Susan Feniger's Street Food Dinner
Last Monday I learned of a dinner with Chef Susan Feniger at Terzo Piano on Thursday, August 16, 2012. The dinner promised to provide cocktails, appetizers, a multi-course meal with wine pairings, and the opportunity to buy Susan Feniger’s Street Food, Chef Feniger’s latest cookbook, and have her sign it.
Ms. Feniger was on “Top Chef: Masters” a few years back, but before that she and co-host and fellow chef Mary Sue Millliken were on the Food Network’s show, “Too Hot Tamales.” I’ve been a fan for years but haven’t had a chance to taste Chef Feniger’s food. All of her restaurants were and are in Los Angeles where I lived when I had not only the small budget of a college student, but also the unsophisticated palate of one.
But I’m a real adult now (sort of), so I rearranged my schedule and bought a couple of tickets to Thursday night’s event. Along with tasting Chef Feniger’s food, it was an opportunity to dine at Terzo Piano, Chef Tony Montuano’s mostly lunch café in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. Despite my Art Institute membership, I had not yet made it to Terzo Piano. Two birds, one stone and all.
After walking across the footbridge from Millennium Park we entered the Modern Wing/Terzo Piano Courtyard where we were greeted by a bar and a long buffet table. At the bar were Honeydew Cucumber Cooler , a gin-based drink my dining companion liked, and Canton Ginger Kick , a drink more to my liking since it was vodka-based. Both were light and refreshing and would be nice on a hot day.
Next, we picked up the book, Susan Feniger’s Street Food, for sale right there in the courtyard. Once again, my Art Institute membership – and the membership card app on my phone – came in handy for a discount on the book. The numbers in brackets throughout are for page numbers in Susan Feniger’s Street Food where the recipes can be found. Everything we ate and drank (except the wine, of course) can be recreated at home with the recipes in the book.
There behind the buffet table making and serving food when she wasn’t signing books and posing for photo opportunities was Susan Feniger. She is just as animated and her smile as bright as you’ve seen on tv. She’s also just as nice.
Everyone could take small packets of spice mixes to use at home. We took one of each, Indian Dry Spice Mix  and Middle Eastern Za’atar Spice Mix  so we’d know what to expect from our own attempts at making them.
Then Chef Feniger got to chefing. She mixed up a new batch of Burmese Gin Thoke (Melon Salad)  from an array of ingredients that didn’t seem to make any sense at all. There were three kinds of melon, and flaked coconut, and peanuts, which combined are things that most of us have seen before. But then Chef added lentils. I was skeptical. Finally, she added a dressing dark in color and heavy in sesame seed.
I smiled and took a bowl. The chef was watching me so I had to, but I was thinking I might have a hard time keeping the smile on my face when the food in my mouth was gross, so I quickly moved away from Ms. Feniger’s sightline. I needn’t have. The Melon Salad was absolutely delicious, much to my surprise. I will definitely get some local melons at the farmers market so I can make my own Burmese Gin Thoke.
So when I saw the next item on the buffet, something else that looked unusual, I had faith that I’d probably like it. It was Indian Puffed Rice Salad  that had crunchy puffed rice (sort of like Rice Krispies but not quite) tender sweet potatoes, and chickpeas. I will eat anything with chickpeas. I will also eat anything with cilantro, which this salad had in abundance. Delicious, and another salad I will be making at home.
The buffet also had Coconut Curry Carmel Corn  that was quite good though my dining companion thought the carmel tasted a little too dark. I thought it was a nice snack, but I don’t know if I’ll bother to make it at home, as the recipe seems a wee labor intensive for the return.
Also holding court at the buffet table was Kajsa Alger, one of the co-authors of the cook book, and a chef at Ms. Feniger’s newest restaurant, STREET. She, too, was nice enough to sign our book and pose for photos.
Along with the buffet food there were waiters passing appetizers on the courtyard. Izakaya Crispy Shiso Shrimp  with ponzu sauce for dipping was everything fried food should be: crunchy on the outside, perfectly cooked on the inside. Really, it’s hard to go wrong with fried shrimp unless it’s over-breaded or undercooked. These shrimp were neither. The “breading,” I now know from seeing the recipe, was made with lumpia wrappers, which are thin egg roll wrappers, and crisp up very nicely in their deep oil bath.
Finally, there were Miso-Glazed Chicken Skewers (Miso-Glazed Chicken Wings  in the book) with Ginger Scallion Dipping Sauce. Meat on a stick, how I love you. Going back to my childhood eating corn dogs, to my time in Bangkok having a street snack for the equivalent of $0.12, I have always loved meat on a stick. Of course the latter was an influence for Chef Susan, and to delicious result.
Then it was time to go inside for dinner. There were about 120 people sitting at communal tables of 12 in the open and airy dining room. Chef Tony Montuano introduced Chef Susan Feniger. They had met on “Top Chef: Masters” and became fast friends so he was happy to offer his restaurant to her when she came through Chicago for her book promotion.
It was dinner time. The first course was Ukrainian Spinach Dumplings with Lemon Marmalade and Sour Cream  served with n/v Prosecco “Jeio” Bisol from Veneto, Italy. The dumplings‘ richness was nicely cut by the Prosecco, and the contrast of the savory filling, sweet marmalade, and sour cream was well balanced. We were off to an excellent start.
We happened to sit next to a couple of women who talked of nothing but hospitals and childbirth (boring). We were across from a guy whose cough made me worried he’d transmit tuberculosis to the entire room, but us first since we were sitting so close. He later assured us that he had asthma, not TB, but it won’t be weeks before my symptoms show up (yes, I looked this up) so I’m not sure yet whether he was telling the truth.
The service was a little slow and the food on the lukewarm side, but this was not a regular restaurant, it was a dinner party where all 100+ diners were served at essentially the same time. I imagine the kitchen was a madhouse throughout the evening. What mattered more – that the food was both visually attractive and tasty – was a complete success.
The second course was Salmon Tartare with Spicy Sesame, Avocado, and Pink Peppercorns  served on a rice cracker; and Heirloom Tomatoes with Black Garlic and Basil Vinaigrette . These dishes were paired with 2011 Rosé of Pinot Noir from Elk Cove Vineyards in Oregon.
I don’t like cooked salmon, but I love it raw, and with the other flavors that I love – sesame and avocado – there was hardly a chance the Salmon Tartare could go wrong. It didn’t. With the fish and avocado, it was a very West Coast dish, so it made me feel a bit nostalgic for California.
The Heirloom Tomatoes, however, were more universal. There are great heirloom tomatoes grown all over the country that can be found at local farmers markets. The dish tasted of summer, wherever you may be.
The rosé was light and went well with the summery dishes. My dining companion, who as a general rule does not like white wine declared the rosé “too white tasting” and passed his glass to me. Don’t mind if I do.
The third course was Korean Chopped Salad with Sesame Dressing  and Korean Glazed Short Ribs with Sesame and Asian Pear and Celery Salad  paired with 2010 Côtes de Provence Rouge, Domaine Houchart from Provence, France.
The chopped salad was a complex salad of lettuce, brown rice, glazed tofu, soybean sprouts, shiitake mushroom, daikon radish, and sunflower seeds toped with a fried quail egg and a spicy sweet sesame dressing. It had a lot going on, all of it tasty. Like the earlier buffet item, Burmese Gin Thoke, it was a mix of things we don’t tend to put together in the West, but that we should.
The short ribs were tender and the asian pear and celery were a great sweet and crisp counterpoint. The wine worked well with the rich egg on the salad and meat.
The final course was Thai Tea Pudding with Lime Caramel and Candied Cashews . By that point in the evening I was quite full, but the pudding had to be tasted. It was rich and creamy but not too sweet.
After a short question-and-answer session with the the chefs everyone applauded the wonderful meal. I have no plans for a trip to Los Angeles, but when I do finally make it back to my home town of the early 1990s, I’ll definitely be going to Susan Feniger’s STREET. In the mean time, I'll be making my own dishes from Susan Feniger's Street Food.