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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.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There's more...

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!


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