sparkling brut rose, made for a slightly oily though still enjoyable course.
The second course of a perfectly seared scallop with creamy parsnip puree, coriander-citrus gastrique, baby kale, and sweet popcorn shoots was one of our favorites of the night and came with one of the more unique drinks we tasted. Goodwin put forth a Salt Water Sazerac, featuring barrel-aged Breaking and Entering Bourbon with St. George Absinthe Verte, bitters, and lemon peel. We got a lot of anise in both the smell and taste, but not so much that it overpowered the saltiness from the barrel-aged bourbon.
Kantak's third course was a knockout, with its winning combination of delicate layers of flavor. The beautiful plate showcased very lightly paprika-cured butterfish with a smoky chorizo oil, fingerling potato and pickled garlic salad, and petite pea greens. It was paired with daiquiri-inspired cocktail from Casey that included Agricole rum, yellow Chartreuse, egg whites and olive oil, grapefruit juice, and ruby Port mist. To us, the grapefruit-forward cocktail worked perfectly with citrus notes of the dish.
The fourth and fifth courses showcased the talents of chef Casale starting with a Moroccan-inspired dish of Harissa-rubbed grilled tuna with Moroccan spiced pickled vegetables, mint salad, chickpea bellini, and saffron yogurt. The mint salad and chickpea bellini served as a unique take on a tabouli salad that worked well against the spiced fish. We loved it with Olsen's cocktail, which featured two spirits (St. George Dry Rye gin and St. George California Agricole rum) and a lengthy list of ingredients (Hum, beet and watermelon syrup, lemon juice, basil, fennel, and more) yet still managed to be one of the most drinkable cocktails of the night.
We only wish we had been less full by the time Casale's second course of olive oil braised pork shoulder arrived. Accented with white bean and piquillo pepper puree, sauteed Tuscan kale, walnuts, and golden raisin romesco sauce, the dish offered Spanish flavors and a unique romenso-type confit with sherry vingear, olive oil, and herbs. The pork, braised for an hour as opposed to overnight, was nevertheless remarkably tender and rich in flavor. Unfortunately, we found Olsen's cocktail with cocoa nib-infused Breaking and Entering Bourbon to be too heavy for our taste.
Finally, dessert arrived, a date pudding that Kantak says was inspired by a dish his mother used to make for Christmas. The accompanying mascarpone ice cream played second fiddle to the very nice roasted white chocolate Cognac cream. Casey paired the dish with an "Irish Coffee 2-Ways" made with St. George Single Malt and St. George NOLA coffee liquor cold drip.
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We asked Casale whether the corporate gig has taken a toll on his creativity, and the chef insists it hasn't. He tells us he's got his hands full working on Peter Piper's "2.0" stores that will be designed to attract customers beyond families with little kids and lots of time to spare. Between his last post with Paradise Bakery and this current one, the chef has been out of the independent dining scene for eight years now.
There's hope, though, for fans of Casale's cuisine. We asked if he'll ever return to owning his own restaurant.
"I'm not ruling it out," Casale says.