McCallister Plays at Restaurant Ava

by David Donalson

When I heard that Matt McCallister was returning from his stage at McCrady’s to come back and “Play” with the boys at Reataurant Ava, I jumped at the chance to get tickets. I was one of the lucky 13 to grab a seat and enjoy the ride.

Play was a nine course tasting menu with wine pairings done by Randall Copeland, who did a fantastic job. Each dish was executed well but there were some standouts. The first dish that caught our attention was Chef McCallister’s Charred Octopus. Knowing Chef McCallister’s penchant for molecular gastronomy, the table was still surprised by the texture of the octopus and it’s supporting cast. The octopus had texture but was not chewy, supported by a surprising light squid ink potato puree that had most of the starch removed, leaving a smooth, creamy yet flavorful counterpoint. The orange pieces brought harmony to all of the components. This was also the best wine pairing of the night. I loved how the Bodegas Juan Gil, a 100% Montrasell from Jumilla in Spain, had enough acidity to work with the orange to brighten the octopus and potato while having enough body to not be overwhelmed by the squid ink potato. Well done Chef Copeland. This was the highlight of the evening for me. Every other dish was fantastic but this is the one dish that I kept thinking and talking about throughout the evening.

Following the octopus was Chefs Randall Copeland and Nathan Tate’s amazing Chicken 2 Ways course. It should have said 3 ways because it had the most amazing piece of skin, a deep fried chicken oyster that melted in your mouth and an unbelievably moist chicken breast sitting atop a carrot puree with baby fennel. The skin melted in your mouth. Words cannot describe how good this was. The chicken breast with the carrot puree and fennel provided a symphony of creamy, savory and sweet balanced across the palate. This was some of the best chicken I have ever had.

While I enjoyed the fry on Chef McCallister’s next dish of sweetbreads, Chefs Copeland and Tate brought out a cavatelli with fiddle heads, morels, pancetta and a garlic espuna that was dynamite. The key to this dish was the pancetta. The pancetta balanced the sweet flavors from the roasted garlic in the espuna, the earthy flavors of the mushrooms and the creamy flavors and textures of the cavatelli. This was my wife’s favorite dish and for good reason as all of the flavors of your palate were singing.

Between the pasta course and the last dessert course was a seaweed cured pork loin by Chef McCallister and a Strawberry-Rhubarb fried pie with a goat cheese sorbet by Chefs Copeland and Tate. Both were excellent and worthy of mention but the final piece to the Play was Chef McCallister’s homage to the Kit-Kat bar. It was a napoleon of dark chocolate, nutella and peanut butter, balanced with bitter orange. This desert showed balance across the palate with the bitterness of the dark chocolate complimenting the acidity in the orange and the sweet creaminess of the peanut butter. This was a great way to end the meal.

By the end of the night, everybody had tasted 9 courses and 7 different wines. Everybody had a great time and the only arguments of the night were over which course was the favorite. With 13 people present, 7 different dishes were called favorites by the table, showing the quality and range of the flavors put in front of us making this an absolutely wonderful evening.

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