Sunday, April 06, 2008

By Request: Champagne Dinner Notes

I'm exhausted! Between work (in the bunker), eating (too much), and my last "volunteer" activity scheduled for a while -- which ends tonight (yea!), I'm ready for a long, Spring nap! But, the wine dinner I just finished organizing today should be a real treat. More later.

In the meantime, lots of you have been asking me about last Tuesday's champagne dinner at L'explorateur. So, here are the highlights!

My overwhelming impression of this meal was that it showed a maturity and refinement of this chef's signature style -- Bold, inventive, sometimes unusual flavors put together in an incredibly well-thought out way. Looking at my notes from the last two major dinners I've attended at L'explorateur -- December and October, I was starting to take notice of the polish of many dishes. Here -- the entire menu was one step further along. I liken it to Project Runway when Tim Gunn comes around and says "it needs some editing." The designers who can thoughtfully self-critique their work and create something truly amazing are inevitably the ones who shine! And that's how *all* of these dishes felt to me on Tuesday night -- not just some. Neal is not only creating wildly different and wonderful flavor profiles, but he's bringing a thoughtful and critical eye to them – self-editing as necessary based on what is now a much deeper personal experience. With this dinner, it really showed.

As far as the wines, most diners would be surprised to know how few chefs know much about wine -- and how many even fewer can do skillful wine pairings. (I don't mean that as a slam to chefs -- it's a known issue in the cheffing world.) But I was very impressed with the thought -- and skill -- with which these wines were paired. His skillful use of broad themes necessary to make champagne pop, so to speak, salt and fat made a powerful difference. And when presented with big flavors, most chefs opt for "less" – the careful choice. Many do make the mistake when it comes to food paired with champagne. But due to the acidity, the bubbles, and grapes, it's the worst mistake to make. Big wines can handle bold flavors. For example, in the dessert below, a too-subtle interpretation wouldn’t have made in impression.

Amuse-Gueule – Oysters with Champagne Carbonated Apples
Charles Heidseick Brut Reserve

If anything, this amuse set the tone – a perfectly little acidic and mineral taste one that was one of the best pairs of the evening. I didn't get a lot of the actual carbonation here but that just didn't matter -- there was still the zing there needed to replace the acidity of the standard mignonette. The champagne was very dry, very structured, and had a slight mineral quality in the finish that made this a perfect choice with the oysters. Once paired, the wine finished with herbs and fruit. Very subtle and well done.

Brillat-Savarin Triple Cream Brie, Sashimi, Dates
1996 Gosset Brut Millesime

Plates held several pieces of tuna sashimi, a small piece of the triple crème, a swirl of date puree and a bit of micro green. It was a dish created for tasting each component individually or combining them together for new flavors. And of course, the salty triple crème brie is always a perfect choice for high end bubbles. The fat and salt just make the wine explode. The date puree was the surprise for me, sweet but with just enough salty/savouriness that it really worked well. Personally, I thought the sashimi wasn't a strong a pairing – it was so delicate and fresh that the wine for me just overwhelmed it and I wanted a soy sauce or vinaigrette, but I liked the texture and it was great with the cheese! Best part of this dish was the slight bitterness and heat to the rind of the cheese that was really perfect with this dish – a finish to compliment and rival the incredible wine.

Smoked Trout, Pear, Lemon Verbena, and Truffle Salad
NV Piper Heidsieck Brut

I think this was one of my favorites -- and surprise -- of the night. It came at the perfect moment after two big-brain, thinky wines. The Piper was big, round and soft and just what I needed. It also paired perfectly with this dish that was delicate at first but then turned into what felt like one of the heartiest of the evening. Really meaty trout, butter lettuce (which I love), and enough sweetness and zing of pear to provide a great balance. At first, I thought it needed salt, but it would not only have ruined the dish but detracted from the wine. The course made this wine show its best.

Poached Scallops, Avocado, Orange, and Tobiko Wasabi Puree
Tattinger Brut Rose

Nobody cooks scallops like Neal and while this dish appeared so simple on the plate, it was probably one of the more complex of the evening. Perfect scallop with a swirl of thick green which was avocado with a superb orange essence and fresh sweet wasabi root which didn't come through until the finish but really worked with the wine! My notes mention the fat content of the avocado really worked with this crisp sparkler and the orange brought a nutty finish of the wine through. (My note says "walnut".) This dish was probably the only one that didn't map to Neal's pre-dinner notes but he nailed the orange flavor profile. With the fat of the avocado which puts the acidity of sparkler to work, I didn’t miss any extra texture or crunch in the puree.

Wild Striped Bass with Morels, Sturgeon Caviar, Brioche Puree
NV Bruno Paillard Brut Premiere Cuvee

This entire dish was made for champagne – and it's not one that a regular diner would order with that in mind. It was hearty, so savoury, had lots of wonderful components individually which worked together and all sitting in a "brioche" puree/sauce that smelled so wonderfully yeasty and good that I could have eaten a bowl of it on its own (with morels, of course!) Lots of great fat content at work again – this wine was so crisp and elegant. Very dry and perfect with this dish. (Notice how my wine notes start getting a bit vague here.)

Whole Roasted Foie Gras with Golden Raisins, Honey Drippins, and Potatoes sautéed in foie gras fat
NV Tattinger Nocturne Sec

The chefs brought this course out to the table before serving so we could see it – the whole lobe of foie with its crispy roasted outside in its dish with fresh herbs around the outside. Each plate had a perfectly sized portion of the roasted foie – the texture was just remarkable, almost cakey but so smooth – with the raisins, honey crust, and these tiny round balls of potato with a perfect crust but not overwhelmed with the sauce. Sweet, savoury, salty, *umami* -- this dish had it all, and paired with a sweet champagne really brought forth the fruit, acid, and citrus in the Nocturne. It made this sec drink like a much drier wine – but still retaining all the great character of the sweetness and structure of Tattinger.

Chocolate and Hibiscus Mousse with Rosewater and Hibiscus Caviar
2003 Banfi Rosa Regale

I'm a big fan of fun, fruity champagnes like this one for desserts. They make for fun pairings, especially with chocolate and this was no exception. This raspberry-soda style wine was a perfect ending to such a complex evening – and it really made the dessert shine. It takes creativity to rethink the basic chocolate mousse. Here it was topped with bright red tangy rose-hibiscus "caviar" which added just the right tanginess and acidity to the entire dessert. Additionally, a judicious use of salt in the mousse itself really helped keep this on track instead of become an all-too-sweet sleepfest. The talk of the dish, though, was the dried hibiscus flowers with their unique tea-like bitterness on each plate.

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