Monday, July 18, 2016

A Birthday Dinner at Latour in Crystal Springs and Some Thoughts on Fine Dining

Today's restaurant review comes with a couple of philosophical (maybe that word is a bit hyperbolic?) questions.

What are you willing to do to get into an in-demand restaurant?  Will you take a reservation at a crazy time?  Will you wait for an hour or two to be seated?  Would you even bother to try to get a table?

How do you feel about letting a chef choose your entire meal?  Are you adventurous enough to eat a tasting menu entirely selected by the chef with little to no input from you about your preferences (unless you have allergies)?

These are some thoughts that went through my head when considering a restaurant for my recent birthday.  My birthday fell on a Saturday night, which gave me the leisure to play with ideas of what to do and where to go.  I gathered ideas for the best Saturday night possible.

Have any of my readers watched the Netflix documentary series Chef's Table?  It had a huge influence on both my birthday plans and this post.  As I watched these endless biographies of chefs and their menu creations, I noticed a trend.  Most of these chefs weren't offering a menu.  If you wanted to eat at these Michelin-starred gastronomical powerhouses, you had better have a sense of adventure and be willing to give up your ability to choose. Diners eat what the chef is making that night.  Picky eaters need not apply.

I know plenty of restaurants who have tasting menus available.  One of my favorite restaurants The Iron Forge Inn offers one.  I tended to ignore them as they always featured at least two courses made up of food I don't like.  It didn't seem worth it to me.  Then I learned about Per Se from many of my foodie friends.  Here was a restaurant that was pure tasting.  There would be no choice - no non-fish, non-pea, non-beet options.  I had to eat what was in front of me and empty my wallet for it.  That never seemed like a good deal to me.  A tasting menu is too high a risk with potentially little reward.

Chef's Table had me briefly reconsidering this.  The first episode was about Dan Barber.  He is the proprietor and chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns (also featured on an episode of Top Chef).  The restaurant is the ultimate farm-to-table experience.  It sits on the massive agricultural center Barber put together himself using his knowledge of farming and agriculture. (Chef's Table has him explaining exactly how each area of the property is best suited for raising and feeding certain types of animals and the best spots to grow each vegetable.)  Everything you eat at Blue Hill was likely picked or raised right outside the door.  Unlike most of the restaurants featured on Chef's Table, it is located quite close to me (contrary to what they said on Top Chef, it is not "upstate" New York.  It's barely an hour north of NYC).   Maybe I should try to get a reservation for my birthday.  I had been curious about it since it opened in 2004.

The menu is a tasting menu the chef determines daily.  It can even change during the course of an evening if the kitchen runs out of a certain ingredient.  Would I be able to take that risk?  Would the food be as spectacular as everyone says it is?  What would I do if they presented something I knew I hated?  What if both Kevin and I hated it?  The price is over $200 per person.  That would be an expensive gamble.

I thought I should take the risk.  I should experience it at least once, right?

If you want to make an online reservation, you have to do it no more than 60 days in advance.  I was prepared.  My plan was was to go online at the 60 day mark and make the reservation as soon as I woke up.

I woke up at 5AM two months before my birthday.  I went straight to the computer and entered the date into the reservation request form.

It was too late.  There was nothing left for that night.

I guess if you want a reservation at Blue Hill, you have to get online at midnight.  It's like buying concert tickets (or Hamilton tickets).

Although Blue Hill isn't among the top restaurants in the world with impossible reservations, it does score honorable mention.  (Babbo is also on the honorable mention list in this link.  I remember trying to get reservations there years ago.  I got a reservation at 6PM on a Friday and my husband got the flu.  We were never able to reschedule and I gave up.)

I have tried to research ways to game the system.  There must be some shady ways out there to get these exclusive reservations, but no one is sharing them publicly.  The best I could do was put myself on a waiting list.

I'm not that patient.  I'm not that crafty.  I didn't want to have to make alternate plans and then have to cancel them at the last minute if a table at Blue Hill magically opened up.   I'm willing to substitute perfectly delicious food for food with a stratospheric reputation and nearly-transcendent tastes if it means I don't have to go through the trouble of bending over backwards for a reservation or waiting on long lines.

I deliberated where to go.  A Saturday means not waiting until you are home from work and not having to go to bed early to wake up for work the next day, so I could go a little farther from home.  What was a place with an excellent reputation that I really want to try?

I finally decided on Restaurant Latour.  It is part of a massive ski and golf resort that happens to sit across the street from where my horses live.   I made an excursion out of it and booked a room for the night at the nearby Alpine Haus. Latour is a farm-to-table restaurant where the restaurant is partnered with a local farm in the area and also has a chef's garden at the resort.  The restaurant is well-known for its extensive wine cellar.  The chef may not be a celebrity, but I'm always a bit skeptical about celebrity chef owned restaurants anyway.*

Latour offers a tasting menu, but there are two levels.  There is a 5-course menu where you have a few options for each course, and then there is also a chef's tasting menu ifor those who prefer to let the chef choose your entire meal for you.  That put me much more at ease about my meal.

We arrived on a beautiful summer evening.  From the club parking lot you can almost see the windows of the restaurant in the tower.  The shades are closed right now.

When we entered we had to check in at the hostess desk for the restaurant on the lower level.  She then called Latour and had their maitre d' (almost a performer) escort us in the elevator to the top floor.

I was surprised at how small the place was.  There are only 12 tables.  It gave an exclusive, but still intimate feel.  Not long after we sat down, they opened the shades, allowing us to see the sunset over the golf course and the mountains.

The staff was attentive and entertaining right from the beginning.  They saw to our every comfort and answered every question.

I decided to start my evening with a cocktail.  I chose one called, "Oh My Darling Lemon Thyme."  I had to choose that one.  How could I not want a drinkable pun?  I can only describe it as an alcoholic Arnold Palmer with assertive herbal notes of thyme and lavender.  It was unusual and not too sweet.  Note the sophisticated and environmentally-friendly reusable metal straw.

The menu is divided into 5 sections: Harvest, Sea, Aquatic, Grazing, Cheese and Dessert.  Our server asked if we had any allergies or strong aversions.  I felt a bit embarrassed, but I said I really do have a seafood aversion and would prefer not to have that course.  He said it would be no problem and I could just order a second vegetable course. I had to make some tough decisions with the meat course, but our server was on hand for recommendations.

I also opted for the wine pairings. Since Latour has an enormous wine cellar and I thought I should take advantage of it.  I could not have expected the adventure the restaurant would provide for me.

We started with an amusee bouche of a poached quail egg, a bit of crispy pork skin, and a tiny tomato.

Soon we began our first vegetable course. Mine was tiny heirloom carrots roasted with honey and topped with sugar roasted hazelnuts.  Dollops of homemade yogurt balanced the sweetness with acidity.

The dish was paired with a blend of Riesling and a German varietal from South Africa.  It miraculously started out sweet, but finished with a strong acidity.  It was an exciting wine that balanced the dish perfectly.

The next dish was ravioli flavored with cattail pollen and creme fraiche.  It walked the line of being too salty, but the pasta was perfectly cooked.

The wine was my favorite for the evening.  It was a sauvingon blanc called Sbragia.  (I had to make sure I had the name written down so I could look for it in the future).  Kevin had a sip (he didn't do the course pairing for his meal because he was driving) and loved it as well. It was light and acidic, but full-bodied at the same time.  The color was surprisingly yellow for a sauvignon blanc.

My next course was duck.  As I said, it was a hard decision as the lamb and the pork both sounded wonderful.  I think they had me at spaetzle though. This was a large chunk of muscovy duck breast with had an almost steak-like taste and consistency.  Along with the poppyseed spaetzle we had some sweet red cabbage and a mulberry puree.  I have had duck with many types of fruit, but never mulberries.

The wine was a US Zinfandel that started sweet, but had a mineral finish.  The consistency could almost be described as creamy.

Next we came to the cheese course.  I chose a Vermont cow's milk cheese that tasted like a combination of cheddar and parmesan.   A few cherries on the side balanced the salty sharpness.

The first wine they served me was a Rhone Valley Syrah/Grenache blend.  It was dark and full-bodied with a surprising, smoky aroma.  Although I liked the wine, it tended to kill the cheese when I drank it.  I thought it was an odd choice.  When I told the server, he became very embarrassed and realized he had served me the wrong wine.  It was the wine that was supposed to go with another diner's wagyu beef (I think it would be an excellent accompaniment to beef).  He exchanged it for Jelly Jar Zinfandel, which was lighter and fruitier and didn't cause me to forget what the cheese tasted like every time I took a sip.

Thank goodness these courses were all small because dessert was coming and I wanted to really enjoy it.

Then again, how could I not enjoy this?

This was like a cold, sophisticated candy bar.  There was a nougat center covered in dark chocolate sitting in a pool of caramel.  To the left you can see the crushed pretzels whose saltiness and crunch balanced the softness and sweetness of the chocolate.  The ice cream at the bottom is malt flavored.

My dessert wine.  I got tired of taking notes and took a photo instead.  They even poured a glass for Kevin.  I liked this because it was sweet without that weird syrupy flavor often present in dessert wines.

If that wasn't enough, they brought out this little plate of candies and petit fours for us.

I had way too much to drink to remember all the flavors here.

We arrived for a 7PM reservation and were heading to the car at 10PM.  This wasn't just a dinner.  It was an experience.  I didn't feel too full or too drunk because it was all so leisurely.  Yet I was never bored or impatient because the staff kept us so relaxed.  The food was creative and delicious, and the wine tasting was truly an adventure. 

I  hope to come back here again the next time the occasion warrants it.  Kevin said the next time we come here we have to stay at the resort so he doesn't have to drive and can get the wine pairing for himself. 

*That being said, my father is taking me to The Landmarc later this week for a late birthday dinner.  Landmarc is owned by a frequent Chopped Judge.