Thursday, May 8, 2008

Beard House dining and drinking with the folks from Disney

May 7
I was drafted by our executive food editor Pam Parseghian to go to dinner at the James Beard House in her stead due to pages still needing to be closed. I was more than happy to agree to go to the Beard House again and this particular evening was showcasing both the food and wine with chefs and Master Sommeliers from Disneyland Resorts as well as Walt Disney World.

It was a Disney evening with tables designated with the name of Disney characters. Guests received pins of characters in case they forgot which table they were seated at. I got a Minnie pin. My face fell a little as I jealously stared at someone else's Winnie the Pooh pin. I love Winnie the Pooh...

The servers wore black and white vests with images of Mickey and the gang, which at the end of the evening during dessert mysteriously changed to a color-splashed version. Even the flower centerpieces on the table had little glowing lights in them that made it look like Tinkerbell was trying to hide in the flower vase and spy on us eating.

"After running after hyperactive kids all day, I'm sure the parents would like to relax with a glass of something," I quipped to Michael Jordan, master sommelier for Disneyland. Wow...wait, that came out wrong and mean and I totally didn't mean for it to sound like that. Let me try that again:

A Disneyland or Disney World trip is basically a dream come true for a kid, but don't forget that kids don't go on trips to Disney alone. Or for that matter, adults may make return trips for nostalgia. It's a family event. Families plan and save months in advance to visit. So why not have a food and drink experience to go with that high expectation? Let's put it this way. If after looking forward to living the princess fantasy in a Princess Diaries Suite or meeting Mickey at a place that's got castles and was built on the foundation of fairy tales, and as a mom and/or dad you've just taken out a couple of vacation days out of your busy schedule...a soggy third-rate corn dog isn't going to cut it (not that there's anything wrong with corn dogs, I inhale the things).

As Dieter Hannig, vice president for Walt Disney World food and beverage new concepts, told everyone at the Beard House that evening "I'm in the storytelling business." If someone is visiting Disneyland or Disney World expecting a magical experience, well good service, food and drink should be part of that as well.

Michael Jordan, master sommelier for Disneyland, said that adults visiting Disneyland are also more well-traveled and knowledgeable about the varieties of wines out there and are willing to try new wines. The wine program encourages the curious to try out new as well as rare wines through by the glass programs so that guests can sample a bit of the wine rather than commit to a whole bottle that may cost several hundreds of dollars. Jordan explained that with the current state of the dollar a lot of foreign tourists are visiting and purchasing more of the expensive wines.

I was glad to meet Michael as well as John Blazon, master sommelier and manager of wine sales and standards for Walt Disney World. Not being a wine expert I always feel better hearing from people who actually know something about wine rather than fumble around with my lack of eloquence in such matters. John and Michael both explained the pairing choices throughout the evening, and even followed up by walking by tables and answering any questions people had after the introduction of the wines for each course.

For example, the first course of white asparagus "floating islands" with American Sturgeon caviar, morel mushrooms and ramp oil was paired with a Laurent-Perrier, Grand Siecle Brut, Tours-sur-Marne NV. As soon as I took I sip I thought, "This tastes like mushrooms."

When I told Michael this, he said that the "mushroomy" flavor I so bluntly described comes from the presence of botrytis in the grapes used to make the wine, which gives it a more earthy and indeed mushroom-like flavor. The food had plenty of earthy flavors from the asparagus as well as the morels as well as some saltiness from the caviar, so this wine was chosen for its flavors that the two could play nice.

Note: I said "The what-what now?" in my head when Michael first said "bitrytus" and it took me several permutations on Google to find the correct spelling.

And after hearing Michael's description of how the grapes for the Chardonnay (Peter Michael, Chardonnay, Belle Cote, Knights Valley '06) were planted in holes blasted into what was basically rock and volcanic ash I did notice it tasted a bit "ashy" but was surprised at how sweet it was because I figured the hard knock life of the particular vine would made the resulting grape all rough and, well, bitter.

Michael said that this wasn't "sweetness," but sucrosity. The rough life it has sort of concentrates the fruit of the grapes.

"Aaah," I said as I thoughtfully nodded my head.

It was nice having a bit of narration going on with my meal, since my knowledge of wines falls under "Well, this is what it tastes like in my mouth right now," then describing very bluntly what it tastes like in my mouth. Hearing about how the grapes for the wines are grown and what flavors to expect was like having a CliffsNotes, and wine was my "Ulysses" — full of different characters, bold and subtle context and side stories to grasp all carried in the scheme of one person's day, or in a sip in the case of wine.

The evening was closed out with the introduction of a sweet sparkling wine that was making its first US debut at this particular dinner (Magicale, Brachetto, PIemonte DOC NV).

Disney also took the dinner as an opportunity to make several announcements. Dieter Hannig announced a new African concept restaurant to open in about 11 months or so. Chef Christine Weissman mad an announcement about Disney's upcoming 3rd Annual California Food and Wine Fest.

Stuart McGuire, director of beverage sale and standards for Walt Disney World food and beverages, also announced three cocktails from the menu for The Wave, a new restaurant at Disney's Contemporary Resort that's set to open in June.

The cocktails announced:

Antioxidant Cocktail
Finlandia Wild Berries Vodka, Chambord Black Raspberry Liqueur, Bossa Nova Acai Juice with agave, aloe juice, lychee and freshly squeezed lemon juice

Purus Organic Vodka, X-Fusion Organic Mango and Passion Fruit LIqueur, and cranberry juice

Agava Nectar Margarita
Partida Blanco Tequila, organic agave nectar and freshly squeezed lime juice

Food and drink from the dinner:

Hors d'oeuvres
Chef Gloria Tae — Golden Wine Winery at Disney's California Adventure

Sherry-roasted figs with Jamon Iberico and Cabrales

Wild Mushroom Suppli with BRaised Pork and Spicy Pickled Cabbage

Shrimp and Sweat Pea Tartine with Candied Garlic and Lemon Relish

Laurent-Perrier, Grand Siecle Brut,
Tours-sur-Marne NV

First Course
Chef Jens Dahlmann — California Grill at Disney's Contemporary Resort

White Asparagus "Floating Islands" with American Sturgeon Caviar, Morel Mushrooms, and Ramp Oil

Pierre Sparr, Riesling, Schoenenbourg
Grand Cru, Alsace '01

Second Course
Chef Tim Keating — Flying Fish Cafe at Disney's BoardWalk Resort

Fennel Pollen-dusted Wild North Atlantic Turbot with Maine Lobster, Celery Root, Leeks, and FEnnel with Tahitian Vanilla-Hazelnut Emulsion and Montegottero Hazelnut Oil

Peter Michael, Chardonnay, Belle Cote,
Knights Valley '06

Third Course
Chef Andrew Sutton — Napa Rose at Disney's Grand Californian Resort & Spa

Crisp Sonoma Duck Confit with Roasted BAby Spring Vegetables and Porcini Msuhroom Essence

Williams & Selyem, Pinot Noir,
Allen Vineyard, Russian River Valley '05

Fourth Course
Chef Scott Hunnel — Victoria & Albert's at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa

Marcho Farms Veal Tenderloin with Sun Gold Tomatoes and Garlic Roots and Shoots

Podere Le Poggiarelle,
Carmignano DOCG, Tuscany '04

Master Pastry Chef Erich Herbitschek — Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa Bakery

Wild Berry Gateau wrapped in Bittersweet Chocolate with Forest Strawberry Sorbet

Magicale, Brachetto, Piemonte DOC NV


Caramel-Chocolates with Sea Salt, Pate de Fruit, and Lemon Cookies

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Taking PDT's new spring menu out for a spin

May 5

Of all the drinks I tried on PDT's new spring menu, I found myself liking The Rite of Spring very much. It had piqued my interest since Don described it to me at the Rhum Clement event, and I was looking forward to giving it a try. However, a close contender would be the Swiss Mist, which Jim let me try on Friday.

"I'm just here to kill two hours before I go see Iron Man," I reassured Jim when I stopped by PDT on Friday with fellow NRNer Elizabeth Licata. I didn't want them to think I was casing the place. Then again, I kind of totally was since I'd be lying if I said a little part of me wasn't there to find out for sure when the new menu was going to debut. Don had told me the week prior that the ETA was probably sometime around the weekend of May 2, but Jim said it was looking more like Monday would be the day.

So on Monday I flitted out of work at 5:40 pm and rushed on down to PDT. The hostess who greeted me at the phone booth told asked me if I didn't mind waiting a minute or two since the bar was trying to take it slow between people on account of the new menu.

Once I got in I kind of stared at the menu for a couple of minutes. Menu choices are always daunting because I'm terrible with decision making, and there were plenty of interesting-sounding items. The Rhubarbarita caught my eye because of the rhubarb puree...and, well, because it was Cinco de Mayo. The Rhubarbarita is made with Partida Resposado tequila, lemon juice, Grand Marnier, Veloce and the above mentioned rhubarb puree that is sweetened with agave nectar. It was a sweet start, with a bit of body added to the texture of the drink from the rhubarb puree.

If anything, the menu definitely was a show in seasonal ingredients and flavors. The honey liqueur in the Bee's Sip. A hint of berry with raspberry preserves ("until seasonal berries are available") in the Rose.

Also, to go with the light airiness of spring, there was some misting going on with the drinks. The Swiss Mist I tried on Friday is described as a "grapefruit accented silver gin sour" on the menu. Made with Gin, lemon, grapefruit syrup and egg white, the lightly sweet and foamy drink gets a slight spraying of Kubler Swiss absinthe from an atomizer.

Other drinks get a bit of misting too, but the mist goes in the cup before the drink rather than on the drink. For example, the Kin Kan (Beefeater Gin, lemon juice, kumquat syrup, St. Germain), gets a spritzing of St. Germain.

The the next drink I had to try the Rites of Spring. As someone who finds a swig of sour dill pickle juice straight from the jar or spicy tangy pickled kimchi brine with some cold noodles most refreshing a hot summer day, the mention of "pickled ramp brine" had me salivating as I read the description on the menu. Pickled ramp brine from Momofuku Ssam Bar, Tanqueray Gin, and Vya dry vermouth combine to create a surprisingly not all that sour drink. More clean on the tongue for a dirty martini, the tangy pickled ramp flavor mostly kicks in as an aftertaste.

"It's not as sour as I thought," I told Don.

"Did you try the pickled ramp brine on its own? It's pretty intense," Don said.

I asked for a taste and it was good. Sour, but sweet with a bit of heat. I probably could've just had a glass of that all evening long. Keep in mind though, that the person writing this enjoys eating lemons and limes (besides the pickle juice drinking mentioned above). My tooth enamel cries for me.

"How's the new menu going?" I asked Don who was going through the ingredients with a checklist as Jim informed him of inconsistencies on the behind-the-bar recipes list.

"Ask me again in four hours," he answered.

I tried The Mariner next mostly because I found the cardamom syrup intriguing. Again, I was surprised by how light the flavors were, even with the combination of Compass Box Oak Cross malt scotch whisky, pineapple juice, lemon juice and smoked cardamom syrup.

I tasted the cardamom syrup on its own. You got most of the spicy almost medicinal cardamom-ness (it's a word if I say it is) when you smell it, but when you taste it, that's where the smokiness hits. If you hold it against the front of your tongue, it gives off a slight burn as well.

The interesting thing was, no matter how complex, everything still managed to be light and not overbearing. Cardamom? In a syrup? Smoked? with malt scotch whisky AND pineapple juice?"

It's definitely smoky and a little sweet, but on the whole The Mariner isn't weighed down as a cocktail.

Even spirits-based drinks like the Rites of Spring, manage to come across as airy spring drinks. I asked Jim what I should try next and he mixed me a Hotel D'Alsace, which again, sort of took me aback at how light and sweet it was. Bushmills, Cointreau, Benedictine and rosemary came together as a slightly sugared herbal drink. Jim said that people found this drink to be their new favorite, but it wasn't going to unseating Rites of Spring or the Swiss Mist for me anytime soon, but that's just me.

It came down to the Bee's Sip (Chamomile Infused Barsol Pisco, Masumi "Okuden Kantsukuri" junmai sake and Barenjager Honey Liqueur) or The Kin Kan for me to choose for the last drink, and I went with the former. And the name fits. If bees drank alcohol this is what they'd probably drink. It tasted and smelled like honey and flowers.

I did make it a point to try the new addition to the food menu, The Wylie Dog. A deep fried Crif Dog with tomato molasses, shredded lettuce, dried onions and...battered deep fried mayo. Let me let that sink in with you for a moment.


OK, so when it came out I thought to myself, "Does that bun have two hot dogs on it?" If you think so, no, you're mistaken. And don't feel bad, I seriously thought that too. That second "hot dog" is the deep fried mayo. A stick of deep fried mayo. I like to think I'm not too shabby when it comes to describing things, but the only notes I have from last night about The Wylie Dog is, and I quote verbatim, "Deep fried mayo is EFFIN' delicious." Apparently I managed to lose all sense of using profanity to this hot dog.

(Download the full Spring Menu from PDT, here.)