Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Norman's 10th Anniversary Gala Dinner

(Left to right - Chefs Emeril Lagasse, Norman Van Aken, and Dean Fearing)

After a bit of recovery time from lunch and a largely unsuccessful birdwatching excursion around the resort property (raindrops threatened to fall nearly the entire time, keeping our avian friends out of sight), the time had arrived for me to squeeze into my monkey suit and saunter over to the Plaza Ballroom for the gala's "Canape and Champagne Reception". Knowing full well that we'd be given a very good glass of wine with each of the upcoming dinner's 8 courses, I limited myself to one flute of bubbly (Taittinger Millesime, Brut Champagne 2005) and gorged on appetizers instead (sadly, there are no photos of these - too hard to eat, drink, and snap pics with only two hands). Chefs James and Julie Petrakis (whose restaurant Cask & Larder we'd only just eaten at a few hours earlier) had prepared two different hors d'oevres for the reception, an ethereal rabbit and foie terrine with pickled vegetable relish on a (very crunchy) rye crostini and what appeared to be a slab of Neapolitan ice cream (which was actually layers of pink cured hamachi and crispy red wine bone marrow) atop a thin cracker. Three more small bites were provided by the executive chef of the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Resort, Sean Woods, namely a deviled quail egg with dill flower (I passed on these while Mrs. Hackknife had a couple, finding them not as good as C&L's deviled eggs from lunchtime), a mighty fine Hudson Valley foie gras croquette with summer fig jam (possibly the best fried item that'd ever crossed my palate), and salmon tataki (i.e., lightly seared) with cauliflower mousse and Osetra caviar. Our hometown Tampa chef (Greg Baker from The Refinery) added one last appetizer, a small cylinder of pickled okra filled with Key West pink shrimp, a chorizo rice cracker, and tomato gravy gelee.

Before long, the doors to the ballroom were thrown open and the dinner guests wandered over to their assigned tables. Following a brief welcome speech by Norm Van Aken, each chef (minus the increasingly schizophrenic Charlie Trotter, who wasn't able to attend the event due to "medical issues", the cynic in me convinced that he just didn't feel like showing up) gave a description of their dish that had been conceived for tonight's meal. First up was a taste of the Yucatan Peninsula from retired megachef Jeremiah Tower (of Chez Panisse fame), who has made his residence there since he grew weary of the high-end restaurant business several years ago.

Chef Tower's dish arrived with three spoons respectively containing raw oyster, salt cod with chimole (an intricate black-colored soup that's native to Mayan cuisine), and something called "Paloma's Kastakan pork belly", which seems to simply mean pork belly cooked medium (Kastakan appears to be a Mayan word meaning "half cooked", although I could be totally wrong on this). In the center was a shooter glass of what was essentially liquid guacamole that we were instructed to sip with each spoon bite. In keeping with the chef's longstanding philosophy of clean, simple preparation and tastes (for all intents and purposes, he is the founding father of this movement in American cookery), all of the protein flavors (fish, etc.) were neatly balanced against the tropical spices and rich avocado. The wine pairing for this course was a Grand Cru white Burgundy, Jean-Marc Brocard Les Clos 2010.

Course #2 was a succulent chunk of Maine lobster, served beside a little jar of Costa Rican hearts of palm salad that was topped with luxurious Siberian caviar (Florida raised in Sarasota), courtesy of Scott Hunnel, a Chicago native that's currently the head chef at the Walt Disney World Victoria & Albert's Restaurant (no doubt the best dining venue in the whole 47 square mile resort, not that that's necessarily saying much). A Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (Galerie 2012) was chosen to accompany the lobster/caviar. I noticed quite a bit of silence at our table while this dish was being (presumably happily) consumed.

One of Chef Trotter's stand-ins presented the following plate, a hearty-yet-delicate artichoke soup with hamachi, baby leeks, and saffron aioli. Inventive soups are a Trotter trademark and this one did not disappoint, especially when paired with a white Rhone (Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape, 2011) wine.

Chef Emeril's version of surf-and-turf came next, a whole roasted quail that had been stuffed with Florida shrimp and mirliton (a squash-like vegetable, an Emeril favorite, I heard), then topped with a spring onion reduction sauce and a grilled wild mushroom salad. Although tasty, the quail was a little unwieldly, leading many in this well-dressed crowd (including myself) to perform the uncivilized act of using fingers to gnaw quail meat off of its little bones. The consensus from our table was that the wine pairing (a Finca Sandoval "Signo" 2009, made mostly from a lesser-known red grape called Bobal in the Manchuela region of Spain) was better than the dish it accompanied.

As you might imagine, the kitchen during this time was constantly abuzz with activity, chefs and sous-chefs plating with impunity. Someone had the astute idea of setting up remote video feeds in the dining room for attendees to follow the action, so I took the opportunity to get a photo of the maelstrom between Courses #4 and #5:

Star Orlando Chef Brandon McGlamery (who helms Prato and Luma on Park, two restaurants that are on our hit list) presented his dish next, a tender strip of veal and three veal-stuffed casoncelli (similar to ravioli, except tubular) in a smoked corn broth and topped with gremolata (a chopped herb condiment with parsley, garlic, and lemon zest), summer truffle, and shaved frozen Wagyu beef lardo, white as the driven snow. This plate is inspired by the cuisine of the Lombardy region of north-central Italy and was spectacular. A unique red wine from the same geographical area (Nino Negri Quadrio Valtellina Superiore 2008) was poured with this course, made from Nebbiolo grapes (more commonly found in Barolo) that have been dried for a few months to add a modicum of sweetness to the finished bottle (similar to Amarone).

I was starting to slow down a bit by this point, but the kitchen kept trucking along. The guest of honor (Chef Van Aken) was given the Course #6 slot to showcase his dish, a roasted wreckfish filet topped with a disk of Butifarra sausage (from the Catalonia region of Spain) and caramelized cured foie gras, resting in a pool of veal porto reduction. This was a rich creation that needed a bold wine, in this case a Cabernet Sauvignon from Rudd Winery in Napa (Samantha's 2008).

Amazingly, things just got better and better. The Dallas-based Chef Dean Fearing (who, unbeknownst to me, was running the kitchen at the Mansion on Turtle Creek when I had one of my very first fine dining experiences there in 1996) prepared a knockout maple-soaked buffalo tenderloin, fork-tender and served with a chile-braised rabbit enchilada, fiesta salad, and green/red salsas. As good as the buffalo was, I would have shoved bamboo sticks under my fingernails to get a full plate of the rabbit enchiladas, with each bite teetering on the razor's edge between tolerable and uncomfortable spicy heat. A very nice Tuscan red (Casanova di Neri, Tenuta Nova Riserva 2008, Brunello di Montalcino) dampened the buzz from the chiles.

Finally, we had reached the dessert portion of our evening. The Ritz-Carlton Orlando pastry chef Stephane Cheramy presented a beautiful and innovative (if not absolutely delicious) plate containing Manjari chocolate (from Madagascar), a coconut water-lemongrass sorbet, and flax seeds nougatine for some texture. I was hard pressed to come up with a better meal ending that I'd had in recent memory (the wine selected to go with this dish was a sweet Domaine Philippe Delesvaux "Saint Aubin" Selection de Grains Noble 1997 from the Coteaux du Layon appellation of the Loire Valley).

Just in case the main dessert wasn't sufficient, Chef Cheramy also prepared gift boxes of macarons for the attendees to bring home (varieties included avocado lemon, white truffle, blueberry, yuzu wasabi grapefruit, and smoked chocolate tea). Unfortunately, the macarons didn't fare too well in the Florida humidity (pretty crumbly after a day), but the unique flavors still shined through (especially my favorite, the white truffle).

And just like that, it was over. Despite being ephemeral (as all meals are, great or otherwise), the missus and I had the sense of having attended a momentous culinary occasion that highlighted the very best that our new homeland had to offer. When taking into account this weekend and the weekend to follow (when Mrs. Hackknife and I immersed ourselves in Puerto Rican cuisine - many postings to come), there was no question that we'd created for ourselves an anniversary to remember...

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