Friday, May 13, 2011

Shawn McClain Dinner @ Cooper's Hawk

Mrs. Hackknife and I recently attended our 2nd Cooper's Hawk wine club function (the first being the Rick Bayless dinner last July). When it was announced that Cooper's Hawk had lined up local chef Shawn McClain for a wine club guest dinner, we jumped at the chance to attend (you may recall that we dined at Chef McClain's now-shuttered restaurant Spring in December and we quite enjoyed it). For this event, the chef created a five course menu inspired by dishes from various restaurants in both his past and present. Like Rick Bayless, Messr. McClain did a brief cooking demo during the meal, although he was a little stiff compared to the ebullient Mr. Bayless, preferring to spend the bulk of his time in the kitchen ensuring that everything went smoothly rather than doing backflips for his audience.

The attention put into each plate really showed. For my money, the appetizer course was the best one, an American Wagyu beef tartare (yes, that's raw beef) mixed with a crushed caper aioli, placed on a toasted crostini with a crispy dark chocolate shard on top. Whoever had the idea to combine raw beef (exceptional-quality raw beef, that is - don't try this at home with ground chuck from the Piggly Wiggly unless you have a hankering for e. coli.) with dark chocolate should be gifted a Caribbean island or something, as it was utterly amazing. Lucky for us, we were sitting at a half-full table, so there were extra appetizers to go around (I think I lost count after I ate around 4). The chef explained that this gem came from his time working at Trio, a now-legendary restaurant in Evanston that showcased the talents of our host chef, Grant Achatz, Rick Tramonto, and Gail Gand (a culinary dream team if there ever was one) before closing a few years ago. I weep for my having missed dining at that temple of gastronomy, but I take solace that its legacy lives on in my digestive track.

Our second course came from Chef McClain's current venture, Green Zebra, a mostly-vegetarian restaurant in Chicago. This dish paired heirloom beets slow-roasted in duck fat (which is definitely NOT vegetarian) with a burrata-like crescenza cheese foam, shaved Iberico ham, and marcona almonds. I liked the combination of flavors, but was a little disappointed with the beets - I was expecting something a little more decadent-tasting given the inclusion of duck fat in the process. All in all, I didn't think they were much richer than those I've been able to roast up at the Commissary from the farmbox. Course #3 stepped up a notch: glazed black cod with fermented Chinese black beans, Dungeness crab/scallion pancakes, and sweet red chili sauce. This was the exact same dish that I consumed with reckless abandon at Spring just a few months back (in fact, I'm pretty sure my associated blog posting has a picture of this entree at the top) and it was again delicious, if not just a tad less so given that it was created in a guest kitchen under different circumstances.

Our meat course (#4) was more American Wagyu from Snake River Farms (the same fine beef purveyor used by Thomas Keller at Per Se in New York), this time a skirt steak served medium-rare on a bed of creamy white polenta, Michigan morel mushrooms, wild ramps (aka leeks), and black garlic. One can find this plate (and the panna cotta dessert described below) at Chef McClain's newest restaurant venture Sage, at the CityCenter in Las Vegas. The meat was tasty, but very potent owing to the ramps and garlic; in fact, when I staggered to the bathroom at 5 am the following morning to remove some beef tartare from my digestive track, I felt like I had eaten an onion/garlic smoothie at some point. Dessert consisted of a Tahitian vanilla bean panna cotta topped with a combination of rhubarb jelly and strawberries marinated in Balsamic vinegar, with a couple of lavender shortbread cookies on the side. I enjoyed the panna cotta, but wasn't crazy about the cookies (this did not deter me from eating them both, however).

Interspersed with the courses were several Cooper's Hawk wines (Blanc de Blanc Sparkling, Chardonnay Arneis, Gewurtztraminer, Lux Merlot, and Ice Wine), all of which complimented the food quite well (and given that I'm an ex-employee of the winery and a current wine club member, I should probably stop there with the platitudes given my biased viewpoint). Combine good food and good wine with good conversation (Cooper's Hawk founder Tim McEnery sat at our table and gave us some insights into the inner workings of his business) and the evening was quite a memorable one.

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