Who: Chef Craig Thornton (Wolvesmouth) and 12 potential strangers
What: Underground Dining with an ever-changing seasonal menu
When: Saturday, January 15, 2011 (first of the new year, but these dinners happen about twice a month)
Where: secret location (I'll be honest, I'm still not entirely sure where it was, just that it was in a spacious loft)
Why: because I'm a lucky girl (it's invite only but here's how to get on the list)
squash, cotija, crema, nopales, white onion
The first thing I noticed in the kitchen was the bright orange pot of soup on the stove. Craig kept raving about how sweet the butternut squash was. "I only added water, salt, and butter!" he kept emphasizing. Multiple spoons kept dipping in the pot as he offered tastes to those standing close enough. Finally, we sat down at a long table for 12 and this first course arrived. It was not only remarkably sweet, but also incredibly rich--almost too rich for me. From the size of this course, I knew the portions weren't going to be shy that night.
crab, malt vinegar "sabayon," old bay profiterole, mustard mizuna
Sometimes, when a dish is so gorgeously plated, I get a little trigger-happy and can't stop taking pictures even when I already have multiple good shots. This was one of those dishes. Everything on the plate was put on there to help one another. The sweet delicate meat of the Dungeness crab was delicious on its own, but with the light airy profiteroles filled with an equally delicate, light, acidic sabayon it was something else. The wisps of baby mizuna added yet another layer of textures and looked so elegant on top of the abundance of crab meat tossed with chives. Craig later described it as a very "feminine" dish, which I guess explains why I was so taken with it.
John Dory shard, sweet sour shallot
This was the only dish of the night that didn't really stand out to me. The fish was a little too firm and unremarkable when compared to what came before and after it.
snails, wild mushrooms, black walnut, crouton, pine
With an assortment of mushrooms (including blue foot and fresh chanterelle) and escargot, this was a very earthy dish. Of course the funkiness of the shrooms really got along with the snail, so the most surprising element of this dish was the drizzle of maple syrup. I've never had a sweet preparation of escargot, but this was remarkable--almost like an escargot french toast when you drag the buttery crouton through the syrup and eat it with the snail. So surprisingly good. When I asked Craig how he ever came up with such a idea, this was roughly his train of thought "snails --> earth --> mushrooms --> forest --> trees --> syrup." Crazy.
squid, 38 day dry aged steak tartar, creamed kimchi, Asian pear
The steak was quickly seared at a super high heat so that it was still rare in the middle before it was diced up into tartar. Interesting idea, but it actually reminded me a bit of leftover, chopped up steak. However, the creamed kimchi was a revelation. The usual fermented acidity and spiciness of the kimchi was tempered by heavy cream, which mellowed it out and gave it a kind of sweetness. Eaten with the kimchi, the smokiness of the charred meat really came out. The balls of Asian pear and the cute little squid were also welcome additions, but really, I just couldn't get over how good the kimchi was.
verjus, yuzu ice
Nice little palate cleanser. Sweet and sour, it would've been perfect with some vodka. Just saying.
veal tongue dumpling, trotter bacon relish
This dish really reminded me of my childhood. The pig trotter relish was made with black vinegar--a flavor that I immediately associate with dumplings. There was some five spice going on somewhere between the rich, chewy-skinned dumpling and the gelatinous, porky relish that really honed in on the Chinese flavors. Craig mentioned that he had to soak the pig's feet in water for like four days or something crazy like that to draw out the impurities, and he steamed the dumplings before boiling them to achieve the perfect texture in the skins. Sounds meticulous, but the end result really was absolutely delicious. I just wish I had more than one dumpling in that bowl.
roasted chicken home style, glazed carrot
This was intended to be a simple dish, something that Craig cooks for himself and something that anyone could recreate in their own kitchen. The chicken was roasted very simply with salt, the skin removed as the bird was resting to crisp up individually in the oven, and the white and dark meat were both then tossed in the reduced pan juices. I was not particularly taken with this dish because it really was quite simple and quite honestly, a little salty for me. I loved the accompanying carrots though--sweet and almost slightly nutty in flavor.
french toast ice cream
Basically puréed french toast in ice cream form. Rich, creamy, and the definition of decadent.
chocolate panna cotta, chestnut purée, coffee shortbread, pear ice, coffee meringue, warm pear
Almost looks like an abstract work of art, but even better because it's edible. I love that we've been getting generous portions, but this was a little much for me. I'm not a big fan of the chocolate and pear combination but there were certainly a myriad of textures in this dessert to keep one's attention.
At the end of the meal, red envelopes were passed around (how Chinese!) and the guests get to determine for themselves how much they valued the meal. A concept that only adds to the appeal and allure of a Wolvesden meal.
Strictly BYOB, Darin of Darin Dines picked out some very nice beers for us to bring. He figured correctly that everyone else would be bringing wines.
I think it's important to note that it wasn't only the food that night that was a satisfying and rare treat. Only good things can come out of eating with 11 other people who also REALLY enjoy good food. One couple actually drove all the way from Fresno (what are the chances?) just to eat this meal. Our dinner conversations ranged from deciding on an accurate description for the taste and texture of frogs' legs to the best steak tartar in L.A. Of course, as each course arrived there was also an enjoyable discussion of what was on the plate before us. This is what I live for.
After dinner, Craig came over and had a nice conversation with us. He explained his desire to remain within one cuisine for each dish whether it be Korean, Mexican, Japanese, etc. Although his menu is by no means focused on one particular cuisine, each dish remains within the constraints of one. I loved this concept. There are reasons why some flavors are consistently used together in a cuisine--they just go well together. When you go and throw wasabi on a dumpling with a side of salsa for example, it's just weird.
By the end of the meal, there was really only one word in my mind. Respect. I don't understand how Craig is able to pull this off. He does two dinner a month, not including private dinners, and never makes the same dish twice. The man shops for the ingredients, plans out the menus, does all the prep work, and manages all the cooking for over 10 courses for 12 people using only a 4 burner cooktop and an oven that's smaller than the one in my apartment. To me, that's magic.
p.s. this was my first time using my new Canon DSLR with my new 50mm f1.8 lens...tips greatly appreciated!