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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.


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