Wednesday, March 17, 2010

this glass of wine is delicious

I am finishing the last of a 2007 bottle of Chateau de Beaucastel Vieilles Vignes, left over from dinner at Eleven Madison Park last Friday -- hurrah for the wine doggie bag! -- so seems fitting to write about the meal. Adam's train was delayed, but I was seated immediately at our table (side-by-side place settings, facing toward the front of the restaurant). I like the art deco feel to the room, but the obvious used-to-be-a-lobby vibe is a little strange. Despite an interesting cocktail menu, I figured I'd stick to wine for the evening and declined a drink while waiting.
We decided on the eleven course tasting menu after confirming that they could accommodate our dietary restrictions, which of course was fine. (If the notations on our receipt were any indication, they only subbed two courses.) We also started with a half bottle -- from an extensive selection -- of 1990 Kerpen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese***, which the (female -- unusual and cool) sommelier recommended as being "very interesting." Which it decidedly was not; it was good, and sweet, but not interesting. It tasted shocking like the Navarro Gewurztraminer grape juice that we first had at Stone Barns (and of which Adam bought a number of bottles later), which, while tasty, is not really the most flattering comparison for a twenty-year-old Reisling.
First up, "hors d'oeuvres." The gougeres were disappointing (mine are better); undersalted, I think? From left to right: golden beet and goat cheese -- tasty but exactly how it sounds and you've had before. I don't remember what the second one was (never a good sign). Celery something? The third tasted like World's Fanciest Cheez-It. But I do love cheez-its. Fourth up, an apple macaron -- basically a slightly chunky (small diced apple) apple sauce filling a macaroon. Good but the apple sauce weighed down the macaron, which kind of defeats the purpose of macarons, doesn't it? Adam suggested that this would have been a great Civil Appellate Iron Chef entry (true). The last one, a little mushroom-stuffed pastry pouch. The duxelles was tasty, but the crisp outside was a bit greasy -- think fried spring roll -- and reminded me of some sort of semi-generic cocktail hour hors d'oeuvre.
First real course: "Sterling Royal Caviar: spheres of smoked sturgeon and salmon cream." The flavors were pleasantly brunch-reminiscent -- I do love brunch. However, spherified fish is A Mistake. Spherification is great for flavors exploding in and coating your mouth. Smoked fish, no matter how great with a bagel or in scrambled eggs, really should not explode in your mouth in liquid form. Adam thought this was a total mistake and quite bad, I thought it was fine. I guess spherification is the new foam. Chefs want to show off the skill, but technique doesn't trump good old fashioned deliciousness.
Next up: "Tardivo Trevisano: salad with buffalo mozzarella, champagne mango and terre bormane olive oil." Pretty much what you'd expect from radicchio and mozzarella cheese. Better in a bite that included all three elements -- the mix of sweet, slightly bitter, and creamy was nice -- but not really enough of the mango to make that happen throughout. And I'm rarely wowed by nice ingredients just placed together, which is what this was. Maybe it would have been better before the previous course. Too light to stand up the liquid fish taste lingering from before? Adam thought this one was much better than the caviar dish, but I'm not so sure.
The "Diver Scallops: Ceviche with Fennel, Yuzu and Satsuma Tangerine" was the first quite impressive dish of the night. A great combination of crunch and softness, tang and sweetness. Things are picking up. (Disappointingly, although we appear to have gotten much of the appetizer menu as part of our tasting, we did not get the Hawaiian prawns that so impressed Frank Bruni.)
The "Lynnhaven Farms Goat's Milk Ricotta: gnocchi with artichokes, taggiasca olives" was delicious, and so close to being amazing. Creamycheesygnocchiness obviously attracts me. The pillowy round gnocchi exploded into a cheesy delicious center (would love to know the technique that goes into making them). However, although the bit of sauce at the bottom had a bit of the olive-y flavor and was quite delicious, the actual olives were too much salty oliviness in a bite. But the salty flavor obviously added something, and there weren't enough olives to go into every bite. I think chopping the olives (halves? dice? not sure) would have diluted the intensity while spreading it to every bite. Apparently this dish normally has bacon; I suspect that it helps to distribute the saltiness and allows the olives to serve the additional function of cutting the fatty bacon deliciousiness. Mmm. Bacon. I miss bacon. Okay, focus. Bread didn't arrive until about this point in the meal, which was sad both because I was already starving when I arrived at the restaurant and because the salted goat's milk butter that came with the bread (as well as an unsalted cow's milk option, plus sea salt for our own seasoning) was good enough to eat with a spoon. I ate two plain mini baguettes and one olive, and then half of one of Adam's . . . I would have traded the wine for a doggie bag full of that butter. It had the vaguely familiar taste of good chevre, but creamy-light.
"The chef" -- who looked awfully like David Humm's photos, although I'm still confused about why he would have come out -- came out to plate "'Winter in Provence': black truffles, chevre frais and potatoes" tableside. My guess is that the plated dish is so vaguely icky looking that it requires a little bit of show to distract until you taste the first bite, which is delicious. Of the four blobs, one was black truffle, one was potato, one was chevre, and one celery. Two came out of whippers, two out of adorable mini copper pans. I don't remember -- did I know at the time? -- which came out of the whippers. I'd guess chevre was one, but who knows. So yeah, it looked like, well . . . look at the photo. But they are all wintery delicious flavors (obviously) and even better when swirled all together (as I suggested Adam do, after I did). Somewhere around here we moved on to a second half bottle, Bonneau du Martray Grand Cru 1989. I remember quite enjoying it, but maybe not as much as our normal white Burgundy? It didn't leave a strong impression.
Another on the appetizer menu from which something was removed: "Knoll Krest Farm Egg: slow cooked with vin jaune, winter mushrooms." This apparently normally comes with frogs' legs, but no one asked if we would eat them. Which, fair, not exactly seafood. But not exactly meat either? Adam is okay with them, I think, I'm still slightly torn, but they were the centerpiece of one of the better dishes we ate at Daniel for my birthday. (Yes, I ate them.) So I wonder what they would have added to this dish. Perfectly cooked egg -- soft whites, but the yolk held its shape until broken into rich goldeness. Beautiful mushrooms in a creamy sauce (made richer by the broken yolk). I have no idea what the frondy yellow things were. The truffle wasn't particularly pronounced. However, I feel like both this and the previous course depended heavily on delicious-but-heavy ingredients and not inventiveness. (Note, also, that at this point the restaurant had emptied enough -- and I was frustrated enough with the attempts to light with votive -- that I decided it was acceptable to use the flash. At least until someone told me to stop. Which no one did.)
So this was the point at which we transitioned from appetizer to entreeness. The "John Dory: slow cooked with pickled daikon radish and winter citrus" was another highlight. The John Dory was perfectly cooked, fork tender and delicious. I feel like the pickled citrus -- blood orange, tangerine, not sure? -- would have been better if is tasted less like dried citrus. I'm not sure that texture did much, and the "pickled" didn't taste like pickle. I think it would have worked better with juicy little supremes. However, the mix of lima beans (I think?), tender fish, and sweet/sour was great.
What I thought was the final savory course: "Nova Scotia Lobster: poached with piment d'espelette, celery and meyer lemon." Excellent. The lobster was perfectly cooked, the two types of lemon marmalade cut the richness of the sauce beautifully, and celery (the third streak) is best served in some sort of pureed sauce. Very rich and heavy, but a good way to end the savory part of the meal.
Except. I was wrong. The lobster was not the end of the savory part of the meal. I love food. I am a champion eater. But NINE SAVORY COURSES is too many. At least when they're rich and heavy and I can't do any more. The "Bouillabaisse: Atlantic black bass with octopus, calamari, bay scallops, prawns" intimidated me from the time it arrived, because I was starting to feel a bit . . . off . . . and so it is hard to judge objectively. The seafood was all well cooked, but I couldn't help feeling like there was a slightly sour twang to the bouillabaisse that I did not like. But Adam like it a lot, so perhaps it was just my sense of Too Much Food overwhelming me. But I did not love it.
A sign of how full I was? They brought over the cheese cart and I Did Not Want It. I. did. not. want. cheese. This is tragic and uncharacteristic. Of course, being too full for cheese is not the same as turning down cheese, so we got some. Adam chose two blues and a something else -- kind of Gruyere but not? I think appenzeller -- I chose something called etude(?) and . . . I don't remember. The cheese wasn't all that memorable, which is sad. There was raisin-looking bread that we didn't try.
The first of the desserts, "'Soda Pop': tangerine, grapefruit, pomelo and lemon." Pop rocks are a lot of fun, the airy meringue on top was nice, but one of the citrus fruits -- not sure which -- lent a quite sour taste (pithy rind?) to the marmalade-ish base. I did not love it, and I could not really distinguish the many citrus fruits included.
The second dessert, "Milk & Chocolate: variations of flavor and texture" was a different story. The ice cream tasted like dulce de leche, the crystalized milk was more dense than cotton candy but less dense than pretty much anything else -- dehydrated, maybe? A fun play of textures, and delicious. The darkest bits were a chocolate too bitter for my taste, and I ate around it. But if you like unsweetened chocolate, I could see how it would all work together and be delicious. Definitely interesting.

The "Mignardises" were all macarons -- quite good macarons. And accompanied by complimentary cognac. We'd been eyeing the interesting-looking bottle on other tables. Unfortunately I was a bit too wine-drunk to want it at that point. Plus I'm not sure I liked it. But the macaroons were delicious. They offered us a selection of flavors, which I've never understood. Can I have all of them? (Yes.) So why not just give me all of them? Why make me feel kind of sheepish (okay, so I didn't) about asking? So we got two of each. Lemon poppy seed: lemon curd filling, lovely, delicious. Chocolate something: meh, rich. Lavender something: tasted mostly like chocolate. But pretty and like the idea. Toasted coconut: another good idea that didn't overwhelm with flavor. Pear: delicious. Sesame something: interesting and delicious. Peanut butter and jelly: interesting and kind of nostalgically great.
We left kind of grossly full (sad), happily tipsy (me -- good. plus wine to go!), and generally pleased. The service was excellent, although I would have preferred one consistent waiter/ress to the seemingly constantly revolving staff. I particularly liked that the sommelier wrote up the wines, and they printed out the menu that we'd had without our asking (including all the alterations/substitutions, so clearly prepared just for us). Nice touch. Bottom line: the lows were not low, but none of the dishes really blew me away. Many were excellent, but nothing that would enter my list of Best Dishes Ever. None of the photos will go on my wall. I suspect that choosing wisely off of the a la carte menu might result in a more impressive experience. Maybe eating meat would help. I worry -- why is it so hard to wow me anymore? Next Friday, back to minibar. High hopes!


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