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Saturday, April 17, 2004

Of Craft and Monster

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At Craft last night with Mr.and Mrs. P., Jaybee and his wife, and the lovely Vanessa. I had already expected that going to Craft with Mr.P would be an experience, and it certainly was. The flurry of activities around our table was dizzying, as it was evident that Craft knew what was expected of them by their number one customer, and delivered, beautifully.

I arrived, fashionably late, again, when everyone was already seated, my patient waiter holding the chair while I and the others at table exchanged a round of kiss-kiss and pleasantry. By the time I finally sat down my glass was filled with a lovely bubbly, Vilmart's *Coeur du Cuvee* 1996, that Vanessa brought for us.

A waitress appeared beside Mr.P, asking him in a politely hushed tone if he would like to have the chef cook for him. She also informed us of the specials of the night, a large lobster flown in fresh from Perth, Australia. A couple of nods around the table and the baby was ours.

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Before long, a long line of runners emerged from the kitchen, heading directly at our table. They were carrying what could have been an entire meal for all six of us, but in fact was only the first course. Everything here is served family style, so the serving platters were arranged neatly across the table. There were cubes of raw tuna, lightly dressed in citrus vinaigrette, sitting atop ribbons of cucumbers, thin slices of succulent raw Yellow Tail, cured wild salmon, Tasmanian-something fish, what appeared to be thin slices of octopus “terrine”, beetroots salad (my nemesis!), and a very light salad of fresh baby arugula. Everything but the beetroots (apparently the Food God continues to muck with me) was perfect.

The nice waitress came by with yet another bottle of champagne, this time a Jacques Sellose Rosé, selected by our Vanessa again. This one was even lovelier than the first, drier and perfect with the light and refreshing first course. Also opened was a bottle of white burgundy, 1990 Leflaive Clavoillon.

Another long line of runner emerged again as soon as we put our forks down after the first course. Again, the food could almost have fed all of us, but, alas, they were only the second course. (Dear Vanessa had warned me earlier in the day to come hungry, very hungry. I am forever in her debt.) There were paté de campagne, a rustic and robust country paté, served with a healthy dollop of intense mustard, a delicate foie gras terrine served with toasted brioche, a fresh and crunchy endive and walnut salad, shredded celeriac with chives, and chickpea salad. The paté de campagne was just a tad too salty, but the healthy heap of mustard helped to save it. I found the foie gras terrine a little bit too loose in texture and heavier on the cognac than my taste. Everyone else liked it though. Foie gras is such as delicate thing in itself that I prefer them as lightly cooked or dressed as possible, which could perhaps explained my distaste of the assertive cognac taste in this one.

Suddenly, a monster appeared beside me, almost knocking the fork off my little hand. It was the lobster tail, perfectly cooked and heavily perfumed with beurre noisette, presented for our inspection before the chef filet and served it. That baby must have been at least a foot long.

Another long line emerged barely a few minutes later, this time bearing our third course. The star of this was, but of course, the lobster, filet and arranged flat on a copper gratin, around a mound thyme and tarragon, served with a small copper pot of clarified butter. There was also a platter of diver's scallops, simply seared and unadorned. On the side were sautéed swiss chard and wild mushrooms. The lobsters were absolutely fresh and tender, if a bit oversalted. The scallops, on the other hand, were simply perfect.

I was contemplating giving up by the end of this course, but the meat course was yet to come, and when it arrived, my resolve melted away faster than you can say pomme purée!

The main meat dish was a "cap" of Wagyu prime rib, the meat from the top layer of the rib's eye cut, or so I was told. The Wagyu was not as meltingly soft as the Japanese Kobe beef, but it was extremely tender and flavorful in its own right, albeit a bit too salty. There were also two Staub cocottes of short ribs at each end of the table. The short ribs were braised until it evaporated (instead of melted) as it touched my tongue. On the side was some pomme purée, a very close, if not yet quite the same, rendition of Robuchon's famous potatoes. There were also morels and sautéed brussels sprouts.

Jaybee, for the occasion, brought a bottle of 1971 Pichon Lalande that has been laying around in his cellar since 1975. The bottle was impressively dusted, the label faded, brown, and even a tad moldy. Impressive indeed, I am ever so obliged. As this bottle was being poured, Mr.P. told our waitress to hold the last bottle of the 88 Jamet Côte Rôtie that he brought for the meal as none of us could have possibly handled any more than what had already been opened.

After we were finally done with the savory part of the meal, Mr.P was so full he had to stand up to let gravity helped some of the food down a bit, to make room for the desserts yet to come. He also patted me on the back for keeping up my “bottomless Pim” reputation. I must say that Vanessa, who was every bit as petite, if not more so, than I, kept up quite impressively as well.

Oh dear, I've just realized I haven't even begun to talk desserts yet. True to style, the desserts here were just as over the top as the other courses. Small shot glasses of passion fruit gelee with tapioca cream arrived to clean our palate before the proper dessert course began their further assault on our bodies. There were Chocolate Soufflé with lemon-verbena crème anglaise, Sticky Toffee Pudding, Pain Perdu, served with a pitcher of caramel sauce and chocolate sauce on the side, freshly made donuts, dusted in sugar and dipped in chocolate ganache, and six flavors of sorbetti and gelati. They were all terrific, especially the eggy pain perdu and the green apple sorbet.

I had a beautifully pulled shot of espresso to finish the meal. I was mostly happy with everything, with an exception of the heavy-handedness in the salting department. Some were so salty they were trying even for my normally salt-happy palate.

I was barely conscious when I said goodnight to the delightful company. Mr. and Mrs. P hailed me a cab and kindly had me installed safely in the back seat, heading back to my hotel in Midtown. This week has been heavy on the senses, and I haven't even made it out to London yet. Dear me!

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