By Lenora Dannelke, Photography by Jason Hook
Chef Jason Hook’s new restaurant and B&B, H20 Kitchen @ the Powder Valley Inn, operated in partnership with Angel Jamison, isn’t officially open yet, but a preview series of prix-fixe pop-up dinners is providing the Lehigh Valley with a glimpse of his imaginative interpretation of progressive American cuisine. Although a sylvan setting in Zionsville by a babbling stream is alluring to prospective guests, the restaurant’s apparent exclusivity–with limited seating and a select operating schedule–is avant-garde for this area. And that makes an already inherently risky business venture an even greater gamble. If you’re a gustatory thrill seeker, though, Hook’s H2O Kitchen concept just might float your boat.
Each menu, developed around a gastronomic theme, is a multi-course event that may span from seven to twenty-one tasting courses. The focus will vary, too, driven by beverage pairings, such as scotch (already held) or craft beer (February 22); or nostalgia, such as the whimsical departure, “American Retro Comfort,” (a.k.a. the “White Trash” dinner) which will translate junk food favorites into true food art (February 29). Plans are in the works for a “Veggie” tasting dinner (March 7). With dinner prices ranging between $75 and $175, these are not meals to be grabbed a couple of times a week because you don’t feel like cooking. These are events for which you want to score a table (it’s first-come, first-served) and put on your calendar. Even when the restaurant renovations are complete and the opening is official, Hook plans to continue offering set tasting menus to the exclusion of a la carte ordering—and only on select evenings. With a limited number of seats at a large communal table, plus a few premium chef’s table spots at the kitchen counter. Hook is even considering filling some of those limited seats by invitation only.
This all sounds rather elitist, right? Well, there’s more to the story.
After looking at twenty-seven potential restaurant sites across the Lehigh Valley, Hook and Jamison settled in December on an eighteenth-century gun powder-turned-grist mill in a wooded setting just south of Emmaus. It’s situated not far from Jamison Publick House and The Limeport Inn, restaurants that pastry-chef Jamison co-owns with her husband Mark. An adjacent waterfall and stream that once powered the mill provides the property with a soothing soundtrack, and a logical choice for the restaurant name.
The seller of the property had spent nine years and $175,000 refurbishing the mill and furnishing it as a future four-bedroom B&B, each with a private bath. Considering the rustic locale and historic nature of the building, the aesthetics of the interior are surprising and refreshing. Instead of the expected Victorian chintz, tchotchkes, cabbage roses and ruffles, the design is pure mid-century Modern: Sleek, chic, and Mad Men masculine. The partners were able to acquire all the furnishings, many of which are near-museum quality, with the property.
They then consulted with Knoll, the iconic furniture manufacturer located in East Greenville. The company was in need of a high-tech meeting space and accommodations for visiting clients and executives. The top floor of the Powder Valley Inn, which still contains the original gears from the mill, is currently being transformed into a corporate meeting room built to Knoll’s technical specifications. The company, which will be providing chairs for the dining room, has priority booking privileges for rooms and for entertaining guests at the restaurant. Because of this irregular schedule, Hook chose to schedule dinners offered to the public as special events. (Whenever there’s room availability, non-corporate guests will be able to book overnight lodgings.)
The ever-changing tasting dinner template, in truth, suits the chef’s preferences and sensibilities. Grounded in French techniques, with a personal predilection for Asian flavor profiles and a keen grasp of molecular gastronomy, Hook thrives on the challenge of developing dishes that create happy marriages between disparate tastes. And he admittedly wants to put something together that’s fun and memorable for diners. A former art student and an avid photographer, Hook’s vision transfers beautifully to the plate, delivering sophistication seasoned with playfulness. For example, dessert for the Scotch dinner consisted of chocolate-miso cake, “Lucky Strike” smoke ice cream, heirloom beet and salted butterscotch. In the “American Retro Comfort” dinner a “Hot Pocket” morphed into short rib, foie gras and bone marrow foam. His tasting menu format delivers the kind of foodie adventure dished up at David Chang’s Momofuku Ko–without the drive to New York and abstruse reservation system.
Of course, if you don’t want to leave the house, Hook will also be offering off-site customized tasting menus prepared and served in clients’ homes under the restaurant’s catering branch, Follow Burnt Toast. However, H20 Kitchen @ the Powder Valley Inn stimulates all the senses and rewards guests by taking their relationship with food to the next level. Lehigh Valley, are you ready to have your palate rocked?
There will be a phone number and website for H2O Kitchen shortly. Until then, interested diners are advised to call 610-750-1495 and leave a voicemail message requesting a reservation. As of 2/9/12 there are still a few openings for the Craft Beer Tasting dinner (February 22). Other upcoming tastings include the American Retro Comfort/White Trash dinner (February 29); Duck, Duck Goose: Ten duck parts, Ten courses (March 7); Guest chef Christopher Kearse from Pumpkin in Philadelphia, menu TBA (March 14); and a “Veggie” dinner (March 21), with more to come.
Independent journalist Lenora Dannelke believes there’s more to life than writing about food. There’s also shopping, cooking and eating.