2016 Dish of the Year: Szechuan Pastrami Panuozzo

by Charlottesville29

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I have this thing.

Whenever I come across an extraordinary dish, I have an impulse to share. If I’m dining with others, I’ll give it to them. If I’m alone, I’ll blurt about it on social media, or even offer it to strangers. The aim, I imagine, is to bring to others the same human-created joy I am experiencing, as if to say: “look what we are capable of.” I used to think this was a universal part of human nature, but years ago when I told a friend about it, he said he has the opposite reaction: hoard the good stuff. Alas, universal or not, the strength of my impulse to share a dish has become a trusty indicator of how much I enjoyed it.

In choosing my 2016 Dish of the Year, then, a place to start was recalling dishes that caused me to share. Not surprisingly, the most common place for this to happen was Lampo, the Belmont steakhouse pizzeria where chef-owners Mitchell BeerensLoren Mendosa, and Ian Redshaw never stop dreaming up delicious specials to complement an already stellar menu. And, sure enough, the standout among all of the year’s impulse-triggering dishes came from Lampo’s kitchen. It was one I enjoyed so much that, after tasting it, I took to social media to tell as many people as I could, emailed friends I hadn’t seen in months, and even forced it upon the stranger sitting beside me at the bar.

My 2016 Dish of the Year is Lampo’s Szechuan Pastrami Panuozzo with burnt corn aioli, Brussels sprouts slaw, Schnebelhorn cheese, and ramp kimchi.

Panuozzi are essentially sandwiches made from pizza dough. At Lampo, they all start with the same foundation: a beautiful, warm, soft, oval of dough, irregularly charred with spots of enhanced flavor by the extreme heat of the wood-burning oven. That heat allows Lampo to cook the bread to order, in a matter of seconds. What didn’t take seconds is the time and effort Lampo’s chefs spent perfecting the dough, yielding an ideal building-block for a sandwich. Hot out of the oven, the bread  is sliced open and stuffed with any of the menu’s variety of combinations. Last year, three chefs named one – the porchetta – as the best thing they ate all year. This year, a chef named another one – the polpettine – as best of the year.

My choice for dish of the year was a special panuozzo created by Ian Redshaw, and drew on two of his great strengths as a chef: a passion for meat and a knack for combining flavors. A devotee of charcuterie, Redshaw became inspired to make pastrami in April after learning that Katz’s Deli – NYC’s temple of pastrami – survived a possible closure. So, he tracked down the finest brisket he could find, from Sherwood Farm, and set to work. More than two months of work.

First, he dry-aged the brisket for sixty days. Next, he brined it in equilibrium for a week. After that, he dried it overnight in a coating of Szechuan pepper, fennel pollen, and Aleppo pepper. Finally, he smoked it with wood from leftover bourbon barrels. That’s just the meat.

To assemble the sandwich, he drew on other inspirations at the time. “I had been obsessing about corn aioli, and it happened to burn, creating another layer of flavor,” he says. Though he initially imagined sauerkraut with the pastrami, “on the fly” he switched to Lampo’s popular Brussels sprouts salad. As for the cheese, Redshaw had recently received a sample of one he thought would work well from Nadjeeb Chouaf, the national cheesemonger of the year. And, finally, the most assertive ingredient of all was a kimchi of ramps Redshaw had arranged to be made by Sussex Farm.

As a home cook, I can follow recipes, and I have even reached the point of adding my own riffs to techniques I have come to understand. But, only a gifted chef like Redshaw, who also created the 2015 Dish of the Year, has the mental palate to “taste” combinations of flavors in his mind without even putting them in his mouth. Combinations that trigger the sharing impulse.

“Shake-my-head good,” I wrote on social media. “I can’t believe how good this is,” I emailed a chef I hadn’t seen in months. When he asked where, I responded: “Lampo. Sorry for the random email, but when I enjoy something this much, I inevitably have an irresistible impulse to share.” And, share I did. I sliced off a quarter of the sandwich, and slid it down the bar to the unsuspecting man beside me. Lucky guy.

The next day, I went back and had it again. Did I enjoy it just as much? No.

More.