Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Valentine's Day Eve Dinner

The weather in Chicago has been pretty brutal lately, but I decided to warm things up with a special Valentine's Day meal. Two years ago, I produced an all-red meal for V-day, with rare beef, Red Mule grits, and red wine. I couldn't do that again, so I needed a new tack. A few days ago, I experienced a culinary stroke of brilliance.

It occurred to me that a whole boneless chicken breast is vaguely shaped like a heart. I realized that I could poach the breast in some red liquid, and produce a red chicken "heart." Red wine might have worked, but I figured that nothing stains a better red than beets. Charlie, always there to encourage a foolish idea, suggested that I could produce a sauce that would serve as an "ink" to write a message on the heart. I then chose a message.

First, I roasted some red baby beets in the oven and sauteed the beet stems with shallots, garlic, and chicken stock. Then I pureed the whole thing in the blender to produce the most beautiful magenta sauce.

Next, I butchered a whole chicken to remove the breast intact. The grocery store didn't have any whole breasts, so I had to do the butchering myself. I heated the beet puree to 165F (the desired final temperature of the chicken), and submerged the breast in the puree for about 20 minutes, flipping it half way through. This is essentially the same technique used in sous vide cooking, where the meat is cooked in liquid held at the target temperature so it cannot possibly be overcooked.

When the chicken was done, it had picked up a gorgeous pink color and was meltingly tender. I then added some of the puree to a plate in the shape of heart and placed the chicken in the center. Finally, I prepared an herb with basil, spinach, and parsley, and wrote my Valentine's Day message to Stephanie - "Beet Mine."

The chicken was delicious; the sauce was sweet and rich but balanced by the addition of some vinegar. I made a side of Calasparra rice and paired the meal with a delightful Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs nv. A bit gimmicky and not perfectly executed with the saucing, the dish was a fabulous success and will be worth repeating on normal evenings.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Lunch at Cafe Boulud

Most of this blog's readers have either heard my report of lunch at Cafe Boulud in New York City or were there in attendance. To celebrate the end of my qualifying exams (recall that dinner at Jean Georges was to celebrate our birthdays), I scheduled a lunch for Saturday at 1. Marty and Andi agreed to join me, and my great friend Charlie offered to take the train into the city to meet us. Charlie is a devoted gastronome and a new father, so it was especially nice to be able to celebrate his good fortune as well.

Like Jean Georges the night before, the decor at Cafe Boulud was rather modern and sparse. The days of elaborate French designs appear to be a thing of the past (Le Bec Fin certainly stands as a hold out). The waiters, however, were as classically French as ever. That is to say, they were snooty, really snooty.

Nonetheless, lunch began delightfully with cocktails of Lillet blanc. These were important, because the menu offered dozens of different choices for appetizers and main courses, all of which promised to be tasty. Despite the myriad options, however, we all ordered fairly similarly. The meal proper began with an appetizer of grilled sardine fillets for the table. They were served with crunchy greens and tasted great. Marty and I chose the cornish hen pate with foie gras, which was delicious but the latter ingredient was no where to be found. Charlie selected and enjoyed a frisee salad with duck egg, lardons, and sauteed chicken livers. Andi had a pasta dish with, I believe, truffles. All of the appetizers were excellent and paired well with glasses of Mas Amiel Le Plaisir Cote de Roussillon Rosé 2001. It had a deep pink color, the color of rose petals, but it was not as full-bodied as the color might suggest. The light red fruit flavors were balanced by moderate acidity, all of which helped with the fairly rich dishes.

I cannot now recall what Andi ordered for her main course. Perhaps someone will remind me in the comments. Recalling what the gentlemen ate, however, is quite easy - we all had the lamb served three ways. I would like to rank the different lamb preparations according to flavor, but each was so delicious and so different from its companions that the task is impossible. Instead, I will list them in the order I tasted them. First was belly of lamb minced and breaded as large piece (I have forgotten the name of this technique). The crunchy, caramelly outside was perfect with the moist, tender inside. Next was grilled lamb loin which, if simple, was perfectly done and divine with a drizzle of lamb jus. Finally, we had red wine braised leg of lamb. It was satisfying and comforting and superb with rosemary polenta.

The wine we selected with the lamb course really made everything special. Perhaps the best value on the list (with the exception of a bottle of chinon that was out of stock) was the Mas de Daumas Gassac Vin de Pays de l'Herault 1997. It is rare to find wines with substantial bottle age on the lists of most restaurants. The older wines that are available tend to be the stratospherically priced great growths. Here, instead, was a wonderful wine, great with food, and with almost a decade of age. Viewers of the movie Mondovino may recall its winemaker as the grumpy Frenchman who got pissed off when Mondavi tried to buy the vineyard next to his biodynamic land. His wine at first seemed equally grumpy to be disturbed from its nine year slumber, but it soon came to life when paired with the different lamb preparations. It was fully mature at this point, but from the excellent balance of tannin and acidity, it promised to last another decade or so. Some red fruit and spice were apparent on the palate, but these were slowly giving way to the signs of wine maturity - earthiness, leather, complexity. Perhaps not a profound wine like some of the great growths, it was a perfect example of a winemaker allowing the wine to express the terroir.

A quick word about cheeses and dessert wines before I have to put a chicken in the oven and pick up Stephanie. Charlie and I chose to have the cheese course for our finale and selected what appeared to be a promising 13 year old Coteaux du Layon from the menu. Upon hearing our request, the waiter barely managed to stifle his displeasure with our choice - well, frankly, he didn't stifle his displeasure. It was open and obvious to everyone. Fearful that the man was going to be ill, I asked if there was anything wrong. He not so politely indicated that our wine choice was foolish and that we would be much better off with the Les Clos de Paulilles Banyuls 2003. We actually had glasses of each, and I am willing to admit that his suggestion was indeed the proper one. Nonetheless, he could have learned some manners from Sommelier Scott Tyree at Tru who, as faithful readers will recall, steered me to a superb wine in a delightful and non-condescending fashion.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Mount Langi Ghiran Langi Shiraz Victoria 1998

Sorry, faithful readers, the Boulud post will have to wait. Stephanie and I have been drinking some excellent wines that I've wanted to add to the blog. I learned that I passed one of my qualifying exams today, so I picked up this bottle of Australian Shiraz to celebrate. I prepared pan seared skirt steak with red wine sauce and roasted baby red beets, and Stephanie made carrot and potato purees and an arugula salad.

The Langi Shiraz, the top bottling of this excellent winery, is a classically styled wine offering the best of the New and Old Worlds. While the fruit has the ripeness associated with internationally styled wines, the alcohol is restrained, and the balance between fruit and acidity is nicely maintained. Reminiscent of a top St. Joseph, it offers compelling red fruit flavors and a rhone-y citrus-y minerality. Already eight years old, it could easily last another decade.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Two Burgundies from Bouchard

For those looking for my review of Jean Georges, scroll down. For those looking for my review of Cafe Boulud, be patient - it should be up tomorrow. In the meantime, here are a couple of red burgundies from Bouchard. Stephanie and I purchased a beautiful new kitchen table, and it was delivered today. To celebrate, I made a beef stock and prepared oxtails with celeriac puree and a watercress salad. As I should have guessed, we ended up eating in the living room as usual, watching a tivo'd American Idol.

I knew that the burgundies wouldn't be perfect for the rich oxtails, but since the 2003 vintage was so hot, they managed to hold their own. First was the Mercurey 2003. It was the lighter of the two, with sour cherry flavors and bracing tannins. For about $14, it's tough to beat this with an American pinot noir. I'd probably reserve it for pork and game birds in the future, though. The 2003 Santennay was a rather more robust wine. The color was a deeper shade of garnet, and nose showed a greater complexity of fruit and even nutty aromas. The tannins were in better balance with the sweeter fruit on the front of the palate. (Whoops! I just overswirled it onto the mouse!) This wine would be right at home with duck in a non-sweet sauce or even lamb. Priced similarly to the Mercurey, the Santennay is a superb value.

Dinner at Jean Georges

I traveled to New York City last weekend to attend an academic conference and visit with my brother Marty and his girlfriend Andi. Each of us had celebrated a birthday during January, and my parents offered to buy us dinner together in New York as a gift. I chose the Michelin three-star restaurant Jean Georges. It is owned by chef, restraunteur, and food-emperor Jean Georges Vongerichten who became famous for blending traditional French food with Asian influences before it was cool.

We were offered a four-course prix fixe (or as I saw it listed at another New York restaurant, pre-fix) menu and two seven-course tasting menus. One of the tasting menus was what appeared to be a "Greatest Hits of Jean Georges" menu, composed of the classics that made his name. We each opted for the seasonal Winter Tasting Menu.

Dinner began with three amuse bouches, the best being a warm sunchoke puree with black truffle shaving. The first course was made up of thin slices of scallops, topped with a frozen cranberry "popstick" and arranged with different garnishes along the top. The idea was to eat the scallop and popstick with a different garnish for each bite. Our favorites were the fresh wasabi and the mixed herbs. The second course may have been the best of the evening. It was a piece of foie gras resting on top of a delicious toasty brioche and topped with dried cherries and pistachios, all surrounded by a white port gelee. The foie was, of course, perfectly cooked, and the brioche bottom and fruit/nut topping made for a little sandwich with jelly. It was beautiful and sublime.

The next course, "Wild Mushroom Tea," was poured into a bowl containing parmesan cheese, thyme, and a sliver of chili. The soup itself was a bit muted and oily. I ate the chili towards the end of the course and only then did things brighten up. The chili was very hot, and as the heat dissipated, it mingled with the earthy mushrooms and cheese. Had we been instructed to eat the chili with the first bite, this would have been a more successful course.

Next we had a pair of fish courses. First was crispy red snapper topped with slivers of radishes, sea beans, and sesame. It was excellent, particularly the combination of mild fish and deep sea beans. It was, to my mind, visually flawed, however. The radishes had little slivers of red on the edges, and when consumed with the mild white fish, they tricked the mind into thinking it was eating imitation crab meat. I love ICM, so it wasn't a big deal, but it seemed a bit unusual. The second fish course was a beautiful lobster dish (claw and tail) served with chestnuts and espelette pepper butter. The sauce was spicy, almost like Japanese chirashi, and it paired well with the nuts. This was the second time the chef used seasonal nuts in an interesting and unusual manner during the meal.

The meat course was a roasted loin of venison, served with quince-madiera sauce and cabrales foam, and topped with broccoli rabe. The latter seemed like an afterthought and was not well-integrated with the dish. The blue cheese foam, however, provided an excellent saltiness for the meat. We finished the evening with dessert tastings (I had the citrus-accented tasting, but the best item was a cold beet puree that Andi had) and petits fours.

With help from the sommelier, we selected a number of delicious wines for the evening. Most of the first courses were consumed with a fantastic Trimbach Pinot Gris Hommage a Jeanne 2000. It was sweet and rich, but it had a beautiful minerality running through the mid-palate that lifted the flavors of the food right off the tongue. At six years old, it was beginning to show signs of maturity that paired nicely with the foie gras (although at times the port gelee was a bit too sweet for the wine). With the snapper, we enjoyed glasses of the racy and acidic Joseph Drouhin Chablis Vaudesir Grand Cru 2001. Its white fruit flavors and delightful minerality were excellent alongside the crispy fish and deep sea flavors of the beans. Our venison course was accompanied by a wine bottled exclusively for the restaurant, Kamen Claret Sonoma 2003. Like the best reds from Sonoma, it was well-balanced and generous, not overly extracted and demanding like its Napa cousins. The slight sweetness in the wine was matched by the meat and the quince sauce. Finally, the bright flavors of my citrusy dessert were gorgeously paired with a Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos 1997 from Tokaj Classic. For an old, amber-colored wine, it offered the backbone of acidity that was necessary for the desserts.

Service, on the whole, was professional and accommodating, although occasionally our server spoke too softly. The couple seated next to us got engaged at dinner and were, accordingly, granted the privileges of talking on their cellphones all night and groping each other between bites of food. Otherwise, the meal was excellent and fit for our celebration. Although the food was less often profound than at The French Laundry or Tru, it was absolutely delicious.