Thursday, April 05, 2012

Another Foie Gras Dinner @ Alexander's

I've obviously had a thing for foie gras lately.  Not only have I been ordering it everywhere I go, but I've also been going out of my way to attend all of the special foie gras dinners that have been popping up all over the city.  And I obviously have a thing for Alexander's Steakhouse, as it is one of my absolute favorite restaurants in the city.  The last special foie gras dinner at Alexander's was one of the most memorable meals I've had this year - amazing food, amazing service, and of course, plenty of foie gras!
The menu for the evening - incredible!
So you can only imagine my excitement when I heard the details for this month's foie gras dinner at Alexander's.  Not only were they doing a 6+ course foie gras dinner, but the Executive Chef was going to be joined by four Michelin starred chefs (David Barzigan from Fifth Floor, Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn, Ken Frank of La Toque, Joseph Elenterio of Chez TJ), each preparing a different course.  The menu sounded amazing, including some signature dishes from these chefs that I've heard about for ages.  And Alexander's own chef would be preparing nothing less than pretty much the best steak you can get in the country: the Sher full blood wagyu.
Rock star chef lineup: David Barzigan, Dominique Crenn, Ken Frank, Joey Elenterio, Dan Huyuh, Marc Zimmerman.
The price tag made me shutter.  $250.  How could I possibly pay that much for a single meal?  The last dinner was $150, including amazing wine pairings, where this one wasn't even including the wine.  But how often do you get to experience the cuisine from so many talented chefs at once?  And the steak alone is normally $300 (although I'm assuming a much larger piece).  I tried to imagine not attending.  It wasn't possible.  And I knew that all proceeds from the event were going to the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming, which I really do want to support.  So somehow, I not only talked myself into going, but I also found 9 others to join me!  I think there were only about 40 people at the event, so we made up a pretty big portion!

This dinner followed the same format as the last one.  It was held in the private room downstairs, using a separate kitchen, while the regular restaurant remained in full operation upstairs.  It started with a quick introduction to the chefs, and then we were underway.

It became obvious fairly immediately that this event was not going to go as smoothly as the last one.  I was actually pretty surprised at how well run the previous one was - the pacing of the meal was perfect, the service was spot on, all the details of each dish were described as they were brought to the table, the entire table was served at once, the food was all hot and fresh, etc.  Very impressive for a big group event.

This time however, things were off.  Way off.  It took a long time for things to get started.  I forgave them for this, as I can only imagine what it was like co-ordinating all of the different chefs.  Then, an amuse bouche was brought to us.  It was delivered without a word.  What was it?  After several minutes I was able to get the attention of a server to ask.  He didn't know what it was, but said he'd ask and come back to tell us, which he did.  The same thing happened when our first course arrived, which again, was just plunked down without a single word.  This was a dish with complex plating and elements that we could only begin to guess what they were.  It again took several minutes to get someone's attention to ask them about the dish.  And again, they didn't know and said they'd need to go ask.  This was particularly startling given that last time they were so good at explaining everything without us even asking.  Ok, so there were a bunch of chefs cooking, perhaps they didn't educate the servers?  We had a bottle of champagne to go with the first course, which was off to the side staying chilled.  Our glasses were empty.  The bottle was not.  And there was no one around to serve it for us.  A few waiters did pass by and I expected someone to notice, but no one did.  Finally I just asked for it, and amusingly, it was distributed to everyone at the table but me, as it ran out.  After the first course, all of the dishes were cleared, including our butter knives, which we hadn't yet used, as we hadn't received bread.  The replacement cutlery was a set of chopsticks, as the next course would be eaten only with chopsticks.  After a fairly long wait, bread service began (this seemed like a strange time, why wasn't it before the first course, after the amuse?)  We thus had warm bread, and pots of butter on the table, but not a knife in sight.  My tablemates started trying to dip their bread into the pots of butter, but the butter was fairly firm, so this wasn't working well at all.   I tried to use a chopstick.  And almost immediately after the bread delivery, the next course came out.  Should I eat the next course, or the bread?  One of the two would be cold by the time I got to it.  Anyway, I asked one of the waiters delivering the course for butter knives, explaining that we had none.  About 10 minutes later, a single bread knife was brought to the table.  Everyone had given up on waiting for it at that point anyway and the bread was all gone, so we didn't actually need multiple knives, but it was super strange to get only one for the whole table!  The rest of the meal progressed in this same fashion.  Pacing was really off, with long waits between each course.  Dishes were delivered without any explanation.  Or when they did have an explanation, it was incomplete.  Even worse, our table was often only partially served and many minutes would elapse before the rest were served.  Everyone wanted to be polite and not start eating until the whole table was served, but there were a few cases where it took at least five minutes for the others to get served, during which time things like amazing seared foie gras were getting cold.  And speaking of cold, several of my dishes certainly arrived on the cold side.  And then there was the bread service midway through the meal, where again, we had no butter knives (and most people had no bread plates either), again resulting in hilarity as we tried to butter our bread without any utensils.

So service-wise, things were a bit of a disaster.  Not what I expect from Alexander's.  Not what I expect when eating such amazing food prepared from such great chefs.  And certainly not what I expect at that price point!  Sigh.  I felt bad, as I had promised everyone a great event, and this was a pretty big let down.  Rather than feeling like we were part of a special event, it felt like we were just sitting in the basement, being kinda ignored.

The food however, was amazing.  These are some very talented chefs.  I've been attending so many of these sorts of dinners that I've seen a lot of preparations of foie gras.  Far beyond just a standard seared, torchon, terrine, pate, etc, things like mousse, foam, dust, gelee, etc, etc seem totally normal to me.  I've had all sorts of pairings.  And these were far and away among the most creative and unique.  The quality of ingredients was high.  The plating was beautiful.  The chefs really delivered.

Most of the chefs came out to talk to us after their dishes were served.  I really enjoyed interacting with them, asking more questions about the dishes, and just getting a chance to meet them, particularly after enjoying their awesome creations!

While the event certainly didn't live up to my expectations service and atmosphere-wise, the food was still very good, and I highly recommend attending these events, or just dining at Alexander's (or any of these other chef's restaurants).  And uh, bring me with you!
Amuse: Foie gras terrine, rhubarb gelee, macadamia nuts.
We got started with an amuse bouche, which of course, included foie gras.  It was stunning.  The terrine was very rich, creamy, and flavorful.  The rhubarb gelee was sweet and complimented it well enough, but it wasn't particularly flavorful.  I wouldn't have known it was rhubarb.  The textures of the two layers worked well together, and the macadamia nuts added a great crunch and extra richness.  Overall, not bad, but nothing really standout, particularly compared to some of the other amuses I've received at Alexander's.
Smoked foie gras log and spring nuances: morel “moss” / pickled morel / vanilla / foraged herbs.
By Dominique Crenn, Atelier Crenn. 
The first course was one of Chef Dominique Crenn's famous foie gras logs.  Crenn has won a Michelin star every year since 2009, originally at Luce, and now at her own restaurant, Atelier Crenn.  She also won Iron Chef.  One signature dish that I've been reading about for ages is her foie gras log.  I was so excited to finally get to try one!  It set the state for the rest of the night: totally creative and absolutely beautiful!

To create the log, the foie is souz vide poached in milk, then frozen with liquid nitrogen, shaved, and made into the log shape.  And then elaborately decorated.  She varies the accompaniments with the seasons.  Our version had "moss" (a morel based brioche), tiny pickled morels, some herbs, and a few dots of foam that I wasn't able to get an explanation of.

The moss was very spongy and it was nice to have something bready to go with the foie, but it didn't taste particularly strongly of morels.  If it had, I think that wouldn't have worked very well anyway, as that would be too much earthyness with the rich foie.

The tiny little pickled morels were adorable and flavorful.

The star of the plate was, obviously, the foie gras.  It was cold, and the milk poaching had infused it with some dairy, so this definitely reminded me of ice cream ... the richest ice cream imaginable!  It was a generous amount of foie gras.  Those of us who love the taste of pure foie gras loved this, but for several others, this was a little too much foie.  Since I love the taste, I really enjoyed this one, but I can see how it could be a little too strong without more on the plate to balance it.  I can't wait to go to Atelier Crenn sometime soon to try another log!  I've seen photos of other variations on this, that are even more elaborate.
Acme olive bread, Strauss Creamery butter, sea salt.
Bread service, sans butter knife.  Alexander's always offers a selection of Acme bread: olive bread, whole wheat walnut, or baguette.
Seared foie gras: braised freshwater eel / sweet soy / forbidden rice.
By Ken Frank, La Toque.
Ah, seared foie gras.  I know this makes me boring, but it is always one of my favorite preparations.  This was an asian inspired dish, something I haven't seen much, if any, of with foie gras.

The foie itself was well executed - creamy and buttery, clearly a high quality product, with a great sear on it.

Also on the plate was a crispy rice cake, made with forbidden rice.  It was quite delicious, and I loved the pairing of the crispiness of rice cake with the soft creamy foie gras.

There was also a small piece of perfectly cooked eel, with a fantastic crispy skin.  Better than any piece of unagi I've ever had at any sushi restaurant in my life.  The little strips of toasted nori went very well with this, reminding you immediately of unagi nigiri.

On either end of the plate was something none of us could identify.  Several people thought it was a fruit, perhaps a prune.  When I asked the server, he went to check, and came back and said it was  cipollini onion.  If so, it was a very caramelized onion.  Either way, it was sweet, delicious, and paired really well with the foie.

Speaking of sweet and delicious.  The sauce on this was incredible.  Some sort of sweet soy reduction.  It had absolutely amazing flavor.  The sweetness went perfectly with the richness of the foie gras.  It also went perfectly with the rice.  And perfectly with the eel.  It was a unifying component that just worked fantastically.  But it was also just so damn delicious I could imagine putting it on just about anything.  As it was, no one came to clear these plates for quite a while, so I ended up stealing the plates from several of my tablemates and scraping up as much of the sauce as I possibly could with my fork.  Had the plates remained much longer, I'm not convinced I wouldn't have started licking the sauce off.  So. Freaking. Good.

I really wanted more of this dish.  Each component on the plate was just absolutely fantastic on its own, and then all went together so well, and had the amazing unifying sauce.  This dish was just so well done!  I *think* this was my favorite dish of the evening, but it is really hard to choose a winner, as the competition was tough!  Apparently it is on the chef's tasting menu at La Toque right now, in a bigger portion, so you could go enjoy some of this too!
Cream of early spring onion soup, before.  Photo from David Bazirgan.
Cream of early spring onion soup, after: foie gras banana bread / roasted eggplant / chai cured and tobacco smoked foie gras.
By Joseph Elenterio, Chez TJ.
When this arrived, it was a bowl with two of each of the cubes you see lined up on the rim, one each on the rim, one each inside the bowl.  The cubes were: banana bread, roasted eggplant, and foie gras.  Also inside the bowl was a plentiful amount of shaved chai cured and tobacco smoked foie gras.  Then, the waiters poured the cream of early spring onion soup over the top tableside.  The soup slightly melted the shaved foie gras.

I really liked the creativity behind this dish, and thought the foie melting into the soup added an amazing creaminess and richness.  I enjoyed being able to craft spoonfuls that mixed in different amounts of the foie to change the flavor of the soup.  That said, the flavors of this didn't really pop much.  The soup itself was fairly bland, the spring onion really not coming through strongly at all (the waiter actually said it was nettle, not spring onion, but the menu said spring onion.  I'm not sure which it was, or if it had both).  I appreciated the chunks of banana bread and eggplant for adding textures and interesting bites, and I do really like both eggplant and banana, but the pairings just didn't work very well.  I also wouldn't have been able to identify the eggplant as eggplant, it was kinda just mush.  The banana bread was very moist and delicious, and I would have enjoyed it on its own too.

The biggest issue with this dish however was the temperature.  I think this was supposed to be a warm soup.  It was lukewarm, at best.  I think this is because we were the last table served this dish, and it took them probably 15 minutes or so to serve the whole room, and the soup being poured into the dishes seemed to be the same, which if it was originally hot, certainly wasn't when we got it.  Or perhaps it wasn't supposed to be hot, as that would melt the foie gras even more?  I'm not sure.

Overall, this dish got creativity points, but it was my least favorite of the night.
Foie gras and squab confit caramelle production, photo from Chef Bazirgan.
Foie gras caramelle: Roast squab / english peas / vin jaune / black truffle.
By Chef David Bazirgan, Fifth Floor.
When I first saw the menu, this was the dish I was least excited for.  It didn't sound very interesting, it wasn't a signature dish, and it didn't have any elements that I was really looking forward to.  "Meh, squab", I thought.  I wasn't really sure what on earth a "foie gras caramelle" was, but given the descriptions of the other dishes on the menu, this seemed likely to be the most boring.  How wrong I was!  Note to self: don't doubt the creativity of these chefs!

Then, a few hours before the event, Chef Bazirgan tweeted the first photo.  Woah, ok, so the caramelle was pasta, stuffed with foie gras and squab confit, shaped like a caramel?  Ok, way, way more interesting!  And absolutely adorable!

This was a fairly complex plate.  It contained two pieces of the roast squab ballotine, three foie gras and squab confit caramelles, english pea puree, fresh english peas, foie gras power, black truffles, and a vin jaune reduction.

I didn't particularly like the squab ballotine, as I'm not a big fan of squab, but this was really well prepared, tender, and had a good crust on it.

The pasta was very good, perfectly cooked al dente.  The form factor actually really worked, allowing you to experience bites that were just pasta and bites that were a stuffed pasta.  I hadn't ever seen that before, and really thought that was fun.  I shouldn't have to pick noodles vs stuffed!  The stuffing was very flavorful, it reminded me of sausage.  I didn't really taste the foie gras inside of it though.

The pea puree and peas were delicious, fresh and flavorful, and paired really well with the pasta.

The truffle was really lost in this dish :( I saw it, but didn't taste it at all.  I think the earthiness of the truffle would have gone really well with the squab, had I been able to detect it.

I was disappointed by the lack of foie gras that came through in this dish.  I know it was there was the powder, it was there inside the pasta, but I wanted more.  I feel like one of those obnoxious judges on Iron Chef when I say that, since I'm eating a slew of courses featuring one ingredient and can't possibly want them all to be overboard with foie gras, but ... I wanted more.

It was also all a little lukewarm.  Not the fault of the chef, but it certainly would have been better had it been a little warmer, particularly the pasta, as it had really cooled down a lot without any sauce or anything else to hold in the warmth.  Overall, another very creative, very beautiful dish!
Intermezzo: Toast, foie gras mousse, raspberry sauce, arborio rice, micro bergamot.
How do you cleanse your palate from four courses of foie gras to prepare for the main event?  With more foie gras, of course :)  Our intermezzo was a tiny little toast, topped with a thin layer of foie gras mousse, a few pieces of rice, a leaf of micro bergamot, with some dots of raspberry sauce on the side.

This just left me unsatisfied!  I love foie gras mousse, and Alexander's has done some awesome preparations of foie gras mousse in the past, and there was just such a tiny taste here.  The raspberry sauce was sweet and complimented the mousse well.  The rice was mushy and not crispy, which was not very good.
Sher full blood wagyu strip steaks, before.  Photo from Chef Bazirgan.
Sher full blood wagyu: Foie gras crumble / binchotan-grilled asparagus.
By Chef Marc Zimmerman, Alexander's Steakhouse.
Yes, we were there for a foie gras event.  But I think many of us were most excited about this dish, the one with the least amount of foie present.  None of us had ever had beef of this caliber before.  And we know how well Chef Zimmerman can cook a steak!

When I was at Alexander's the week before, I went to admire this in the display case at the chef's counter.  It was sooo marbled.  I wondered if I'd like it.  Perhaps it would be too fatty for my taste.  But when it arrived, I didn't see any fat.  Where on earth did it go?  How did the chef render it all out?

I was actually nervous to take my first bite of this.  Would it live up to my expectations?

Yes, yes it would.

Ok, let's back up.  What else was on the plate, alongside the Sher full blood wagyu strip steak?  This is my favorite aspect of Chef Zimmerman's dishes, he always involves so many components, with so many flavors and textures, and they all work together so well!  There was watercress puree.  Tiny, adorable, asparagus meringues.  Foie gras powder.  Foie gras mousse.  Crispy shallots.  Grilled asparagus.  Miner's lettuce.

This was damn good.  The steak was amazing.  Ridiculously tender.  So much flavor.  Cooked to the perfect doneness.  Fantastic crust on it.  Everyone at the table was speculating on how it was prepared, concluding that the only way it could have possibly been done that consistently was souz vide (we were wrong).

The lettuce and watercress puree both added a freshness and vegetal flavor that lightened everything up.  The asparagus was lightly grilled and delicious.  The meringues were somehow bursting with asparagus flavor, very intense for such tiny little bites (and did I mention, adorable!).  But what really elevated everything was the foie gras powder, foie gras mousse, and the crispy shallots.  Oh man.  So much flavor, such fantastic textures.  A chunk of the steak, dragged through the foie mousse, then sorta rolled in the foie powder and crispy shallots?  ZOMG.

This dish did leave me with one question though - where do you go from here?  Seriously. A friend once said to never have the best of anything, and this folks, is just about the best steak you can get.  I guess where you go from here is ordering it at the restaurant normally, where you get a piece prepared just for you and not 35 other people at the same time.  I imagine it is even more amazing then.  (And also $300.  ZOMG.  Now you know what to get me for my birthday!).

Which does bring me to the one major issue here.  My steak wasn't hot.  I'm not even sure I'd say it was warm.  Sigh.  I know it must be hard to get these dishes out to the entire group, but ... this was supposed to be the star.  And at the last event, there weren't any temperature issues like this.  As a result, I've deemed this my second favorite steak of my life, behind the one from the last foie gras dinner.  That was just a standard filet mignon, but it was cooked to perfection, served hot, and I did prefer the pairing with the foie gras powder, black trumpet soil, balsamic teriyaki, and onion sprouts over this.  But don't get me wrong, this was really, really amazing.  Even at this point in the meal, even with my stomach issues, I'd have gladly eaten another full dish of this.
Basil-almond sponge cake: Foie gras / rhubarb.
By Pastry Chef Dan Huynh, Alexander's Steakhouse.
Now, I'm a dessert girl.  I eat a lot of dessert.  If you were to ask anyone who knows me to describe me, I'm sure this would come up.  However, at these events, unlike pretty much every other meal of my life, the dessert is the dish I least look forward to.  Partially, because the other dishes are so amazing.  And partially because I just haven't had that good of a foie gras based dessert.  But, I've had some awesome desserts from Chef Huynh in the past, so I was very interested to see what he'd come up with.

First, take a moment to admire this.  Wow.  What a work of art.

Here we had some cubes of basil-almond sponge cake.  Curls of rhubarb.  A pipette filled with rhubarb syrup.  A strawberry puree sphere.  Chia seeds.  And what apparently was at some point some frozen foie gras dippin' dots.

Sponge cake is probably at the top of the list of most boring desserts imaginable to me.  This was ... just sponge cake.  I didn't get much basil nor almond flavor.  They were just cubes of cake, moist enough, but meh.

The raw rhubarb curls were incredibly crisp and fresh tasting, but rhubarb isn't exactly a fruit that I'm in love with (Long story, but my mother makes the most incredible strawberry jam.  She also makes a strawberry rhubarb jam, which as a child, I found way too tart.  The jars were never labelled, and I have so many memories of excitedly smearing my toast or pb&j with what I thought was the fantastic strawberry jam, only to find that it was the strawberry rhubarb, and be incredibly disappointed.  I sort of have an irrational thing against rhubarb now, but I'm slowly getting over it).

The pipette contained more rhubarb, this time as a syrup.  Cute and fun to squirt it onto the plate, but I had just seen this the dessert the week before at Alexander's, so I think the novelty was lost on me.  Don't all desserts come with pipettes? :)

The strawberry puree sphere was sweet and delicious, the strawberry pairing nicely with the rhubarb syrup from the pipette and the richness from the foie gras.

Speaking of the foie gras.  What arrived was what you see here.  It looked like it was just supposed to have the foie gras in this runny form, although that did seem a little sloppy.  But the waiter described it as foie gras dippin' dots.  So I can only imagine that at one point, these were frozen little balls, and that we suffered, yet again, from the dish not getting delivered in a timely fashion.  The idea of a more classic "cake and ice cream" with the frozen foie does sound a lot more appealing to me.

Anyway, this wasn't bad, but there wasn't anything I really enjoyed about this dish.  I also wish we'd had a palette cleanser between the steak and the dessert, as that is a pretty heavy transition to make.
Jolly Berry Cotton Candy
And as always, the meal ended with cotton candy.  Fluffy, sweet, and playful.  Novelty - yes?  But, so fun :)
About to become a torchon!
All wrapped up and ready to hang!
And ready to serve!
Like last time, the event ended with a silent auction.  Unlike last time, where we took home more than half the items, we only left with one basket of winnings.  Luckily this basket included a lobe of Grade A Sonoma Foie Gras, which the winner decided to turn into a torchon.  Such a high quality product!  The resulting torchon was so flavorful and creamy.  We paired it in a number of ways, but the absolute best was an Acme crostini, spread with fig jam, a slice of the foie gras torchon,  and then topped with smoked trout roe, and paired with a glass of sweet 2005 Rieussec Sauternes (which was also used in the torchon prep).  Wowzer.  Maybe not as fancy as what the chefs made for us that night, be pretty incredible - the smokey, salty roe pairing with the rich foie gras contrasting with the sweet fig jam ... mmmm!  And now we know how to make our own torchon, which, come July, will come in handy!
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