Thursday, December 27, 2007

Adventures in secret dining

As I cautiously rang the bell at a building I'd never been to I was at the height of my paranoia. On the way over I fretted over whether or not I had the correct address and I wasn't really sure who to contact if I did write down the wrong address...what if I was walking into some insane kidnapping scheme? All this for a dinner and cocktail pairing?

I had been receiving correspondences from Bite Club for a while, but a recent notice said that there would be a dinner paired with cocktails by Joaquin Simo of Death & Co. made it me decide, "Well, maybe it's time I attended one of these secret dining club dinners."

When I entered the apartment that had been temporarily turned into a small dining area I was instantly struck by apartment envy. It seems to be a condition of New York living. It wasn't palatial like a Trump condo, it was just normal-sized. Seriously, that's all I ask for in an apartment. Normal-sized. Though I guess that's pretty subjective...

I managed to get over the apartment envy long enough to overhear a woman explain that she was with Italian Marie Claire and an older gentleman with her snapped away on his professional-looking camera. To be honest half of me was pretty scared about the possibility of being interviewed as an attendee. I wasn't sure what protocol was in giving statements since I was there as a reporter in some sense and I didn't want to commit some weird imagined faux pas in my head. However, when she ignored me to talk with other guests, what ego I had did feel a bit wounded. I was hoping I looked important or cool enough to talk to whether or not it was true.

As I scanned the room I spotted what I thought was a familiar face, but thanks to my ineptitude at recognizing faces and deteriorating eyesight it took me a while for me to recognize that it was my colleague Elizabeth Licata who was with her husband Nick Vogt. The two had been married since June and, may I for a moment drop all reporter pretense to say they totally made a cute and well-dressed couple? Seriously? Totally cute. But back to being professional...

It was a total coincidence to run into them. I hadn't discussed about attending this particular dinner and asked them if they were regulars to this club. Elizabeth answered that it was their first time attending and was sort of a Christmas gift to each other, which I thought was a great gift idea.

As I scanned the menu I saw that the five course meal featured marrow, lobster, sweetbreads, foie gras and chocolate. I was very curious as to what drinks would be matched with these food items. I dove head first into the pairings and tried to taste as much as possible each of the dishes and cocktails, but to be honest, five courses with five drinks (not counting the Blood Smoke and Sand Joaquin served before dinner) began taking a toll on me.

I guess I really should have tried approaching it more from a "tasting" standpoint, yet stubbornly I tried to be pretty good about drinking most of the drinks at the beginning. Waste not, want not as they say, but towards the end I was pretty full from the food and the drink. I could say a lot about what I tasted. For example, when I drank the Blood Smoke and Sand, the first thing to hit me was how smoky it tasted. I commented to Elizabeth about whether or not there was some liquid smoke in the drink because it was so pronounced, but later I was to find out that it was the extra peaty and smoky scotch that was used that was packing that punch. I found the choice of pairing the Summer Shack with the lobster dish interesting because of the drink's strong lemon/citrus aroma. It was pretty logical to me since it seemed like a drink that could play with the seafood flavor of the lobster, while playing in contrast with the creaminess of the dish and the rich and subtle black truffle pastry accompanying the cream of lobster. This was good and all, but I wanted to hear about the drinks from the source.

After the dinner, the place began to clear out and it started to look more and more like an apartment again. People were clearing up in the kitchen, and diners were grabbing their coats and heading out, thanking for the meal. I found Joaquin in the kitchen with a drink in his hand and leaning next to a fridge. He said good bye and thanked the dinner guests who complimented him as they filed out. It felt more like the end of a holiday party at a friends house than an intense study in complex cocktails served with an elaborate food menu. I felt like I was having a conversation with a friend of a friend I had been introduced to when I cornered Joaquin.

Curiosity got the best of me and I told Joaquin that I noticed him shaking the drinks in an interesting way.

"Were you doing a hard shake?" I asked. He replied that the odd shaking was more a result of him having to use chipped ice that I saw him scoop from a cooler stationed next to the long table he had set up as his station.

I also asked about the demerara syrup that was listed for some of the drinks. I confirmed with Joaquin that it was simple syrup made with demerara sugar. An option he chose to give the drinks a richer flavor to round things out.

We made small chit-chat about cocktails and how the cocktail scene can be a close-knit one. I also prodded a bit about the current state of affairs with Death & Co. and the State Liquor Authority. There had been closings related to noise complaints in 2007. In short, it's complicated and an ongoing issue, but the place is open again and trying its best to be squeaky clean in an attempt to show that they are good citizens, and if possible, avoid further attention from the SLA. It's running under the schedule of a previous liquor license, so the place is open from 6pm to midnight. There were more questions about how he worked out the pairings, but I didn't want to be rude about taking up too much of his time since it looked like there was still a lot of cleaning up to do. I asked him if I could follow up by phone. I was relieved that he obliged me by letting me call him up on Wednesday even though he was spending time with family.

Joaquin said that he got the menu from Bite Club a week or week and half ahead of time. The thing that I kept wondering about was how one would go about doing cocktail pairings. Cocktail in and of themselves seem like a food item with their own recipes of ingredients.

"There’s a couple a different approaches. One is to try mimic the flavors that are in the food. So if the food's heavy and rich, I might go with something heavy and rich. Or I might do the opposite. Both can work," Joaquin said.

"For the most part, I was trying to reference the flavor that I found or at least a certain sense of what the dish was about."

The first course of bone marrow was paired with a cocktail called the Loosey Goosey that had a foie-gras infused bourbon for providing a mouth feel of richness in the mouth.

When I saw it on the menu that night I instantly thought of chunks of foie gras sitting in bourbon, and that definitely did not seem right.

"It uses a technique called fat washing," Jaoquin explained, dispelling the disturbing and unappetizing image I had of the foie gras floating in jars like some kind of specimen. In the fat washing technique, the fat is rendered from the foie gras and allowed steep with the bourbon at room temperature. Afterwards, it's blast chilled and then strained through a series of sieves and filters. "You’re not going to get a greasy mouth feel."

Jaoquin explained he wanted something big to go with the bone marrow and a week before the dinner had the good luck of sampling some of the infused bourbon at PDT, where it was created by Don Lee. He knew instantly he needed some of it for the dinner.

And speaking of foie gras, the particular food item made another appearance later on in the dinner, but was paired with Joaquin's Black Market Brandy. The dish had pear poached with mulling spice, ginger snap, cacao nibs and star anise. The cocktail echoed some of these flavors with the spiced tea used to infuse the sweet vermouth, and also with the chocolate bitters and fruitiness found in the brandy.

"It’s always kind of a crap shoot," Joaquin said about trying to pair cocktails with food, but added, "I think they did work...they worked out very well. When they present these really complex menus it gives you a lot to work play with one lesser flavor that’s found in the dish and accentuate it in the glass so people can recognize it."

Usually a spirit or new liqueur with an interesting flavor inspires Joaquin to come up with new drinks.

"When there's a really lovely flavor, I think 'Wow what could I do with this?'"

For example with a new rum he might try it out with a classic rum drink to see how it behaves. A technique he uses often, playing with proportions of classic drinks to see what else can come out of it.

I made a promise to try and stop by in the new year since around 30 new drinks were added to the menu.

"...30??" I asked again to make sure I heard right.

"It's always a challenge when we put out a new menu," Joaquin said. "Then you work a couple of shifts and get the hang of it."

A self-professed foodie, Joaquin said about dinner pairings, "It’s fun. One of the drinks on the list came from one of the first dinner's always nice to have impetus with the food where you’re automatically getting a base flavor profile."

Dec. 22 Bite Club Dinner

Loose Goosey
Foie gras-infused Bourbon Rittenhouse Rye, Carpano Antica, dry Sherry, Champagne, Demerara syrup, Orange bitters, orange twist

parsley shallot salad, sweet garlic jam, toast points

Summer Shack
Plymouth Gin, Lillet Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, St. Germain, Orange Bitters, Lemon twist

cream of lobster, black truffle pastry

Solera Sidecar
Courvoisier Cognac, Ooroso sherry, Lazzaroni Amaretto, fresh lemon juice

JG raisin caper emulsion, cauliflower puree

Black Market Brandy
Courvoisier Cognac, Laird's bonded Applejack, Market Spice tea-infused Sweet Vermouth, Angostura bitters, Bittermens chocolate bitters

Foie Gras
Muling spice poached pear, ginger snap, cacao nibs, star anise caramel

New york Flip
Sazerac 6 year rye, Tawny Port, Demerara syrup, Heavy Cream, egg yolk, freshly grated nutmeg

Cayenne infused Neuhaus 85% chocolate, frosted habanero pepper

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