Friday, March 18, 2011
Last year, I was able to join one of Chef Craig Thornton's public Wolvesden Dinners and enjoyed it so much that for my next go round, I set up a private dinner so that I could introduce my friends to his food. Click here to read about that first experience. For this second time at bat, it was an epic meal of 13 courses (bigger) that started with a crash course in humane prawn slaughter (badder), as well as my request for one dish that was Filipino-inspired. Then you throw in dining with an alligator head and it was quite an evening.
When everyone arrived, Chef Thornton invited us to help prep the fresh Santa Barbara shrimp that would be part of our first course. So first we watched him pierce the shrimp through the brains and then cut down the length of the body. One thing that wasn't quite clear to all was that when he said fresh shrimp, he really meant fresh shrimp. In fact, those crustaceans were still alive and some were even moving their tiny little legs in protest on the tray they were sitting on.
So the key to make sure that they don't suffer any further pain is to pierce the brain first before cutting into the rest of the body. Now how is bad is that (but in a good way) for someone to really be in touch with the animal that will soon be on their dinner plate. I almost felt like I should be saying a prayer to the nature gods before the kill just like the Na'vi race from the movie, Avatar.
After all the shrimps were prepped, we sat down for our first course which was live shrimp.chicarron.lime. It was definitely a beautiful presentation and I loved the fresh, sweetness of the shrimp when eaten with the salty, crunchy chicarron.
Our second course was also a seafood dish and it was scallop.cornbread pudding.apple cider.apple.green tomato jam. The scallop had a nice sear to it and I enjoyed the fresh little bite of apple. Although I liked the cornbread pudding, I did find it a little too sweet for my palate but appreciated that the green tomato jam did cut into that a bit.
The third dish to arrive was striped sea bass.parsnip puree.sword lettuce. Crispy fish skin is always appreciated so I was very happy with that and this was my first time having sword lettuce. On its own, it's quite bitter but I like the way it balanced the richness of the parsnip puree.
Chef Thornton mentioned that at the time, he was really into eating Spanish food and that was the inspiration for the cuttlefish.piquillo.smoked almonds.chorizo that was our fourth course. I have to say that for me, the spicy chorizo was the star and I only wish I had more.
For our fifth course, we were served cauliflower puree.meyer lemon.crouton.romesco.sorrel leaf. Unfortunately, this dish didn't do much for me. I liked the creaminess of the cauliflower puree, but the ingredient flavors really didn't seem to come together.
Five courses in already and now it's time for our sixth. One thing to mention is that guests are allowed to walk over to the kitchen area to see what Chef Thornton and his Sous Chefs are doing as well as ask questions. What's fun is to see the prep work that goes into each dish as it's prepared. For example, I saw the beautiful red color of the yellowtail tuna in our next dish even before it was seared on the pan. As you know now, our sixth course was yellowtail tuna.yuzu koshe-apricot.radish sprouts. I thought the tart-fruity sauce and the tangy sprouts went perfectly with the tender fish.
Yes, it's time for dish number seven and it was rabbit.pasta.chive.hazelnut.parmesan. Of everything that evening, this was my least favorite dish. I absolutely loved the homemade pasta and how it was cooked al dente, but I didn't care for the stringy texture of the rabbit and there was something too sweet about the sauce that didn't thrill my palate.
Our eighth course was my absolute favorite of the entire meal, probably because it was the Filipino-inspired dish that I requested. By the way, I didn't ask for any specific dish. I left that decision to Chef Thornton and wouldn't you know, he chose my favorite comfort food. To Filipinos, it's a dish known as Kare Kare, which is basically a peanut-based stew with oxtails and vegetables. Chef Thornton's version is simply called oxtail.peanut sauce.eggplant.rice paper.banana blossoms.mint.onion.long beans.garlic peanuts. His version was definitely not a stew, but he did a fantastic job interpreting the flavors; yet, adding his own twist.
Presentation-wise, the oxtail meat was taken off the bone and cooked with the peanut sauce (made from ground peanuts) and onions and were placed in the bottom of the bowl. My Mom, like most Filipino Moms, use their favorite brand of peanut butter to create the sauce, so the use of freshly ground peanuts instead added a more intense peanut flavor.
Instead of rice, which is what is usually eaten with Kare Kare, the meat was topped with a rice paper. On top of the rice paper were the rest of the ingredients, with some of them being traditional and others not so much. For example, I was surprised at the banana blossoms. I don't think it added or took away from the dish, but it was something different. The addition of the mint added a nice freshness and cut into what is normally a very rich dish. My favorite add ons; however, were the garlic cracker nuts. The garlic cracker nuts are one of my favorite snacks and I loved the garlic crunch it gave to the dish. Overall, it was a Filipino dish definitely taken into a different; yet, absolutely delicious direction.
Our ninth course was a palate cleanser that came in the form of a fruit soup, strawberry.guava.banana pop rocks. This was such a refreshing a lover. Points were definitely made because of the guava since it's one of my favorite fruits and the addition of the banana pop rocks just blew me away.
Next up was our tenth dish which was lamb.yogurt.pita.meyer lemon.arugula.potato.mint and chive sauce. I was actually getting quite full by now, but watching and smelling the lamb being cooked gave me a boost of eating energy. Although the lamb seemed just a tad too rare for my taste, I loved its pairing with the arugula and the chive sauce.
Regarding our eleventh dish which was squab.roasted carrot.beet.shallot jam.horseradish.trumpet mushroom, this is the first time that I actually ever liked the way that squab was prepared or maybe, it was just the ingredients that it came with. The horseradish was a wonderful condiment and I loved the addition of the mild, sweet beets.
With eleven courses behind us, it's now time for our last two which were dessert courses. First, it was my favorite of the two and it was tofu.white chocolate vanilla soup with vanilla bean.white chocolate powder.green tea shortbread.vanilla and yuzu shortbread.citrus. I just really enjoyed the interplay of the various flavors from sweet (but not too sweet) and grassy to citrusy and tart.
Our final and thirteenth course was French toast.salted maple ice cream.banana.bacon.nutella and coffee powder. It was definitely breakfast for dessert and other than the nutella and coffee powder which I found to be too bitter, it a nice way to end this stellar meal.
Overall, this was a wonderful meal, made even more so by spending it with good friends and a Chef and a Crew who truly are passionate about their food.
Click here to see all the photos of my Wolvesden Dinner!
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