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Chef’s Table at the Edgewater

11 Mar

I got a telephone call on a recent Thursday afternoon, inviting my wife and I to join some friends on the following Saturday and try a restaurant that was garnering a lot of praise from local foodies – The Chef’s Table at the Edgewater Hotel in Winter Garden, Florida.  Winter Garden is a sleepy little citrus town 15 to 20 minutes west of Orlando.  The town has seen a recent renaissance through the renovation of its downtown, which is both bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly, and lined with interesting little boutiques and restaurants.

The restaurant, although called ‘The Chef’s Table’, is a standard restaurant, with a twist.  After years in high-end kitchens in New Orleans and Orlando, health issues have made it impractical for chef/owner Kevin Tarter to work the long hours in the kitchen, so his wife Laurie, who worked the front of house for Disney’s California Grill, suggested that they hire someone to cook food Kevin’s way.  This allows the chef to greet each table, spend some time explaining the overall menu, the ‘ins-and-outs’ of each dish, and giving the whole restaurant the feel of being at the “chef’s table.”

The menu is a three course prix fixe, with three to four options per course.  Thoughtfully selected wine pairings are available for an additional fee, and the restaurant allows diners to bring their own wine, with a $20 corkage fee.

We began our dining experience with a 2002 Philliponat Champagne, and decided that the optional cheese plate would be a good place to start while we pondered the rest of the evening’s fare.  The plate offered five cheeses, consisting of a triple cream brie, aged gouda, and Spanish manchego, as well as a cheddar and a blue.  Accompaniments included candied walnuts, apricot preserves, dates, figs, and housemade lavosh crackers.

After Chef Kevin explained the menu to us, we made our selections.  My wife chose a mushroom and chive crepe torte, with a roasted shallot cream and truffle salt as her appetizer, while I chose the foie gras crème brulee.  These were the popular choices with the rest of the group as well.

Readers may recall that I had seen foie gras crème brulee offered on a menu recently, and had been disappointed with the execution.  After hearing the chef’s description, I decided it was time to get back on the horse.  The custard was slightly sweet and contained pieces of sautéed apple and shallot and, once bruleed, was topped by a seared slice of foie gras.  The chef had noted during his description of the dish that he had originally spike the custard with diced liver, but had not been happy with the consistency of the dish given the temperatures necessary to set the custard.

This version of foie gras crème brulee was everything the earlier dish was not.  The custard was rich and flavorful with the bits of apple and shallot, and the seared liver was perfectly done.  This dish was not short on foie gras flavor.

The torte was full of mushrooms and had a nice bite from the chives, and the shallot-flavored sauce added just the right touch.  The only negative voiced by the table was that the dish could have used a touch more salt.  We mentioned it to Chef Kevin and he noted that he is a “salt monster,” and therefore tends to scale back a bit.

There were three options for the main course – pan-seared yellowtail snapper with roasted fingerling potatoes, baby bok choy, house-made eel sauce, and cherry and peppadew peppers; braised beef short rib Wellington with a blue cheese/red wine demi-glace; and, a house-cured smoked Kurobuta pork chop, with habanero-peach chutney, white bean cassoulet, candied collard greens, all topped with a strip of pork belly.  Given the group and our diverse tastes, all three dishes ended up on the table.

I had chosen the Wellington – it came to the table split open, dressed with both the demi and blue cheese 9melted from the residual heat of the dish), and topped with wilted spinach.  The meat was fork tender, succulent, and perfectly accented by the sauces.

My wife had opted for the pork dish – probably the best of the three mains…  The pork was cooked to a moist, slightly pink, medium rare, the chutney had the just right balance, but I think the star of the plate were the greens, especially to a Mississippi girl like my wife.  The collards had been prepared in the style of German red cabbage, with sugar and red wine vinegar,  so that the yin-yang balance extended to all aspects of the dish – tender pork and soft rich cassoulet with the crispy skin, sweet and sour in the greens, and the sweet and heat of the chutney.

The fish was a thick, skin on filet, again cooked perfectly so that the fish was moist and fork tender.  The spice and mild heat of the peppers over the top of the fish played a nice counterpoint.

Our tastes were varied when it came time for the dessert course – we selected three of the four options.  Chocolate mousse cake with fresh berries, almond amaretto marscapone cake, and port poached pears with citrus-vanilla French toast all appealed the diners at our table.

I think that the best of the desserts we tried was the almond cake, again showing the exquisite balance of flavors and textures that characterized the entire meal.

The poached pears were also good, with a balance of sweet from the port and the French toast, and tang from blue cheese, although given the poaching, and the subsequent24-hour maceration in the poaching liquid described by Chef Kevin, one would have presumed that the fruit would have been softer – it required a knife to cut them.

The chocolate cake was dark, dense, and rich, layered with the mousse, and then sauced with a red fruit coulis and sliced strawberries and raspberries.

All in all, we enjoyed the dining experience and the insight into each of the dishes provided by the interaction with Chef Kevin, Laurie, and their staff.  I would recommend the Chef’s Table to anyone looking for a high-end dining experience.  The added bonus is that this experience does not necessarily come with a high-end price tag.

An Evening of Celebration

26 Feb

My wife and I had the good fortune to accompany friends to the Chef’s Table at Victoria and Albert’s restaurant for the occasion of celebrating a 40th birthday. While my wife and I have had the opportunity to dine at the chef’s table before, this was the first time for the other three couples.

We arrived at 5 pm, and were soon escorted through the empty dining room and into the kitchen, winding the maze from the expediting station, past the pastry/dessert room, the prep stations, and finally to the dining table.

We were introduced to Dan and John, the two gentlemen tasked with attending to us during our dinner experience. Dan announced that we would be receiving a glass of Champagne as a greeting and introduction to our dining experience, and that the chef would soon arrive to greet us as well. We were provided a flute of Non Vintage Piper Heidsieck Cuvee 1785 Brut. The Champagne had a rich mousse, with notes of brioche and green apple, and set a wonderful tone for the evening’s festivities.

I had been expecting to see Chef Scott Hunnel, who presides over Victoria and Albert’s as Chef de Cuisine. To my surprise, we were greeted by Chef Aimee, and we soon found ourselves in extremely capable hands. Chef Aimee gave us the visual tour of the kitchen, pointing out each of the stations, and naming the chefs at each place. Chef Aimee went on to tell us about Chef Erich Herbitschek, the Master Pastry Chef that provides not only the desserts for the restaurant, but also all of the breads. One of the diners expressed concern regarding the desserts, and would there be enough to satisfy her sweet tooth. Chef Aimee assured us that if the two planned desserts were not sufficient, she would make sure we got a third.

Dinner began with the Chef’s Amuse – a plate of four little bites to make our mouths happy. The tasty bits consisted of a soft poached quail egg over brioche crumbs with Galilee Osetra caviar, a cauliflower panna cotta with a German Osetra caviar, chicken liver terrine on a toast point with a brunoise of cornichon, and a porcini cappuccino.

The next dish was Gulf shrimp and heirloom tomatoes with a charmoula sauce. The shrimp were wrapped in Serrano ham, then pan seared until the ham crisped and the shrimp were cooked perfectly. The shrimp were served over a French lentil salad with a brunoise of carrots, parsnips, and other root vegetables, some petit lettuce, and a dollop of Bouratta cheese. The earthy, spicy notes of the sauce accented the Serrano, and played a nice counternote to the creaminess of the lentils and the cheese. The dish was paired with the 2009 ‘Les Tuilieres’ Sancerre from Michel Redde et fils. The fruit-forward nature of the wine, with citrus, apple, and stone accents and bright acidity, made it a wonderful accompaniment to the dish.

The first of the three bread and butter pairings for the evening was a fresh baguette with an unsalted, cultured butter from Vermont Creamery.

The following plate was a cold “smoked” Niman Ranch lamb with Fuji apple and curry dressing. The dish was presented on a raised bowl with a series of vents beneath the food. Staff then poured a sauce over the dish, and as it seeped through the vents, smoke began to rise, as there were pieces of dry ice secreted below. The lamb had been seasoned perfectly with garam masala, and then sauced with an apple curry, with garnishes of poached Fuji apple, shaved radish, and beet leaves. Chef noted that the dish was meant to be eaten with all of the elements in each bite, and that proved to be a very tasty combination. Accompanying the dish was a 2003 Valwinger Herrenberg Riesling Auslese from Dr. Zenzen in the Mosel region of Germany. The apple and sweet notes paired well with the curry, and the acidity of the wine ensured that it was not too cloying.

Next up was Alaskan salmon with bamboo rice and soy beans. At least, that is the description provided on the menu you receive at the end of the evening. To me, the words on the menu do not do the dish justice. The fresh Chinook (King) salmon was marinated in sake and soy, then served over the bamboo rice which tasted as if it had been prepared risotto-style, with baby maitake mushrooms and a red chili and miso sauce, and then dressed with baby bok choy and micro cilantro. With a nod to the Japanese bent to the preparation of the salmon, the dish was paired with sake – Kanbara “Bride of the Fox” Gohyakumangoku Junmai Ginjo, Nigata. This rice wine had a nose of lime zest, melon, and roasted nuts. The mouthfeel is very clean and smooth, with a long, slightly off-dry finish.

The second of the three bread and butter pairings for the evening was a truffled brioche with a truffle butter.

The subsequent dish was poulet rouge with calamarata pasta, forest mushrooms, and black truffles. The poulet rouge, a heritage breed originally from France but sourced by the restaurant from North Carolina, was served as a thick slice of breast meat, cooked perfectly and very moist, served with a mushroom duxelle inside a tube-shape pasta, and dressed with shaved black truffles and a mushroom demi-glace. The restaurant chose the 2007 Land’s Edge Vineyard Pinot Noir from Hartford Court Winery as the pairing, and this was likely my favorite of the wines offered, and the best of the pairings. This is a lighter, feminine-styled Pinot by California standards, with strawberry and red cherry aromas and flavors, accented by allspice, cinnamon, and cola.

At this point, the table decided that it was time to take a break. We left the kitchen, and took a walk through the lobby of the lovely Grand Floridian Hotel, and then a stroll outside through the grounds. The weather was cool by Florida standards (already in the low 40s by mid-evening), and this contributed to a brisk pace to our walk.

Upon our return, we were soon greeted by our next course – Minnesota elk tenderloin with a braised red cabbage tart and Brussels sprouts. Again, the menu description is a dis-service to the artistry of the plate. The elk had been seared, and then coated in a mixture of fresh herbs and panko bread crumbs. It was cooked to a perfect medium rare. It was plated with an apple and wine kraut with bacon, baby Brussels sprouts sautéed with Asian pear over a vanilla-scented pear puree, and a slice of red cabbage tart in a delicate and flaky crust. Paired with this course was the Ceretto Rossana Dolcetto d’Alba, Piedmont 2010. Red cherry and floral aromas, with red fruit and a bit of cured fruit flavors (reminiscent of Amarone).

I enjoyed this course so much, that there is not a picture available.

The final of the three breads was a low-salt multigrain loaf, paired with salted Vermont butter.

The second of the meat courses then arrived at the table – Kobe-style Australian Wagyu beef with a garlic-potato puree. Silky and tender beef, served just beyond rare, with a smooth puree of potato flavored with smoked roasted garlic. On top were petite vegetables from Chef’s Garden Farms in Ohio – petite carrots, baby zucchini, garlic roots, and micro parsley. The final garnish was a slice of black garlic – garlic that has been fermented and cured. The dish was paired with the Molly Dooker Maitre D’ Cabernet Sauvignon, South Australia – 2009. This wine is very fruit forward and provided a nice counterpoint to the savoriness of the dish, with black cherry, blackberry, and cassis notes, as well as hints of both chocolate and vanilla from the oak barrels.

The next to appear was the cheese course – a selection of four tastes of cheese with accompaniments. The cheeses included Fiscalini cheddar from California, a 2 year Gouda Reypenaer XO, a Colston Bassett Stilton, and a Sottocenere al tartufo, an ash-rinded Italian cow’s milk cheese from the Veneto studded with truffle. The accompaniments were tupelo honey, a date cake, a slice of pear poached in Burgundy wine, a rye toast, and a brunoise of candied Italian fruit. This course was paired with a 2006 Quinta do Crasto Late Bottled Vintage Port. The sweet richness of the port blended nicely with the cheeses, and added an accent to the fruit accompaniments.

The first dessert was a testament to the skill and artistry of the staff under Chef Erich’s direction in the pastry kitchen. We were treated to a green apple baba with sour cream ice cream. I sound like a broken record at this point, but the menu description just does not do the dish justice! The apple spice cake with an apple mousse filling was in the shape of an apple, had been decorated with color and a gloss coat so as to appear to be a real apple on the plate, and was topped off by a stem and a red sugar leaf. It sat in a nest of finely spun sugar, and was accompanied on the plate by poached Pink Lady apples, poached cranberries, meringue flakes, and a quenelle of sour cream ice cream. The wine pairings selected by the restaurant were complete at this point, but I had brought along a celebratory bottle to share with the group – a Vilmart Cuvee Rubis Rose Champagne. One of the finest rose grower Champagnes, it provides light red fruit, a creamy mouthfeel, and brisk acidity, and paired well with all of the desserts for the evening.

The second dessert (chocolate course) was an architectural marvel. A Peruvian chocolate cylinder lay on the plate, composed of a light, fluffy mousse surrounding a dense chocolate core. Wrapping around the cylinder and rising off the plate was a tempered chocolate sheet flecked with gold flake. Helping anchor the piece in place and somewhat hidden in the background was a small sphere of white chocolate and a sprig of red currants. Balancing the plate were a shimmering elder flower sauce (also with gold flake) and caramel caviar (little balls of liquid caramel encased in molecular gastronomic gel). On a separate small spoon was a chocolate bubble, looking for all the world like a brown egg yolk. Also a product of molecular gastronomy, the chocolate was a smooth liquid, flavored with a bit of vanilla cognac.

True to Chef Aimee’s word (and without prompting from the table), a third dessert appeared… Friandises, or small bites of candies and petit fours. In all, there were an additional seven different bites on this dish, ranging from mimosas – orange crème flavored with champagne and the dipped in chocolate, raspberry and orange gelees, white chocolate dipped truffles, the restaurant’s take on cherry cordials, and (my favorite) – chocolate-wrapped candied orange peel.

I cannot conclude this post without also mentioning the coffee and brewing system used at V&A’s. They brew Celebes coffee in what is called a vacuum percolator. A vacuum brew coffee maker looks a lot more elegant than most machines, and at first glance, simply doesn’t look like a coffee maker at all! Two glass globes fit together to compose the apparatus, and these are seated together by a rubber gasket for an airtight seal. The upper bowl has a hollow glass shaft that extends down into the lower globe, and that shaft is topped with a filter that separates the coffee grounds from the liquid, with the grounds placed in the upper globe – sitting on top of the filter – and the required amount of water needed to brew the grounds placed in the lower globe.

With the globes fitted together, the water is then heated until it reaches a boil. Pressure in the lower globe increases as the water boils, forcing it up the shaft into the upper globe, and releasing the water over the top of the coffee grounds. After all the water has been forced through the tube and into the upper globe, the heat source is removed and the lower globe is allowed to cool. As the lower globe returns to room temperature, the pressure in the globe decreases, vacuuming the now-brewed coffee down through the filter and into the bottom globe for service.

While not an every week, every month, or perhaps even every year experience, those who love fine dining, have a slightly foodie or geeky bent, and enjoy a level of service unparalleled in the area (if not the state and perhaps the southeast), owe it to themselves to experience the Chef’s Table at Victoria and Albert’s. Thank you to Josh and Paula, Kevin and Frida, and especially Jay and Leighan, for allowing Ouida and I to join you for this wonderful evening of food and friends.

Amateur Night

21 Jan

My wife and I and another two couples recently visited a local restaurant for a pre-holiday meal.  Restaurant cognoscenti refer to holiday and pre-holiday meals (Valentine’s Day, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve) as “amateur nights,” where folks who do not typically dine out come out in mass, or even frequent restaurant diners step up a level or two for the special occasion.

The restaurant had offered an enticing three-course pre-fixe menu (appetizer, main, and dessert) with choices to please carnivores, pescivores, and vegetarians alike.  The menu included high ticket items such as foie gras, Maine lobster,  and Wagyu beef among the choices.  At $45 per person, we thought it was too good to pass up, even on amateur night.

We had chosen the earliest of three seatings at the restaurant, as we had plans for later in the evening and did not want to arrive for New Year’s Eve festivities on an empty stomach.  We also figured that the early seating would be the least hectic for the restaurant and that we would see the restaurant at its peak while they were fresh.

We were shown to our table and we settled in.  Several tables were already seated and were in various stages of dining.  After several minutes our waiter appeared and welcomed us, and said he would get us some menus.  We asked him for some Champagne flutes, as we had brought our own.  He came back a few minutes later with two menus, handed them to one couple, and wandered off.   He reappeared a few minutes later with another two menus, and announced that he was having trouble assembling menus for the table.  Given that this was the first seating on a pre-fixe menu, we found this quite odd that there were not enough menus available.  When we all had menus, he asked if we wanted to place our orders.  We stated that we were still waiting on the Champagne flutes, and that some water would be nice as well.  After another few minutes, he reappeared with Champagne flutes; we were somewhat mystified by the amount of time that it was taking, as the restaurant advertised that the meal would come with a complimentary glass of Champagne, so they should have had the stemware staged.  When the water was brought to the table, it had an odd, and decidedly fishy, aroma.  Curiously, future refills on the water did not have this aroma.

We finally placed our orders, with the majority of us ordering a foie gras crème brulee, which sounded intriguing.  The brulees arrived, accompanied by a savory sage biscotti, preserved fig, and dressed microgreens.  The crème brulee was subtly flavored with the foie, although we thought that there should have been a bit more evident in the mix.  The crisp sage biscotti added a nice texture and flavor counterpoint to the smooth and creamy brulee, and the fig was simply amazing.  We paired this dish with a bottle of 1997 La Tour Blanche Sauternes, always a smart and easy pairing with something rich like a crème brulee, and especially with the addition of foie gras.

With this as the opening salvo, we anticipated great things for the evening.  For the entrée, the majority of the table ordered the Wagyu ribeye, with one ordering the lobster.  While waiting for the mains to arrive we sampled a couple of red wines that we brought for the occasion, including a 1997 Dominus and a 2001 Silverado Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

The entrees were quite slow coming out of the kitchen, and the waiter stopped by the table at least twice to explain to us that another table was in front of us.  When the entrees arrived, we were all surprised by the presentation.  The steak was a relatively large piece of meat, but was only ½ inch thick.   Not what we expected.  Upon cutting into the steak, we found that all of them were cooked beyond the requested doneness.  Not all that astonishing given the thin cut.  I decided that my steak was close enough to not send back, but other steaks were sent back to the kitchen.    The dish had additional issues… the steaks, as well as the vegetables that accompanied… were all overly salted.  The vegetables that accompanied the lobster dish were also heavily salted.

When the desserts arrived, the problems continued.  My wife had ordered the “Bananas Foster” which did appear in quotes on the menu and was described as “house made vanilla bean ice cream, seasonal fruit.”  What was placed on the table was a bowl of white, room temperature liquid.  Upon examination, there were pieces of banana submerged in it, but they gave no indication of being sauted.

My dessert choice was “Dark chocolate & Grand Marnier molton cake, with a house made mint crème frâiche.”  Crème fraiche seemed an odd topping for a chocolate lava cake, but I was game.   It turns out that I was not a fan of the crème fraiche, but it was more the flavoring that I had a problem with.  The crème fraiche was not mint, but a combination of dill and tarragon; again, not things that I would match with chocolate.

All in all, we were disappointed in the performance of a restaurant where we had previously had fabulous meals, and that had been lauded near and far by critics and foodies alike.  I am hoping that our meal was an anomaly for the evening, and that other diners fared better.   I am actually eager to go back to see if, in fact, it was a momentary glitch, but several of our dining partners have indicated that they have no desire to return.