Saturday, July 26, 2008

Daily highlight #64: Absolutely "High" on museum dinner - Restaurants: Aria and Canoe

There are those who spend money to buy guilt. Then there are those enlightened ones like Christie, who generously donate to benefit the arts and, in the process, bring together fantastic chefs like Carvel Grant Gould of Canoe and Gerry Klaskala of Aria and fabulous cellar owners like Louise Sams to create brilliant wine dinners for magical moments with some very lucky friends. If that's not a win-win situation, I don't know what is.

A glass of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame welcomed each guest into the elegantly understated home of the equally elegant Louise. Deep in the heart of the house, a white roses adorned dining table softly glowed in the candlelight.

The open kitchen offered the guests an up close and personal view of the efficient preparation that was in full swing quietly behind an astounding number of open bottles and decanters. While the sheer number of excellent wines got my heart racing, a particular bottle almost stopped it all together. At that moment, there was no doubt that the evening will be a most memorable one.

We settled into our seats with a first pour of 2002 Olivier LeFaive Chablis Fouchaume. A classic chablis, this one exhibited a great bit of refreshing acidity enrobed in chardonnay's vanilla and white flower aroma. It got our palates excited for what's to come.

An amuse bouche of red and yellow tomatoes brought summer colors to the table. Simply dressed with olive oil, the tomatoes shone with their own ample savoriness and played off the sweetness found in a surprising cube of watermelon.

We then moved into our courses, starting with chef Gould's ingenious shrimp and scallop stuffed squash blossom. I say ingenious, not because there aren't other stuffed squash blossoms gracing tables elsewhere, but because this one is the first I've seen that was halved to showcase the beauty within and, at the same time, encased so thinly in a tempura-like batter as to let the bright yellow and green blossom make a statement in both color and subtle sweetness. The other star of the dish was the green cantaloupe puree on which the blossom sat. The salted puree anointed with green olive oil picked up mineralities and nutty nuances I hadn't previously noted in the chablis, fully illustrating the complementary wonders of a great pairing.

A new glass brought a 2001 Gagnard-Delagrange Batard Montrachet. A well-integrated nose blended soft floral with lively fruit leading into hints of toast. The supple mouth feel and creamy long finish foretold a creamy dish to come.

And that dish was chef Klaskala's poached wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon floating unapologetically in a rich pool of cream and accompanied by leeks, fennels, tomatoes, and basils. Normally, I am not a big fan of the sockeye, finding it too lean. But when there is creaminess aplenty in the sauce, sockeye's slightly assertive flavor stood up to the equally assertive aromatic vegetables and cut through the richness of the cream.

Staying with Burgundy, we received a pour of 1990 Laboure Roi Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru. For it's age, this Burgundy was surprisingly expressive in dark fruits, especially that of cherry. Also enjoyable was an interesting interplay of chocolate with just the tiniest bit of licorice.

The plate that accompanied the wine did not at all pale in comparison on the interesting factor. A little bird, the quail, got itself stuffed with the much bigger bird, the duck. The result was pure joy for us diners. A true fan of duck sausages, I quickly cleared the quail of its juicy duck innards, a classic food partner to a red Burgundy. The sausage indeed played nice with the chocolate and berry notes in the wine.

My fascination with all thing miniature also helped to bring about a blissful moment while I gnawed on the tiny drumstick. But the very best part of the dish was found in the innocent looking vidalia onion puree. If I harbored any reservation about whether vidalia deserved to be called the queen of onions, this preparation evaporated all doubts. Sweet, salty, creamy, with an oniony finish, the combination of flavors, for lack of a better description, absolutely rocked. Someone should put this in a jar, so I could take a spoon to it on a regular basis.

Our progression into headier and heartier territories began with a 1982 Ducru Beaucaillou. In my Bordeaux Book, Robert Parker called this "the finest" that this chateau had produced since 1961. Who knew I'd be a true student and sample the example on this night. Of course, I am in no position to either agree or disagree with RP, having performed no vertical tasting of my own, but I will say that the chewy texture and surprising oriental spiced berries painted a slightly exotic yet still very classic picture of what I considered a St-Julien profile.

Chef Klaskala presented a veal filet mignon to accompany the Ducru Beaucaillou. A quick glance at the menu got me a bit worried, the veal was served atop a small mound of artichoke puree. I love artichoke, but am always careful to avoid it when having wine due to its tendency to turn the wine sweet. Since I was thoroughly loving the Ducru Beaucaillou and was eagerly eying the stunner that was yet to come, I really didn't want to screw it up. So I dutifully ate around my artichoke puree with much care. While I regretted not experiencing the dish fully, which judging by the praises all around, was quite the success in its combination of flavors, I nonetheless enjoyed the veal cooked au point.

Then what I had been waiting for, the 1989 Chateau Haut Brion, was poured. Louise took a moment to modestly mention that 1989 was a great year for Bordeaux. What she didn't say was that she was beyond generous in offering these bottles for this dinner. Unless any of us had been old enough and fortunate enough to have tasted the 1959 Chateau Haut Brion at this stage of development, it's hard to imagine that we could have done better than this extraordinary first growth.

The purple tinted ruby color betrayed little of its age. The complex nose initially reminded me of smoke or tobacco. Further sniffs hinted at stewed berries and chocolate. Bits of oak bloomed up in the glass later in the night. In the mouth, the tannin was so soft, it felt like velvet. The finish lingered long and strong and hinted at a vague sweetness I couldn't quite put my finger on. None of this description captures the adoration that welled up in me with every sip. I will just say that the finish will linger on my palate for years to come.

I would have been completely at a lost in trying to produce something that would stand up to this Haut Brion. Then again, I probably wouldn't even care when the wine is this good. But chef Gould cared and had just the right answer, a braised Carolina Rabbit "jumper" resting on a swiss chard ravioli, bacon, and candied garlic sauce. The genius here lay in the slight sweetness of the rabbit and the awesome smokiness of the chard and bacon. Somehow they managed to seek out their counterparts in the wine, which were all integrated into a complex nuance. The pairing was so unlikely, it instantly became a classic in my mind.

A 1996 Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon from Lake Vineyard boldly stepped up to follow the tough act. Generous with dark and ripe fruits, the wine also revealed earthy notes of mushroom and a clean barnyard. :)

To achieve synergy with the vibrant wine, a saddle of lamb came with the most concentrate offering of greens for the evening. Simple and straight forward, everything depended on the lamb being cooked well. And it was. Tender and seasoned with a firm hand, the lamb had just enough lamb flavor to pick up the earthiness of the wine without being too gamey.

A 1997 Antinori Tignanello continued the cabernet sauvignon trend in a super Tuscan blend with sangiovese. Dark and deep, this blend held a power lightened only by aromas of sweet fruits and Italian herbs.

Power for power, the Painted Hills Farm short rib held down its end of the weight scale with truffled potatoes and plenty of rich foie gras in a viscous cabernet sauce. What fault could one really find in melty foie gras cubes, dreamy puddles of mashed potatoes, and a big hunk of long braised short rib? Absolutely nothing.

Last but definitely not least, I got my first peach dessert of the season, a tart with ginger brown butter and vanilla creme fraiche. Georgia peach in season is a beautiful thing. The key is to mess with it minimally. This night, the peach was most certainly in season and enhanced only with caramelized brown butter, sugar, and a whiff of ginger. Gorgeous stuff.

In matching simplicity, a 2002 Huet vouvray Cuvee Constance showcased a lovely nose of honey, which I adore in Chenin blanc. Following close behind were notes sweet tangerine and apricot, all lovely compliments to the buttered peach slices in a tart that was a most fitting simple dessert to finish off a glorious evening of feasting.

Thanks seemed like such a small word at the end of such a wonderful occassion for which many gave generously. As a mere lucky beneficiary of it all, I can only hope to have loved and appreciated what had gone into the making of all this possible whole heartedly. In my own inadequate way, I got super "High" on this museum dinner. THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME!

Many thanks goes out to Christie, Louise, Chef Gould, Chef Klaskala, and the many others who helped to make these blissful moments possible.


Hardy / Dirty said...

WTF!!!!?????? Wow. What a dinner with some truly insane bottles.

I hope to catch up w/ you and Jason soon!

Cathy said...

I knew you'd find this insane. I was by far the least deserving person at dinner, but I wouldn't have turned it down for anything!!!! :)