To be completely honest, upon receiving an invitation to go sample and hear about the cold cuts and cheeses that Anvil Bar & Refuge consulting chef Erin Smith would be putting on the menu, my initial reaction was not enthusiasm, but rather skepticisim.
With so much great experience under her belt -- Smith's background includes stints at Per Se, Babbo and Italian Wine Merchants -- I was surprised to hear that one of her apparently most prominent contributions to Anvil's new menu was a charcuterie board.
"How great can it be?" I wondered.
The answer? More than great -- spectacular, as proved by Smith's introduction and explanation of her hand-picked selections.
Smith is more knowledgeable and well-versed in the world of cold cuts and cheeses than anyone I have ever met. She picked up a lot of knowledge on the subject while working at Babbo, where she would accompany the chef that she worked under to a small kiosk on a daily basis to choose what would be served at the restaurant. While they were mainly focused on choosing Italian cheeses for the restaurant, Smith got to sample countless cheeses from all over the world, which developed her palate and passion for one of the world's most beloved and utilized foods.
Smith was excited when she began to develop the new menu at Anvil, as she was finally able to do something with that cheese knowledge she had been keeping in her back pocket throughout her time in Houston. Thus, she created the "Erin's Plate", which includes four cheeses and three meats -- each with its own unique flavor and personality, none of them like the others. The selection is accompanied with batuta, or grilled bread and a house-made cherry syrup.
The cheeses on the board have been "hunted down from all over the world," according to Smith. Without exception, each of the cheeses is difficult to get and very rare. The lineup is as follows:
Robbiola Due Latte from Italy: a super approachable, mild, thin-rinded soft cheese made with cow and sheep's milk cheese that melts in your mouth
Garrotxa from Spain: a semi-hard mild goat's milk cheese with a gray, ashy rind, that tasted to me like a marriage of Manchego and wine-cured goat cheese
Quadrello di Bufala from Italy: an extremely rare, tangy buffalo milk's cheese, similar to toleggio
Caveman Bleu from Rogue Creamery in Oregon: an absolute show-stopper and crowd favorite, a smokey bleu cheese that Smith pictures pairing with Scotch
All of meats currently on the board (the selection of both meats and cheeses will change every so often) come from Creminielli Fine Meats out of Salt Lake City. The debuting selection is:
Finocchiona: a salami with tradiitonal Italian charcuterie taste, a lot of fennel flavor
Bresaola Piccola: a fantastically thin, dry cured meat made with beef eye round, seasoned only with salt and pepper
Wild Boar Salami: a thick-cut, fantastic blend of Texas boar and pork belly with warm spices like clove
The idea with the meat program is to highlight one company at a time -- preferably small companies -- so that they can gain more exposure. Smith will also personally ensure that any company that is highlighted gives off a great vibe -- one that matches Anvil's.
Even the board that the fine meats and cheeses are served on is a little treasure.
"Are you laid back?" I asked Smith over her charcuterie. "Because the Anvil guys are really laid back."
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With a perilous side glance, Smith answered: "No. Not really," punctuated by a sweet smile. She recounted the exchange between her and Steve Walters, who designed and hand-crafted the custom boards. What she wanted in the boards was something reminiscent of the aesthetics at Anvil -- a bit masculine in nature, with a pop of color. This was accomplished using wood of various tones, along with colored stains that match the color palate inside of Anvil. And the board, just like the contents it carries, and the drinks which will accompany it, is rare and refined.
If the additional six or so menu items that Smith is introducing --including a BLT, popped-to-order Campari popcorn, lamb meatballs, and a street pretzel accompanied with queso blanco and chorizo -- continue this rare and refined pattern, it won't be long before people start going to Anvil not just for its stellar cocktails but also for its spectacular food.