Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Eleven Samurai

Continuing on my fortuitous path of Tuesday evening explorations in culinaria, eleven friends, new and old, gathered this week. We met with a twelfth, the one Ronin, who had agreed to share with us his ways of the knife and the flame. In turn, our troupe provided a panoply of wines from around the world and came ready to eat, drink and explore.

While mustering, we whet our appetites with a small pour of the non-vintage Champagne Blanc de Blancs from Pierre Peters, a medium-sized Récoltant-Manipulant producer based in the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. His wine showed the typical fresh hazelnut and hay tones and fine acid balance of Côtes des Blancs Champagne, along with a darker nuttiness and funky nose that suggested some bottle evolution. With that and the typical introductory social rituals behind us, we took our seats, prepared to do battle.

Scallop Carpaccio
carrot sorbet, cardamon and lime air
Our meal began with a dish least touched by heat, most influenced by a purity of fresh core ingredients and the nuances of quality produce and subtle seasonings. Thinly sliced, perfectly smooth and tender medallions of sea scallop were arranged around a quenelle of carrot sorbet, infused with just a hint of toasted cardamon seeds. The cardamon returned as an aromatizing element in the lime foam that billowed above the scallops. All about delicacy of flavor, this was an ideal way to set the stage for the more intense progression to follow.

Wine pairing: Finger Lakes Riesling “Dry,” Hermann J. Wiemer 2005
I’d come prepared for this course with a couple of choices in German Riesling but I’m always open to exploring other options and kudos are due to he who brought this bottle. Kudos to the producer as well, as I can’t say I’ve had a finer domestic Riesling, not just from NY but from the US in general. Finished dry, its minerality along with bright peach and apple tones could pass for a good Mosel or Saar Kabinett halbtrocken. Wiemer’s estate is located on the west side of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes district of upstate New York.

Chinese Celery Veloute
corned beef, flavors of steak tartare, smoked salt - almond condiment
If not for the velouté in the menu description, one could not have been faulted for expecting some sort of modern twist on a classic deli sandwich. Soup it was though, at least in part. As delicious as the creamy, celery infused sauce was, the real magic of this dish was in the interplay between the round of subtle tartare-style corned beef and the penetrating flavors of the toasted almond and smoked salt sprinkled on the edge of the plate. As for the “flavors of steak tartare,” I leave it to your willful imaginations….

Wine pairings: Jerez Manzanilla Pasada, Bodega San Vidal (La Cosecha) NV; Brouilly, Georges DuBoeuf 2005
With the heaps of wine in the room, debate abounded as to appropriate matches with this course. Early calls for big reds waned when everyone came to understand the lightness of the course. Two choices resulted: Sherry and Cru Beaujolais. I had brought the Manzanilla along with this course in mind, thinking of both the herbaceous “soup” and the salty almonds. The Beaujolais was offered up as a favorite match with steak tartare. Both worked reasonably well. The chilled Brouilly was direct and easygoing though of an uninspiring quality. The Sherry was harder to understand but delivered much more call-and-response into the mix, echoing flavors from the dish just as the dish amplified some of the aromatic elements of the wine.

Golden Miso Cavatelli
rock shrimp, lovage, fennel cream
As interesting as the miso infused pasta sounded, the real stars on this plate were the pristinely fresh and perfectly cooked rock shrimp, still tasting of briny sea and uplifted by the bright, aromatizing flavor of lovage and the subtle licorice tang of fennel. Though perhaps the least exciting dish of the evening, it was also the most comforting, the course of which I easily could have eaten a heaping bowlful.

Wine pairings: Soave Classico “Castello,” Cantina del Castello 2005; Pouilly-Vinzelles “En Paradis,” Louis Latour 2004; Côtes de Provence Rosé, Commanderie de Peyrassol 2006
Again, lots of people, lots of wine, lots of ideas…. Why not open several bottles? My original thought when presented with the menu was the Soave; it paired admirably against the shrimp and seasonings of the dish. Many of the eleven tend to lean hard toward pouring white Burgundy at the Ronin’s table. The match here was less successful, though texturally it nicely echoed the creaminess of the dish. The winner was the wine from Provence, a pairing conceived only when the aromas of the course wafted into the room. Something in the air just screamed out good pink wine and, luckily, one had come prepared. The bright red fruit and typical aromas of garrigue in Peyrassol’s rosé made it just the ticket.

Berkshire Pork Belly
cipollini tarte tatin, wild asparagus, onion caramel
Careful cooking via multiple methods brought out a clear stratification of the layers – fat, flesh and crispy top – of pork belly. Charred just shy of burnt, the snap of the uppermost layer combined with the unctuous fat beneath and the tender, sweet flesh at the base to make for a nuanced, harmonious taste experience. The full scope of flavor became even clearer (and tastier) as the dish cooled toward room temperature. Played against the sweetness of caramelized onions, the richness of pork fat made this a plate of pure decadence.

Wine pairings: Gigondas, Domaine du Cayron 1997; McLaren Vale Shiraz “Krystina,” De Lisio 2004; Hopland Cabernet Sauvignon “Dempel Vineyard,” Mercurius 2005
Grenache and Syrah based wines, which can often exhibit scents and flavors of cured meats, even bacon fat, seemed natural matches for the Berkshire pork. Decanted upon arrival, the De Lisio Shiraz is a well-crafted example of the big, dark side of the Aussie wine market. At more than 15% alcohol though, flavorful as it was, it dominated the food, reinforcing my admitted bias against high-alcohol wines as being difficult if not impossible to carry off at the table. Perhaps a spice rubbed steak might do the trick. The Gigondas from Cayron, mellowed and sweetened in its fruit over the last ten years, came closest to mirroring the flavors of the dish but was almost too subtle, taking a back seat in mouthfeel to the richness of the pork. The wine that really made sparks fly turned out to be the least intuitive of the matches, the Hopland Cabernet Sauvignon from Mercurius Cellar. Never heard of it? You shouldn’t have. It’s homemade wine, a product of the hobbyist pursuits of one of the eleven – electronic soundscape artist and food writer Robert Rich of Mountain View, California. At 13% alcohol, exhibiting fine balance, clarity of red cassis fruit and briary sensations, this is the kind of California Cab that hearkens back to the pre-Laube and Parker influenced era of over-extracted fruit bombs. Its clean profile and firm grip wrapped themselves around the pork, perfectly complementing the dish’s elements, being neither too shy nor too boisterous.

Chocolate-Coffee "Panna Cotta"
fruitti di bosco, gingerbread
Deconstructed to its simplest stylistic elements, this was essentially a fruit parfait crossed with a decadently rich chocolate mousse, topped off with cookie morsels. It was like an artful version of Steve’s Ice Cream juiced up on crack. The fruitti di bosco, forest fruit gelato made from an Italian base, lent a tangy acidity to the dish, balancing the creaminess of the chocolate; however, combined with the high sugar content of the panna cotta, it also resulted in a slightly sour, burning finish. A crumbled gingerbread topping lent welcome accents of crunch and spice.

Wine pairings: Maury “Dix Ans d’Age,” Mas Amiel N.V.; Moscato d’Asti, G. D. Vajra 2006
The contrasting elements of the dessert course presented challenges from a wine pairing perspective. Maury, a classic and usually successful match for chocolate, fought with the sharpness of the berries. The Moscato d’Asti, equally classic with both fruit-based desserts and lighter chocolate dishes, lost some of its trademark fruitiness in the face of the intense concentration in the chocolate-coffee elements of the course. The Moscato’s frothy bubbles, though, did provide an enjoyably crackly contrast – described by some at the table as akin to Pop Rocks – to the creamy dish. In the end, neither match was perfect but both were enjoyable.

A reconvening of the entire group will be unlikely given our geographically disparate challenges. Parts of the band will no doubt reunite for further adventures in eating. On this Tuesday though, eleven, guided by the skills of one, came together for what turned out to be a night of brotherhood and sisterhood shared around the pleasures of a well laden table.


HungryChic said...

I read and reread... was this meal at a restaurant? It'd be quite adventurous for one's kitchen.

David McDuff said...

To paraphrase your words, the meal emanated from one's adventurous kitchen. No restaurant was involved.

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