The mood on Sunday night at the newly opened Buvons! wine bar inside of Corkscrew was nothing if not jovial. Considering that the gathering was specifically designed to jumpstart fundraising for the Flatlander Fund, a newly realized organization dedicated to carrying out the late Daniel Schreiber’s dream of a place where all of us — even you — could go create through food, it was hard not to be amazed. He wanted a community kitchen, and a small group of people have decided to honor that by delivering on that notion.
At $100 a head, it wasn’t something that my wife and I took lightly. But giving is giving, and it’s something we choose to do when and where we can. We both felt strongly for Dan, and were affected by him in life and in death. As such, we plunked it down and toasted our first of many glasses of wine.
We started off with a 1312 cava non-vintage that was quite delicious. I don’t know a goddamn thing about wine outside of how to swirl it in a glass, sniff it well, and swish it around my mouth. My meter is simply if it tastes like rubbing alcohol, it ain’t good. If it doesn’t — it’s just fine in my book. Simple.
But as much as I enjoy a glass of wine — many if possible on the right occasion — what I was really most excited about was the food menu. The chef this evening was none other than Jason Brechin, former writer for Smile Politely, and a driving force of the Flatlander Fund. Through his articles here and on his terrific blog, Clever Food, I’ve been able to read about a bunch of his ideas and recipes. But Sunday evening was my first opportunity to actually taste his work. I prepared to be amazed. He didn’t disappoint. Not even close.
The meal was inspired by South and Central American cuisine for the most part, and it started off with a bang. The primero course was plated perfectly, and held three separate but deftly executed portions of food. A one-bite Tomato Caviar with watermelon started us off — it was arguably the most flavorful bite of the night for me — followed by a tortilla espanola, which is like a potato fritatta, as well as an empanada.
For those not familiar, an empanada is an Argentine favorite, a pouch pastry filled with different sorts of flavors, both sweet and savory. Here, Jason filled these with mushrooms and cheese, and did it with finesse. Manolo’s, purveyors of the absolutely finest empanadas around, would be proud.
The next course arrived, and it was accompanied by a Malbec from 2007 that was absolutely stunning. Not a hint of alcohol; just a fabulous finish and an easy gulp.
So, we dove back in. A pupusa, which is a traditional Salvadorian dish that is made from corn flour, and molded into pancakes and topped or filled with any sort of meats, veggies, or cheeses, adorned our table in no time at all. It’s kind of like an inside-out empanada. This past May, my wife and I were introduced to them in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, by chance, and since then, I’d been dreaming about the next time I could go back and have them again. Fortunately for me, one of the sous chefs that evening had spent time in El Salvador, and has been preparing them to the best of his ability ever since.
It was topped with a pickled onions and sat atop a small puddle of salsa verde. It was absolutely tremendous, and honestly, I wanted to lick the plate clean.
After that, was the main course, or the “Plato Principal.” Quite simply, it was a trio of tacos, each with their own unique brand of flavoring. The braised chard taco went quite well with the roasted heirloom salsa, whereas I felt the Cochinita pibil made with citrus marinated, roasted pork was well accompanied by salsa macha, which was made from peanuts, chiles, oils, and evidently, a lot of love.
But the star of the show was the black mole chicken, made with Flatlander chocoloate, of course. The chicken on the grill was slow cooked to perfection, and then pulled and dredged in a very mild but flavorful black mole. With a small drizzle of the crema and a little queso fresco, it might have been one of the most delicious hand held meals I have ever had in my life.
Chef Brechin, however, was not without help. In fact, over twenty people volunteered their time in order to make the meal happen. Notable contributors included Laurence Mate, lovingly known as Larbo around town, for his sophisticated knowledge of charcuterie; Jason Berg, who prepared the pupusas, another former Smile Politely contributor, Alisa DeMarco, and Mel Farrell, whose beet ceviche / carpacchio very well may have been the most delicious thing on the menu. Did I say that about a couple other items? OK. But to be fully honest — their contributions were a perfect compliment to Jason’s vision. Each of them enacted their dishes extremely well.
We finished with a pair of flans, one was spiced vanilla, and the other was Flatlander chocolate, of course. Again, it was the chocolate that shined brightly here. It was paired with a Tawny Port, which is a traditional Portuguese dessert wine, that I find to be a little too sweet. Just my personal tastes.
In the end, though, this was a meal well worth the money spent. Each bite, each flavor, I was reminded of the reason we were there, and why it is important. Since his death, I have come up with a motto with which to live by, and I felt now would be an appropriate time to share that.
“Do it like Daniel.”
It’s something that has been floating in my head for weeks now. Do it like Daniel. Do things the right way. Do it with care and with love. Don’t cut corners. Take the necessary steps. Do it like Daniel.
I’ve had a difficult time trying to write about my feelings about his passing this last month. I’ve had a number of absolutely horrible things happen to people in my life this summer, and the truth is that Daniel and I weren’t really all that close. Oh sure, we made nice at the Market, and we had mutual friends, and my wife and I always bought his chocolate. And then there was the time that I saw him on the side of the road by my Grammy’s house, on the weekend of her death, picking wild black raspberries; we spoke for five minutes about his plans for them (“just eat them”) and why he wasn’t going to use them in chocolate (“too many ideas in the queue as it is”). But the fact remains — we weren’t close. At least, not yet.
But we had something in common. Daniel saw Champaign-Urbana as fertile ground with which to work. In any medium, this place provides opportunity. Look at our Farmer’s Market. Look at our still-relatively-strong economy. With the help of the University, Roger Ebert created a world-class film festival. Mike Kulas turned his small tech ideas into a video game company that is known worldwide. Stephen Wolfram changed the way we process equations virtually.
In my own small way, I am trying to pitch in. I created a music festival from thin air. I helped organize this very magazine with minds certainly greater than my own.
Daniel created artisan chocolate so good it made people weep upon his death.
And that’s why I was always so supportive of him and this project. It’s why I am choosing to be a participant in building the Flatlander Fund. In this town, and across the world, we need people to step up and do important things, and to do them right. We need a community kitchen so that your friends and neighbors can express themselves through their food. I encourage all of you to consider doing the same. It matters more than you may realize.
Do it like Daniel.
All Photos by Justine Fein-Bursoni