Monday, April 16, 2012

The Most Expensive Meal of My Life

I love food and experiences - I would rather share an incredible meal with friends in a foreign country after an adventure than have a bunch of giant flat screen TV's, a flashy car and bunch of Hermes Birkin bags (which is probably why you should never rob me since you probably don't want to steal a 35 inch CRT TV).

But I somewhat inadventently spent a fortune on dinner one night with some co-workers in Chicago. We knew we wanted to eat somewhere special while we were in Chi-town for training which meant that we were ready to throw down some serious coin. Nick and I had gone to Moto, after all. Kumar on my team suggested that we go to Charlie Trotters since this amazing Chicago culinary institution was closing this summer after 25 years of service.

Charlie Trotters is a pioneering restaurant which some say had put Chicago on the culinary map. It's a classic Mecca to fine dining and has launched the careers of some of the best and most avant garde chefs around. Unlike the casualness of Seattle dining establishments, it required jackets as well as exceptionally good manners. There were two incredible tasting menus: a meat one and a vegetarian one. I opted for the meat one with seafood only, which they were happy to accomodate.

Then, my former teammate Paul talked me into getting the wine pairings. "I don't really drink wine except when it's paired with dinner, " he said and then added convincingly, "And think about how amazing each course here would go with the right wine. This isn't something you do all the time, it's an experience and this place is closing." So rather than a single glass of wine or a cocktail, I chose to go with the pairing. "What the heck, this is a special experience," I thought... but I should have looked at the wine menu.

This kushi oyster first course was decadent, unctuous and almost obscene. It was paired with a crisp champagne - and I got several glasses of it. 

Unagi terrine with grapefruit. Seriously? This thing was pure art and foam. The crispness of the lime and grapefruit cut into the sweetness and richness of the unagi.

The guys got quail but I think I got trout. Whatever this was, it was delicious. Kumar got the vegetarian menu and for whatever reason, his plate always looked prettier. Not only was the meal more artfully arranged, but the actual china itself was cooler! However, the server informed me that this plate was specially gifted to Charlie so I won this round.

Here is another look at the plate - you can see that it has names of some of the most prominent restaurants around - Le Bernadin and French Laundry to name a couple.

This next plate reminded me of the Top Chef Texas Charlize Theron evil queen challenge - it was a beautiful plate with a violent splash of carmine-colored beet and the most buttery-rich Maine lobster.

This was Kumar's plate, which I had to take a photo of since it was so awesome looking. Below this slotted plate were other ingredients whose smoky vapors got up to what was on top. I don't know what it was but it sure looked awesome.

More lovely yumminess - I am a fan of a perfectly seared scallop.

This was the first dessert course which was refreshing and a bit of a palate cleanser. I am a fan of places that sprinkle crumbs on dessert since, let's face it, a little bit of crumbles go a long way.

More yummy desserts.

Each of these courses included generous pours of delicious wines. One course paired a sweet riesling but when coupled with the rich food, it was balanced and left a buttery mouthfeel. We had sweet wines and ports for dessert. Everything was phenomenally delicious. 

And then the check came. I choked a little bit. $420! That included tax and gratuity but I looked at it incredulously, realizing that the wine pairing was expensive enough to be its own meal... or two. I signed the bill, shrugged and texted Nick, "ZOMG, I just spent $420 on dinner!" 

He was in Austin, eating at Uchiko and texted back, "Oh that's not too bad, my dinner was $640." 

My reply was, "No, not dinner for the whole table. My dinner was $420 for just ME." Ouch.

Needless to say, I forked over my own BECU Visa and did not expense this dinner. I have never spent so much money on food but it was a worthy experience and one that people won't be able to have after this summer. I am sure someone forked over tens of thousands to dine at El Bulli before it closed its doors; this isn't even in the same stratosphere as El Bulli but it was for my price range. And if we hadn't gone to eat there, we all would never had learned how well riesling and bacon pairs together.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Mixing It Up At Revel

It's no secret that Revel is one of our favorite restaurants so I wasn't terribly surprised when Nick registered us for a series of classes there as a Christmas present.

The first class in the series was a cocktail-making class with the description, "Our Quoin bartender will teach a few tricks for fun cocktails and infused spirits."
What's more fun than sitting down to as many drinks as you wanted, along with a personal step by step description of the concoction? We knew the class would be epic when we were seated at the bar and our friendly bartender/professor Brian told us that we could order any drink. "Order what you want. It's included. We'll teach you how we make it too." As Brian mixed up the cocktail, he poured little tasting glasses of some of the ingredients for me - antica, which is a sweet, rich vermouth for example and could almost work on its own over ice.
Mojito expert Jesse told us, "We asked about how much we were allowed to serve and decided we'd just let you all drink as much as we could serve you. You two were very smart to have walked here."

Legen.... wait for it.... dary.

Once class got started, we learned about infusions, which aren't a silly novelty at Quoin, but something they put an incredible amount of care into. The Quoin bartenders expressed their giddiness at the fact they had access to the Revel walk-in, which meant they had access to amazing, fresh and exotic ingredients to play with. The bartenders stepped us through the process of making syrup infusions like earl gray tea and simple syrups and how they can play a part in cocktails. Afterwards, we stepped through some of the available ingredients to make an infused syrup or soju infusion like the ones Quoin is famous for. Their best-known soju infusion was the pho infusion, which includes some pho ingredients sans beefy broth. (Although they had some extraneous ingredients - there is no lemongrass or ginger in pho!)

We decided to make soju infusions with some of the awesome ingredients and are steeping them in little mason jars. Nick's aromatic infusion has cardamom, asian pear, cloves, star anise and ginger. Mine is spicy with lemongrass, ginger, lemon zest and thai basil.

The Manhattan

The gang stepped us through some important bar tools and techniques including notable gems such as:
  • Wood muddlers are the best. If you get a heavy or fancy one, you'll end up with a glass shattering in your hand.
  • You don't need a fancy shaker - a pint glass and metal shaker cup works best
  • Other essential bar tools include microplanes, cocktail strainers, a micromesh strainer, a stir spoon and vegetable peelers to make twists. If the equipment is expensive or heavy-handed, it's probably not very good.
  • When you add ingredients to the pint glass end of the shaker, ice is the last thing you should top it off with before shaking.
We went through the basics of making a stirred manhattan, which originally was made with rye and served with a twist, not with cherries. They showed us many different bitters which can be used rather than the usual Agostura bitters. Who knew there were grapefruit bitters, lavender bitters and celery bitters?

The Mojito

Bartender Jesse was the mojito man - although they admitted that on a busy night, the mojito is the worse drink you can order. Nothing will piss off a bartender more than one of those in the midst of a rush. Duly noted.

This was fun to make and muddle so here are the delicious results:

The Margarita

They make margaritas like I make mine - with a smidge of orange juice! That's definitely the secret to delicious margs. Obviously, they use fresh and so clean-clean ingredients and great reposado tequila rather than the sweet fake margarita mixes and Cuervo crap that we're used to. The bartenders also swore by real Cointreau or Grand Marnier over Triple Sec, which they said doesn't have as much intense flavor.

I'm ready to throw a margarita party and bake a margarita flan cake. It's great for your taste buds, bad for your waistline.


The cherry on the sundae was that got to play around and invent our own cocktails with full access to their collection of liquors and pantry items. The team's concoctions would be judged by the bartenders and the winning drink would be the special of the week. Inspired both by the pho infusion, the mojito and our trip to Vietnam, Nick and I decided to create a drink reminiscent of bun bo hue, a spicy beef noodle soup. It would be tangy, sweet, spicy and full of our cocktail-concocting passion!

Say hello to the Hue Jude:

The base is light rum with a ginger liqueur over muddled lemongrass, thai basil and pineapple, pineapple juice, all extremely well-shaken and topped with some soda water. We garnished it with a stick of lemongrass and a slice of pineapple dipped in chili powder for a spicy kick.

The judges tasted the cocktails although only Jesse and Brian got to have a bite of the chili dipped pineapple.

And we won by a slim margin! The Hue Jude was zippy and refreshing but not too cloyingly sweet. We were awarded with a trophy and a card for a free Hue Jude cocktail. Winning felt wonderful - or maybe it was the fact that we just had a few cocktails and a boatload of fun. Either way, we left feeling happy, extremely satisfied and ready for a little afternoon nap.