PBF&W Aftertaste: A Grand Tastings Debrief, Including a Vegetarian's Meaty Saturday
May 3, 2011
Between the bacon-wrapped bacon and the bacon chocolate chip cookies, the foie gras pot stickers and the foie gras soup…
…the Grand Tastings threw a whole lot of whoah-now flavor at the thousands that thronged the so-big-it's-barely-legal Lexus Grand Tasting tent Saturday and Sunday.
And that was just the food—there were salt tasting bars (black truffle! Vintage merlot! Thai ginger! Cypress flake!) and VIP Krug lounges, fashion shockers and top Bay Area underground mixologist-of-another-medium DJ Vinroc (above).
Here's a look at some tidbits from the festivities:
Maybe it's the oncoming California ban on the fattened duck/goose liver, but foie was more prominent than in any year previous. Peter Armellino (Plumed Horse) stuffed it in delicious pot stickers over a beautiful bed of spring peas. Michael Ginor of Hudson Valley Foie Gras laid it down with tender cured meat in two permutations (above) and one chef even crafted a foie gras soup with duck proscuitto on top. The only thing that generated more buzz than that soup: the bacon-wrapped bacon from Ray Garcia, of Santa Monica's Fig.
Pebble Beach's own Clint Wilson made waves with his buttered popcorn bisque, and Aqua Terra Culinary's Dory Ford, with an assist from Andy Boy Farms, crafted a stunner with his fennel orange sorbet in chilled cactus pear soup. Crazy creativity can be habit-forming.
Mindy Segal (of Mindy's Hot Chocolate in Chicago), meanwhile, shared bacon-chocolate chip cookies and chocolate soda in little test tubes, enough to convert savory addicts into sudden sweet-tooths.
All told, the robust offerings are certainly something to marvel at, but with an awareness of the waste they are creating can also make one shudder. Weekly food writer David Schmalz, who is also a recycling coordinator for the Conservation Corps, had this observation, which I can only corroborate.
"The waste management plan for the event appeared simple: trash it," he e-mailed me. "Though there was some back-of-house recycling of cardboard, and it was possible to get a cocktail poured into a compostable, bioplastic cup—there were no compost bins in sight at the GTs, effectively sentencing the cup to a long, useless life at the nearest landfill.
"While the implementation of a three-bin system (recyclables, compostables and landfill) is labor intensive and somewhat costly, a cutting edge culinary event on the green-minded California coast would do well to step up their efforts by ensuring that there at least is front-of-house recycling alongside the trash."
I called Pebble Beach Company compost pointman Thomas Quattlebaum and he acknowledged the absence of sorted receptacles and cited difficulties in getting all the visiting chefs educated given the tight time tables and general chaos. The small morsels of good news: Food waste was rerouted for events at Pebble venues like the Beach and Tennis Club, and he's eager to have a year to prepare a more mindful operation next year.
It's always good to see the big names bring their A-games, with inventive combos that push the creative threshold or throwback treatments that demand a discerning touch. Tim Cushman (of Boston's o ya) gave ahi a strange bedfellow with truffle shavings, but the earthiness that emerged with the help of a little soy came off incredibly. Shawn McClain (of Sage) dropped jaws with a duck-fat roasted beet.
Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, meanwhile, served the best squid I've seen in some time with his angry octopus spiked with Frank's Red Hot.
Happily some of the most inspired tastes came from Monterey County places, which means we won't have to wait 363 days for another nibble. New member of the Coastal Luxury Management-Pebble Beach Food & Wine family Levi Mezick, new chef at Restaurant 1833, unveiled a beautiful black cod confit with fennel, lemon verbena, a perfectly spicy slice of serrano pepper and shellfish emulsion. The C restaurant + bar's Jerry Regester broke out a surf-and-turf of sorts with his pork shank terrine with fresh crab on top.
"It will be on the menu," he told me. "As of right now."
Sure, there were plenty of so-2010 fedoras and skyscraper heels, but the real fashion was more subtly stylish. The two best entries from Sunday: an artichoke tattoo (foodie fashion at its finest)...
and the webbed arm ink-giant lollipop combo from this young tastemaker.
And now, a special presentation...
One reason writers hate editors: They do things like suggest to a longtime vegetarian freelancer that he take the day off from the meat-free mandate and write about the one-day odyssey with the bloody and once-breathing.
That's what happened with aforementioned Weekly food scribe Schmalz, who filed this in response to the assignment. Let the odyssey of a first-time Grand Taster, and a first-time-in-a-long-time meat eater, unfold from here:
For those that favor plants on their palettes, the Grand Tastings represent something of a challenge: Go hungry and risk becoming embarrassingly intoxicated, or do as the Romans do and man up and eat some meat. Given that this reporter has done so only sparingly in the last decade, settling on the latter option at Saturday’s Grand Tasting was not a decision that was come to lightly, but if ever there is a place to check one’s dietary restrictions at the door, it’s Pebble Beach Food & Wine.
The initial dish that inspired a breaking of the vows was Tim Cushman’s ahi tataki, a rare slice of tuna in a light sauce of ponzu and soy, and garnished with pickled onion, toasted garlic, chives, shaved Japanese leeks and a few divine slices of black truffle. Cushman, the chef owner of o ya in Boston, showed true mastery of the tataki style (a hot flash of quick searing that’s the preferred way for most Japanese to eat their darker fish), and the dish was a winning beginning for the temporarily-converted herbivore.
The floodgates open, a parade of meats into the mouth ensued speedily. A little sandwich of braised pork, bacon-fig jam, pickled fiddle and micro-red mustard from Justin Sledge of Calistoga Ranch was deliciously tender, sweet, and practically melted in the mouth.
Josh Drage, executive chef at The Ranch at Rock Creek in Montana, brought God’s-country game to his braised elk with putanesca sauce, parmesan and sprig of Italian parsley.
At this point, no animal was safe from my belly, and chef Tim Love, “the unofficial mayor Fort Worth,” brought new species to bear with his spicy tamale filled with rabbit and rattlesnake (the last time I ate meat, it turns out, was blackened snake in rural Cambodia).
Stephen Pyles, considered a founding father of Southwestern cuisine, came equally strong with some braised beef ribs on a tamale base and garnished with the light, sweet and spicy crunch of jicama and cilantro.
The final stop on the top of the food chain came with Spanish Bay’s own Sean Shelton, who served up some enticingly juicy lamb sausage topped with a cannellini bean puree and mint sauce that, if served with champagne, would make one of the most decadent breakfasts known to mankind.
Stuffed, a little buzzed, and still trying to make sense of what exactly I had just done to my body, there seemed no better way to cap my first-ever Grand Tasting than with the Old Faithful of the food and wine world: a Stella Artois beer.
If a vegetarian ever tells you that eating a mountain of meat will not wreak havoc on their system, they are either lying or ignorant. Sunday morning, I found myself in the latter camp, and when I finally found the power to stand on my feet, I had a much stronger desire to be a grazing animal than to eat one. It was clear that I must return to my flesh-free ways, and what I couldn’t get at Sunday’s tasting in the way of greens, I figured, would be made up for with grapes.
Things started swimmingly with some sweet and succulent berries from Driscoll’s (I practically inhaled them) and got even better with my first sip of bubbly. Two glasses of Moet & Chandon later, the reporter once again felt human and fleet of foot.
Justin Sledge, who cooked up some delicious braised pork belly on Saturday, served up its antidote on Sunday with an antioxidant-rich blueberry and white grape gazpacho topped with micro-greens. Chased with some of Calistoga Ranch’s fine chardonnay, there was suddenly hope that the day could be won with intestines intact.
Strolling for another nice soup to restore vital nutrients, fate brought me to Roland Passot of La Folie, where instead of potage parmentier I encountered a foie gras soup garnished with duck prosciutto, the soup equivalent of bacon-wrapped bacon.
The Marin-based Rouge et Noir, the oldest continually operating cheese manufacturer in North America, delivered some precious meat-free sustenance with an impressive spread of soft and semi-soft cheeses, a favorite being the breakfast cheese, a rind-less brie that is aged for only 3 days.
Clint Wilson from The Lodge at Pebble Beach created one of the most fun and innovative dishes of the weekend with his hot butter popcorn bisque, a rich ambrosia that brought out the best of both ingredients and truly mimicked what it might be like to drink buttered popcorn.
Suitably satiated enough to stay sober, it was time to sample wines across the color spectrum.
Notable interactions occurred with punk rock-inspired winemaker Christian Tietje of Cypher Winery in Paso Robles, who focuses on alternative reds that he gives names like Anarchy and Heretic. Of his resistance to growing Cabs or Pinot, Tietje says, “There’s more to red wines than the missionary position.”
The gregarious Paul Chevalier of Chateau D’Esclans was one of the hardest working men in the tent, and when he wasn’t pouring a glass of the refreshingly drinkable Whispering Angel rose, he was busy proclaiming, “In St. Tropez, we drink rose.”
The day came to an uplifting climax at the Gruet table, a New Mexico-based maker of sparkling wines that a fellow taster hailed as the best value on the market, and it occurred to me that to start, and finish the afternoon with champagne felt something like a bubble-bath for the soul.