Saturday, March 21, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Les Entrees--La Petite Grocery, Part Trois

Sorry about the very long intermission between the first and second acts of the James Beard dinner recreation at La Petite Grocery with Sucre. I have a great excuse though--I was waylaid by bandits and vagabonds! Yes! They came in the form of lethargy and gray skies and robbed me of my inspiration, basically leaving my brain a soggy, wet mess. But I've returned from the depths of those treacherous and bleak lands, and aim to regale you of tales of delights yet unknown and Adventures yet untold.

Well, now that I've regained your attention to the meal at hand (as well as utterly disgusted you with my melodramatics), let's sit down. I was at table 52, well situated under a window at the far right of La Petite Grocery, and I was ready to dive in. Which is no surprise, really; I'm always at the ready, with fork in hand.

The menu told me that the first course I'd be experiencing was a crawfish dish, which I have to admit, I wasn't particularly excited about. But the first hour had proven that Chef Devillier and Chef Hanna know their seafood, so I didn't have as much apprehension towards the dish as I would have if I hadn't already sampled their collective skill. A shimmering Sauvignon Blanc was poured for me, delicious with a strong hint of peaches, and a gorgeous little plate with a single, perfectly-formed crescent, was placed in front of me. A plump, beige-hued housemade Mezzaluna sat by itself, covered in a creamy sauce that shone with richness in the candlelight. It was an artistic study in desert shades with the beauty of a clear but sparkling mirage, pink tasso and green garnish offsetting the sauce the color of the yellow underside of a dusky rose.

Cutting into it was even more gratifying than just staring at it, crawfish piled thickly inside the fresh al dente dough. Like the blue crab beignets, steam wafted up immediately, releasing the heavenly scent of trapped leek and seafood aromas escaping to mingle with the buttery smoked tomato sauce. The use of Breaux Bridge crawfish was a good choice; the meat of the fat tails were tender, sweet, and the chefs had obviously taken the care to clean them well. There was no hint of muddiness common at crawfish boils and stringy, off-season mudbugs. Rather, the flesh was light, flavorful, mild, and more reminiscent of lobster than the usual dirty taste I've grown to associate with crawfish. This was, hands down, the absolute best crawfish/crawfish dish I'd ever had. And that's now officially on the record. The smoked and tasso added the kick of salt and a crunchy-but-chewy texture, finishing off what was, all in all, a flawlessly executed dish.

The light orange Roasted Cauliflower Soup was next, and I thought for sure that this was going to be superb. I like roasted things and I like cauliflower. Who doesn't like bacon? Or in-season oysters? And creme fraiche is generally like a dollop of happiness. However, this time around, the creme fraiche was my undoing, adding more richness to the already creamy and decadent soup, bringing it to a heaviness that is best in small portions rather than the generous bowl presented. The oysters were tender and succulent, and the house-smoked bacon was thick, again crunchy-but-chewy, well-salted, but a tiny bit gamey due to its woodsy flavor. The roasted cauliflower was a distinctly unusual flavor, an adventurous flavor that I had never encountered, soft with a smoky edge, if that makes any sense. The pureed cauliflower usually can stand alone in terms of creating a very creamy, thick soup, and the addition of the creme fraiche, like I said, gave the soup even more weight.

The third dish to be brought out was my undisputed favorite of the evening. Fellow food writer and newest addition to my blogroll Blake Killian, who "makes" all kinds of things, basically went into raptures about the Seared Duck Breast, so I took my time taking pictures of the elegantly plated dish, to prolong my anticipation. Tantric eating, man. That's what it's all about.

Two perfectly cooked oblong slices of medium/medium-rare duck sat on my plate, ringed like a tree trunk with varying strata of color. Charcoal on the outside, a round of pearl white, chocolate-brown graduating into a carnation pink, deepening into that rosy deep pink with violet undertones that we foodies love so much. Luscious and tender, the subtle seasoning of the duck allowed the essence of its flavor to permeate through the fabulous black pepper caramel sauce that streaked the plate in bold, artistic signature. I couldn't get enough of this sauce, the sweet playing with the spiciness of the pepper, the salted nuttiness perfectly complementing the savory tones of the duck. The little salad of pea shoots, looking like large, curly microgreens, graced half of the plate, added a more vibrant color to the dish, and as Remy Robert commented, the slightly salted flavor of this fresh vegetable added simple sophistication. I thought it was a nice country farm-to-table movement touch, but ended up agreeing with Remy as I continued to eat.

I found out later, to my pleasant surprise, that this dish was the creation of Chef Tariq, whose confections have taken precedence and have outshadowed the rest of his repertoire. Apparently, his range is wider than one would even think, and more polished than the frosting on his shiny, sparkly sweet treats at kitschy Sucre.

Moving on--a delicious Cabernet Sauvignon by Graham Beck from the Gameskeepers Reserve was poured out to accompany the final meat course, which was a Painted Hills Beef Sirloin with wild trumpet black mushrooms. The mushrooms had a wonderful, full, nutty kind of earthiness to them, like a mellow shittake, and the wilted flower-like fungi were mostly long, hollow caps. Light as a feather, droopy as a morning glory at sunset, these were delicate specimens, in taste as well as feel, regardless of the plush strength of earthbound flavor. The sirloin was hearty as well, a perfect red center glowing brightly from the center of each generous slice, the rich promise of iron in the thin rivulets of crimson that stained the edges of the otherwise yellow Potato-Parsnip Gratin light pink. I looked forward to taking a bite of this, knowing that even though it was just a sirloin, this Oregon beef was going to be complexly flavored and tender due to its hormone- and antibiotic-free natural vegetarian source.

Although it was still very good, the sirloin is not my favorite cut, lacking a certain robustness and complex flavor that characterizes other cuts. The mushrooms and the light drizzles of glaze were very good, and I found myself in want of more sauce to add a bit more flavor and complexity to the center pieces of each slice. Or perhaps I was just still so in love with the duck from the last course, bursting with raunchy deliciousness, that my senses were just dulled to the appeal of the contrasting mildness of the more delicate than usual beef.

What did have a particularly strong, resonating flavor was the Potato-Parsnip Gratin, which was topped with pecan streusel and a pinch of fresh stems of what I believe to have been thyme. Thick-shaved (or thin-sliced, depending on how you see it) peeled baby potatoes created a contrast in texture with the mashed core. Like everything else, there was a beautiful shine to it. I consider the Gratin kind of a daring play on yams with pecans and streusels, in terms of sugar, nut, and pastry, and the whipped parsnip added a whole level of sweet creaminess to the mixture that was like nothing I'd ever encountered. A novel flavor with uncommon elements, this was another special occasion dish, like the roasted cauliflower soup, that benefits from tasting portions.

The evening drew to a close with two desserts, the first being a Creole Cream Cheese Panna Cotta. The closest thing I can equate this to is the texture of a firm lightly scented yogurt, in unstirred form in a cup. It was firm and substantial--which made it satisfying to dig your spoon in--and had a yogurty tartness as well from the cream cheese. The citrus salad was a uniqe, like sweet pickled cabbage almost; thin strips of soft crunchiness, since it was an unexpected flavor given its descriptions. But this night was all about the inventive, and with the Steens-scented foam adding its cane sugar rawness sweetening up the Panna Cotta, this was a study in creativity.

There was a little Dunkin Donuts reminiscent light, more sweet than bitter chocolate Munchkin (or doughnut hole to those who didn't grow up eating "donuts"), which was fluffy and delicious--something very necessary for the harsher tones of the chicory syrup. Salted Caramel-Chocolate Custard Cake also offered up a great density, too, a soft sponginess like firm mousse making up the custard. It was enrobed with a stunning sheen of rich chocolate, and the salted pecan was an absolute delight, ending the wonderful dining experience on one perfectly balanced, harmonized note.

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