One More Final Friday
By Derrick McKee
I’m a big fan of knowing exactly when a certain event will take place. For instance, I already know I have plans every single year on the first Saturday of March (Wheeling Celtic Festival at the Artisan Center), the Saturday before Labor Day (Wheeling Wine and Jazz Festival at Heritage Port), and the first Saturday of October (OGLEBAYFEST!). Those dates are blocked out on my calendar for years to come and are non-negotiable, because I love those events, and those events always take place during a specific weekend, as opposed to revolving dates.
Now, I can add the final Friday of every month to the list as the Vagabond Kitchen, Wheeling’s newest restaurant (and probably the closest we have to a full-blown gastropub) has announced the monthly Final Friday Dinner Series.
Here’s how it works: Matt Welsch, also known as the Vagabond Chef, tinkers in his laboratory all month long to pull together the perfect combination of seasonal, mouth-watering offerings, presented in the style of a four course dinner. Patrons have to reserve their seat at the table in advance, and then the chef prepares the appropriate amount of plates.
While you dine at a family-style big table, which I love because it encourages interaction with other foodies you might not know in the community, live music plays in the background via classical-guitarist, Aaron Carey.
My wife and I had the opportunity to go to the August Final Friday dinner with two friends who had just moved back to town (having lived in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, they were self-described ‘food snobs’, so I had to give them a bit of a hard-sell). Once they heard the menu though, they were down.
Since autumn was knocking on summer’s door, the course-offering was ripe with late-summer ingredients.
Course 1: Watermelon Gespacho w/ cucumber moons and a chunk of fresh watermelon.
Gazpacho had become one of my summertime favorites up in Fairlawn. I honestly hadn’t heard of it before moving there, so I didn’t know what to think of cold soup the first time I had it. Since the gazpacho I had previously usually involved green or red tomatoes and a hint of lemon, I didn’t know what to think about one featuring watermelon, a fruit I don’t really ever crave.
But I’ll be damned: this was the star of the whole meal. And not to take anything away from the rest of the meal, but every single one of us went into this course thinking, “Ehhh…” but came out saying, “Can I get more of that?”
It was cold, it had the classic red tomato base, it had chunks of watermelon to sweeten up the pot, yet it had an undercurrent of cayenne pepper to add a kick. The cucumbers added an extra refreshing twist to the soup, because that’s what cucumbers do.
Course 2: Crunchy Spring Salad w/ red and green cabbage with spinach, kale, and rainbow chard lightly dressed in blueberry vinaigrette.
A year ago, my buddy and I joked that the only salads we could find in West Virginia started with “ice” and ended in “berg”. Arugula? Forget about it. Spinach or kale? Forget about it. Well, the Vagabond Chef must have heard about this, because he threw things at my I didn’t even know existed. Rainbow chard? Huh?
This salad was excellent. Cabbage is always an under-appreciated vegetable, and adds so much texture and crunch to each bite, especially when filled out with softer greens like the ones mentioned above. The blueberry vinaigrette kept on with the late-summer fruit-harvest theme, and was delicious. I tried mimicking this dressing at home, and came no where close. So, hat tip to the true chef!
Course 3: Strawberry Glazed Pork Loin with smashed garlic red potatoes, and crusted summer squash.
I’ve had berries and chicken before, but it never occurred to me to throw berries in with pork. Again, that’s why I’m an amateur chef, and Matt Welsch is the real deal. The pork was tender and full of taste, because well, it’s pork, and that’s how it comes! But the glazed berries really paired well and complimented the savory fats and flavors found naturally in pork.
As far as the potatoes go, I’m Irish. I’ve never met a potato I didn’t like!
Course 4: Fresh Apple Pie Drizzled with fresh banana cream
I mean, who doesn’t love home-made apple pie?! Turns out this chef can bake some treats just as well as he can smoke some meats!
From the presentation of the table which encouraged meeting new friends, to the atmosphere created by the music, to the excellent food served, this entire event was classy, top-notch, and could hold its own against any big-city sit-down. The only difference? Price. Morgan and I got out alive well under $75.00. Not bad for the amount of food consumed, the theme, and the atmosphere. I would expect to pay every bit of $120 for a similar meal 50 miles up interstate 79 in the City of Champions.
If you’re looking for a nice night out with friends, or need a great place to go to celebrate a special occasion, I suggest circling a Final Friday of any month on your calendar, and calling the Vagabond Kitchen to make your reservations. You’re guaranteed to be served something you never would have thought about before, and odds are great that you’ll love it.
NOTE: Vagabond Kitchen serves amazing “high end comfort food” (I call it “creative, excellent food”) Monday through Saturday, and presents a Sunday Brunch Buffet weekly. Prices range anywhere from fresh soup, salads, and apps for under $10, and lunches/dinners from $8 to $20 depending on what you’re looking for. I recommend the Korean Pulled Pork Tacos, and the homemade chips and salsa.