Thursday, January 14, 2010

Chris Shepherd Rocks

In a city of great chefs, Chris Shepherd is truly one of the best and certainly one of the most personable. I love dining at Catalan anytime and especially for a special event like the first of the 2010 “Eat Local” dinners, on this occasion celebrating the citrus crop.

While Chris served up his take on the theme (using a variety of “barnyard animals”), Bobby Huegel of Anvil served up a slew of spectacular cocktails, increasing both depth and intensity with each course. Bobby warned those accustomed to “sweet drinks” that they were in for a ride in the opposite direction and indeed we were, though I won’t spend much time elaborating on the cocktails since I’m barely able to take more than a sip or two lest I would never make it through dinner. My tablemates enjoyed the remainders as a bonus!

Now, about the menu … we began with a “Crudo of Vermillion Snapper” where the snapper was poached in a Meyer-lemon-infused oil. I adore Meyer lemons – sweeter than a regular lemon with a complex flavor and aroma hinting of sweet lime, lemon and mandarin. This perfectly complimented the fresh fish without overpowering it and the texture was sublime accented by the radish. It was served with a Campari Spritz garnished with rosemary and Meyer lemon which was delightful and complimented the dish splendidly.

The next course was a Gulf Shrimp and Citrus Salad with local Tomato and Radish. The shrimp were huge, fresh and perfectly cooked along with small chunks of juicy grapefruit, tomato and a subtle dressing that didn’t overwhelm the dish. When shrimp are this fresh and prepared so flawlessly, I’m reminded what a completely different experience it is compared to shrimp that aren’t as fresh or that have been shamefully overcooked, as is so often the case. I want shrimp this good every time I eat shrimp. In fact, I think I could live off of these shrimp. The paired cocktail for this course was a Tequila and Chile cocktail (including a whole Serrano pepper as a garnish) – whoo!

Moving forward to the next course, we enjoyed a “Choucroute of Rabbit” with a “burnt citrus” sauce, served family-style. The bunnies came from the hill country and they were mighty tender and tasty in their light sauce (somehow caramel-y and tangy all at once) alongside farm-fresh carrots. The cocktail pairing came in punch bowls for each table, filled with a spicy Appleton rum-based punch … yummy.

With the next course things got serious … Duck Confit, Poached Duck Egg and a Buttermilk Biscuit. The dish was a nod to Chris’ grandmother who had passed away that very day. Guests raised their glasses to her – and to all grandmothers - who have provided us with such vivid and wonderful memories of food. I certainly thought about my own grandmother in that moment and the homemade buttermilk biscuits she made twice a day, every day – God bless her. But we never ate biscuits like this … wow … especially once the yolk from the duck egg was mixed in with the confit … this took biscuits and gravy to a level I’ve never known. Paired with a “Martinez” cocktail – an original gin martini of sorts – made with bitters and vermouth. I’ve never tasted anything like it and everyone at my table went crazy for it.

Moving through the barnyard, we arrived at the Duck “a la orange” course – gorgeous slices of juicy duck breast with a fantastic, intense smoky-orange glaze on the side served with a “Pig’s Nose Old Fashioned”, which is a scotch-cocktail of sorts – once again Bobby hit with the perfect cocktail pairing for the duck.

For the dessert course (yes, I made sure I saved room) was a ridiculously delicious "fried pie" filled with lemon curd and topped with a sauce of first-of-the-season strawberries. It was served with a lovely warm spiked cider. Again I was reminded of my grandmother who used to make fried pies (usually pineapple) so I had to ask ... what gave this crust such incredible flavor and texture? "Duck fat", Chris said proudly. Go figure, I thought ... no wonder I adore this guy.

Chris and Bobby spoke before each course with humor and reverence for all that had been done to create this very special meal. I’m told these dinners will take place at Catalan every few months showcasing the best of the season from the best local sources and I for one hate the thought of missing any of them.

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