Nathan Myrvhold’s Dinner to End All Dinners

Okay, okay.  So I’ve been on a “little” hiatus.  I was busy planning a wedding… and then I was busy being a newlywed, followed by having a baby and being a mommy.  It’s not that I’ve stopped eating great meals… it’s just that I haven’t had as much time to write about them.

But if there was anything worth stepping back into the spotlight for, it was last night’s NYC Food & Wine Festival Event, The Dinner to End All Dinners.

My longtime food buddy Jesse and I scored seats to this hot ticket event mere minutes after the online queue opened.  The post-purchase hype we engaged in over several months sounded something like this: “If they’re calling it the ‘dinner to end all dinners,’ it’s got to be good!”  But that name.  A little ominous, no? What did they mean exactly? Dinner so good that you’d never want another? Or, like, whodunit dinner mystery where all the lights go out and Colonel Mustard winds up facedown in his boeuf bourguignon and then we all head to the library to accuse Mrs. Peacock with the candlestick?

Finally, after months of unabated anticipation, we headed downtown with our respective spouses.  As my husband and I drove down the west side, a dramatic sunset unfolded over the Hudson.  “Hmmmm,” I said aloud.  “Maybe it will be Mrs. Peacock with the candlestick.”

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Spoiler Alert: Well, I made it out alive to write this post, so -dear reader- you can rest easy.  But in case you missed this “intimate gathering of 80,” here’s the inside scoop:

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After exchanging greetings on the Soho street, we were whisked up to the International Culinary Center’s fifth floor loft.  The atmosphere in that (albeit cramped) elevator is something I can only compare to what Charlie and Grandpa Joe must have felt upon arriving at Willy Wonka’s famous chocolate factory.  I have to admit, I half expected the French Culinary Institute classrooms to be transformed into a chocolate river with lollipop mushrooms and little, modernist Oompah-Loompah servers.  I was quickly snapped out of that reverie by the insanely inviting smell of the fifth floor, which permeated the elevator somewhere between floors two and three.  It was warm. It was enticing.  It smelled like walking into Grandma’s kitchen… only my grandma didn’t have an immersion circulator.

We entered the loft….. and there was Nathan Myrhvold.  In the flesh.  We promptly besieged him for a photo, which he was gracious enough to take.

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Jesse and me with Nathan Myrvhold, the man who wrote the book (literally!) on Modernist cuisine

Then, with celebrity chef pleasantries aside, we got down to business.  There was food to be had.  Modernist food.

Reception hors d’oeuvres

First up was Chef Alex Stupak’s octopus and parnsip with salsa papanteca.  The true marvel was the texture of both the octopus and the parsnip, both soft and buttery in texture, and -again in texture- nearly impossible to distinguish from each other.  Giving octopus the same bite as a parsnip? Fascinating.  In flavor, it was spicy, sweet, and slightly acidic (due to a citrus cream).  Toasted pepitas and mild, watery onions rounded out the flavor and provided a different mouth-feel.  Chipotle and arbol chilis gave the salsa a gentle heat.  Overall, I found it beautifully balanced, multi-dimensional, and elegantly composed.

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Chef Alex Stupak’s octopus with parsnip and salsa papanteca

Next, coming around in champagne flutes, was a surprisingly complex caramelized carrot soup.  It had a bouquet of curry, and we swore we tasted coconut, butter, and a caramel-butterscotch warmth without over-the-top sweetness.  The miraculous flair is that the dish was composed from five ingredients: carrots, butter, water, baking soda, and salt.  Not even stock!!! The team used baking soda and a pressure cooker to caramelize the carrots all the way through (rather than the typical high heat and potential drying out method).  These intense flavors came from the food itself and made for something remarkably complex despite its simplicity.  This wasn’t my favorite dish by any means, but I marveled at the technique.  Texturally, it was beyond smooth.

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Nathan Myrvhold and the Modernist Cuisine Team’s caramelized carrot soup

Lastly, there was Chef Mads Refslund’s raw mackerel with pickled mushrooms and nasturtium.  The mackerel itself was briny and clean.  I got a huge, unexpected bite of an alarmingly large peppercorn, which threw off my sense of taste a bit.  Once past that hurdle, the flavors of horseradish and buttermilk emerged.  The fish was fresh, the nasturtium mildly mustardy and clean… but the mushroom.  Ahhh the mushroom.  I don’t even like mushrooms, but the explosive texture of that orangue-hued beauty made this whole dish for me.

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Chef Mads Refslund’s raw mackerel with pickled mushrooms and nasturtium

Dinner

As we were ushered into the dining room, I found myself hoping things would pick up a little.  While the hors d’oeurves were delicious, I wasn’t sure they were measuring up to the hype I’d created in my head.  Chef Refslund is the golden child of Noma, the Copenhagen hotspot that usurped El Bulli’s “World’s Best Restaurant” crown in a 2010 stunning upset.  How could this meal be anything but amazing??? I was expecting the sun, moon, and stars…

Dinner started with Nathan Myrvhold (et al)’s vegetable stew, a gorgeous medley of brightly colored vegetables (beets, corn, mushrooms, onions) subsequently covered in a clear, raw pea broth made from pea puree spun in a centrifuge with force roughly equivalent to 27,000 times the earth’s gravity.  Yeaaaaaah baby! NOW we’re talking! The density-separated materials were heated and salted, making a portion for each guest from 3/4 of a pound of peas.  The team also made a pea butter from a substance in between the flavor molecules.  With a texture like butter, it was spread two ways: onto an oh-so-thin wisp of a toast and on a dollop of ricotta.  Myrhvold reflected on the “essential earthiness” of our little green friend, the pea, then cracked an unexpected one-liner about the dish’s essential “pea-ness.”  Appreciative laughter ensued, and we dug in to the hearty dish, which had real bite and incredibly smooth sweetness.  The pea’s normal starchiness was gone, leaving only a delicious sweetness that was paired with a gorgeously oaky 14 Hands Hot to Trot red.  The wine was smoky and remarkably bacony, making the dish and its accompanying wine pairing a clever play on “split” (ha ha… get it? centrifuge!) pea soup.  The pea butter was sweet and so enjoyable on the toast’s salty crunch.

Visual aesthetic? Yes.  Look at this gorgeous, Kermit-the-Frog green below.

Flavor? Yes.

Texture? Yes.

Hype? Sooo worth it.

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The next course was Mads Refslund’s black sea bass with green tomatoes, cardamom, vanilla, and dandelion.   Chef Reslunds introduced his dish with a sweetly candid anecdote about his first meal in the States ending in the cultural foible of not leaving a tip, being chased down the street… and recognized.  He then plugged his New York restaurant (stay tuned… I’ll get there and let you know how it is) before telling us remarkably little about the technique for his dish other than that it featured six herbs… from New Jersey.  That said, the bass was delicious and generously portioned.  The warm, soft, velvety broth at the bottom of the plate was Comfort itself, and had there been bread on the table, I would have soaked up every drop from the bottom of my plate (and, quite possibly, the plates of everyone else at my table).  Suffice it to say that it took a lot of self-restraint not to slurp the broth from the plate… or pour it into my purse for later enjoyment.  The tomato, however, was the most incredible thing I tasted all night.  The cardamom and vanilla made the whole fruit utterly warm and comforting- tangy, flavorful, rich, meaty, and yet incredibly light: a bite full of contradictions.  Paired with a light-bodied, ruby-colored Oregon Pinot Noir from Erath, I could have eaten that tomato all night and walked away feeling like I’d gotten my money’s worth.

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Not to be outdone, Myrvhold and Peeps then presented pastrami with saeurkraut.  The scent wafted out of the kitchen for nearly ten minutes before it was served, positively tantalizing this non-pastrami gal.  A two-week endeavor, Myrvhold introduced the process, which involved a week of curing, 72 hours of cooking, and 6 hours of smoking short rib.  Served with a playful rye crisp, cabbage and apple sauerkraut, the delightfully crisp shells of brussel sprout (not your grandma’s gray, boiled brussel sprout!), and a speck of fresh Oregon wasabi, this pastrami easily competed with the tomato that had won my heart.  Soft.  Smoky.  Lightly spicy.  The wasabi, made from real wasabi root, was sweet… nothing like that green garbage that shows up next to your rainbow roll.  I’m not a huge mustard fan either, but the seedy mustard under the rye crisp popped like caviar and was just enough tang to provide gorgeous, round flavor.  It was paired with a Red Diamond Tempermental, which was light and maybe a little peachy.  By this point, I was slithering around in my chair like a five-year-old who needs to use the bathroom.  Not because I needed to use the restroom, of course, but because the delightful dish made me feel like a little kid.

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Dessert

The night ended with Alex Stupak’s Mezcal crema with sour orange and pumpkin: a thin disc of orange ice with different forms of pumpkin.  There was a pumpkin puree, toasted pumpkin seeds, and a salty streusel oil.  Ultimately, I thought this dish was incredibly cerebral but not delicious.  Its textures and flavors had depth and interest, and I appreciated the cleverness of the composition.  It was paired with a late harvest riesling from Chateau Ste. Michelle, which was the only sweetness to the entire ensemble, and was a remarkable pairing.

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After dinner, I poured myself out of my chair, wine-laden and ready for bed.  Highlights of the evening were the infamous tomato, forkfuls of pastrami so soft and fluffy it could have been cake, and truly brilliant wine pairings (kudos to the night’s unrecognized sommelier who orchestrated them).  Did it live up to the hype? Even Myrvhold had commented on the unfortunate event title, promising that we would, indeed, survive the night.  So was it the “dinner to end all dinners”? Well, I had dinner again tonight, so I guess not… but it was pretty darn great.

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