Friday, September 20, 2013

Bravo! Unplugged

   When fall butts into summer, our Michigan days turn windy and dismal as we cuss out our favorite football teams every week. Seasonal micro-brewed beer is what's done best in these parts. Michigan is 5th in the nation when it comes to its 131 established breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs. These places are all about reaping what we sow, making harvest time a brewer's dream. I was undoubtedly down, when a buddy of mine and his wife asked me to grab a beer with them. Little did we know, our evening would take quite an exciting turn.

   Nick Chard, a mutual friend of ours, is the manager and brew master at Bravo! Restaurant and Cafe in Kalamazoo, MI. We met here to try his brand new seasonal brew, Pumpkin-Pie-P.A., and it was phenomenal. As our friend so cleverly described it, "Just enough spice, to make it nice!". He was right, the spice was so nice, the pumpkin prominent and yet it still quenched our thirst like a refreshing beer. My hope was to enjoy this beer, a couple of other craft brews, take some notes and blog about this booming industry in our great state. However, Bravo! Restaurant and Cafe had more to offer than just delicious beer on a warm fall evening.

   Executive Chef and partner at the restaurant, Shawn Hagen, was hosting one of his many themed cooking classes. Without hesitation, we accepted the offer to join the group for the night. My buddy, his wife and I immersed ourselves among 20 or so strangers. Everyone seemed adventurous and enthused by the "Spicing Up Your Life" theme for the night. Then again, it could have just been the wine service. Chef Shawn commenced with his spiel. He discussed each menu item and the recipes in their entirety (mainly focusing on the spices and marinades used to prepare them.). A half hour passed and it was time to start cooking like an All-Star Chef. 

   We broke down into small groups, each taking on a food prep station. We were making 8 different gourmet recipes all at the same time. The menu was chocked full of flavor: Cajun Beer Shrimp, Grilled Caribbean Jerk Chicken with Roasted Corn Relish, Seared Yellow Fin Tuna with Soy Wasabi and Sesame Seeds, Grilled Portabella Mushroom Sliders, Oriental Salmon with Bok Choy Slaw, Sauteed Beef Tenderloin with Bearnaise Sauce, Blueberry BBQ Chicken Thighs, and Sauteed Whitefish with White Wine Reduction Sauce. Needless to say, when it was all over, we didn't go hungry.
   The next 45 minutes were hilarious. This was a hands on cooking class with the perfect mix of casual supervision, kick-ass recipes and plenty of wine. Chef Shawn busted out the Weber Grill for this class and even walked inside to show everyone the chimney full of hot coals. As he so enthusiastically put it, "It's like a jet-engine!". It was great to see him walking around with that flaming hot apparatus. Everyone worked as a team, laughed off any mistakes and made some delicious food. I know I wasn't the only one that worked up a sweat in there. 

(Damn, I look creepy right here. Note the glisten.)

   We portioned the food when it was done cooking and plated each item on a heavy white platter. Chef Shawn congratulated the whole group and addressed the flavors we should be tasting in each dish. After that, we served ourselves up buffet style. We sat around a few linen covered banquet tables, wearing aprons, admiring the delicacies we just created and made friends with our new cooking partners. We all had a blast and learned something while we were at it. You know, it was really just like "home-ec" for grown-ups. My friends and I agreed, we would definitely do it again.
   It made for the perfect impromptu evening. We came there to enjoy one of Nick's handcrafted seasonal beers. Only to have left with our thirsts quenched AND our culinary skills sharpened. Bravo! Restaurant and Cafe has always been a favorite of many people. They are a staple in Kalamazoo and all of Michigan. Recently, they were voted the "Best Italian Cafe & Brunch" in the state. Damn good work guys!
   I believe Chef Shawn holds these classes a couple times a month, all with different themes and focuses. My friends and I agreed, it would be a great change of pace to get a larger group of old (and new) friends together for some socializing with a twist. Throw some of those delicious micro-brews into the mix and it's a party for your palette too!
   Thanks Nick. Thanks Shawn. Also thanks to your helpers Joe and Angie for keeping us in line and cleaning up after us. We can't stop bragging about all of you, and we'll be back to see you really soon!

Scotty J ~ Bravo! ....Bravo!

Bravo! Restaurant & Cafe - Best Italian Cafe & Brunch - Michigan 2013