This was the greeting I received from my co-worker as I carefully made my way inside San Francisco's annual Taste of the Nation event, where the city's star chefs and mixologists come together to raise money for Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign. And, of course, to share some of the most innovative culinary artistry in the world.
Carefully, and in awe. The room was tightly packed with people crowding around tables manned by each restaurant, diners reaching past each other for bites of local crudo, poached veal tongue and Tuscan kale crostini.
But back to the deviled eggs. History has a tendency to repeat itself, as we know, and in our world of Mad Men theme parties and home canning enthusiasm, this retro classic is back. Jasper's Corner Tap & Kitchen served two original versions: one spring-themed "Caesar" deviled egg with fresh peas and crab meat, and another Romesco variety with a deep, smoky flavor and a Marcona almond.
Chef Jennifer Puccio and her team, from Marlowe and the recently opened Park Tavern, offered their own "Deviled Egg Love Child," topped with bacon and pickled jalapeno. The style was more traditional than the others, but still packed with bold flavor -- and nothing your grandmother would have served.
Another starring ingredient of the night was duck -- smoked, cured and confited. Smoked at FIVE, where breast meat paired with black garlic and a gypsy pepper agrodolce. The Monk's Kettle showcased two cuts and styles: cured breast and leg confit, both served on rye bread with pickled slaw and carrot mostarda. The Grand Café carried slow-cooked duck a step further into a rillette with pickled vegetables and house-made mustard.
A Renaissance of interest in traditional French charcuterie was evident. Rabbit terrine, pork rillette and a wild boar galantine upstaged sausages and other salumi, showcasing the distinct and often subtle flavors of each meat. A variety of pickled vegetables -- and even one aspic! -- made for unique accompaniments, their tart flavors balancing the fattiness of the charcuterie.
Crudo, unsurprisingly, took center stage as well, in the form of steak tartare and albacore sushi. Chef Marc Zimmerman of Alexander's Steakhouse delivered both to perfection. The restaurant's "original" hamachi shot blew me away with traditional Japanese flavors of avocado, ginger and jalapeno. But the presentation was truly something special to behold: the crudo bite enclosed in a clear plastic sphere, as if an edible bubble. Their steak tartare was no less playful, served like a potted plant in truffled soil with sprigs of herbs reaching toward the ceiling.
Spring is the ideal season to hold such a culinary carnival, as chefs are excited to experiment with the season's new bounty. Favas paired with smoked mussels at the Commonwealth table, where Chef Jason Fox is at the helm. Sunchokes were cooked into a fondant by Chef Josh Thomsen of Meritage at The Claremont. Chef Walter Abrams of Spruce served a handmade ricotta gnudi with English peas, proving fresh, local and organic always wins.
The most imaginative vegetable dishes starred the resolute spring staple, asparagus. Chef Dmitry Elperin of The Village Pub prepared a savory asparagus panna cotta with lemon creme fraiche, silky and grassy. AQ Restaurant & Bar's sampling from Chef Mark Liberman was arguably the most memorable of the evening: asparagus "textures" with white chocolate and charred celery oil, a seemingly bizarre combination of custard and vegetable that highlighted asparagus' delicate flavor.
The Bay Area food culture sometimes consists of two teams butting heads: the innovators of nouveau flavors and techniques, and the ingredient purists. The latter performed just as well in this bout. Beretta's walnut bread bruschetta with burrata and truffled honey (from Chef Ruggero Gadaldi) inspired a moment of closed-eye silence.
Gin seemed to be the mixologists' darling of the moment, perhaps because its refreshing juniper flavor complements seasonal fruit juice so well. The spirit formed the foundation of two cocktails from Jessica Maria and Keli Rivers of Hotsy Totsy, both infused with the flavors of tea, citrus and bitters. Jon Gasparini from Rye paired maraschino, grapefruit and black pepper with rye gin; expert Scott Beattie mixed the spirit with lemon and huckleberries and infused his drink with bay leaves.
But there's a lesson to be learned from the cocktail participants: you'll get more attention if you have some fun. Martin Cate and his Smuggler's Cove team brought tiki to the grand event space at the Bently Reserve, ladling drinks out of a giant punch bowl, illuminated and bubbling like a cauldron. Their "Project 4S" combined fruit juices, wildflower honey and black rum for a potent cocktail with a sense of humor.
The purpose of the evening was at the root of the festivities; guests made donations between wining and dining, and participants' good food and drinks were born from an admirable cause.
"All the chefs' time and all the restaurants' food is donated," says Debbie Shore, co-founder and associate director of Share Our Strength, which is committed to ending childhood hunger in America through various policy initiatives. Raising awareness -- that's a worthy reason to raise a glass.
Follow Olivia on Williams-Sonoma's blog The Blender for recipes, cooking tips and chef spotlights.