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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A Dinner Party Tour of Four-Star Restaurants: Menu Planning, Part 2

This is the third in a series of posts directed to a holiday dinner party that I recently held at my home, for which I put together a six-course menu comprised of dishes inspired by the Bay Area's four-star chefs.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Intro | Menu Planning, Pt. 1 | Menu Planning, Pt. 2 | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Closing

In my last post, I started to describe the process by which I put together the menu for a dinner party that I recently held at my home.   What follows is the continuation of that description.


From early on in this process, I had a notion in my head that steak should be the "main" course.   This was due, in part, to ease of preparation;   I could simply pan sear the required number of steaks, and then place them in the oven en masse to finish up - simple, low-stress, hassle-free.   But I was also excited about the prospect of sharing some high-quality filet mignons with my friends, Niman Ranch or Prather Ranch being my preferred purveyors.   I therefore began combing through my cookbooks from Thomas Keller, Hubert Keller and Alice Waters for good steak recipes.   Much to my surprise, the Chez Panisse Cooking book has nothing worthwhile in this regard, and The Cuisine of Hubert Keller remarkably contains no steak dishes at all.   Only The French Laundry Cookbook provided a tiny ray of hope, containing as it does a single steak recipe among its 325 pages.

This recipe, for a dish that T.Keller calls "Yabba Dabba Do", essentially consists of rib steak topped with chanterelle mushrooms and Bordelaise sauce, with Pommes Anna served alongside.   The potatoes here struck me as too heavy given the amount of food that I was planning to serve, but I really liked the idea of using the rest of the recipe from The French Laundry with filets substituted for the rib steak.   This made me realize, for the first time, that Hubert Keller and Alice Waters would not each get a distinct course;   one of them would provide the dessert, but the other would contribute the accompaniment to T.Keller's steak.

H.Keller's cookbook offered two intriguing possibilities for a side to the filet mignon:   an Alsatian Onion Tart, and a Morel-Filled Puff Pastry with Veal Sweetbreads.   Both seemed feasible, both could be made largely in advance, and both seemed to pair well with the steak.   Nevertheless, I was somewhat partial to the puff pastry, primarily because I could take the sauteed chanterelles that T.Keller called for in his recipe and put them inside H.Keller's puff pastry in place of the morels - thereby creating a truly integrated dish.   Thinking that I might be on to something and hoping to nail down the back end of the menu, I proceeded to research dessert options from Alice Waters.
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After a few hours of searching, the only interesting thing that I had turned up was a recipe from Chez Panisse for Pistachio-Stuffed Nectarines - which was said to work equally well with fall fruits such as pears or apples.   The problem, however, was that the dessert needed to be baked for 30 minutes right before serving, making this less than ideal for somebody trying to move through service of a multi-course menu.   Feeling a bit discouraged, I thought that I would take a quick look through the desserts in Hubert Keller's cookbook.   And as luck would have it, I immediately happened upon a promising candidate:   Cinnamon, Apple and Raisin Crisp, a dessert that is apparently quite popular at Fleur de Lys.   This could easily be prepared in advance, warmed up before serving, and then topped off with a scoop of premium vanilla ice cream to create a true comfort-food type of dessert.

Considering this dessert was not without consequence, however, as it reopened the question of what I would serve with the steak.   I pored over my copy of Chez Panisse Cooking, considering every potential vegetable along the way - asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, corn, eggplant, sugar snap peas, potatoes, mushrooms.   Some of these I put aside as incongruous with beef, others I rejected as calling for ingredients that were clearly out of season.   But then it hit me.   On my last trip to The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Ron Siegel had paired beef rib-eye with a Nicoise olive risotto;   did the Chez Panisse cookbook by chance have a recipe I could use for a mushroom risotto?   I hurriedly turned the pages to check the index, and once there my eyes raced through the entries under the "risotto" heading until I finally saw the words - "wild mushroom, 165-66."   This enticing recipe called for a mix of wild mushrooms, but I resolved to use only chanterelles to track T.Keller's concept more closely.   And with that, the back end of the menu was set.

Act IV

When I first returned to the Kinch-Siegel-Humm dilemma, I found myself struggling once again.   No solution was in sight, the date of the party was now rapidly approaching, and I continued to search for a sashimi source that could rescue me from my predicament.   And then, on one of my periodic mental run-throughs of Humm's menu, a light finally went off.   One of the courses at Campton Place that had really impressed me was a palate cleanser - a Jasmine Orange Cappuccino that was cold, slushy, bright, floral and frothy.   If I could somehow use this on my menu, all of my problems would be solved: Kinch would contribute The Egg, Siegel the Chilled Crab, and Humm the palate cleanser right before the dessert course.   There was only one small problem, and that was that I had no recipe for this concoction and no clue how to recreate it.

I did, however, have one asset - a little window of time in which to do some research and development.   The first thing that I discovered was that it's not easy to get a hold of dried jasmine, as I was unable to find it at any of my usual haunts, and the few online sources that sell it could not deliver it in time.   I therefore started thinking about potential substitutions, and the first one that came to mind was lavender.   Now, I wasn't exactly sure how well the flavor of lavender would work with an orange-flavored base;   for that matter, I wasn't even sure where I was going to get the orange-flavored base itself, since orange juice seemed to have the wrong consistency.   My problems in this regard were solved, however, when I found a Blood Orange sparkling grape juice at my local grocery store.   I purchased a couple of bottles, raced home, infused the juice with lavender, and found myself pleased with the result.   Figuring that my trusty ice cream machine and brand new foamer would take me across the finish line, I felt comfortable that I would be able to present a decent palate cleanser a la Humm.   At long last, I was finally done with planning the menu.

So, here it is - a picture of the final menu that sat at the center of each place setting as my nine guests sat down for dinner on the evening of November 12, 2005:

At the end of the day, I was pleased with the menu.   Not only did it contain one item representing each of the seven chefs, but there was significant cross-pollenization as well.   For example, Siegel had inspired the steak and risotto combination, while Keller's preference for chanterelles had driven the Chez Panisse risotto in a specific direction.   Over the next six posts, I will delve into each of the courses on the above menu in some detail, sharing some comments and recipes as well.

Monday, November 28, 2005

A Dinner Party Tour of Four-Star Restaurants: Menu Planning, Part 1

This is the second in a series of posts directed to a holiday dinner party that I recently held at my home, for which I put together a six-course menu comprised of dishes inspired by the Bay Area's four-star chefs.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Intro | Menu Planning, Pt. 1 | Menu Planning, Pt. 2 | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Closing

In a recent post, I described the theme that I came up with for the first of my two annual holiday dinner parties this year.   Specifically, I wanted to see whether I could design a menu consisting entirely of dishes inspired by each of the Bay Area's four-star chefs, namely Thomas Keller, Hubert Keller, Roland Passot, Alice Waters, Ron Siegel, David Kinch and Daniel Humm.   Now, this certainly struck me as a good idea in the abstract, particularly since it would enable me to share my appreciation for these seven talented chefs with a group of my close friends.   But the devil, as they say, is in the details, and the process of putting together the menu that I ultimately served on the evening of November 12, 2005 was anything but simple.

Before I describe that process, I should probably take a moment to explain the three primary criteria that guided my task:
  1. Possibility of Advance Preparation:   There is one critical rule that, in my experience, must be followed whenever one tries to present a multi-course dinner at home:   pick as many menu items as possible that can be prepared, either wholly or in part, before the guests arrive.   There will always be some dishes, of course, that absolutely need to be cooked, finished and assembled in real time.   But as the number of such selections increases, so, too, does the stress on the host, the wait between courses, and the amount of time the cook will be chained to the kitchen.   Thus, the possibility of at least some degree of advance preparation was a paramount concern as I considered possible menu items.

  2. Availability of Recipe or Ease of Recreation:   Unfortunately, I am not one of those gifted individuals who can taste an extremely complex dish in one of the Bay Area's finest restaurants and then immediately discern how to replicate it at home.   For this reason, I needed to select items for which a recipe could readily be found, or dishes that were straightforward enough that I could recreate them without having to conduct extensive experimentation.

  3. Likelihood of Success:   Ordinarily, before I put any item on a dinner party menu, I will have prepared the dish at least once for myself to make sure that I am happy with it.   Due to some unexpected developments at work, however, I did not have nearly as much time as I would have liked for this type of advance testing.   Accordingly, I needed to pick dishes that I could be comfortable would have a reasonable likelihood of success.
With the above goals in mind, I set out to construct the menu.
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Act I

The first menu item fell into place quickly and easily.   Roland Passot's recipe for Leek and Corn Veloute is included in The Secrets of Success cookbook, and it came to mind almost immediately as the perfect candidate for a soup course.   I had never tasted this dish at La Folie, nor had I ever made it at home.   But I could tell simply by looking at the ingredients - leeks, corn, shallots, vermouth, chicken stock, and cream among them - that it was virtually guaranteed not to fail.   Best of all, the veloute could be prepared well in advance of the dinner;   all I would need to do is add the cream right before my guests arrived, and then gently bring the soup up to the proper temperature.   Add in the fact that none of the other chefs had a better soup in the running, and the deal was sealed:   Passot's veloute would be on the menu.   One down, six to go.

As I looked down the roster of the remaining chefs, it occurred to me that three of them - T.Keller, H.Keller, and Waters - have all published detailed cookbooks, giving me hundreds of recipes from which to choose.   Siegel, Kinch and Humm, on the other hand, have not yet published cookbooks, and the smattering of recipes that they have available online are generally labor-intensive, complex, or somewhat unpredictable - meaning that pre-dinner testing would be needed.   Given this disparity between the two groups, I made an important decision:   the main course and dessert selections, due to their relative importance, would have to come from the precise recipes provided by T.Keller, H.Keller and Waters, while the dishes representing Siegel, Kinch and Humm would occupy the front half of the menu.

With that, I turned my attention to Ron Siegel.   The Secrets of Success cookbook includes a recipe for Mushroom Custard, a creamy amuse bouche that Siegel used to present in a decapped eggshell back in his days at Charles Nob Hill.   But there was a variant of this dish that Siegel also used to serve that I enjoyed even more, and that was White Truffle Custard.   This struck me as an attractive candidate for inclusion on my menu, because it would be relatively easy to replicate, I could make it in advance of my guests' arrival, and it would make for a nice presentation.   My only hesitation was that this seems to be a dish from Siegel's distant past rather than something that he's presently serving at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, but I was willing to live with that given the paucity of available options.

Next up was Daniel Humm.   I had dined at Campton Place twice back in October, and one of the best dishes that I had there was the Sea Urchin Cappuccino - a mix of sea urchin and Dungeness crab at the bottom of a martini glass, topped off with a delicious Gewurztraminer foam.   As I considered whether to use this on my menu, I realized that sea urchin is, for many, an acquired taste.   Moreover, I have never worked with sea urchin in the kitchen before, and I didn't think that embarking upon a new culinary adventure was advisable given the limited time that I had to prepare.   For these reasons, and given that my goal was merely to present dishes inspired by the four-star chefs, I decided to present a variation on Humm's creation:   Dungeness crab resting on a small dollop of creme fraiche, with a Gewurztraminer foam on top.

Act II

And then came David Kinch.   Those who have dined at Manresa know that Kinch's menu - perhaps more than any other - truly runs the gamut, from complex combinations involving multiple components to simple dishes where Kinch merely procures the highest quality ingredient and then gets out of the way.   As my mind cycled through the various items that I've enjoyed on my visits to the restaurant, I considered and rejected several options.   Corn Cromesquis, Crab Beggar's Purse, and Red Pepper and Black Olive Madeleines all seemed too labor-intensive, too risky without advance experimentation, or both.   That seemed to leave me with only two viable options:   (1)  The Egg, a dish that originated at L'Arpege in Paris but that Kinch has popularized here in the Bay Area;   or (2)   one of Kinch's brilliant and elegantly simple sashimi preparations - such as Striped Jack with Olive Oil and Chives.   Given that I already had Siegel's custard on the menu, the sashimi seemed to be the better choice.

Now, I have certainly prepared my fair share of tuna and salmon tartares over the years, but I had never before ventured into serving some of the more interesting sashimi that has increasingly been finding its way onto four-star menus.   In order to do Kinch any justice, I needed to find a purveyor that could provide me with something beyond the ordinary - something such as Striped Jack, Kampachi, or Ayu.   And given that I was going to be serving this raw, I obviously had to find a source that I could trust to deliver the highest quality fish.   So, in the exceedingly limited time that I had, I began investigating in earnest - searching online for recommendations, visiting Japanese grocery stores across the Bay Area, even contacting trusted restaurants to see whether they would sell me some fresh fish directly.   As the days turned into weeks and I still didn't have the requisite comfort level with the few sources that I had located, I had no choice but to start thinking about a backup plan.

And that's where the trouble began.   The only viable alternative for Kinch seemed to be The Egg.   But that immediately threw Siegel's White Truffle Custard out the window;   the two were simply too similar to appear on a single menu.   So, now I had a new problem:   what could I incorporate from Siegel that wouldn't be too labor-intensive, too complex, or too unpredictable?   After running into one dead-end after another, I suddenly remembered one of my favorite Siegel dishes from this past summer - Chilled Maine Crab with Champagne Mango and Red Onion Compote.   I was fairly confident that I could capture at least the spirit of this dish, and it also offered the advantage of being capable of preparation almost entirely in advance.   So, did this solve my problem?   No, because proceeding down this path threw the Humm-inspired Crab Cappuccino overboard.   And I could not for the life of me think of any decent alternatives for Humm - other than one of his sashimi preparations!

So there I was, stuck in an endless loop.   For days, weeks even, the names and menus of Kinch, Siegel and Humm churned around in my brain - whether I was at home, at work, or in the car driving from one to the other.   It was like an impossible math puzzle;   I had been given three variables but only two algebraic equations, absolutely guaranteeing that no definitive solution could ever be found.   Indeed, no matter how many times I tried to tackle the problem, now matter how many different directions from which I approached it, no matter how many techniques I used to add it all up, I always came up just one dish short.   Eventually, out of sheer frustration, I decided to distract myself by focusing on the back end of the menu.

In my next post, I'll discuss the latter half of the menu, as well as the solution that I ultimately found to my vexing problem regarding the front half!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Dinner Party "Season"

This is the first in a series of posts directed to a holiday dinner party that I recently held at my home, for which I put together a six-course menu comprised of dishes inspired by the Bay Area's four-star chefs.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Intro | Menu Planning, Pt. 1 | Menu Planning, Pt. 2 | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Closing

Each year around this time, I get the urge to plan and host dinner parties for several of my closest friends.   The basic reason will certainly come as no surprise:   I, like most people, look forward to catching up with good friends during the holiday season, and I also enjoy putting together and preparing an interesting menu to share with all of them.   But there's another reason that the November-December time period, more than any other, has become associated with dinner parties at my house:   it's the one time of year that my commitments at work usually - and I stress the word usually - can be predicted to slow down a bit.   This not only gives me some flexibility to divert time and energy toward planning the dinners, it minimizes the chance that something unexpected will come along and derail the events completely.

My dining table seats a maximum of twelve, which means that I unfortunately cannot have all of my good friends over at once.   So, for the past few years, I have hosted two separate dinners - one for friends that I have known since my earliest days here in the Bay Area, and another for my friends from work.   To keep things interesting, I typically plan distinct menus for the two dinners.   Last year, for example, one group joined me on New Year's Eve for a six-course celebratory meal featuring Osetra caviar, Maine lobster, fresh white truffles, and American "Kobe" beef;   three weeks earlier, the other group sampled an eight-course White Truffle Dinner - in which every dish, other than desserts, featured the flavor of white truffle in one way or another.

When I started to think about the dinner parties for this year, I came to the conclusion that it was time to shake things up.   I collapsed my two prior guest lists into a single document, added several new friends to the mix, and then divided the resulting list into two halves.   One group was invited to come over to my place on Saturday, December 10, for a new incarnation of the White Truffle Dinner.   Those in the other group all attended the white truffle event last year, so I wanted to do something different for them.   I asked this group to join me for dinner on the evening of Saturday, November 12.

In the hectic weeks leading up to this dinner, I thought long and hard about what I might serve.   I briefly entertained the idea of doing a simple three-course meal - appetizer, entree, dessert - consisting entirely of personal favorites.   But because I've always strived to make this particular event something beyond a regular dinner party, I wanted a menu with a bit more pizzazz.   I then considered doing a meal centered around bistro food;   I'm a big fan of both the tomato soup and the coq au vin served at Bistro Jeanty, for example, and I have great recipes for both.   But as soon as I started considering a menu with two dishes from a local restaurant, it brought to mind another idea that I had been toying with for almost a full year.   Specifically, what if I could somehow put together a single menu comprised of dishes that come directly from, or are inspired by, each of the Bay Area's four-star chefs?   It's no secret how much I enjoy dining out at the best restaurants here in Northern California;   what better way to acknowledge the wonderful experiences that these chefs have given me than to share some of their dishes and ideas with my close friends?

Now, between the time that I first thought of doing such a dinner and my party last week, the task had grown considerably more challenging.   Back in late 2004, there were only four chefs who had earned a four-star rating from The San Francisco Chronicle:   Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, Hubert Keller at Fleur de Lys, Roland Passot at La Folie, and Alice Waters at Chez Panisse.   By September 2005, however, three more chefs had joined the elite club:   Ron Siegel at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, David Kinch at Manresa, and Daniel Humm at Campton Place.   So, having settled on the abstract concept of paying tribute to the Bay Area's best restaurants, I faced an important practical question:   how in the world was I going to come up with seven dishes and integrate them into a single cohesive meal?!

In my next two posts, I'll describe the process by which I ultimately arrived at the menu that I ended up serving at the dinner.   A series of subsequent posts will then describe each course in detail, and I'll provide some recipes, observations and thoughts along the way.   And who knows, I may even be able to persuade some of my friends who attended this dinner to post comments here - anonymously if they prefer - relating their impressions!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Back At Last

Life as a litigation attorney is often unpredictable.   Sure, there are times when I know months in advance about some major event – say, a several-day hearing before the court, or a multiple-week trial in front of a jury – that will consume my every waking hour and interrupt the few hours of sleep I will try to get each night.   And yes, there are occasions when I can foresee a relatively light period at work, during which I will be able to reduce my time in the office so that I can take care of long-neglected personal matters.   But then there are times like the past three weeks, when every case on which I am working suddenly and unexpectedly blows up at the same time, and I find myself with clients, colleagues and courts all waiting for something that I am supposed to provide.   Making matters worse this time around were several personal commitments, all of which I had agreed to before the storm hit and none of which could be easily rescheduled.   Put it all together, and the free time I had available to post here took a major hit.

That's not to say, however, that my gastronomical pursuits ceased during the past three weeks.   In fact, whenever an intense period of activity arises at work, I find that any time I can take to sit down and eat a decent meal becomes a retreat of sorts from the whirlwind of insanity that is otherwise swirling around.   So, for example, during a three-week trial that my colleagues and I had in Philadelphia earlier this year, a small subset of us made it a point every few days to seek out one of the city's nicer restaurants in order to take a quick breather over some good food.   And it's probably not an overstatement to say that the enjoyment those meals gave us in the middle of incredibly long and stressful days is what enabled us to press on.

And so it was over the past three weeks, as I made a concerted effort to squeeze in several diversions from the fires that I was battling at work.   These included a dinner at Fleur de Lys, a dinner at the new restaurant from Hiro Sone & Lissa Doumani called Ame, and a six-course dinner for 10 at my house – which I somehow managed to plan and execute in the middle of all of the craziness.   Look for posts on all of this in the coming days!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Better Late Than Never: The 23:5 Meme

Among the many distinctive things about the food blogging community is the frequency and speed with which memes go hurtling through our ranks.   For those unfamiliar with the concept, allow me to explain:   a person comes up with an interesting and revealing topic, she puts up a post about that topic on her own blog, and she then "tags" one or more other food bloggers to address the same issue through posts on their blogs.   These individuals, in turn, are asked to tag one or more other bloggers, and so it goes.

About a month ago, the fantastic and always-entertaining Joy tagged me with a meme that is, to be sure, decidely random.   The instructions are to delve into your blog archive, to find your 23rd post, to identify the 5th sentence, and to ponder it for meaning, subtext, or hidden agendas.   Now, to paraphrase a great quote, some people may look at this meme and ask why, but I look at it and ask why not?   So, here we go.

My 23rd post was entitled "Changes on Tap at Tartare", and the fifth sentence was as follows:

"The new incarnation of the restaurant will be called George, and Morrone is promising to deliver 'edgy' dishes inspired by his recent trip to France and Spain."
What I was referencing here was the fact that George Morrone - the nearly legendary chef who had opened Aqua and earned it 4 stars before moving on to open Fifth Floor and earn it 4 stars as well - had just announced plans to revamp his latest restaurant Tartare, which had been open at that point for just about a year.   The investors were not satisfied with Tartare's performance, and it was that displeasure that had led to plans for a complete overhaul in the concept.   So, what meanings can be gleaned from the fifth sentence of my 23rd post?   Well, I can think of several.

First, the fact that a chef as accomplished as Morrone was put in the position of having to redo and relaunch Tartare says a lot about how challenging the restaurant business in the Bay Area can be.   As of the date of my post, Morrone was the only chef in the Bay Area to have taken two different restaurants to 4-star status, and the food, service and atmosphere at Tartare were actually quite good.   Yet, there was Morrone, obviously struggling to improve the restaurant's financial performance and searching for some modification - some magical tweak - that would suddenly generate that ever-elusive "buzz."   In short, it appears that the rule for 4-star chefs in the Bay Area is no different than the standard disclaimer found in your ordinary stock prospectus - i.e., past performance is no guarantee of future results.
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Second, the announced reincarnation of Tartare - when viewed in light of subsequent events - is a good example of that old adage about the best laid plans.   I visited Tartare just a few days before it closed for the makeover, and all of the staff on site that evening - and Morrone himself - talked excitedly about the coming changes.   But when the restaurant shut down for what was billed as a "few days" and then remained closed several weeks later, I suspected that something was up.   Sure enough, it turns out that investors were having second thoughts about whether reopening made sense, and they were debating whether Morrone should stay involved.   And since then, the decision has apparently been made to sell off the property entirely.   So, even where a high profile public announcement about a new plan has been made, nobody can really be sure about how things will actually unfold.

Third, the incident at issue here is a significant one in the progression of Morrone's career.   When Tartare opened in 2004, it was supposed to represent Morrone's big comeback.   You see, back in 2001, Morrone resigned from the height of his success at Fifth Floor in order to open the ill-fated Redwood Park - a restaurant that never really caught on for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was 9/11.   When Morrone was later fired from that restaurant, he left town and moved to Australia.   Tartare was Morrone's first venture since coming back to the Bay Area, and the fact that it did not succeed is just the latest in a series of setbacks for this talented chef.

Finally, the fifth sentence of my 23rd post perfectly illustrates how difficult it is for those who write about our restaurant scene - and those who are interested in it - to keep abreast of the seemingly endless changes.   Within a matter of weeks, the investors behind Tartare went from planning a 1-year anniversary gala for the restaurant, to announcing its transition to a new concept, to closing down for remodeling, to questioning whether to reopen, and to deciding to sell it off completely.   It's enough to make your head spin, and it just goes to show that nothing in the restaurant business is ever guaranteed.

So, there you have it, my thoughts about the significance of a randomly-chosen sentence from a randomly-chosen post.   Although I would ordinarily be required now to identify five other bloggers to tag with this meme, I'm going to abstain from doing so because all of the bloggers that I know have presumably been tagged already or are not likely to participate!