Friday, October 31, 2008

Special Foodventure #84: Guest Chefs Dinner at the Athenaeum (Pasadena)

Sometimes, it's good to be in the "in" crowd, or at least know someone who can get you in. That certainly was the case this past Tuesday, when Gourmet Pigs was my ticket in for the guest chefs dinner at CalTech's club The Athenaeum, open only to members and their +1s (or in my case, +3 -- since I brought along two other friends for this fantastic-sounding foodventure). The price of $110 seems steep at first, but considering it's five wine-paired courses plus a reception with complimentary cocktails and hors d'oeuvres and tax + gratuity already included, didn't seem so bad afterall so we're definitely down for that!
The evening started off with a lovely reception in the club, where caterers were busy serving up complementary drinks and hors d'oeuvres and whisking away empty plates and cups. GP and I arrived early and managed to snagged a few sips and nibbles, including the pictured raspberry champagne cocktail and cajun shrimp in a sweet-and-sour cocktail sauce, which was interesting. During the reception, the guest chefs came out and mingled a little with the crowds, which was nice.
My +1s arrived in a few minutes and we shortly escorted into their lovely courtyard with stunning place settings, with classy chargers too! But the my eyes absolutely blown away by their centerpiece . . .
. . . made almost entirely of chocolate and garnished with assorted truffles and flower petals, a creation of guest chef Bruno Marcy from C... is for Chocolate and Sara J. Pastries & Cakes. I can already tell I'm going to have to a hard time through the meal, wondering if I can just sneak a bite between courses. Alas, I behaved and managed to keep my fingers off until the end.
After mingling with our table mates and bread service (pretty good, particularly the pretzel roll,) we were served our amuse -- prepared by Craig Strong, Chef de Cuisine of Pasadena's Langham Hotel (formerly the Ritz-Carlton) -- scallop with chicken skin crust with fig, sunchoke puree, fava beans and chicken jus. Delicious and intriguing, the exterior tasted exactly like a fried chicken crust, but quickly yielding to the firm-yet-creamy flesh of the scallop. The fresh flavors of the sunchoke and fava bean purees added a pleasant "green" dimension to this dish. The course was paired with a 2007 German Gunderloch "Jean Baptiste" Kabinett Riesling that was pleasant on its own, particularly the stone fruits and apple nose, but was a bit too sweet when matched against the scallops.
Next came Christopher Eme's (from Ortolan) lobster spaghetti, with a lobster paté wrapped in spaghetti and topped with a herbed caviar and sea urchin sauce with fall vegetables and microgreens. I love the presentation, and immediately deemed it the "Italian Sushi Roll" from the way it's presented. The sauce was rich yet subtle, not being too heavy or overpowering with the caviar and urchin flavors, allowing the natural sweetness of the lobster to come through. This course was also better wine paired with a 2006 Flowers Chardonnay from Sonoma, which had great mineral and citrus notes to cut into the fattiness of this dish.
Following that was a salad of fall beets and a confit of fennel with spiced walnut crusted chevre and vanilla bean vinaigrette prepared by Nigel Didcock from The Granite Club in Toronto. Very light and balanced and a refreshing break from the heavy courses. I love the sweetness of the red and yellow beet slices paired against the earthy fennel and the creamy and tart chevre cheese, and that fried beet chip was just icing on the cake! Equally refreshing was the well-paired 2007 Provence Rosé from Les Domaniers de Puits Mouret, with a nice copper-salmon color and a light, clean finish and fragrant ripe berry bouquet.
The main course was made by Athenaeum's Kevin Isaacson, and was an impressive pumpkin seed-crusted suckling veal rack with wild mushroom marrow stuffing, truffled cognac sauce and black truffle shavings. Feels so wrong (we're talking calves that haven't even weaned yet!) yet tastes so right... tender succulent veal racks that pretty much falls right off the bone mixed with a savory and earthy sauce, intensified even more by the shavings. The mushroom-and-marrow stuffing was almost as woodsy and rich, making it a wonderful accompaniment to the veal. The pairing here was also pretty spot-on, with a White Rock 2004 Napa "Laureate" Cabernet Sauvignon that has a full body, dark fruit tones and rounded tannins.
Finally, dessert: Chef Marcy's honey and light chocolate mousse with black pepper apricots. I didn't pick up the last flavors (unless it meant the dots and strokes of sauce on the plate) but I love the mousse combos, rich in flavor yet fluffy and almost cloud-like in texture. I savored every bite, letting the sweet chocolate-covered pillows slowly dissolve in my mouth. The pairing, Quady's 2006 "Elysium" Black Muscat, was OK -- a bit too rich for this light dessert course and its lychee and rose perfume is wonderful, but competes and distracts that of the dessert. It was a good dessert wine when enjoyed separately, though -- but probably a better pairing for a baked fruity dessert.

Of course, my table guests and I wasted no time digging into the centerpiece. The bittersweet sculpture was great (and actually was better for the wine than the mousse) and I also enjoyed a wonderful thyme truffle, which I love since it kept my tastebuds curious and engaged as I analyzed the flavors. As we're enjoying our chocolates and coffee service, the chefs came by and made their rounds to the table, and we held no words back giving our praises and grilling them with questions ("was that really chicken skin?" "how long did it take you to create the centerpieces?") But like all other good things, this came to an end and we parted ways around 11 p.m. (did we really spend almost 4 hours here? it felt more like 2!) But definitely great memories and I look forward to bugging Gourmet Pigs for another special meal here again :)

The Athenaeum at CalTech
551 S. Hill Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91106
(626)395-8200
http://athenaeum.caltech.edu/

5 comments:

burumun said...

Nice post! I'm glad you enjoyed it, it was great having you there. I'll def let you know about other special events here ;)

Aaron said...

Sounds like a great experience. It's cool that you got to talk with the chefs afterwards. I think that always makes the night

Exile Kiss said...

Hi H.C.,

Nice review! It looks like you had a great time at this private event. The Veal looks especially good. :)

Khoi said...

Ahhh... memories and good eats relived. Great post.

We had a fantastic time, thanks again for the invite and for many future ones to come!

H. C. said...

burumun, Thank you for having all of us there! Def. keep in touch about any other cool events there.

Aaron & exile, It was a great event indeed; not that private anymore now that you know who to bug... err... I mean ask ;)

Khoi, Cheers to that and can't wait for our next foodventure!

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