A few weeks ago, Mrs. Hackknife and I traveled back to the Ritz Carlton Orlando (site of our 10th anniversary weekend last August) to attend a special book release dinner for Norman Van Aken at his namesake restaurant. This event was intended to promote Chef Van Aken's new memoir, No Experience Necessary, and happened to coincide with Valentine's Day (not an accident, I'm sure), so we decided that the dinner would be our gift to each other (as always, the way to our hearts is generally found via our stomachs). Each attendee received a signed copy of the memoir as well as a copy of his latest cookbook, My Key West Kitchen (which we had already received in August, giving us a handy 2nd copy for regifting), but the highlight of the evening was the 5-course meal that Chef Van Aken and his executive chef at Norman's, Andres Mendoza, prepared for the guests.
First up was the cocktail hour - we ran into surprisingly bad traffic on I-4 between Tampa/Orlando and ended up arriving 15 minutes late. This wouldn't have been a problem had the kitchen not run out of the foie gras appetizers that were being passed around the room (I think Mrs. Hackknife got the very last one before they disappeared for good). I had to pull myself together with a glass of Champagne and the other hors d'oeuvres being offered, artichoke fritters (good except for the presence of some very tough artichoke pieces) and mini-steak tartares (delicious). After this, we were seated at our table and began chowing down on the main meal.
What you see above was described on the menu as beer-steamed Key West shrimp with a mojo rojo (red sour orange) sauce, garnished with a hearts of palm, Florida citrus (which appeared to be a plain ol' orange segment), and avocado salad. Our wine pairing with this course was a slightly sweet 2010 Robert Weil Riesling "Tradition" Kabinett, from the Rheingau region of Germany. The shrimp in the dish were big and briny, playing perfectly off the crisp and herbal salad.
Next up was a lobster course. Chef Van Aken explained to the crowd that he was forced to utilize lobsters from Maine as the recent cold snaps our fair state had been receiving (laughable for the folks up north suffering through a real winter, but apparently sufficiently traumatic for our local crustaceans) made it especially difficult to obtain Florida lobsters at the moment. Anyway, the lobster in question was plated with croutons, capers, and a brown butter sauce, a combination that sounds divine, but wasn't quite as rich and flavorful as I was expecting. The real star of this plate in my opinion was the wine that came with it, a 2011 Sauvignon Blanc from Chateau Carbonnieux in the Pessac-Leognan appellation of Bordeaux that had a wonderful combination of tropical fruit and grassy notes. I've already been poking my nose around the nearby liquor stores trying to find a few bottles for consumption around the Canteen.
As if by magic, one of my favorite proteins subsequently appeared at the table, a wonderful grill-roasted duck breast (served medium rare) from Lake Meadow Farms in Orlando, served with a raisin-pineapple sauce and paired with sweet potato mash and Brussels sprouts. Our wine with this dish was a punchy 2011 Domaine Tournon "Shays Flat Vineyard" Shiraz from the Pyrenees region of Victoria in Australia, a little too heavy on the alcohol for my liking.
One more meat course followed, a filet mignon tournedos in a Madeira wine reduction topped with a sunny-side up quail egg (which I happily passed over to my wife) and some wild mushrooms (which I was going to pass, then opted to eat instead). The filet was paired with a 2010 Turnbull Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa.
Our dessert was a terrific deconstructed Key lime pie consisting of so many elements that I was dizzy at trying to take it all in (Ice cream! Graham cracker crumble! Meringue! Chewy gelled orbs of unknown origin!), although all of the pieces came together beautifully. This was probably my favorite dish of the evening and I also quite enjoyed the sparkling 2013 La Spinetta "Biancospino" Moscato d'Asti that accompanied dessert. We had the option of sticking around for postprandial activities (such as after-dinner drinks/cigars); however, with the long drive back to Tampa yet on the schedule, no good was going to come of lingering, so off we went with more happy memories of Norman's on the brain...