In an earlier post on the Cress Restaurant James Beard Nominees Charity Dinner, I had described how my wife became caught up in a bidding war to secure two tickets to dine with Chef Hari Pulapaka of said restaurant. Bill Budzinski, owner of Elusive Grape, had spiced the offer up by promising that Chef Hari and his wife Jenneffer would join the lucky "winners" for dinner. Further, Bill and his wife would also join the party and he would supply the wine. Hence a three-way bidding war. One of the wiser combatants called a truce just as things were about to really go off the deep end and proposed that the three parties split the current bid amount equally -- that's how bad it had gotten -- and would all participate in the dinner. I jumped at that deal on behalf of my wife before she had a chance to do any alpha-dog stuff.
The dinner was set for Sunday, November 27th. One of the winning bidders could not make the date but gave us permission to press on. So we did. Eight of us in a downtown Deland restaurant that was closed to members of the public. As I stepped into the restaurant I noted that it had been set up such that the focus was on a centrally located, tastefully appointed table. The lighting in the restaurant was somewhat restrained. The wines for the night were arrayed on the bar to the southern side of the restaurant. Napkins were carefully draped across every place setting and folded, sealed menus nestled comfortably on them.
We were the first to arrive, followed in rapid succession by our fellow diners. We greeted each other with a sense of anticipation. We were going in and we were going in together. I was ready. I had eaten lightly during the course of the day because Chef had promised us a meal fit for a Rajah.
We were welcomed to the event by Jenneffer who thanked us for our contributions to the success of the original charity dinner and reminded us that the charities which had benefited from the event were The Taste of Orlando and Second Harvest Food Bank. We toasted ourselves with a bottle of Ca'del Bosco Brut Rosé and then followed up with a wonderful 1992 Bollinger.
There were no servers or other help around. The Chef was doing all the cooking, plating, and serving. He appeared unflustered as he brought out the Amuse Bouche: Two types of Croquettes (Applewood Bacon and Vegetarian), a Blooming Onion Pakora, Cranberry Compote, and South Indian Coconut and Ghost Chile Sauce. The Onion Pakora was bound together with chick-pea flour and had a distinct ginger flavor. I tried the Croquettes with both of the sauces and felt that the latter provided a better textural contrast. This was very flavorful all around with a definite undercurrent of exotic Indian spices. The Bollinger paired very nicely with this course.
The second course was a visually pleasing salad constructed with Smoked Heirloom Tomatoes, Roasted Grapes, Seasonal Local Lettuce, Sesame Sherry Vinaigrette, Chèvre, and Toasted Walnuts. A distinctive smoked-herring and walnut flavor accompanied the crisp lettuce onto the palate. The wines presented were a 1968 Vina Valoria Rioja and a 2007 Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay. Unfortunately the Vina Valoria was corked but the crisp acidity of the chardonnay carried the day.
Had I mentioned that this was going to be a seven-course meal? That was big enough but, within the courses, the chef presented options from which we could choose. For example, the options for the second course were: i) Cast Iron Roasted Grimaud Farms Duck Breast; ii) Pan Roasted Breast of Ashley Farms Chicken; or iii) Butternut Squash Ravioli. Each of option was presented with a black habanero reduction and, additionally for the third option, Point Reyes Bleu Alfredo. I opted for the Duck Breast and was treated to an explosion of flavor tinged with spiciness. A mixture of crispy, crunchy texture close to the skin and softer moistness as you moved towards the center. Wonderful. This course was paired with a Two Hands 2003 Lily's Garden McLaren Vale Shiraz.
The third course was Linguini with San Marzano Vodka Sauce and Parmeggiano Reggiano. The pasta had great consistency with hints of pine nuts, lemon zest, and pesto. Low-grade spiciness. Paired with a 1997 Don Melchor Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
As was the case for the second course, the fourth course provided options: i) Kurobuta Pork Cheek Tikka Masala; ii) Cape Canaveral Wild Shrimp Tikka Masala; or iii) Vegetarian Kofta Tikka Masala. Each of these dishes was offered with Poblano and Grilled Garlic Naan. I went for the Pork Cheeks. Its soft texture allowed it to become fully engaged with the Tikka Masala in a mutually beneficial relationship. A Tikka-Masala-dunked Naan is a special experience when delivered with this level of care and expertise. Excellent. Paired with a 2009 Zind Humbrecht Gewurtztraminer.
For the fifth course the chef asked us to choose between a Darling Downs Wagyu Ribeye and an Exotic Mushroom and Pistou Napolean, both prepared with a Smoked Onion Velouche and Truffled Porcini Foam. You have probably noticed my penchant for meat. This course was paired with the 2003 Lokoya Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. An excellent steak which I only succeeded in polishing off today.
Following a cheese selection, our final course was Dark Chocolate Pots de Créme, Grilled Figs, and Salted Caramel Sauce.
This meal had unfolded in a somewhat surreal setting: the restaurant was empty -- save for us --and downtown Deland was empty -- save for us. It was as though we were alone in the world, eating in a vacuum. But this was of no account to us. Chef had gone from strength to strength as we moved through the courses. The pace had been somewhat languid with Chef spending a fair amount of time at the table shooting the breeze. Our conversation was animated and far-ranging (as it is won't to be in Jenneffer's presence) and it was now midnight (The dinner had originally been scheduled form 6:00 to 11:00 pm). I had to give up. I was begging for mercy and aluminum foil.
This was a rich, opulent, and decadent meal fit for a Rajah. And us.