I honestly don’t know what percentage of people are forced to cover their heads with a napkin to stick a small, blind, booze-soaked bird in their mouth — feet first, beak out — but I’m sure it happens, especially at secret food things.
And a piping hot “Ortolan surprise” was something of a fear as I climbed three flights of candle-lit, timeworn stairs to join 11 other stranger-ish humans, several bottles of alcohol and an unexpectedly lovely city view at Arts & Lettuce, the modern seasonal caterer Please and craftsman champion the Brush Factory’s new food collaboration.
Aimed at providing a “creative and unique dining experience in a non-traditional setting,” Arts & Lettuce secludes 12 people twice a month (one meat night and one vegetarian) in a secret location with a broad thematic menu of unrevealed specific courses (dinner prices range from $40-$45.)
I had signed up for this particular dinner knowing — and only knowing — the menu was “pescetarian.” And the perceived ambiance of “foodie dinners” (and the fact that I hate surprises) had me thinking Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Anthony Bourdain and of several creative ways one could unknowingly ingest fish eyeballs.
As per usual, I was wrong. And more than pleasantly surprised.
“The entire experience is not just about eating artfully made dinners but being in an environment that embodies a curated lifestyle,” Rosie Kovacs of the Brush Factory (and atmosphere director of the dinner series) says. “Having dinner in a space where the napkins, coasters, buffet have been artfully displayed and thought about.”
The dinner itself is paced and intimate, held on handmade benches, designed and built in the Brush Factory woodshop, tucked into a long, family-style table. The décor and table settings — provincial mismatched silverware passed around in wooden bowl — encourage interaction, conversation and a camaraderie that comes with shared dining adventures … and shared bottles of wine.
Upon arrival, you finally get to view the menu. Six well-developed, visually exciting courses, including a gourmet cocktail.
This particular meal started with an amuse bouche of 48-degree blue point oysters with lovage oil, radish and grapefruit paired with a peat-smoked hand-brewed local stout, and ended with a mind-and-taste-bud-boggling “May Garden” dessert of sweet English peas, cold elderflower slush, roses, marshmallow, astronaut ice cream, cilantro and grape soda jelly.
Kovacs says, “There is something instinctual about the way (Ryan Santos) knows which flavors and textures to combine.” And there needs to be since he has no formal culinary education.
“I went to school for graphic design at DAAP,” Santos, a Cleveland native, says. “During that period I had some health issues with a severe case of Crohn’s Disease (an incurable inflammatory gastrointestinal disease).
“The doctor’s put me on all kinds of crazy diets,” he says. “One included gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, alcohol-free. … At the time gluten-free wasn’t as prevalent as it is now, so if I wanted to eat more than steak and peppers, I had to learn how to cook from scratch.”
And cook he did, continuing as a recreational hobby even after his strict dietary restrictions were lifted.
Upon graduation, Santos quickly realized that the creativity he was so freely allowed in school didn’t quite exist in the “real” 9-to-5 graphic-design world, so he decided to pursue cooking as more than just a personal passion.
“I stopped doing graphic design and walked into a kitchen in Cleveland of a chef (Nolan Konkoski of Tartine Bistro) that I really admired at the time, still do, and asked for a job. He gave me three days to prove myself and said, ‘You can work here for three days, and if it works out you can stay, and if not you’re going to have to move on.’ And I worked there for two years.
“Experience and passion are way, way more crucial when it comes to a professional kitchen than actual technical background,” Santos says.
Santos continued to work his way through various kitchens, learning and absorbing technique as he went along. In time he created a larger secret dinner series in Cleveland, Dinner with Strangers, which brought together groups of intellectuals and creatives from both sides of the city for a similar Arts & Lettuce experience in wine bar-back rooms and empty storefronts. But his health continued to deteriorate.
“Sixty-plus-hour weeks just aren’t realistic with my health anymore, but I didn’t want to stop doing food,” he says. “I created Please as one way to push myself to learn more on my own and to work a schedule that’s realistic for me.”
He recently returned to Cincinnati with his new venture to create Arts & Lettuce and explore the city’s rich culinary history.
“There’s such a food history here,” he says. “Bourbon, country ham, the German influence and brewing history. Everyone’s trying to define what American cuisine is right now. People say pizza, hamburgers. I think that this area and a few other areas are really ripe for an elevated version of what’s here, so I’ve started trying to find some old cookbooks and find things that are specifically Cincinnati, Kentucky, Tristate.”
But, as Santos recently affirmed from an experience with Chef John Shields in rural Virginia, “You can be really creative with all these basic elements.” Santos plays with the texture of food to create imaginative and unexpected presentations.
“It’s still seasonal, still organic; just not a roasted carrot on your plate looking like a roasted carrot,” he says. “People confuse seasonal and local with farm-to-table where you’re not allowed to actually do anything with the produce. Graphic design is based on a grid system. You can creatively play in that grid, and to a degree, I think it’s the same with food.
“Sometimes (Arts & Lettuce) has a very specific theme: Breakfast for Dinner,” he continues. “Then I break it down, ‘What are my favorite brunch items? What are ingredients that exist in brunch?’ There might be a dish that tastes like French toast or is inspired by French toast, but it won’t look like French toast.”
It’s about challenging your perception of food. That’s why, “a big philosophy of the dinner series is not releasing menus ahead of time,” Santos says. “Because almost every single dinner there’s someone that comes in and says, ‘I don’t like blank ingredient’ — onions, fennel, something — and then I will give them a fennel dish and they’ll say that was their favorite dish of the night.”
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