Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Le Bernardin

I had my first experience with New York City haute cuisine this past weekend when John, another friend of this blog, joined me for lunch at Le Bernardin (his favorite restaurant -- and he is not alone). Bernardin specializes in seafood -- it's almost considered a crime to order anything else -- and we largely stuck to the theme. For my first course, I ordered a dish of raw wild salmon marinated in olive oil, lemon, and grapefruit juice, which I found exquisite and briskly refreshing. If anything, the tangy marinade slightly overwhelmed the taste of the salmon and could have been toned down slightly, but this was a very small concern -- the dish was terrific. John had layers of thinly pounded raw yellowfin tuna arrayed over thinly spread foie gras, and the rich taste of the tuna coupled with the even richer foie gras was a fabulous combination. These are not tastes that one is used to experiencing together, but they worked marvelously.

My main course was broiled scallops in a Bouillabaisse with clams, mussels, and vegetables. The scallops were done perfectly -- tender and delicious, and not overly "fishy" as lesser-quality scallops can tend to be -- and were complemented wonderfully by the excellent (though unspectacular) Bouillabaisse. John opted to order two additional first courses in lieu of a main course, and chose a sea urchin (uni) custard, served warm, and a foie gras terrine. (As readers of this blog are undoubtedly aware, foie gras will soon be illegal in the city of Chicago, and so native Chicagoans such as John are doing their best to consume as much as possible before then.) These two dishes were almost heart-stoppingly rich, and utterly fantastic. Probably like many other sushi eaters I'm used to uni being served cold, so the warm custard was an interesting and effective variation. The foie gras, not surprisingly, was decadent enough to die for, and -- if one were to consume enough -- that would probably be the outcome.

For dessert I ordered a chocolate-cashew tart accompanied by various sauces and reductions (caramel, banana, red wine) that was perhaps even more amazing than anything I had eaten to that point. The tart was extremely delicate and yet, needless to say, very rich, and not overly sweet. In fact, it so overwhelmed my taste buds (and my memory) that I have essentially no recollection of what John ordered, despite the fact that I tasted it. We also each ordered a glass of Chardonnay that was quite good but the name of which, unfortunately, I also cannot remember.

The food at Le Bernardin was, on the whole, magnificent, but the service also bears serious mention. Le Bernardin's service is the best that I have ever experienced, though not in the typical manner that one might expect. It wasn't "spectacular" or "flashy" in any sense; there wasn't any coordinated motion or trickery or flamboyant presentation. It was just perfectly timed and refreshingly informal; the waiters seemed relaxed and appeared to be enjoying themselves, the restaurant was accommodating of unorthodox requests (such as John's three first courses), and no one there seemed hung up on what a wonderful restaurant it was. I even appreciated the fact that the waiters (all of whom were genuinely French) wrote our orders down in small notebooks. There was no need to impress us with their incredible memories; they just wanted to get the orders right and deliver them promptly. And needless to say, whenever my water glass neared the point of being empty someone would magically appear and fill it, and whenever I had picked up the last remaining morsel of bread someone would arrive and offer me another piece. In typical French fashion, Le Bernardin also did not bring us the check until we asked for it, a nice change from typically time-crunched American dining. Le Bernardin's reputation as one of the best restaurants in New York is, in my opinion, well-deserved, and at the extremely reasonable price of $51 for a three-course lunch it was very much worth the trip.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Tijou Savennieres Clos des Perrieres 2000

Yesterday we enjoyed one of our best, an easiest, homemade dinners in a long time. We had a frisee salad which Stephanie dressed with a vinaigrette of dijon mustard, sherry vinegar, and rendered bacon fat, topped with slab bacon and poached quail eggs. It was sublime. I grilled a whole golden trout that turned out to be the best fish I have made in ages. The flesh was a beautiful golden color, lighter than salmon but darker, and richer, than the standard rainbow trout. It was grilled simply, with only salt and pepper and a sprig of rosemary in the cavity.

Sadly the wine I chose to accompany the meal didn't show as well. 2000 was a tough vintage for France's Loire valley, and five years of bottle age did nothing to improve this bottle of chenin blanc. Regular blog readers will know that I have been fascinated with chenin (and chenin taste-alikes like falanghina) lately, but this bottling had neither the racy acidity nor round melon and stone-fruit flavors that make Savennieres my go-to wine. I'd love to try it in a better vintage.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Caves Cidis Gamaret La Cote 2003 (Switzerland)

We celebrated the acceptance of our offer on a new house last night with a roasted pheasant in natural jus. It was accompanied by a saute of spring vegetables - Trumpet royale mushrooms, ramps, fiddlehead ferns, and favas. I should have a picture up soon.

The pheasant seemed like a fine time to try out a Swiss red wine that I had picked up recently. The grape varietal was Gamaret, which the label claims is a hybrid Gamay grape, most famously from Beaujolais, and an indigenous grape called Reichensteiner. The wine had a surprisingly dark color and full body - certainly more so than a standard Beaujolais cru wine. It did have the anticipated red fruit, especially cherry, notes and some oak. The finish was rather short for the slightly gamy pheasant, but it would have been just fine with chicken or pasta. Like its half-brothers from Beaujolais, it certainly improves when served at a slightly lower temperature.

Time to get back to French wines now.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Markowitsch Carnuntum Cuvee 2003 - An Austrian Red

Although it's Spring here in Chicago, in the Southern Hemisphere autumn is arriving, and thanks to worldwide food distribution, we were able to enjoy some delicious grilled venison chops last night. Stephanie sauteed some dandelion greens, and I glazed some yellow carrots. The venison was perfect, and I hope the grocery stores make an effort to keep it in stock. It's a pleasant respite from the endless cycle of chicken, beef, lamb, pork, and fish.

I got a little daring at the wine shop this weekend and broke from my usual francophilia. I chose a pair of reds from Austria, the first of which we drank with the venison. Although I didn't know it, Markowitsch is one of the country's top producers, and their reputation seemed well-earned after tasting their entry-level Carnuntum Cuvee. It's a blend of 80% zweigelt, an indigenous varietal, and 20% pinot noir. Surprisingly full-bodied, the wine displayed inviting red fruit flavors and hinted at that citrusy note one occassionally finds in the Southern Rhone. Not overly tannic, it paired supremely well with the meaty yet lean venison, and it would prove a welcome companion for good pork, beef stew, and especially, duck. At $12, it's worth buying a case, and it encouraged me to seek out their better bottlings.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

A lovely Spring day

The weather in Chicago was beautiful today, and we took advantage of it with some springtime gastronomic treats. Around three o'clock, I celebrated the day with a perfect pairing of fried smelts and North Coast Brewing's Silver Jubilee belgian farmhouse ale. The malt and yeast in the beer matched excellently with the salty fish. I'm a little unsure about the this 25th anniversary bottling though. The website claims that the brewery was founded in 1988, and I still have a few bottles of the ten year anniversary ale, one of the best I've ever tasted. But here comes this beer, asserting that the brewery was established in 1980. What gives?

Dinner began will an interesting appetizer of grilled, stuffed squid based on a recipe from Batali's show. They were excellent, if a little cocoon-like, and they paired well with a bottle of Chatelain Pouilly-Fume 2004. It was good, but perhaps not worth the $20 price tag. Dinner proceeded with the last of our fiddlehead ferns, expertly sauteed by Stephanie, and served over whole grilled rainbow trout. I had chosen a bottle of gruner from Kurt Angerer, but it was corked. Alas, I'll have to drink the bottle of Armagnac I purchased today. Maybe even a Padron cigar to end the evening.

Friday, May 05, 2006

J. W. Lee's Harvest Ale Lagavulin Cask

Although I usually deal with wine on this blog, beer was my first true love. Last night I had the opportunity to rekindle that romance at a beer tasting I held for my fellow History of Culture students. We drank a number of the world's best beers - Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus, Traquair House Ale, Dogfish Head 120 Minute IIPA, Westmalle Tripel, Rochefort 10, &c. - but the standout was clearly J.W. Lee's Harvest Ale. I have had versions of the Harvest Ale in the past, but the brewery has recently been producing a number of beers aged in special casks - port, sherry, whisky. This one, the rarest, had been aged in Lagavulin scotch whisky casks. Anyone who knows me knows my love of this whisky, so, of course, I was excited to try Lee's beer. It was full-bodied and malty, with considerable sweetness. The caramel flavor was balanced by the alcohol and a certain estery aroma. But the dominant flavor was a rich and satisfying peatiness from the Islay casks. It was different from the smoky flavors acheived in German rauchbier or even in Alaska Brewing's famous beechwood Smoked Porter. It was, perhaps counterintuitively, more deeply ingrained in the caramel malt character of the beer (I say counterintuitively because for smoked beers, the smoke is indeed part of the malt whereas for the Lee's beer, the smoke is merely an attached facade). Definitely a drink to be savored after dinner, this Lee's has jumped to the top of my favorite beers.