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SF Chefs Dinner Party Project #6: Family Night: Going Basque

7x7 is proud to sponsor SF Chefs, the annual, hotly-anticipated food/wine/spirits bonanza that is the quintessential San Francisco culinary experience. The event occurs July 30th through August 5th, and offers guests exclusive access to the city's most innovative and lauded industry professionals and personalities.

An excellent preview of SF Chefs, the Dinner Party Project is a unique series of dining events inspired and curated by local chefs who have developed deep friendships and connections in an intense industry. "Whether they meet at the market each week, work in the kitchen side-by-side or just love getting together for late-night adventures, San Francisco chefs share a special bond. Throughout June and July, these friends will collaborate for one night only, sharing with diners a glimpse into their friendships, cooking styles and culinary dreams."

Want tickets to a dinner? Click here.

Each dinner commences with a specialty aperitif using Campari, the project's presenting sponsor. A portion of the proceeds from each dinner benefits the Center for Urban Education and Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA).

Want secret recipes and entertaining tips from these fabulous chefs? Get them here.

Top Chef alumna and Scala's Bistro chef Jen Biesty first met Grand Cafe chef Alicia Jenish at Loretta Keller's Bizou, where they often collaborated on Basque-inspired dishes. With restaurants located a few blocks from each other, the two friends often meet for after-work dinner or drinks. For their edition of the Dinner Party Project, the pair returned to the flavors they explored under Keller. The Basque region, located between France and Spain, is known for its exciting fusion of the two cuisines, and many restaurants in SF, from Gerald Hirigoyen's longstanding Piperade to newer entries like Txoko and Bask, have embraced Basque flavors in their cooking.

For their Dinner Party Project collaboration, Biesty and Jenish carved out a nook of the sprawling Grand Cafe for diners, while regular dinner service continued in the rest of the restaurant. The dinner began with an aperitif, "Sol du Basque," featuring Campari, sparkling rose, a summer citrus and thyme granite, and lemon oil. Named for a 1920s gang that smuggled booze across the French-Spanish border, it provided a light, refreshing start that echoed the chefs' extensive use of peak-season summer produce. 

Though the dinner was advertised as family-style, there wasn't much sharing for most of the meal, with diners receiving their own plates. The enormous portions, however, would have been enough to feed a family. I could have made a meal out of the first course alone, a giant slab of grilled bread topped with a heaping scoop of salt cod brandade and flanked by outstanding heirloom tomatoes and a basil pistou. Instead, I ended up having to leave my plate unfinished to save room for the three courses that followed.

The second course, chunks of charred baby octopus served alongside mini-toasts with saffron aioli and an olive-celery heart vinaigrette, was my favorite dish of the night. The texture of the octopus was yielding, not chewy, and contrasted nicely with the crunchy char on its exterior, while the vinaigrette added pleasant acid notes to the octopus' natural sweetness. 

The third course was a take on marmitako, the classic Basque fisherman's stew of tuna, potatoes, green peppers, and onions. It's typically made with chunks of tuna cooked in the broth, but Biesty and Jenish took a fine-dining approach, cooking the stew first and then topping it with slices of grilled ahi, still rare in the center. Atop each bowl was a piece of toast slathered in black squid-ink aioli, which made for some dangerous dining (I was lucky enough to be wearing all black, but my white napkin looked like newsprint by the time I was finished). 

Finally, each member of our table received a small mound of shredded hay-roasted suckling pig, accompanied by dishes of rich romesco sauce, garlicky green sauce, and pork jus. To accompany the meat, we also received bowls of roasted wild greens and softly simmered cranberry beans. Unfortunately, our table's appetites had slackened after three big courses, and none of us ended up doing much justice to the succulent pork. (I ended up taking the leftovers home for lunch the next day, as did most of our table.)

Perhaps recognizing that they'd been sending out a fair amount of food, Jenish and Biesty significantly scaled down their dessert, a tiny portion of summer fruit sorbet topped with berries. The refreshing sorbet made for a nice conclusion to the heavy meal. 

Our meal was accompanied by Basque wines, including a 2010 Chiroulet La Cote de Heux white for the brandade, an Ameztia rosé for the octopus and stew, and a rich, tannic Irouleguy Rouge to pair with the pork. 

As we finished our desserts, Biesty and Jenish made the rounds, discussing their process and the dishes we'd tasted. Jenish had had a busy past few days, entrusting the roasting of suckling pig to a nervous sous chef while she competed in the previous evening's American Lamb Jam. And the secret to Biesty's romesco sauce? She adds a little bread-- which, she says, doesn't seem to keep her from eating it on bread by the spoonful.