Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Tale of Two Galas

A few months back, I had a "special edition" blog where we attended the St Philip's Management Food Production & Service Gala dinner, which is the capstone event of the culinary program here. Well, most of the past month of my life has been devoted to the creation and execution of my class's Gala dinner. I was the Kitchen Manager, meaning that I ordered all the ingredients for all the dishes, divided up all the labor, planned the plate presentation, and helped everyone with everything. There just aren't enough hours in the day. Almost literally. Yesterday we got in at 10am, served dinner at 6:30pm and left for the night at 10pm. Lots of things went wrong, everything took longer than planned, and we were two very-necessary-classmates short. The terrifying thought is that this is what awaits me after graduation.

Regardless, it was a brilliant and amazing meal.

But that's just a teaser! Before we go into our dinner, we're detouring to the night before. Tavis and I attended the Gala of the other Management class going on this semester, led by one of the other Chefs in the department, Steve Crisler. He was my Food & Wine Pairing instructor and in fact has just been certified a sommelier. With that pedigree, we certainly anticipated some tasty food and excellent wine pairings! Let's briefly go through their dinner, shall we?

What a nice tablescape. Their menu was gorgeous, easily legible and printed on beautiful thick paper. (I am trying to find someone in my class who remembered to take a photo of our tablescape. It was also nice, with white tablecloths, black napkins, blue glass vases with a single white rose inside. But you'll have to take my word for that. Our menu was written in a teensy font that people couldn't read in the dim dining room lighting, unfortunately.)

Chef Crisler's "amuse bouche," a croustade of red pepper and goat cheese. The flavor was nice if not as bold as I'd like, but I had logistical issues with the long slices of red pepper that were hard to eat, and grammatical issues with calling this 10 bite dish an "amuse bouche." Tom Colicchio would disapprove.

This was served with a really lovely Gloria Ferrer Ultra Cuvee sparkling wine that cut through the unctuousness of the goat cheese perfectly. An added touch of class: we had actual wine service, a cloth over the waiter's arm, poured one handed, all the niceties. I do like the small details.

Not pictured is the first course, listed on the menu as "Fall French onion soup" and paired with 2009 George Duboeuf Beaujolais-villages. If you are like me, when you hear "French onion soup" you have an immediate visceral reaction sparked by images of gooey melty cheese all over and a rich beefy stock with onions exploding in your mouth. This was not that soup, and no matter how good it tasted--it was pretty tasty--I couldn't help but resent it for pretending it was. It was made with plenty of cider mixed with the beef stock, the ungodly mass of melted gruyere was completely missing and replaced with a large slice of baguette topped with a slice of pear and a sprinkle of cheese and toasted. This baguette was also half-soggy by the time my mug arrived and I could not actually lift it out to eat it without all the toppings slogging off into the soup. Unwieldy, and did I mention the grudge I was still bearing?

(I loved the wine. Perfect complementary flavors.)

Second course: jumbo shrimp buzara with a 2008 Tampena Tempranillo. I wanted to like this but the shrimp was overcooked and the sauce was not bright and savory enough to make up for it. Sadded. The wine was dry, spicy and complex--I would totally get it again.

Here is when things really got good, and if there's a place to be wowed, it is preferably the entree. Our main course was medallions of beef tenderloin with caramelized onions, horseradish cream and cabernet demi-glace with grilled asparagus and stuffed baby red potatoes. It was served with a 2008 Biltmore Reserve Passport. The beef was amazingly tender; the vegetables were crisp and flavorful; the demi-glace and horseradish cream added the perfect amount of "wow!" to the meat without overbalancing any of the flavors; and even the notoriously anti-mashed-potatoes Tavis enjoyed the stuffed red potato. Everything on this plate worked.

The wine smelled like dessert but tasted much drier, much to my surprise. It wasn't my favorite but I somehow, some way, made it through the entire glass.

Dessert was a lovely opera cake, with layers of chocolate ganache, coffee mousse and cake. It was delicious albeit with a slightly thick layer of chocolate on top that thwarted my best forking efforts. No dessert wine but it worked with the last of the Biltmore from the previous course.

Overall, Tavis and I left full and satisfied, and I left feeling more confident about my schedule of events the next day.

The next day dawned way too early and passed way too quickly. A couple of us came in on Wednesday and prepared two sorbets, baked one of the desserts, and made-but-not-finalized two sauces (they needed flavor tweaking and reducing to a thicker consistency). I foolishly thought that this meant everything would be smooth sailing on Saturday. I found this not to be the case. We didn't even have time to taste any of the wines we had ordered to accompany the dinner--normally the wine representative comes out and actually offers a tasting to the class where we can make our selections and analyze how each wine complements the dish. He didn't have time and by Saturday, we didn't either. I'll still include the wines we paired but sadly I can't offer any insight on them.

I'll give you a sneak peek to the ending of the evening: it was all excellent and served on time and everyone left delighted with everything. But really, it's the getting there that's exciting, right?

(A note on this Gala dinner: normally the Gala is open to the family and friends of the Management class. Ours was not. The President of St Philip's bought out the entire room and invited bigwigs, influential people in the community, and people who are financially contributing to the culinary/hospitality program at the school. So while lacking the personal and emotional connection with our customers, we still had 100% motivation to make everything excellent.)

So without any further ado, my capstone class, the Gala dinner.

Our amuse-bouche, and please note the "no more than one or two bites" size martini glass: ahi tuna and banana tartare with teriyaki drizzle. The creaminess of the tuna and sweetness of the banana highlighted by the bright, zingy sauce was really nice for awakening the senses. This was not served with a wine; however, as the guests arrived, they were greeted downstairs and served a glass of 2009 Beringer Moscato.

The appetizer, a crabmeat napoleon on puff pastry pinwheels with a hot banana compote. The crabmeat was made with horseradish and worcestershire sauce, so between that and the habaneros in the compote, this was a pretty bold dish. The amount of crabmeat didn't really balance the amount of puff pastry in my opinion; this wasn't my favorite. It was served with a 2007 Beringer Sauvignon Blanc.

After the bold flavors of that last dish, a palate cleanser was definitely in order. This was a really bright and happy (using my Bob Ross adjectives here) raspberry and Pinot Grigio sorbet with a bit of mint on top. It was just delicious and hopefully prepared everyone's palates for the next course.

(A note on this photo: it's taken from the Italian dinner we did where we first created this recipe. Our tablecloths for this dinner were white, not red. Ha!)

Our salad, mixed greens and a crispy parmesan cup with julienned beets inside. The vinaigrette was made with lavender honey, red onion, parsley and more juice from the beets. Later that evening when we were meeting with the customers and they were sharing their favorite part of the meal, at least three people said "I never eat beets, and I loved that dish!" It was paired with a 2006 Chateau St Jean Riesling.

We had a second palate cleanser at this time. On the bottom of the plate is a thin slice of watermelon; on top of that is a layer of lime sorbet and a layer of watermelon sorbet, with julienned mint on top. We called it the "mojito melon sorbet." The execution was not great but the flavors were light, clean and delicious.

Our trio of entrees, starches and veggie! In the back we have two small bits of spinach and seaweed which was cooked in chicken stock and soy sauce and then baked and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. Behind the meat are three florettes of tri-colored creamed potatoes (Yukon gold, Peruvian purple, and red sweet potato). And finally, the meats with their accompanying sauces! To the left is a smoked quail (deconstructed--we piled up the breast and one leg) with a rose petal sauce. In the center is a frenched grilled lamb chop with black cherry sauce. To the right are two medallions of venison tenderloin with blackberry-sage demi-glace. It was served with a 2006 Greg Norman Petite Sirah.

A note on the sauces. The rose petal was mostly made on Wednesday; it was made with edible rose petals, pecans, garlic, aniseed, honey, and veal demi-glace. Not my favorite sauce in the world but it really worked well with the smokiness of the quail. The black cherry sauce was also made on Wednesday but it needed to reduce so it would be nice and thick. So I set it on the stove to thicken. A couple hours and a ruined pot later, well, the sauce needed redoing. And we had half an hour to go. I grabbed ingredients, measured nothing, made a cornstarch slurry, and in 5 minutes I had a sauce that actually tasted better than the original and was the perfect consistency. ShaZAM. I also made the blackberry-sage demi-glace, and it too was pretty excellent, rich and deep flavors that were greatly enhanced when I added some brown sugar to the recipe. So I felt very proud of my saucier (saw-see-eh) abilities tonight, as well as my not-falling-apart-under-pressure abilities.

A better view of the potatoes and height of the plating.

Finally, our amazing, beautiful dessert. I was just blown away by this plate. The logo in the center was brushed on with edible paint over a stencil--nice use of branding what with the Important Company we were serving! In the back is a blood orange and chocolate cheesecake with white chocolate garnish and blood orange glaze. In the front is a tropical wedding cake made with pineapple, macadamia nuts and coconut, with a cream cheese frosting, topped with an edible flower and served with raspberry coulis. The flavors were amazing, the plate was beautiful, and I know this was a show-stopper for the evening.

The dessert was accompanied with O'Maras Irish Country Cream, a wine-based Irish Cream that is apparently a big hit--not that we would know since our wine guy fell through and we never got to try any of it.

Finally, as the President was thanking everyone for coming, we came out and handed out these small gift boxes filled with chocolates made by the St Philip's confections class (part of the pastry and baking program that I will be applying for next spring). It was a lovely touch.

A ritual in Chef Will's Management class is we end each class by joining hands and sharing something we learned that day. We repeated this ritual with all of our customers, each of us sharing what we've learned or something we enjoyed about the dinner. It was pretty close between the beet salad, the meats, and the dessert--I say let's call it a three-way tie and we'll all go home happy. We got to thank Chef Will for his leadership--as I said, it takes an exemplary chef to make an exemplary program, which is what St Philip's Culinary Program is certified by the ACF. Emotions ran high, exhaustion equally so, and if that ain't the climax of our culinary experience, I don't know what is.

Returnability: I wouldn't miss it for the world.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Tuesday, 10/7/10 - Chama Gaucha

Date: 10/7/10....we're not even trying to make it look like Tuesday anymore! Sheesh!
Restaurant: Chama Gaucha
Location: 18318 Sonterra Place, on 1604 and Stone Oak
Executive Chef: Unknown

Well, these past two weeks have been a blur. First I was smote with the lightning bolt of wrathful allergies, and my sense of taste was mostly knocked out of commission. Then Tavis injured his eyeball (for the sake of the story I'll say crowbars might have been involved) (but they weren't) and well, the long and short of it is, we missed a week of dining and the only time we had free this week was on a Thursday. Regardless, we seized the opportunity like the last cheesy biscuit in the bread basket and ran!

So, Chama Gaucha. This is a churrascaria-type restaurant, aka "all-you-can-meat." It's much like Fogo de Chao. The premise is that you go in and are confronted with a salad bar buffet of giant proportions, and then once you have foolishly glutted yourself on that, you flip a little card from "red" to "green" and a battalion of gaucho-esque waiters will swoop down upon your table brandishing a skewer of delectable meat in one hand and a saber in the other, and will slice various types of meat upon your plate until you cry mercy.

And, well, that's pretty much what happened!

It's quite large and in charge. The size of the sign, I think, is the artist's subconscious indicating the size of your waistband by the time you finish eating.

The service was impeccable here; it's quite high-level, with pulling out of chairs, placing the napkin across your lap for you, scraping crumbs off your tablecloth between courses, and constant solicitous care. Our server Sandra was really terrific, very friendly and helpful.

The one point of contention I had was that it is very dark inside. I had to finagle to get the shots that did come out, and sadly the salad bar was not among them.

However, the plate of munchies acquired from the salad bar is much more visible! There was a standard salad section which I disdained, choosing instead to try bites of various cheeses (swiss, a smoked cheese that may have been Gouda but was fairly unflavorful, fresh balls of mozzarella, and even an entire wheel of Parmigiano! Really really delicious with the bit of balsamic vinegar I appropriated). They also had a wall of pre-made salads including chicken salad, potato salad, marinated mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and a light cucumber salad. All of them were ridiculously delicious and I could easily have made a meal there, had I not known what was to come. Instead I contented myself with a bite of each to get the saliva flowing and then allowed my plate to be removed.

Oh, and the cheese puffs. Barely cooked, gooey, savory little cheese puffs. These could be our undoing as a civilization.

Tavis's plate. He actually made a salad! I was pleased that he would be getting a vegetable serving so didn't chide him on filling up on second-class citizens. He'd later regret this, however.

Around this time I took my little card which was on the "red" side and turned it over to "green." Immediately, one waiter after another came to me with their various offerings. You have several cuts of beef, including top sirloin, filet mignon, prime rib; you have lamb chops and leg of lamb; you have various chicken, sausage, and pork ribs. I had almost all of them. They also ask you how you prefer your meat done, and slice you a portion from certain sections of their skewer based on your preference.

My plate. It''s so beautiful.... I think the only thing I did not try was the chicken, because, well, it's chicken. The two things I could skip again are the sausage and the filet mignon. Everything else was an explosion of incredible flavor and ridiculous juiciness. Homer Simpson would have been proud of the incoherent noises I emitted as I Mr. Plowed through this plate.

As we were working on our meatstravaganza, we were provided with side dishes, including fried plantains, fried polenta, and mashed potatoes. It was nice for a break in the protein, though again I only tried enough to taste. We also requested a bowl of chimichurri (which was red...I thought was always green, huh) to accompany our meats. In the foreground you will see my new favorite drink, the caipirinha. It's like a lime slush for grown-ups. It's delicious, potent and definitely should be tried.

Alas, we were new to the game of churrascaria, and too soon we had to throw in the towel. And order dessert.

For once in my life (hopefully the only time), I passed up creme brulee. This is their key lime pie. It was tasty though not the level of addictive flavor that Sandbar's key lime pie had. I'll skip it next time.

Tavis's mile high NY cheesecake. Again, good flavor...just, compared to everything else we had eaten, it was definitely a footnote.

"No more meat?" Not today, Tavis. Not today.

Returnability: oh my GAWD, yes! From start to finish, this was a luxurious treat. Surprisingly, $35 apiece is all this all-you-can-meat experience will cost you. As many times as I've been places that surprised and intrigued me with ornate platings and creative flavor combinations, this place was the epitome of "take everything on the menu. Make it really delicious. The end." I want to come back here every month if possible. I....just won't consume any calories for the week before.

Tuesday, 9/22/10 - Bistro Vatel

Date: 9/22/10
Restaurant: Bistro Vatel
Location: 218 E Olmos Drive, on the same roundabout as Ciao Lavanderia and Shiraz
Executive Chef: Damien Watel, who owns this, Ciao Lavanderia next door, and the Bistro Bakery

Well, we're cruising through the French eateries! This might be the last one on the list. Fortunately for us, it was solidly good eats from start to finish...well done, Chef Watel!

Meander through the roundabout, try to find parking in the atrociously small lot (we didn't have to worry since we were there just as it opened for dinner at 5pm), and voila!

This was very comfortable and cozy, exactly what I'd think of with a "bistro." Well, maybe not...I still harbor fond hopes of being squeezed into a tiny table outside, sipping ridiculously rich chocolate, with snooty mustachioed waiters ignoring my every request but who really cares because it's FRANCE, baby, FRANCE! So this wasn't really like that. But still nice.

Also nice was the menu, providing many staples of excellent French cuisine. For me, that meant the odd bits and pieces of meat that most other restaurants turn their noses up at. I love the French approach to food: the funkier, the better.

(Sidenote: I have a theory that there is a direct connection between the combined stereotypes of "French people are stinky" and "French people have the best food in the world." It's all a huge sensory experience, from the dubious to the divine. That works just fine for me.)

(Sidenote #2: I have never actually found any French person to be stinky. Nor was anyone's hygiene in question at this establishment. Please don't flame me.)

Exhibit A on the divinely stinky: escargot. If all you've had are little rubbery afterthoughts, this is worth a try. Buried in layers of luscious herbage and garlic were the most tender morsels I'd ever tried. Deelish. My puppies agreed with my evaluation after smooches later that evening.

Tavis really enjoyed the soup du jour, a crawfish bisque. It was rich and creamy, nicely balanced between acidity and sweetness. I would have eaten much more of it had he not started gripping the spoon in a rather threatening way.

Exhibit two of "Megan puts the fun in funky:" sweetbreads. I really love sweetbreads, which for the record are the pancreas and thymus of animals, usually veal. These were sauteed and plated with a mustard bearnaise sauce that was really savory, a great complement. Accompanying are some truffled mashed potatoes, truffled frites, and sauteed veggies that I actually enjoyed.

Tavis went for the veal tenderloin in truffle cream sauce. We were temporarily thrown by the identical sides on our plate, which I guess we just aren't used to, and I think I liked them better than Tavis who isn't a big fan of mashed potato texture. The veal certainly made up for any ambivalence on the side dishes; it was astoundingly tender and succulent, and the sauce was liquid gold.

Ho boy, you should save room for dessert here! This is their truffled tart, and in this case the truffle is chocolate not overpriced fungi. It was one of the better chocolate desserts I have had, truly.

Tavis and his ice cream. This was peach and it was just peachy. Yeah I didn't really work very hard on that description, but really, Tavis? Ice cream? Really?

Oh well.

Returnability: I definitely would love to come back here. There are several appealing items on all levels of the menu. The service was incredibly gracious and welcoming, and the level of culinary execution was top-notch. Not that anyone thinks of coming to San Antonio to find lovely French food (especially since Le Reve closed), but this is definitely an eatery worth a stop. Even without snooty mustachioed waiters.