Monday, July 28, 2008

Burning Beast

Burning Beast
at the Smoke Farm

Burning Beast isn't a restaurant; it's an event. The idea was to get Seattle's best chefs, stick them in the countryside, and make them cook sundry varieties of meat. Sounds like a great idea to me. What I didn't like was the name. They were trying to pattern it after the Burning Man Festival, which was dumb because there were very few similarities between the two events: Burning Man is expensive; Burning Beast is, at $65, what I would consider a bargain. Burning Man takes place in the desert; Burning Beast took place at the Smoke Farm, a non profit farming and art facility in the woods near Marysville. Burning Man is for douchebags who stink; while Burning Beast featured no bad smells. In fact only delicious smells could be detected, by my nose at least. Plus there were surprisingly few douchebags in attendance.

It was a “Who's Who” of the local culinary scene (I'm cringing as I type that sentence because it sounds so gay, but it really was an A-list event. Besides, I'm on a deadline and I can't be bothered to come up with a turn of phrase with more “zazz” ). Various restaurants were set up in camps all around the farm. Each camp was roasting something. All the grills were improvised, mostly out of cinderblocks with rebar for the grill.

At the Tilth station a one armed man stoked the fire under a couple of roasting ducks. They were making duck tacos, cooking the duck over the open fire and baking flat breads in those conical Moroccan pots that resemble a wizard's hat and from which come such delicious delights that it's as if the Tasty Wizard of Magical Taste conjured them himself. Because those Moroccan pots resemble a wizard's hat, get it? Because wizards pull shit out of their hats, like rabbits, doves, that kind of shit. Right? Aw, fuck it. You know, it's not easy being this lazy. Anyway, the duck meat was tender, smoky, and pleasantly spicy, and the flat bread was soft and chewy. It was easily the best taco I've eaten since I ate your mom's tuna taco.

The Culinary Communion cooking school was making a lamb confit. A high school intern squatted in the dust near their grill, tearing roasted flesh from bones and tossing the meat into a hopper. He told me he wasn't getting paid, and the only thing he'd had to eat all day was the leftover cartilage from the lamb roast, which his boss described as being like “meat bubblegum.” Note to the high school intern: if you're looking for something to do that won't make you any money and won't get you laid, might I recommend writing restaurant reviews? But the lamb confit was tender and rich, and totally worth forcing an undernourished teenager to sit in the heat for 16 hours tending it. They even made their own crusty, chewy pita bread, triangles of which were served with a small chunk of confit on top and a drizzle of tzatziki over the whole thing.

Le Pichet was roasting mackerel. The fish skin glittered in the sun like brushed steel as they slowly swung from a metal teepee over low coals. Skewers of sardines and a melange of calamari and octopus waited their turn for the fire. I was sadly disappointed by their offering, especially since Le Pichet is without a doubt, hands down my favorite restaurant in Seattle. Everything was bland. But at least the calimari was tender.

The Serafina camp was grilling corn and these plump rabbit sausages, which strained at their casings and periodically leaked rivulets of juice onto the charcoal below. These sausages were by far my favorite dish at the Burning Beast. They were succulent and flavorful, and the casings gave the most delightful snap when bit you bit into them.

Brasa had a whole (or mostly whole) pig on a rotisserie. The pig's backbone, legs, and ribs had been removed, so it was really just like a giant pork loin roast with the head still attached. This ghastly apparition lolled lazily around and around on its axle, the rotisserie halting and jerking occasionally under the strain of its delicious passenger. They were also roasting mussels and oysters, which weren't quite as unsettling because the oysters couldn't fix you with their piercing dead eyes. The oysters were really fresh and tasted like brine and smoke. The pig meat was tender and juicy, and was served on sandwiches with onion jam, pepper relish, and arugula.

Sitka & Spruce had butterflied two goats and sewn them together, with a stuffing of herbs and meats between the two carcasses. This, I think, came the closest to capturing the apocalyptic atmosphere of the Burning Beast, especially when Sitka & Spruce proprietor Matt Dillon fisted the cavity between the goats to check the cooking progress. Yes, he really did stick his hand up to the wrist to check the temperature. It's that willingness to go the distance for quality that has made Dillon the darling of the chumps who care about things. Someday he'll be rich. Richer than Tom Douglas, even. Matt Dillon is so goddamned motherfucking awesome that one day he'll be so rich, he'll shit diamond studded turds. He'll shit diamond studded turds because he'll be so rich, he'll be able to afford diamond studded corn on the cob, which he'll eat, then shit turds studded with diamonds. And corn. But enough about Matt Dillon's turds. That goat was tender, juicy, and flavorful. Perfectly cooked.

Sitka & Spruce is a tough act to follow, so I felt extra sorry for the Jones Glassworks crew. Not only were they the only amateur chefs there, but they were cooking the same thing as the legendary Matt Dillon, whose awesomeness is aforementioned. Their roast goat looked good enough, but they gave me a really gristly piece which was as tough and crusty as an ancient mariner. In fact, a recently discovered manuscript by Samuel Taylor Coleridge references the Jones Glassworks goat meat. That's how crusty it was. But in defense of Jones Galssworks, the stuffing of rice, organ meats, and pine nuts they served with the goat meat was creamy and flavorful.

Last AND least, some guy who used to work for Stumbling Goat was grilling carrots, beets, and green onions. He admitted it was a thankless task, to be stuck with veggies when everyone else was serving up a decadent Roman orgy of meat, and I agree with his assessment. I don't know how this poor asshole got stuck with the vegetables. That job sucks as bad as the guy who has to mop the floors at a peep show, or the guy who has to artificially inseminate tigers. I didn't eat any of the vegetables, so I really can't comment, though I still feel as much pity for that guy as I do for the guy who has to translate episodes of “The Family Guy” into Spanish. Because I doubt it translates very well.

The Burning Beast was like a backyard barbecue, if the most famous chefs in a major city were the grill masters instead of your uncle with erectile dysfunction. At $65, it was a pricey buffet, but definitely worth it, if only because you could pick the brain of your favorite chef, who was usually standing right there tending the grill. Which got me to thinking that fine dining is like rock-n-roll in some ways: the chefs are like rock stars, except they don't get paid very much. Plus no one cares about cooking. And the people who DO care aren't smoldering hot young vixens, they're either old chumps with nothing better to do, or snarky writers looking to diminish their efforts. My, my, this issue of The Surly Gourmand has somehow turned as introspective as that episode of Magnum, PI where Magnum gets trapped under the airplane!

Rating: 7 Emmy- winning episodes of Magnum, PI out of 10


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