Molecular Gastronomy meets Covenant Wines at The Kitchen Table – what a wonderful pairing indeed

Some 5 years ago I was watching an episode of The Food Network’s Iron Chef and the chefs started using some high tech gear to create dishes that were far from your average Julia Child cookery. Instead, the dishes were shaped in manners that were illogical, almost impossible, and downright weird. Welcome to the world of Molecular Gastronomy. I could devote an entire posting or two to this subject, but today’s post is not about me – it is about two extraordinary individuals, Steven Long, the head chef at The Kitchen Table and Jeff Morgan, the head wine maker of Covenant Wines.

As I posted earlier, the event started at 7 PM promptly. We all arrived at 7 PM, and as the proverb states; the early bird gets the worm, was as true as day, as we had the pick of the tables. The first obvious thing to hit you upon seating was the wait staff. Are you kidding me! There must have been 14 wait staff for some 40 or so guests! We were waited on ALL night like royalty. I can remember only once throughout the entire evening, when I raised my hand and there was not a scrum of staff in front of our table. The other aspect that hits you was the mood. The mood was set by the wonderful wait staff, the wine and food enthusiastic guests, while the Pièce de résistance was the dulcet tones and musical abilities of Hot Kugel!

Hot Kugel is a San Francisco Bay area Klezmer ensemble. Their music is a  blend of traditional Klezmer with the musical styles of old time jazz, ethnic folk, theater and American popular music, as well as blues, rock and reggae. Both Suska and Mordecai were playing a mixture of instruments and music that were both wonderful to listen to and wonderful to have in the background, in the nicest way. The beauty of a well executed offensive play in football always leads back to the offensive line, the unsung heroes, that go unnoticed, unless they make a penalty, and then all you hear is boos. When you are at a fine dining experience you want to enjoy the time with friends, family, and new acquaintances, while still being stimulated and entertained. That is exactly what Hot Kugel delivered. When I wanted to tune them in and listen, I was impressed and highly entertained, and when I was talking to my friends, they never imposed; instead they just lifted the atmosphere as a whole. On an aside, when I was listening and tuning in, I could not help but be mesmerized by Suska’s voice that really did not sound like a voice, but rather an instrument. The varied instruments, music abilities, along with music sensibility, and song choices truly did add to the already wonderful mood.

On our table was a basket of, what I can only guess to be, freshly baked beer and rosemary dinner rolls, along with a bowl of lovely olive oil to dip them in. They were quite a treat and a boon for me, as I had not eaten anything since the morning. I listened well to my mother, who always told me (many times), do not fill up on the challah, there is much more food on its way. Sure enough, almost immediate after satiating my immediate appetite, Mr. Long and his staff came out to serve the very first dish – the Amuse Bouche. The first thing I noticed was that Mr. Long had changed his chef’s jacket, from when we saw him walking around before the dish was served, this was something he did throughout the night. When asked by a guest, at the end of the evening, about the apparent attempt to channel Nicole Richie’s dress code (same day by the way!), Mr. Long was partly shocked and unready with a response, however Mr. Morgan stepped in and stated that he needed to keep a clean look, and it is pretty busy back there.

In either case, the first dish hit our tables, and the Amuse Bouche looked interesting, to say the least. The term Amuse Bouche loosely translated means amuse your mouth or palate. The dish came served on a platter of Chinese Soup spoons, for the entire table. Each soup spoon held what Mr. Long called Hot Roast Squash Gel Cube with Apple Caviar. This was the first of many examples of Molecular Gastronomy that Mr. Long would showcase during the evening and most definitely his weakest attempt. I do not want to get on my soap box about the ideals of Molecular Gastronomy, however, throughout the night there would be hits and misses, and some were clear strikeouts. This was one of them, the idea behind Molecular Gastronomy is simple, in the words of Grant Achatz, the head chef at Alinea where he daily melds technology and Haute Cuisine, “The technology allows us to get to the essence of food, it allows you to be more true with flavor, not less true.” We are supposed to feel the food, taste its raw essence, without all the trappings and machinations of Thomas Keller and his French Laundry restaurant. In this dish, Mr. Long succeeded in losing the trappings, but missed on extracting the essence and feel of the dish. The hot roast squash gel cube had nice flavors, with clear sign posts leading to roasted squash, but the road ended rather abruptly. The Apple caviar, felt more like an early warning system for “all things molecular” coming your way, without actually showcasing the apples or helping to tie the two flavors together. What was missing was a bit of salt to balance the flavors, instead, we had a shot of sweet and a shot of bland apples and not much else. To be honest, I told my table mates, who did not care for the dish much more than I did, that I really hope that this is not harbinger for what else is to come tonight. And to that I scream loud and clear – Heck NO! It was an aberration and one I am sure that maybe we did not get, but let it be clear from my pen to your eyes; the evening held many wonderful surprises and this was the one and only real miss.

Around the same time as the Amuse Bouche was being passed out, Jonathan Hajdu, the associate wine maker and on-site kosher supervisor was pouring out the first of the four wines that we would be tasting this evening; the 2008 Covenant Lavan Chardonnay. When I tasted it earlier this year at the 2010 Herzog Food and Wine Festival in Oxnard, it actually showed more ripe fruit and tannin – from the oak. It was still young then and crazy fun. Now when we tasted it, the wine seems to be hitting its stride. The tannin is gone or covered over with a blanket of toasty rich oak and butterscotch, along with a bit of fruit. Clearly this is a bottle that is ready to party and one that really was not meant to pair with the Amuse Bouche, but heck it was there so we tasted it. Again, the gel cube barely survived the oak attack, while the poor apple caviar was gutted from the inside out, never had a chance. Again to be fair, it was not a real pairing, but we tried for the fun of it.

Since we tasted the wine at this point – I will post the note here. I wanted to compare it against the notes I have from earlier this year, so here is my previous note and my newest one as well:

2008 Covenant Lavan Chardonnay, Napa Valley – Score: A- to A
The nose on this vibrant yellow colored wine is screaming with lychee, green apple, guava, peach, oak, and almonds.  The mouth on this full bodied wine is creamy and hopping with butterscotch, apple, peach, and oak.  The mid palate is balanced and structured with bracing acidity, spicy oak, oak tannins, and mineral.  The finish is long and creamy, with more butterscotch, almonds, oak, peach, and lychee. (Tasted February 2010)

2008 Covenant Lavan Chardonnay, Napa Valley – Score: A- to A
The nose on this lemon to straw colored wine is screaming with toasty oak, green apple, guava, butterscotch, peach, Crème brûlée, lemon, and almonds.  The mouth on this full bodied wine is creamy and hopping with butterscotch, apple, peach, lemon, and oak.  The mid palate is balanced and structured with bracing acidity, rich toasty oak, Crème brûlée, and butterscotch.  The finish is long and luscious, with more butterscotch, peach, lemon, almonds, and guava. The butterscotch, lemon, and almonds linger long on the palate. (Tasted December 2010)

The next course to grace our tables was both beautiful to look and crazy fun to eat. Once again however, Mr. Long missed the homerun by a few inches. The dish was called; Shaved fennel and frisee Salad on a bed of fried shoestring root vegetables with Chardonnay-Apple Vinaigrette topped with beet foam. In the words of Dorothy Boyd, you had me at Frisee, shoestring fried anything, and Chardonnay. Unfortunately, the Chardonnay-Apple Vinaigrette was neither Chardonnay nor apple expressive and the beet foam was lifeless almost like someone dropped a blob of red goop on my salad and said enjoy. The foam was lovely to look at, but no joy to eat. What is not in the dish name is the toasted almond dust which was a lovely implementation of molecular technique, though it was not as showy as the foam. The dust was intense, almost like he pulled every almond molecule out of the nut and drove it back into the dust. The Frisee clearly overpowered the Chardonnay-Apple Vinaigrette, which was a shame, as we were looking forward to it. The flavor was barely visible, as the fennel, Frisee, oily/crunchy texture and flavors of the other components never gave the Vinaigrette a chance to get off the ground. Still the overall flavor profile, texture, presentation, and integration had us much relieved after the gel cube mishap, and had us looking forward to the next course. Ignoring the foam, which was more presentation than flavor, and the slight miss on the Vinaigrette, the dish was a solid double which got caught trying to stretch it into a triple. The Lavan paired wonderfully with this course, almost like long lost brothers, the oily and bitter flavors played joyfully with the massive oak and butterscotch notes of the wine, neither one giving way to the other, but neither one giving up either. They played each other into an almost perfect stalemate, which to me was a perfect pairing.

On an aside, I must again bring notice to the attentive wait staff and to the amount of work that both Messrs Morgan and Hajdu did to keep pouring the wine for 40 plus guests and having the time to make them all feel like they were truly excited to be there, happy to see everyone, and glad that everyone was enjoying their product. On a side note, none of the Covenant wines are mevushal, a fact that Mr. Morgan hammered home quite a few times, both as a fact, and also as a clear way to differentiate Covenant Wines from the other kosher winery in the Napa Valley – Hagafen Winery, who only produce mevushal wines. I have written extensively about our last trip to the Hagafen Winery, including the mevushal aspect and their storied history. Hagafen and Herzog are clearly the only wineries in the world who can boil wine, even if only for a second, and not only get away with it, but produce world class wines that are always enjoyable and can be cellared for quite some time to boot! So clearly, Mr. Morgan was attempting to separate his winery from the competition with the mention of mevushal. Still, it meant that Mr. Hajdu was one VERY busy man. He poured all the wine all night, excepting for one moment when the restaurant mashgiach (kosher supervisor) had to step in and pour as well. When we entered initially, we wondered if the wait staff had been told about not touching the wine glasses, as the wine was not mevushal, and none of them being Jewish. It became clear that this was not discussed in meetings leading up to the service, but that changed quickly as people had to pour their wine away. This whole mevushal thing sounds so draconian, non-politically correct, and almost elitist, while potentially showing religious Jews in a poor light. That said, the laws existing for 2000 or more years before us, and will continue to exist long after us, so I am not about to go and ignore them or try to change them. There is a reason why the two largest kosher wineries in the US (Herzog and Hagafen), make almost everything mevushal. The wine can be served anywhere, by anyone, and enjoyed in the company of anyone. It is the liberator in many ways and allows for, at least to a point, the freedom to enjoy a glass of wine with all that may be in your life. All that said, it is not a true salvation, as we always know that we are guided by our laws and limitations, which is what has allowed Jews to survive for as long as we have. Anyway, that was a quick note to explain, that the complexity of pouring and enjoying non-mevushal wine in an open restaurant experience is not simple and can sometimes be close to impossible, so once again kudos to the wait staff, Messrs Morgan and Hajdu and the supervisors for making it look and feel almost seamless.

The next course was perfect from the food side of things, but its attempted pairing was not quite there. The wine and dish were killer, but as a wine pairing – it was lacking, as the wine crushed the dish. The dish was called; Olive Oil Poached Sea Bass Rolled with Puttanesca Style Paste in a light Tomato Sauce with Grilled Polenta and Ratatouille. The first thing you need to notice is that the dish was molecular free, no dust, powder, foam, or gel to be found. Next, the Ratatouille was styled like the one seen in Ratatouille – the movie, stacked in a lovely eye pleasing manner. The sauce was fantastic, but the true star on the plate was the Rolled Olive Oil Poached Sea Bass. The fish was perfectly cooked, not over or underdone, flaky without falling apart, firm to the fork without being leather like. But the true tour-de-force was the fact that the fish was perfectly rolled, without massive cracks or structural issues, and not pink, rather perfectly white. The polenta was grilled and combined with the ratatouille, sea bass, and puttanesca sauce, the dish was from beginning to end well thought through, executed to perfection, and a true joy to look at and consume.

To pair with this wonderful dish Messrs Morgan and Hajdu presented and poured a glass of the 2008 Covenant Red C. On an aside, Mr. Morgan explained that when they were first starting the winery in 2003 or so, they paid a fortune for the artwork that graces the bottle of the winery’s flagship wine; Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon (also gracing the Covenant Lavan), so they had no money for the second label. That evening Mr. Morgan played with the fonts and stretched the C from Covenant out and filled it with color of the wine and poof – instant label for the Red C! Now, back to your regularly-scheduled programming. The Red C was stunning, clearly extracted, rich, and expressive. Yes, the puttanesca styled tomato sauce was a bit heavy, but nowhere in the same league as the Red C. The Red C bowled the sauce and dish over, dug it into the ground, and just for good measure ran it over with a truck full of black fruit, butterscotch, and spicy oak. Truly a shame as both dish and wine deserved a better mate. I must note that the fish smelled super fresh, and as already stated perfectly cooked, a wonderful dish indeed.

2008 Covenant Red C Cabernet Sauvignon – Score: A-
The nose on this dark garnet to purple colored wine is exploding with butterscotch right out of the gate, along with blackberry, raspberry, spicy oak, black plum, cherry, rich and loamy dirt, as time progresses it shows a richer black nose with a distinct perfume. The mouth is rich and spicy with ripe blackberry, black plum, spicy oak, licorice, rich raspberry, a truly full, rich and massive mouthfeel from mounds of tannin. The mid palate is balanced with acid, butterscotch, ripe rich oak, massive tannin, rich blackberry, with a rich inky structure and texture. The finish is super long and spicy, with almost tar like flavors, inky structure, plum, blackberry, a hint of butterscotch, still not integrated tannin, leather, chocolate, tobacco, and vanilla. Quite a lovely wine. The wine is made predominantly from grapes grown at the Young Family Vineyard in Napa Valley, just south of St. Helena, along with press wine from the flagship Covenant Cabernet.

To clean our palates we were served Moscato Sorbet on a Tuile Cone, a lovely clean and fresh flavor that did a wonderful job of cleaning our palates.

With our plates cleared away Messrs Long and Morgan both got up to talk a bit about the event, the extreme effort it took to prepare for the evening, and about the lovely wine we were about to enjoy, the 2008 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon. It was here when Mr. Long appeared in a light brown colored chef’s jacket that the curiosity of the guest was piqued enough to ask him, what is with all the wardrobe changes? We had wondered the same thing, but trust me, if I make a mess of my apron when I cook in my kitchen for 10 people, I can only imagine what a chef’s jacket would look like, when cooking for 40 people.

In between the conversation, the speeches, the wardrobe changes, I could not help but soak in the wonderful atmosphere and mood of the setting, accentuated by the tones of Hot Kugel. It is so important to every so often stop to smell the roses, it was something that I accomplished that night, and I again must thank the entire staff for making it so inviting.

As the main course was being brought out I could only wonder at what it really was. All I can say is that one more time Mr. Long almost hit it out of the park, but came up a drop short. The dish was called; Deconstructed Beef Wellington Sous Vide Beef Cooked for Seven Hours Stacked with Portobello Mushroom, Red Bell Pepper, Puff Pastry, Fried Onion Strings Topped with a Sauce Perigourdine Sphere Sitting on Pommes Carlos. The Pommes Carlos was perfect, the Fried Onion anything works for me, the mushrooms, and peppers were cooked to perfection. The meat was beyond heaven, but the puff pastry is not deconstructed Beef Wellington, let alone enjoyable or lovely to look at. The pastry looked out of place, though it is an integral part of Beef Wellington. I think what threw it off was the thickness of the pastry. On a Wellington, the pastry is flaky but firm, here the pastry looked more like an éclair, with some of us half expecting to find creme in it. Once we discarded with the puff, we got down to the real meat of the matter (sorry I could not help myself). The beef was cooked to perfection in the sous vide and then seared on each side just to get a nice caramelization on the outside. Looking at the dish itself, Mr. Long once again dug into his molecular toolbox and pulled out some vacuum bags and a bunch of sous vide(s). The Sous Vide may well be the original tool in the molecular toolbox, but it is still capable of making a piece of meat taste awesome and making a chef into a star. However, executed poorly, the meat is bland, without flavor, like plain boiled chicken. Mr. Long clearly took a chance with this dish and it paid off in spades. The meat was soft and tender and did not overcome the palate. It blended perfectly with the rest of the dish, the rich earthy flavor of the mushrooms, the crunchy onions, the rich truffle sauce, and the pomme each gave of itself to its counterparts, and never took away from the dish. The meat was soft and tender, quiet and restrained, but still rich and almost buttery, the oily and crunchy added the needed salt and spice, while the mushrooms and truffles added in the earthy tones that balanced the dish out – bravo!

To pair with the towering masterpiece Messrs Long and Morgan chose the flagship wine of Covenant Winery – the 2008 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is not like its younger sibling – the Red C. There is no attack of tannin and extreme extraction. Instead this is more a wine of Napa refinement, less tannin and attitude, but in its place, more explosive chocolate, fruit, and oak. The wine was a crazy awesome pairing. The pairing was perfect because had Mr. Long gone with a more conventional choice of grilled meats, etc, the Covenant Cabernet would not have shown so bright. Oh sure, the Covenant Cabernet can handle itself at a picnic table or at a fine dining establishment, however, by choosing the Sous Vide approach, the wine was given a chance to show itself atop the soft and approachable meat, instead of attempting to go head to head with a slab of barbecue or grill flavor. Bravo once again!

2008 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon (Larkmead Vineyard) – Score: A- to A
The nose on this dark garnet to black colored wine explodes with rich chocolate, blackberry, raspberry, rich ripe plum, nice sweet oak, mineral, and licorice. The nose is truly rich and voluminous, a true joy. The mouth on this full bodied wine is super rich and full in the mouth with ripe and rich blackberry, rich tannin, soft with still searing but lovely tannin, nice toasty oak, and black plum. The mid palate is balanced with acid, chocolate, sweet oak, tobacco, and vanilla. The finish is super long and almost smooth and spicy with massive black fruit, blackberry, rich ripe plum, leather, with massive oak, spicy vanilla, blackberry, and toasty oak linger long on the palate.

Then out of nowhere Messrs Hajdu and Morgan pull out two Magnums of the 2004 Covenant – what a treat! We were all poured a glass and we had a lovely opportunity to see how well the wines age and change with time.

2004 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon (Larkmead Vineyard) – Score: A- to A
The nose on this dark garnet to black colored wine is more refined and more elegant than the 2008 vintage, with rich ripe blackberry, cassis, rich oak, loamy dirt, mineral, fig, and ripe black plum. The mouth on this full bodied wine is soft with an initial hit of spiciness, ripe blackberry, cassis, and plum. The mid palate is balanced with acid, integrated tannins, chocolate, and vanilla. The finish is long, spicy, and luscious with  sweet oak, blackberry, cassis, vanilla, chocolate, and leather, with chocolate, blackberry, ripe plum, and vanilla lingering long on the palate.

The 2004 was not the powerhouse or either the 2008 Covenant or Red C, but what it lacked in attitude it made up with richness, soul, and downright warmth. The event started winding down and that is when the wait staff filled our table with desserts of all kinds, finger cookies, brioche, a chocolate rum ball to die for, and an awesome Pear Frangipane Tart.

In closing I must truly thank the staff, the restaurant, Mr. Long for his tireless efforts, and Messrs Hajdu and Morgan for making the evening a truly memorable one. It is not every night (and maybe any night) that we can enjoy molecular and classic cuisine and world class wines in a lovely and inviting setting. Mr. Long stated that he hoped to have more of these wine dinners in the future. If that is the case, and they let me back in, you can count me in for sure. Once again many thanks to all for making the evening such a success.

In retrospect it was an evening of showcases, Mr. Long’s tour-de-force showcase of his molecular gastronomy abilities, The Kitchen Table’s showcasing of its wonderful staff and establishment, and Messrs Morgan and Hajdu showcasing their non-mevushal, world class, kosher Napa Valley Cabernets and Chardonnay. For the guests the event came together in almost perfect harmony, the mood, the haute cuisine, the world class wine, all in a warm and inviting environment, with friends all around, enjoying the very thing that they came to experience – a wonderful food and wine extravaganza.

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Posted on December 23, 2010, in Food and drink, Kosher Red Wine, Kosher White Wine, Restaurant Review, Wine, Wine Tasting and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

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