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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Afterglow


Although I've been back from my gustatory tour of Paris for a few days now, I find myself still wrestling with the temptation to book a plane ticket to return immediately.   Even on my last visit as a student, I found the city completely captivating -- much more so, in fact, than any of the other incredible European destinations that I explored on that same trip.   But this time around -- having acquired in the interim a significantly greater appreciation for fine cuisine -- I found Paris to be even more enchanting.   Indeed, as I came to realize on the long flight home, only one other city has ever taken hold of me so quickly and effortlessly, and that was San Francisco.

Over the course of my much-too-short trip, I sampled a lot of degustation menus, took a lot of pictures, and scribbled a lot of notes.   As I now wade through the process of sorting this all out, I'm also trying to take a step back to see things from a broader perspective -- one that includes, for the sake of comparison, our own high-end restaurant scene here in the Bay Area.   For this reason, I thought it might be interesting to bookend my Paris trip with meals at some of the Bay Area's best restaurants.   Accordingly, shortly before I left, I visited The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton;   the day after I returned, I dined at Fleur de Lys.

One of the benefits of sampling so many great restaurants in such a short period is that it tends to simplify the process of comparing them.   After all, it's much easier to compare tonight's meal with last night's than it is to contrast two meals experienced several months apart.   On the other hand, a significant drawback to the approach I took in Paris is the sheer number of dishes that I had to try to keep in my mind.   Before I could let the nine courses served to me by one chef seep fully into my memory, I found myself poring over an entirely new nine-course menu.   Sitting here today, while several dishes stand out as being particularly memorable, others are swimming around in my head temporarily dissociated from the restaurants at which they were served.   So perhaps you can understand why I guarded my notes, pictures, and copies of menus as carefully as I did my passport as I wound my way through airports and taxis to get back home!

Overall, I found the entire week to be extraordinarily educational, revealing a lot about culinary innovation, the state of fine dining, Michelin ratings, and even the Bay Area's restaurant scene.   In the coming days (or more likely, weeks), I'm going to walk you through each of the seven excellent meals that I enjoyed in Paris, sharing photos and impressions along the way.   After that, I'll wrap things up by describing some of the conclusions that I reached -- and the new perspectives that I acquired -- as a result of my fantastic week in France.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Taste of Paris


As you may have guessed from the serious dearth of posts around here, the last few months have been completely crazy for me at work.   A massive patent case on which I had been working was slated for five back-to-back trials spanning from March through August, and the flurry of activity that's needed for such an enormous undertaking had our entire team completely consumed.   Then, suddenly and without warning, the parties reached a settlement that resolved the entire case -- changing my very existence overnight.   Whereas one day I felt like I was drowning in an endless sea of work, the next day I was happily concerned about whether I had enough work on my plate.   The summer vacation that I had written off as an impossibility was miraculously resurrected.   And when my close friend and coworker A decided to accelerate her sabbatical and travel through Europe now instead of waiting until later in the year, I found myself toying with the idea of a spur-of-the-moment trip to Paris to meet up with her.   And so it is that I now find myself sitting in a hotel in Rive Droite, midway through a glorious six days of fantastic food, wine, and fun.

Now, one of my fellow Bay Area food bloggers just returned from a great week in Paris last month, while another seems to be in Paris just about every other week.   But as hard as it is for me to believe, my last trip to Paris was nearly seventeen years ago, when a friend and I backpacked through Europe in the summer between finishing college and starting graduate school.   It was a time before I had experienced the wonders of San Francisco's incredible restaurant scene, before I had developed any kind of appreciation for fine dining, and -- most importantly -- before I had achieved the luxury of receiving a regular paycheck.   And believe me, when you're traveling as a student on $40 per day all inclusive, the Paris that you experience is one of baguettes and cheap fruit -- not degustation menus and wine pairings.

A lot has changed in the intervening years, most notably my admiration -- and even reverence -- for great cuisine and the talented chefs who create it.   But let's face it, for those of us who live in and love the Bay Area's restaurant scene, there's always someone standing by to rain on our parade by saying one of two things:   the premier restaurants in New York, on average, are better than San Francisco's best, and the top restaurants in Paris are even better still.   Is it really true that the upper-tier restaurants in Paris are that much better than the top restaurants in the Bay Area?   Does Paris really deserve to have ten restaurants rated by Michelin at three stars, compared to the Bay Area's paltry one?   If I were going to go to Paris, I simply had to find out.   Or, to be more honest, I should probably put it this way:   a trip to Paris -- specifically for the purpose of experiencing the offerings of the city's best establishments and chefs for myself -- was an absolute imperative.

Most normal people, of course, would book a flight and hotel and then give some thought to where they might want to eat.   I, on the other hand, approached it in precisely the reverse order.   After all, if I couldn't experience the great restaurants that I had read and heard so much about, wouldn't it be better to postpone my trip until I could?   (I'm hoping that at least a few of my fellow food bloggers, if nobody else, will understand my twisted logic here!)   I accordingly stayed up late one evening and called all of the Michelin three-star restaurants, a mere three weeks before my potential arrival date.   Not surprisingly, virtually all of the restaurants had limited availability, and getting the overall schedule to fit neatly into a six-day period was an exercise akin to the so-called "logic games" section of the LSAT that I had taken many years earlier (making me glad to know that it was useful for something).   In the end, I arrived at a schedule that truly excited me, a veritable tasting menu of Paris itself.   Here is my "seven-course" sampling of the city's finest:
Course 1:   L'Arpege
Course 2:   Le Meurice
Course 3:   Ledoyen
Course 4:   Guy Savoy
Course 5:   Pierre Gagnaire (lunch)
Course 6:   Plaza Athenee
Course 7:   Le Pre Catalan
All seven of the restaurants hold three stars in Michelin's 2007 guide for Paris, with Le Meurice and Le Pre Catalan having just been elevated to that ranking this year.   Of the remaining three Paris establishments that enjoy three-star status (i.e., L'Astrance, Le Grand Vefour, and L'Ambroisie), I couldn't get into the first one and didn't try too hard with regard to latter two.   After all, I would only be in Paris for six days, and I was reluctant to schedule too many days with both a lunch and a dinner (especially since I intended to order the degustation menu at dinner each night, which typically results in my skipping lunch both that day and the next day).   Thus, I resolved that the final three would have to wait for my next trip, and I went ahead and booked my plane ticket and hotel.

Well, I just returned from dinner at Guy Savoy this evening, and the results so far have been extremely interesting and very eye-opening.   I won't give away the results just yet, as I do want to evaluate all seven restaurants against one another before I reach any definitive conclusions.   So, tune in again starting next week, as I describe each of my dining experiences!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Cooking Class with Ron Siegel


I have written here many times about the high regard in which I hold Ron Siegel, Executive Chef at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco.   His cuisine is always interesting and innovative, his food is consistently delicious, and his restaurant is one of my favorites in the Bay Area.   So, you can imagine how quickly I signed up when I learned that Siegel will be teaching a class at Tante Marie's Cooking School early next month.

The session is entitled "Finished Dishes With Sauces", and it's described on the Tante Marie website as "an advanced class on presentation and taste."   Unfortunately, there will be no recipes distributed to attendees.   The class will be held on Tuesday, March 6, 2007 from 2:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m., and the cost of admission is $65 per person.   If you're interested in attending, you can sign up on the website or by calling Tante Marie's (415.788.6699).   But don't delay;   as of this posting, there are only 6 spaces left in the class.

I've attended several cooking parties at Tante Marie's over the last 15 years, but I have yet to take a cooking class there.   Accordingly, I'll be very interested to see whether the format and content compare favorably to those of other classes offered elsewhere in town.   With a talented chef like Ron Siegel leading the discussion, though, it's hard to imagine this being anything but a worthwhile afternoon.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Five Things About Me


My friend Joy recently tagged me with the latest meme to make the rounds in the food blogging community, the one in which we're asked to identify five things about ourselves that you probably don't know.   Now, I've obviously been careful to keep many details about myself hidden from public view, but when a request like this comes from one of my favorite bloggers, well, I'm happy to participate.   So, without further ado, here are five things that you likely do not know about me:
  1. I designed the rear defog system for the 1993 Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird.   Before entering the hallowed halls of law school, I spent four long and arduous years earning a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering.   During one of the three summer internships I did at General Motors, I was tasked with analyzing the existing design for the Camaro's rear defog system, evaluating it against comparable systems found on vehicles from other manufacturers, and redesigning it to hit competitive benchmarks.   So, if you ever find yourself in a cold climate cursing at how long it's taking for the ice to clear from the rear window of your 1993 Camaro or Firebird, now you know who to blame.


  2. Other than food, one of my greatest passions in life is music -- especially electric jazz/fusion.   I don't mean by this that I simply enjoy going to an occasional concert.   No, my interest is probably more on the order of a borderline obsession, to the point where I've been known to attend every single show of a four-night stint when certain jazz artists come to town.   I even stayed in Philadelphia once for five days past the end of an exhausting month-long trial, just so I could catch a show that I missed when it came through San Francisco.   It's actually a minor miracle that the members of the Pat Metheny Group, the Yellowjackets, Steps Ahead, and Vital Information, among others, haven't taken out restraining orders against me.   Or maybe they have, and I just haven't been caught yet.


  3. I have played the drums for 29 years, and I thought seriously at one point about pursuing a career in music.   My three closest friends in high school were all drummers, and the four of us were completely immersed in our instrument -- taking private lessons for years on end, playing in every possible school band/orchestra, and putting together percussion ensembles to take to state-wide competitions.   In the end, though, pragmatism won over, as it dawned on me that trying to play the drums professionally might not put food (or at least good food) on the table.   I have nevertheless continued to play recreationally, and the very first purchase I made after buying a house four years ago was a seven-piece acoustic drumset to replace the electronic (read "quiet") set that I'd been playing while living in an apartment.   And yes, my neighbors love me.


  4. I love olive oil, but I hate olives.   I can't explain it, and I've tried repeatedly to overcome my serious dislike of the fruit itself.   Yet, time and again, my efforts have failed spectacularly.   Because of this, any chef who can make a dish featuring olives that I actually enjoy has my deepest admiration and eternal loyalty.   So far, only one individual has managed to pull this off:   David Kinch, with his black olive madeleines.


  5. One of the things that I'd love to do someday is to be an investor/co-owner in a restaurant.   I know, I know -- it's a notoriously challenging industry, the returns on investment are not great, and the work involved is undoubtedly thankless.   Still, the entire idea holds such allure for me, that I'm apparently willing to throw all caution to the wind for the right opportunity.
At this point, I'm not sure that there are any food bloggers who have not yet been tagged for this meme, so I'm not going to name anybody specifically.   Instead, if you're a food blogger reading this and would like to participate, please consider yourself tagged!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Dining Notes: Circa


When my sister asked me in early January where I'd like to go for a celebratory birthday dinner, I rattled off a short list of places that I'd been wanting to try for several months.   High on that list was Circa, the Marina restaurant and lounge that's located in the spot that previously housed Cosmo's Corner Grill.   Not only had the restaurant been generating positive reviews and word of mouth since it opened last year, but Executive Chef Erik Hopfinger has a reputation that precedes him:   he was named one of the San Francisco Chronicle's "Rising Stars" in 2002, and he earned numerous accolades during his stints at Spoon and Butterfly.   Yet, what really drew me into the restaurant on that cold Sunday evening was neither the buzz nor the chef;   it was a dish.   And if you read my description of the dinner party that I held in my home at the end of last year, you'll probably
Circa: At A Glance
ChefErik Hopfinger
Pastry ChefLaura Mandracchia
Address2001 Chestnut St.
San Francisco, CA 94123
Phone415.351.0175
ParkingGarage
Restaurant Website

understand why just as soon as I tell you its name:   Lobster & White Truffle Mac-n-Cheese.

The layout at Circa is rather interesting, in that the space is dominated by an enormous square bar and lounge that are located immediately inside the front door.   The comparatively small dining area is then located off to one side, almost as an afterthought or a begrudging concession to the people who might want to go to the restaurant to eat rather than simply to drink and be seen.   Now, that may be a perfectly good strategy for capturing the business of young singles in the surrounding Marina, but it seems to send a subtle message that the service of outstanding cuisine is not necessarily Circa's primary focus or most important concern.   And the dishes that we were served on our visit unfortunately reflected as much.
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There's more...
To be fair, very few of the things that we ordered that evening were downright bad or inedible.   But apart from the desserts, almost everything missed the mark in one or more important respects, leaving me seriously underwhelmed by the place.   Here's a rundown:

  • Pan seared Hudson Valley foie gras, wild blueberry demi-glace, peanut butter sauce on toasted brioche:   My first thought upon seeing this on the menu was that the pairing of foie gras with peanut butter is an odd choice.   If you think about these two flavors for a moment, you'll probably agree with me that neither is likely to contrast well against the other.   Indeed, the two actually seem to strike a similar tone, and even when either one of them is served on its own, it cries out for something -- such as fruit -- to pierce through its deep and rich flavor.   Doesn't it stand to reason, then, that if a chef decides to combine foie gras and peanut butter, he or she had better make sure to amp up the sweet/fruit component to contrast with both?   I thought so, but the amount of blueberry demi-glace on the plate here was so paltry, that it left the flavors of the foie gras and peanut butter in a muddled mess.


  • CIRCA sliders stuffed with black truffle and Brie cheese, served with Maui onion strings and house made ketchup:   These miniature hamburgers were tasty enough, but they fell far short of the high expectations that had been set by their billing.   Tell me you're giving me a burger "stuffed with black truffle and Brie," and I'm going to be waiting for something exquisite in which the flavors of black truffle and high quality Brie practically jump out of the bun.   That never happened.   The black truffles were barely discernible at all, and the Brie -- remarkably -- seemed like just another cheese.   On the plus side, the accompanying onion strings were very tasty.


  • Smoky roasted cream of tomato soup served with crustless grilled cheese bites:   This was a disappointment.   The soup was particularly acidic and had an odd sour taste, and I couldn't help but think about how Philippe Jeanty's tomato soup is orders of magnitude better.   Now, you would think that preparing a satisfying grilled cheese would be a piece of cake, a slow easy pitch down the middle that any chef could hit out of the park.   But the small sandwich bites served on the side of the soup here were terrible; the brioche was sliced way too thickly, and the cheese was barely melted.


  • Dungeness crab, Ahi tuna ceviche on torilla chips, avocado creme fraiche, sriracha chili sauce: This was one of the few brights spots of the meal.   The ceviche was fresh and nicely seasoned, and the creme fraiche added a cool creaminess against which the spicy kick of the chili sauce played well.   The tortilla chips, meanwhile, added a much-needed textural contrast.   A very good dish.


  • Morroccan Spiced Roasted Austrailian Rack of Lamb "Lollichops," mint chimichurri and pomegranate molasses:   Here was yet another selection that sounded wonderful on paper but fell flat in the execution.   The lamb itself was cooked well past the requested medium rare, and the sauces on the plate never really came together into a cohesive whole.


  • Lobster & white truffle mac-n-cheese:   The ingredients in this dish are so wonderful on their own, that it's almost impossible to imagine how the combination could be anything less than spectacular.   Yet, Circa's kitchen pulled it off.   I was hoping for pasta shells enrobed in a creamy sauce, permeated with a pronounced cheese flavor and punctuated with the distinctive flavors of lobster and white truffle.   What we got instead was a serious letdown.   The cheese sauce had a rather peculiar and somewhat unpleasant flavor, the white truffle was missing in action, and the lobster pieces were so miniscule and scarce that they may as well have been left out.   So, a dish that held such promise -- a dish that had lured me into the restaurant in the first place -- was an abysmal failure.
Desserts from Pastry Chef Laura Mandracchia were more successful.   An Almond & Banana Upside Down Cake was dense and comforting like bread pudding, its clean banana flavor complemented nicely by a delicious caramel sauce.   The Circa Housemade Dessert Sampler was a clever tribute to several of the childhood favorites of my generation, with "premium" homemade versions of Ho-Ho's, Oreo Cookies, Cracker Jack's, Truffles, Rum Balls, and Vanilla Milk.   All of the components here were good, but the real standout was the one thing that I, at least, never had as a child -- the vanilla milk.   As I sipped from the small shot glass, the chilled milk exploding with the bright floral notes of fragrant vanilla bean, I kicked myself.   Why in the world had I never thought of making this at home?!   As I'll describe in a later post, this small spark of inspiration quickly grew into a self-indulgent passion in the ensuing weeks.

Overall, Hopfinger and his kitchen have their work cut out for them if they ever want to make Circa a destination restaurant.   Dishes need to be more thoughtfully conceived, more tightly focused, and -- most importantly -- more precisely executed.   But maybe that's not the goal.   Maybe the only objective is to draw revelers into the bar for a night of drinking, and to serve them passable food when they get hungry.   And maybe for that purpose, the food is good enough.   Maybe.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Dining Notes: COCO500


One of the few places in San Francisco that I've visited several times without ever mentioning here is COCO500, the Loretta Keller establishment that rose from the ashes of what was once Bizou.   My first dinner at the restaurant was in early 2006, right around the time that a consensus seemed to emerge in the food blogging community that COCO500 was the toast of the town.   And I shared in that assessment.   The food, in a word, was wonderful, from the spectacular flatbread with squash blossom and white truffle oil, to the delicious and flavorful halibut, to the scrumptious sweet summer corn.   I was hooked, and my initial meal at this South of Market hot spot was followed by a rapid fire succession of several more, all of which were thoroughly satisfying.

Now, unlike some, I have never been that enamored of the service.   I've generally found it to be competent and functional, but never particularly attentive and occasionally somewhat neglectful.   And I'm not alone in this assessment;   both Fatemeh and Catherine had initial visits to COCO500 in which the service was so subpar, that it apparently dampened their enthusiasm about going back.   Yet, each of them did eventually return, and to service that was much more impressive.

Well, I had dinner at COCO500 last night, and I can certainly say that the experience left an impression.   The food was, as always, well executed and very tasty, and the table service was perfectly fine.   The problem?   The host staff.   When Rhonda and I arrived for our 8:15 reservation, the hostess told us that "our" table was just finishing up and that we would be seated shortly.   No problem, we thought -- we'll just wait in the bar.   As we sat down, my eyes scanned across the dining room and happened to notice a vacant four-seat table, along with several other such tables at which parties of two were dining.   "That empty table is certainly being held for a party of four with a reservation," I said to Rhonda.

Ten minutes passed.   Fifteen.   Twenty.   Thirty.   And all throughout, three facts remained unchanged:   the vacant table remained unoccupied, the people seated at our table remained planted in their seats, and the hostess remained completely indifferent to our plight.   Not once was there an effort to assure us that we would be seated soon, not once was there an attempt to pacify us with a drink or appetizer on the house, and not once was there even a hint of an apology.   At the 35-minute mark, we finally lost our patience and approached the hostess.   Her response?   "Oh, did you not want to wait any longer for a two-seat table?"   Yeah, that's right -- we've been sitting here in the bar starving, waiting for a couple of oblivious diners to leave our table and staring at a vacant four-top for the last 35 minutes, all because we were actively hoping to be crammed into a small two-top instead of being given all of that uncomfortable space that comes standard with a larger table.   I was not amused.   And needless to say, the hostess offered no apology and no "thank you for waiting" as we were finally seated at the table that had been collecting dust all night.

A dinner reservation represents an agreement between restaurant and diner, a social contract that imposes certain obligations on both parties.   The diner is expected to show up on time, and the restaurant is expected to have a table available and ready.   Of course, the vagaries of daily life require that a certain grace period be afforded to both sides, and 15 minutes strikes me as a reasonable amount of time for this purpose.   But after that, the situation changes.   If a diner shows up more than 15 minutes late, the restaurant should be free to give away the table;   and if the restaurant cannot provide a table within 15 minutes after a reservation, then it should immediately take some form of corrective action.   Most establishments, understandably, do not want to nudge a lingering party out the door, for fear of coming across as rude.   Yet, at the same time, indulging the lingerers requires the restaurant to breach its agreement to seat the next party -- a gesture that is no less rude.   While this may seem like an intractable situation, there's a relatively easy solution:   provide the waiting party a complimentary beverage or appetizer to make the delay more tolerable, give them a free appetizer or dessert once they have been seated, or take something off of their ultimate dinner bill.   A small gesture like this, coupled with a sincere apology, goes an incredibly long way toward preserving goodwill.

What a restaurant should never do is what COCO500 did last night:   ignore the waiting guests for 30+ minutes, and then do absolutely nothing to make up for, acknowledge, or even apologize for the delay.   And just in case you were wondering -- I did watch the front door of the restaurant for the rest of the night to see whether some later party of four would be displaced by our having taken the big table, but no such party ever arrived.   In other words, the hostess apparently kept us waiting for 35 minutes for a hypothetical party of four that might walk in off the street without a reservation.   Not a smart move, and not one that earned the restaurant any points in my book.

There's no question that the food at COCO500 has been consistently good, to the point that several people I know have been persuaded to overlook bad service experiences and pay the place another visit.   But is that really what the restaurant wants to aim for?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Cooking Class with William Werner


As you may recall, I attended a food and wine event at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay last October at which an up-and-coming pastry chef thoroughly impressed me with his innovative and delicious desserts.   His name is William Werner, and I posted here at the time about the many wonderful creations that I was able to sample from this talented gentleman in just that one evening.   One of these even inspired a course that Rhonda and I served at a dinner party last month.   Well, I'm excited to report that Werner will be sharing the recipes and techniques behind some of his popular confections in a session he's teaching as part of the Ritz-Carlton's Winter School.

The class is entitled "A Passion for Desserts", and it will be presented on Friday, February 2, 2007 from 6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m. at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay.   Tickets cost $70 per person, and attendees will receive a tasting of each dessert that's presented along with a copy of the corresponding recipe.   You can register for the class here.   The hotel is also offering a few interesting packages.   For $150 per person, you can attend the class and then immediately thereafter enjoy a three-course dinner at Navio -- the hotel's flagship restaurant.   And for prices ranging from $549-$589, you and a companion can attend Werner's class and then spend the night in a coastal view room.

I have never attended a session of the Ritz-Carlton Winter School, so I'm not really in a position to tell you how worthwhile this experience will be.   What I can say, however, is that William Werner is one pastry chef to keep an eye on -- and that's exactly what I intend to do on February 2.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Menu for Hope III - The Results Are In


Last month, food bloggers from around the world came together to sponsor a fundraising campaign to combat world hunger.   Each of us donated one or more prizes, and readers then purchased $10 raffle tickets for the prizes of their choice -- with 100% of the proceeds going to the United Nations World Food Programme.   My contribution to the effort?   A $350 gift certificate to one of my favorite restaurants -- The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton.

To say that this year's Menu for Hope was an enormous and astonishing success would be a gross understatement.   Over 12 short days in the middle of the hectic holiday season, you -- our readers -- kindly took the time to reach deep into your pockets and to donate your hard-earned cash toward this important cause.   Together, we raised an amazing $60,925.12, a 258% increase over the amount that this event raised in 2005.   I want to take this opportunity to sincerely thank each and every one of you who contributed this year, with an extra special thanks to those who directed their raffle tickets toward my prize.   The generosity and giving spirit that all of you displayed was truly an inspiration.

After putting in an incredible amout of time, energy, and hard work, Pim and Derrick drew the raffle winners for each of the prizes a few days ago, using a clever program that Derrick wrote just for this purpose.   And in case you missed the announcement on Chez Pim yesterday, the winner of my $350 gift certificate to The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton is . . . Rory C. Berger!   Congratulations, Rory -- I'm sure that you'll have a wonderful evening enjoying the outstanding cuisine of Executive Chef Ron Siegel, served in one of my favorite dining rooms in the entire Bay Area.

Finally, I want to thank Pim for conceiving, organizing and administering this fantastic event, Sam for serving as the host, coordinator and promoter for the West Coast prizes, and Derrick for volunteering his time to write the program to select the winners.   Thanks also to those who served as regional hosts for prizes from other parts of the world -- Kalyn, Adam, David, Jasmine, Helen, and Alder.   None of this would have been possible without the tireless efforts of these remarkable individuals, and we all owe them a debt of gratitude.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

White Truffle Dinner 2006: Conclusion


This is the tenth and final installment in a series of posts directed to the Fourth Annual White Truffle Dinner that Rhonda and I recently held at my home.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Introduction | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Course 7 | Course 8 | Conclusion

I've spent the past month describing our Fourth Annual White Truffle Dinner in some detail, from the thinking that went into the menu to the composition of the eight courses that comprised the meal.   I'd now like to conclude this series of posts by acknowledging a number of people who made the event possible.

First up are the friends who attended this year's dinner.   I've always felt that the most pleasurable aspects of food are those that come from sharing it with others, and a big part of what motivates me to put together a meal like this is to express my appreciation for the wonderful people that Rhonda and I get to call our friends.   The eight individuals who came to my home last month, and the folks who came to the dinner in previous years, are among the most generous, kind, and thoughtful people that I've ever met, and Rhonda and I are truly fortunate to have them in our lives.   They are, in a real sense, the raison d'etre of the truffle dinner itself.

Next are the numerous food purveyors who provided the raw materials that we used in preparing the various courses.   At the risk of stating the obvious, the success of a finished dish is inextricably linked to the quality of its component ingredients, and that is precisely why I spend so much time and energy on trying to find the best sources.   Although all of the food items we used this year were excellent, several were exceptional -- so much so, in fact, that I would readily recommend them to others without hesitation.   Here are those products and the purveyors who produced or sold them:

Last but certainly not least, I have to thank Rhonda.   Her numerous contributions were both invaluable and indispensable, from helping to plan the event and taste testing my experiments, to cooking the meal itself and striking an elegant tone for the evening with her wonderful table decor.   Her warmth, grace, good humor and charm made her the consummate host, and she made the entire process -- from start to finish -- a thoroughly enjoyable experience for me as well.   Simply put, the white truffle dinner could not happen but for Rhonda.
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There's more...
As we sat finishing our desserts at this year's dinner, my friend A talked about how she would be taking a sabbatical from work at the end of 2007 in order to travel through Europe.   When I commented that she should make sure to get to Italy during the height of white truffle season, she replied that we should meet her there and hold the Fifth Annual White Truffle Dinner right in the heart of Alba.   Check back later this year to see whether we managed to pull this off!

I'll close with a pictorial recap of the eight courses that we served this year.   Click on any picture to be taken to the post describing the corresponding dish.

Fourth Annual White Truffle Dinner
December 9, 2006
Truffled Corn & Leek Veloute
Burrata Cheese with Arugula in a
White Truffle Champagne Vinaigrette
Dungeness Crab Cake with White Truffle
Crème Fraîche & Cucumber Foam
Prather Ranch Beef Filet with
Truffled Parsnip Puree
White Truffle Risotto with Fresh
Truffle Shavings & Browned Butter
Butter-Poached Maine Lobster with
White Truffle Cauliflower Gratin
Duo of Sorbets:  Pineapple Lemon
Verbena & Raspberry Rose Geranium
Pear Cake with Pain D’Epice Crème
& Brown Butter Ice Cream

Friday, January 05, 2007

White Truffle Dinner 2006: Course 8


This is the ninth in a series of posts directed to the Fourth Annual White Truffle Dinner that Rhonda and I recently held at my home.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Introduction | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Course 7 | Course 8 | Conclusion

The eighth course for this year's White Truffle Dinner was Pear Cake with Pain D'Epice Crème & Brown Butter Ice Cream.   Whenever I order a tasting menu out at a restaurant, I'm always struck by what a difficult challenge the pastry chef faces.   Whereas the executive chef has six or more courses through which to impress diners (with each dish hopefully surpassing the one before), the pastry chef is lucky to have two.   Moreover, the pastry chef has to continue the upward trajectory set by the savory courses;   after all, there's nothing more disappointing than a spectacular meal that fizzles out into a pool of mediocre desserts.   Finally, it falls on the pastry chef to make sure that the final note on which the meal closes, the one diners will have most prominently in mind when leaving the restaurant, is an outstanding one.   All of these thoughts weigh heavily on my mind whenever I plan a menu, and I always come out of the process with an even deeper respect for what pastry chefs have to do on a regular basis.

The dessert course that we presented at this year's White Truffle Dinner was inspired by two of the best desserts that I tasted during the past year.   The first, and more recent, was from William Werner -- Pastry Chef for both the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay and its flagship restaurant Navio.   As I described here a few months ago, Werner nearly stole the show during the Four Star Grand Cru Wine Dinner held at the hotel last October, serving up one innovative and delicious confection after another.   Included among these was French Butter Pear Nage with Pain D'Epice Ice Cream and Creme Fraiche, comprised of individually delicious flavors that together achieved an almost magical result.   Yes, Werner truly left an indelible impression on me that evening, one that I knew would have to be reflected on this year's truffle menu.

The other influence for Course 8 came from Boris Portnoy, presently the Pastry Chef at Campton Place.   In an earlier stint at the now-shuttered Winterland, Portnoy served one of the most delicious desserts that I have ever had:   Caramelized Brioche.   A small piece of delicious brioche from Bay Bread was soaked in creme anglaise and baked, after which it was dusted with sugar and torched to create a caramelized surface.   Served on the side was the most incredible ice cream, one made from -- of all things -- brown butter.   Now, if you've been reading the earlier posts in this series, you know about my great affinity for brown butter and the fact that I've used it for four straight years now in conjunction with the risotto of Course 5.   But it had never occurred to me to try it in a dessert, and my first taste of Portnoy's creation in the opening months of 2006 simply astonished me.   I wasn't alone in this reaction;   there was extensive discussion on Chowhound about the dessert and how it might be replicated, until somebody from the restaurant finally appeared and posted the recipe for all to see.   Portnoy's clever use of brown butter was thus another concept that demanded some sort of acknowledgement on my menu.
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There's more...
Once I had identified the motivating factors, the flavors that I should incorporate into Course 8 became self-evident:   gingerbread, pear, and brown butter.   Coincidentally, the first two of these had been featured prominently in the dessert course from last year's White Truffle Dinner -- i.e., Gingerbread Cake with Poached Anjou Pear and Crème Anglaise.   Because I enjoy forcing myself to devise a new dessert for each truffle dinner, I was generally opposed to using a straight repeat of any of the components from last year's dish.   Yet, I was not against exploring variations on the flavor combination that I had employed there, nor was I averse to repeating the concept of a dessert anchored by a small cake.   But which of my three flavors should go into the cake?   And how would I get the other two into the dish?

I decided to take a step back and approach this from a different direction.   One easy component to use would be ice cream, and what better way to pay tribute to Portnoy than to include his brown butter ice cream exactly according to his recipe.   One flavor down, and two to go.   Gingerbread could not go into the cake if I wanted to avoid a repeat, so that left only one viable option:   pear cake.   My thought was to puree some Bartlett pears and then add them to a standard batter, perhaps even sauteeing the pears initially in butter and brown sugar to deepen the flavor of the finished cake.   I conducted some experiments and was satisfied with the outcome.   Once the pear cakes were in place, a gingerbread custard sauce struck me as a nice accompaniment.   I pulled out the cake recipe that I used last year, identified the precise ratios among the ingredients that give gingerbread its distinctive flavor, and then calculated the amount of these ingredients to use per unit volume of custard.   My first test batch tasted like gingerbread, but the molasses was overwhelming to the point of distraction.   In penciling out the numbers for the second batch, I found myself reluctant to reduce the amount of cinnamon, cloves and ginger from their already low levels.   But if I reduced only the molasses, would the overall flavor balance be thrown out of whack?   I took a leap of faith and tried it, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the sauce tasted exactly as I had hoped.

In talking to Rhonda the next day about my plans for the final course, we concluded that there was a texture missing.   Specifically, something crisp or crunchy would go a long way toward rounding out the dish, while also keeping our diners interested.   After considering brittles, pralines, toffees and wafers, I remembered something that I'd been wanting to explore for as long as I could recall:   caramelized sugar decorations.   For years, I had marveled at what professional pastry chefs could achieve with melted sugar, but I had never figured out exactly how it was done.   After digging around online, I set a pot of sugar and water over a high flame and was on my way.   When the temperature of the mixture edged over 300 degrees and its color had reached a deep amber, I plunged the pot into an ice bath for 10 seconds and then began drizzling the liquefied sugar onto Silpat using the tines of a fork.   I was actually surprised at how easy -- and fun -- this was, and how even the most haphazardly-deposited lines yielded something that looked like it had been designed by the most talented of artists.   I figured that I could put a small piece of this sugar creation on top of the brown butter ice cream in my dessert, giving the dish a decorative flair that would also provide the desired textural contrast.

All of the components of Course 8 could be made in advance of the dinner, and that's exactly what we did.   When the time came, we merely placed some gingerbread sauce on the bottom of each plate, positioned a pear cake on top, added a small scoop of brown butter ice cream, and finished with a piece of the caramelized sugar decoration.

Finally, to give you a sense of how the menu has evolved over time, here's a summary of the Course 8 selections that we have served since the inaugural White Truffle Dinner in 2003: