Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Final Foie Dinner @ Alexander's Steakhouse

There are good meals.  And then there are excellent meals.  This, was one of the later.  In the top five dinners I have had all year, and the best of all of the foie gras dinners I have attended.  Let me back up a little ...
Menu for the evening ... soo exciting sounding!
One random night in May, I was dining at Alexander's Steakhouse, and received some awesome news: they planned to hold a final foie dinner, on the eve of the foie gras ban, June 30th.  I immediately blocked off that day in my calendar.  There was no way I was going to miss this, as you know, I love Alexander's, I love foie gras, and the special foie dinners I have attended there are some of the most memorable meals of my life.  I easily convinced 5 others to join me (including two photographers - thank you for the great photos!)

When they released the menu, I grew even more excited.  This one was going to be even more special, with 7 courses instead of 5 like the last few.  The variety of foie preparations listed was astounding: liquid, mousse, smoked, pâté, seared, shaved, frozen.  Drink pairings were equally varied, starting with a cocktail, ending with a port, and hitting a rose, and some reds and whites (even going back and forth!) along the way.  The menu seemed all over the place, with a soup, a salad, and a banh mi, in addition to some more classic sounding foie dishes.  And shockingly, there was not a steak as the main course.  I was intrigued!

The menu was $185, including drink pairings.  While Txoko's $100 4 course foie dinner still wins on best value for price, this was a very good price, as there was more foie and the food was far better prepared than the similar style $210 Michael Mina 7 course foie dinner, the $195 Fifth Floor 5 course foie dinner, or the $183 4 course Village Pub foie dinner.  Alexander's wins again, no question.
Chef Marc Zimmerman welcomes everyone.
Like the last foie dinners, it was held in the private wine library downstairs, using a separate kitchen.  Upstairs, the restaurants was in full swing for a Saturday night, although they additionally offered the foie menu to anyone up there as well (and it sounds like many choose to partake, with 128 foie dinners sold that night, and only 50 of us in the room downstairs!)

To begin the night, Chef Zimmerman welcomed us all, talked about the upcoming foie ban, and about what C.H.E.F.S. is doing to fight the ban (proceeds from the night go to C.H.E.F.S.).  If you haven't done so already, please go sign the petition to end the ban!

Serving a big group like this at once can be quite difficult, and we've seen it be a little problematic at past events, however, this night, everything went off without a hitch.  Service was spot on.  It felt slightly more casual than normal service upstairs, with tables being served all at once, but not in the totally carefully orchestrated way they are in the main dining room.  Servers immediately explained all of the dishes once we had all received them.  Water glasses were kept filled, places were cleared soon after finishing, new utensils promptly brought to replace them, etc.  Staff were friendly and enthusiastic.  Pacing of the meal was perfect, with enough time to finish all of the wine and enjoy a small pause between dishes, but never too long.

The food was fantastic.  I think the chef made some very wise decisions on the dishes to serve that night, as, besides the seared preparation (which is a classic and he just had to include), none of the dishes required being served piping hot or immediately, which I think made it much easier to handle preparing for so many diners at once.

Ranking the dishes at the end of the night was incredibly difficult, as I genuinely enjoyed each and every one.  It is incredibly rare to have so many courses be consistent home runs!  The wines were equally great, I'd gladly order any of them again.  Again, rare to have every single one be something I really liked!

Everything about the night was near perfection, from the amazing food, to the comfortable, welcoming environment.  This was an incredibly memorable night, and I wish I could re-create it again.  Perhaps we'll get a chance to have a first post-ban-appeal dinner?  Fingers crossed!
Bar manager Casper Rice shakes up the starting course: a cocktail!
To start off the night, Casper swung into action preparing the first "course", a foie gras cocktail!  I wasn't sure what to expect, as the Celebration of Foie Gras dinner at Fifth Floor also began with a foie-inspired cocktail, but that one only had some foie powder on the rim.  But Casper had been telling us about this drink for the past few weeks, and it sounded like he was building quite a masterpiece.
Casper had quite the operation set up, quickly producing cocktails for the full room.
And a masterpiece it was.  A lot of work went into this drink!  To start with, he prepared the "foiedka", that is, Kettle One infused by soaking a seared lobe of foie in it overnight.  Then, he created the hazelnut liquor, starting with roasting his own whole hazelnuts.  And then of course he made the strawberry gastrique that morning, starting with fresh strawberries that he diligently chopped and reduced down with some white wine.  Now it was time to mix it all together, shake it up, top it off with some prosecco, add a skewered fresh strawberry ... and viola, the "Daffy Slur"!
Course #1: "Daffy Slur":  “foiedka” / hathlenut liqueur / thtrawberry / bathil  (if this confuses you, say it out loud ...)
This drink was absolutely amazing.  It really was a fantastic foie gras dish in liquid form.  I never imagined it was possible for it to be this successful.

Upon taking his first few sips, Emil got perhaps the biggest grin I've ever seen on his face.  He was downright giddy as he exclaimed, "That is like liquid foie!"

The foie flavor was incredibly strong, it really, really came through in the drink, both in the initial sip and in the finish.  But then it was balanced out by the strawberry, also incredibly flavorful.  How he got both foie and strawberries to be that flavorful as liquids, I have no idea!  The use of fresh ingredients clearly made it really shine.  It was sweet, but not too sweet.  The strawberry and foie were a perfect pairing.  It was just really, really good.

When they came to ask if anyone wanted more, absolutely everyone said yes, even though we knew that we had 6 glasses of wine coming up.  It was too good to resist.  It was also shocking, since we had a variety of palates at the table, some hating sweets, some only liking sweet cocktails, some not even really liking foie ... and absolutely everyone loved this drink.

I would so gladly order this again if I could.  4th pick of the night for everyone who rated it, although as I think back on this meal a few days later, I think this was the most memorable of all of the "dishes", and I'd probably up my rating if I were to do them over.  I wish that I could just stock my fridge up with a bottle of this!  The night was off to a fantastic start.  (I'm also really looking forward to trying more cocktails at Alexander's, as that is one part of the menu I haven't yet explored, and Casper clearly knows what is he is doing!)
Amuse bouche: tartelette with foie gras mousse, brûléed fig.
We started with an amuse bouche, which of course featured foie gras.  It was a little tart shell, filled with foie gras mousse, fig compote, and topped with a slice of brûléed fig.  The tart shell was fairly generic, but savory rather than sweet.  The mousse was excellent, very creamy, with a strong foie gras flavor.  The fig compote and fig added a nice contrasting sweetness.  Overall it was tasty, but fairly unremarkable.  Last pick of the night for those who rated it.

After the amuse, we moved straight into the first appetizer course, skipping bread service completely.  I didn't mind, as I had no intention of filling up on bread rather than foie, but the past events did all include bread.  It seemed like perhaps an oversight?
Foie gras mousse: grilled peach / cherries / almond milk.
This was the dish I was most excited for.  In the past, when Alexander's has done foie mousses well, they have been just downright mind blowing.  This dish looked a little like the combination of the two foie dishes we'd had at Alexander's the night before: the foie gras mousse and the seared foie with peach marshmallows (yes, don't judge, we were there the night before eating multiple courses of foie ...)

While those dishes were good, this one blew them out of the water.  The mousse, while it looked the same as the previous night, was nothing like it.  Both were served as little half spheres, but this one was just insanely creamy and fluffy, probably the best foie mousse I have ever had.  Topped with some crumbled marcona almonds that added a great contrasting crunch.

Also on the plate was some dots of sweet peach puree and a peach marshmallow, that like the previous night, was sweet and had a great peach flavor.  And as with the previous night's dish, I loved the pairing of peach and foie.

There was also a cherry that had been pitted (although the stem was still on, so this took me by surprise!), and macerated in ume wine, giving an additional choice of sweet stone fruit to pair with the foie.  And two small toasted brioche crackers, which added another crunchy aspect to the dish.  The foam was an almond milk, which didn't taste particularly almond-y, but added another interesting texture to the dish.  Finally, there was a little bit of basil oil to add another savory component.

The dish came together well, with good flavors and nice contrasting textures.  It was the best foie mousse dish I've ever had.  The top pick of the evening for 4 of us, but 5th and 6th for two others.  As we were all almost finished with the dish, one diner exclaimed, "you know it is good when you forget to drink your wine!"  Looking around, I realized that several of us had neglected our drinks, a very good sign indeed!

It was paired with a rose, Domaines Ott Les Domaniers, Provence 2011.  It was slightly sweet, but fairly dry.
Smoked foie gras, roasted corn, house made ricotta.  Before the soup is added.
Next we were presented with a slightly unappealing looking bowl.  Inside of it was a hodgepodge of elements: smoked foie gras, kernels of roasted corn, freeze dried corn, brown butter powder, ricotta, confit leek jam, and corn tomalito.  I didn't really care how it looked, corn season just started, and I've been really enjoying corn for the past week or so, particularly roasted corn.  And what better to add to corn soup than smoked foie?  This was the dish I was second most excited for!
Pouring in the roasted corn puree.
Servers came around and poured in the roasted corn puree, tableside.
Finished dish.
This dish reminded me of one prepared by Chef Joey Elenterio at the last Alexander's foie dinner, as it also was a dish of shaved, smoked foie gras, with a seasonal soup poured in tableside.  While I liked that one for its creativity, I didn't think the dish worked very well.  This was another story.

It was delicious, an amazing mix of flavors and textures.  The puree was piping hot, causing the ricotta and brown butter powder to fully melt into it.  The cold shaved foie gras also somewhat melted in as well, just enough to infuse the soup with flavor, but still leaving behind some pieces to enjoy by the spoonful for more intensely foie flavored bites.  And those were some phenomenal bites, as the foie had an amazing smokiness to it, was creamy, and delicious.  The whole kernels of corn were a nice touch for adding additional texture to the dish.  The corn tomalito was another great element, reminding me of cornbread.

Overall, this was just fantastic.  So much flavor from the roasted corn and the smoky foie, which paired together very well.  So many fun textures, with the ability to swirl things together to make perfect spoonfuls.  This dish clearly had a lot of thought put into it in order to achieve this final perfection.  The temperature of the corn puree was essential, as was the thin shaving of the foie, and the fact that the brown butter came as a powder, rather than a liquid.  Very creative, and it tasted fantastic.  I was very sad when this dish ran out!  Both Emil and my second pick of the night, 3rd for another, 4th for another, and 5th for the other.

It came paired with a chardonnay, Chasseur, Sonoma County, 2010.  I really liked this, it was really buttery, and went absolutely perfectly with the soup.
"The silence of the ducks": seared foie gras / fava beans / a nice chianti.
I almost jumped out of my chair when I saw this approaching.  I may or may not have shrieked "OMG!  Look at the crust on that thing!"  Such an outburst may or may not have been partially influenced by the multiple Daffy Slurs and the amazing wines thus far.  But seriously, look at how well seared this was!  I'd been looking forward to this dish as well, since I know Alexander's can do a great seared foie.

I've been rather grumpy at most seared foie I've had lately, with my number one criticism, besides it being served cold, being that it just doesn't have the level of sear that I want, not enough crust on it.  While this was unfortunately not served hot enough, it did have perhaps the best sear I've ever had.  Just perfect, resulting in a strong caramelization.  I know it is hard to serve a large group (~50 diners) perfectly hot food, but I really wish they'd been able to get the temperature better on it.

Also on the plate were a few whole fava beans and a bit of fava bean puree.  Some people at our table really loved the fava beans.  I thought they were well cooked, but I was far too distracted by the incredible foie to really notice them.

There was also a cinnamon thyme cracker, which I didn't really know what to do with, as it wasn't quite strong enough to support loading it up with a piece of the foie.

The dish was thrown over the top by a plentiful pile of crispy shallots.  Amusingly, every single foie dinner we have attended has included crispy shallots, and like those, I found them just amazingly tasty.  I was so glad there was a generous amount of these on the plate, as I was able to roll just about every bite of foie in them.

The plate was finished with a chianti glaze and duck jus, that added a nice sweetness, and the perfect salt level.

This dish was yet another home run.  Flawlessly executed seared foie gras, paired with delicious shallots.  Had it been served warmer, I can't even imagine how amazing it would have been.  It has set the bar for which I will compare all seared foie.  Favorite dish of the night for Emil and one other, second pick for two others, and my third.

It came paired with a chianti, Il Molino di Grace, Chianti Classico 2007.  I also really liked this wine.  My tasting notes at this point simply read, "Now, that is a good chianti!"
Duck confit bahn mi: foie gras pâté / daikon / jalapeño / brioche.
I was finally starting to calm down.  The first three courses were the ones I was ridiculously excited for, given the preparation techniques and ingredients (mousse! seared!  roasted corn!  peaches!).  And they had all lived up to, or even exceeded, my expectations.  I expected it to be tasty of course, and really liked the creativity of throwing a bahn mi on a tasting menu, but I'm not a huge duck confit nor sandwich fan, so I thought this would be a forgettable dish.

Of course it wasn't.  I should know better than to doubt Chef Zimmerman at this point.

The flavors in this just popped.  The duck confit was tender and had a fantastic flavor, the best duck confit I've ever had.  It was topped with some foie gras pâté, that was kinda lost due to all of the other amazingly complex flavors involved, but I honestly didn't care.  I'm sure it added a richness, but this was so good that it didn't even need the foie (yes, I just said that).  On top of that was shredded daikon and carrot, which added a great crunch and freshness.  And some slices of jalapeño for a nice kick.  And dressed with a slather of the tastiest mayo I've ever had: jalapeño duck fat mayo!  It added a nice creaminess and additional heat.  All served on a delicious buttery brioche bun.

This was, by far, the best bahn mi I've ever had.  I couldn't believe how flavorful it was, and how perfectly the elements combined, with the chewy but crisp bread, the tender confit, the crunchy vegetables, all in perfect harmony.  4th pick of the night for me, 3rd for 3 others, and 5th for another.

It was paired with a riesling, Dr. Loosen Riesling Kabinett, Bernkasteler Lay, Mosel 2001.  This surprised us all, as the previous glass was a red wine.  Switching back and forth between reds and whites!  The riesling was sweet and I loved it.
Intermezzo: sherry gelee, foie gras mousse, passion fruit.
To prepare us for the main event, we had a brief break.  This was rather sweet overload, with both the main sherry sphere and the passion fruit dollop being insanely sweet.  The little drops of foie mousse had incredible flavor, and I wish the ratio of this had been reversed: giant foie mousse, tiny little sherry gelees.  It was good, but my least favorite of the night.
Warm beef salad: truffle soy vinaigrette.  Before.
Unlike all of the past Alexander's dinners, this one did not feature a steak as the main dish.  And it seemed like a strange progression to move to a salad at this point in the meal.  But calling this a "salad", doesn't really explain what was headed our way.

To start, this lovely salad was placed in front of us.

It was made up of assorted mixed greens: frisee, arugula, mitzuna.  All very fresh, crispy.  Also in the mix was some shaved carrots and snow peas for additional crunch, tiny slices of red fresno peppers for a little kick, and blackberries for some sweetness.  It was lightly dressed with a white truffle soy vinaigrette, sweet, salty, nicely balanced.  There were also some delightfully crispy, flavorful pieces of "shallot paper".  You know how much I love crispy shallots!

The steak slices were from a souz vide cooked Niman Ranch NY Strip, with a nice sear on the edge.  As you would expect, they were perfectly medium-rare, incredibly tender, and full of flavor.  Our slices weren't actually warm as advertised, but I don't think any of us minded.

This was a lovely salad, clearly high quality ingredients, fresh, and nicely balanced.  Not something I'd normally order, but I could imagine ordering it sometime if I wanted a nice steak salad.

But of course, this was a foie gras dinner.  So this is not at all how we ate the salad.
Server adding the shaved torchon.
The servers approached with very large pieces of foie gras torchon and microplanes in hand.  We had just seen this same move two nights prior at the Michael Mina foie gras dinner, where we also were presented with a salad, and had foie shaved on tableside.  At that dinner, we were incredibly disappointed with the amount of foie they added (go look at the photos to see how little foie was added, it was rather remarkable, as there wasn't enough to even taste it).  We had a more successful salad with shaved foie on it before that at the Village Pub's foie dinner, but even that one still didn't have tons of foie, and it wasn't done tableside.

Alexander's upped the ante.
Shaving away ...
"Just say when", the server advised.  We all kinda looked around nervously at each other.  Who, in their right mind, would actually say "when!"?  I made a comment about perhaps developing laryngitis around this time.  The server just laughed at us, and said he figured that we'd say something like this.  And he kept on shaving away.  The more polite members of our group did indeed say when to stop, at fairly reasonable times, although, with far, far, more foie than we'd received anywhere else.  Someone else just told the server to use his judgement and stop when he felt it was right.  I waited until I had quite the mound, and begrudgingly told him he could stop.
Warm beef salad: shaved foie gras / truffle soy vinaigrette. After.
Seriously, look at the giant mound of shaved foie on there!  Like the seared dish, this really was a sight to behold.  They were incredibly generous with the amount of foie.

At one point, one member of our group realized her salad was missing the steak.  It took her a while to even realize that, which is rather comical, given that it was a "steak salad"!  It was quickly replaced, with freshly shaved foie of course.

This was by far the most successful shaved foie on salad preparation that we have had, and not only because it came with so much foie.  It had too much stiff competition this night however, making it the 6th choice overall for 3 of us, the 5th for one other, and the second for another.  The one diner who didn't give me any other ratings (besides the mousse being his favorite) put this as his last choice, but that is because he can't stand truffle oil.

It came paired with a pinot, Soter Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley 2010.  I really like pinots, and this one was quite lovely, with a nice complex flavor and not a lot of tannin.  It went very well with the steak and the rich foie.
Vanilla "pink" cotton candy.
All meals at Alexander's end with cotton candy, and tonight's was no exception.  Given how much I dine at Alexander's the novelty of the cotton candy wore off for me long ago, and I really thought I was sick of it and could care less about it.  But of course, they change the flavor every time, so I do need to keep trying it ...

This was a winner!  Probably the favorite flavor that I've tried.  The waiter told us it was "vanilla pink" flavor ... whatever that is :)  It was really vanilla-y, and the perfect sweet to prepare us for dessert!
Melting cotton candy.
I don't have more to say here, I just wanted an excuse to include this lovely shot!
Foie gras ice cream bar: cherry / blackberry / chocolate.
Oh dessert time!  While normally a highlight of my meals, foie based desserts are usually more "interesting" than tasty.  And at the past Alexander's foie dinners, the desserts really failed to impress me taste-wise (they were all visually stunning however!).  This one however, like the rest of the meal, was a winner.

The ice cream on the side was just a simple vanilla ice cream, creamy, and nice to balance out the richness of the rest of the dish.

The main component of the dish was the chocolate covered foie gras ice cream bar, with praline mousse.  The foie ice cream inside was creamy and had a great foie flavor, one of the most successful foie ice creams that we have had.  It went surprisingly well with the chocolate coating.

There was also a whole blackberry, some whole hazelnuts, and bits of chocolate wafer.  The wafer added a good crunch, and was slightly salty, which complimented both the chocolate and the foie.
Starting in on my 3rd dessert ...
I was dining with a couple of crazy people who don't like dessert.  For some reason, they all decided to pass their desserts to me, knowing how much I love dessert.  And somehow, I managed to eat them all.  In retrospect, I have absolutely no idea how I did this.  But look how eagerly I started in on that 3rd one (and see the other two empties all lined up ...)

Even though this was a really good dessert, it was only my 5th pick of the night, 4th for another, and last for the folks who don't like desserts.  This is a testament to how strong the other dishes were, as this was definitely the best foie dessert I've had at any of the Alexander's dinners, and edges out the caramel foie ice cream dessert we had at Michael Mina two days prior as the second best foie dessert I've ever had.  Fifth Floor's fried rhubarb pie and foie ice cream still wins the best foie dessert award though.

And to finish off the night, it was paired with a port, Warre’s LBV, Port 2001.  It was sweet, with a lovely caramel aroma.  Again, another drink I'd gladly have again, and it went really well with the chocolate and richness from the foie.
One basket of goods for the silent auction.
This dinner, like the previous ones at Alexander's, included a silent auction, benefiting C.H.E.F.S.  There were a variety of items being auctioned off, including baskets of foie products, dinners, and restaurant gift certificates.
Very carefully deciding how much to bid ...
There were several that I really wanted to win, like the foie gras dinners!  However, I apparently didn't bid high enough :(
Happy "winner"!
Like at the previous events, our table did have plenty of "winners"!  Dear tablemates, if you need anyone to share your winnings with, I'm always available :)
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