PANAMA CITY BEACH — Chef Mike Meek, who has cultivated a following of foodies during the past seven years at Liza’s Kitchen, carries his dining decadence and whimsical fun into his cooking classes next door.
“This is a chance for us to offer dinner service without having to do it every night,” Chef Mike said Friday night during his Wild Game cooking class.
The classes are a perfect pairing for Chef Mike and his wife, Sommelier Cat Meek. On Friday, their 7-year-old daughter, Liza, joined family members at a table in the back of the dining room, packed with more than 30 guests.
“We’re a big happy family, so just make yourself at home,” Cat said.
My husband and I sat at the end of one of five long tables, next to two women who “sign up for the whole year” — at least the half of the year they spend living in Florida.
“Anybody who knows Mike and I know we weren’t able to hunt and gather,” said Cat, referring to the night’s theme. Relying on help from local hunters, Chef Mike welcomed the challenge of getting out of his “element.”
A gold mirror hung over his working space, allowing guests to see his every move while preparing each of the four courses. His demonstration also airs on a flatscreen TV that hangs from the ceiling. Dinner guests are given a menu for the feast, each course with a wine pairing, and can follow along with the recipes on the back.
As if the aroma of Chef Mike’s cooking wouldn’t be enough to whet the appetite, the class began with an Amuse Bouche of Venison Chili — rich bites of ground venison, beans and spices served with a light square of cornbread.
“It’s a French term meaning ‘small amusement’ for the mouth to get you excited for the rest of the meal,” Cat explained.
The dining room’s gray walls were filled with artwork, while the tables were draped in white cloths for an atmosphere of warm indulgence sprinkled with sophistication.
The first course was Stuffed Quail filled with spinach and diced portobello mushroom on a bed of arugula with herb oil and balsamic. After the onions, garlic and mushrooms were sautéed, spinach and panko breadcrumbs were added to the pan.
“I am using panko to make it a little bit lighter,” said Chef Mike. “We have a lot of heavy dishes this evening.”
A little herb oil was drizzled on the arugula, which naturally “has a nice peppery flavor,” and the balsamic and shallots were drizzled over the quail. As plates of stuffed quail came out from the kitchen, the room was filled with the fragrance of herbs. The flavor was as delicate as the texture, and the stuffing was delicious enough to have eaten on its own.
The first course was paired with a creamy Franciscan Chardonnay 2000 Napa Valley, California. “I picked it because the chili was big and the quail is softer for a lighter pair up,” Cat said. “It’s one of those wines you don’t really need food for, but it makes it better. Cheers!”
The second course was an Elk Sausage with caramelized Fuji apples, pancetta and chard.
“Elk is leaner than turkey or chicken,” said Chef Mike as he showed off the bright red meat. “There’s hardly any fat, so we have to rectify that situation. I add ground bacon for smokiness, two parts elk to one part bacon fat.”
He has an “infatuation with bacon,” and went for a half-pound of the “extra salty” Italian version, pancetta, to add to the chard. Even if the nutrient-rich chard doesn’t cancel out the bacon fat, the combination was absolutely delicious and served as the bed for the elk sausage garnished with microgreens. From a table toward the front of the dining room, I heard “Oh my goodness there it is,” as her dish was presented to her.
“While you’re enjoying it, I hope you are sipping on the pinot noir wine,” Cat said.
The Elk Sausage was paired with the Pali “Riviera” Pinot Noir 2010 Sonoma Coast, California, my favorite of the evening. “The wine hails from a nice climate that keeps it from being overpowering and the acidity perfect,” Cat said. “2010 was awesome.”
For the third course, it was Drunken Boar with grit cake served with a PQ Red Cuvee 2009 California with “floral notes.” This was winter comfort food at its best. The Drunken Boar, cooked in Southern Pecan Lazy Magnolia Beer, reminded me of a tender pot roast that was neatly plated on the slightly crispy grit cake and garnished with chervil.
“The regulars have learned to get to-go boxes,” Chef Mike said.
It hadn’t occurred to me to save room for dessert, Homemade S’mores with Bosco del Merlo Soandre 2006 Veneto, Italy, that “answers to the marshmallow,” Cat said. I couldn’t resist a bite of the grown-up version with fresh mint.
“Anytime you think of camping and hunting, you think of s’mores,” said Chef Mike, who made the marshmallows and graham crackers from scratch, melted down the chocolate and used a torch to heat it up.
The Meeks called on a “taste tester, the world’s most aficionado of s’mores,” Liza. She took a huge bite before wearing marshmallow and a large smile on her face.
“S’mores are meant to be eaten with hands,” Chef Mike said.
COOKING WITH CHEF MIKE
When: 6 p.m. Feb. 15-16 for Rock-N-Roll (menu inspired by some of Chef Mike's favorite songs); March 15-16 for European Favorites (new ideas from a recent family trip to Europe)
Where: Next door to Liza’s Kitchen, 7328 Thomas Drive, Panama City Beach
Cost: $50 per person; $75 with wine pairings (prices include tax and gratuity)
Reservations required: (850) 233-9000