Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Eight Courses of Splendor

When we were dating, there was no way to possibly know that Hubby and I were so perfectly made for one another. How, at sixteen, could I have known that he would never complain about going shopping with me? How, at sixteen, would I have been able to foresee that I would never have to be one of those wives who ‘mothers’ her husband by dressing him, feeding him, and babying him? How, at sixteen, would I have known that he would have practically the same taste buds as me? That he would love late night trips to Starbucks and be willing to be a guinea pig for a wide variety of flavors at our dinner table day in and day out?

I’m pretty lucky.

He reaches for the extraordinary and refuses to live life going through the motions. It should have been little to no surprise to me that he made reservations for a restaurant hidden away downtown, marked only by a small sign on the door, mixed amongst others on the street corners that scream with open windows and bright lights.

From our relaxing view of Central Park, by subway it was a 40-minute shuffle through the bitter cold to get to Degustation. A cold gust forcing our heads down could have caused us to miss it. Then again, isn’t that the way with a lot of places in New York that are hidden beneath the glitz and glamour of highly erected buildings and signs that demand attention?

Degustation is ‘Iberian, French, and American influenced cuisine…local market inspired’. Small plates are the focus of the menu. The best part though is that it is an open kitchen. The head chef, Nicholas Licata, is cooking right in front of you, and in the case of Hubby and myself literally directly in front of us.

This experience has made me learn to respect the small plate menu. The idea of a small plate used to sound completely absurd to me. Why on earth would I want a small plate of something delicious? But with small plates, you get the opportunity to try several different things at once, hopefully, without overindulging. They are usually pricey, but the quality of what you are receiving is far superior to many larger plates served elsewhere.

For Valentine’s Day, Degustation had an eight-course tasting menu. I think Hubby had a hunch that it was the only thing they were serving that night, but I had no clue. I started looking at the menu in front of us and thought, ‘ Hmmm, I suppose there is something on here that I can order…” Then I started to take in my surroundings more and I realized that no, I wouldn’t be ordering anything. I would be eating everything.

When this realization set in, I started to panic a little. There were items on the menu that I would never in my life have had any desire to try, let alone to pay to try. I tried to reason that I was being silly, panicking over food, but considering that half of the words on the menu I needed to inconspicuously use Google to clarify left me wondering how when this was all over I could possibly convince Hubby he had made a good choice for our Valentine’s Day meal.

Let me help you better understand the point of confusion I was facing. Here was the tasting menu set out next to our place settings:

Oyster “Taco”

Focaccia Toast
Warm Lardo, Red Onion Jam

Burrata
Chinese Oregano, Nasturtium, Puffed Wild Rice

Scallop
Thai Red Curry, Finger Lime, Shiso

“Green Eggs & Lamb”
Poached Egg, Lamb Belly, Smoked Maple

Squid Ink Spaghetti
Soffrito, Bottarga, Blue Prawn, Chorizo Crumb

Beef
Sunchokes, Parsnip, Chestnuts

Cheese, Candied Walnut, Churned Seashore Honey

Spanish Torrija & Cajeta

Knowing the price of the meal and also that we had champagne back at our hotel room, we chose not to order wine, though the restaurant’s wine list has been hand selected by the chef to pair with the plate assortment.

The couples on either side of us were already into their third and fourth courses, so we had the experience of not only watching the eight different courses being prepared again and again before we ate them, but of also watching the expressions of others around us as they experienced the taste.

If you read my most recentpost, you’ll understand this. After we sat down and had taken in the menu, the room, and the methodical cooking going on before us, Hubby leaned over to me and said, “No taking pictures here.”

Naturally, I thought.

But then, the desire to take a picture continued to build up inside of me. He was right, of course. This was precisely the kind of place that taking a picture of your food and/or of the chef is completely and horrifically tacky.

But then I found a reason.

The menu is on their website, right? I asked him, assuming that he had looked over the eight-courses which, like it or not, we were about to behold.

Yeah, actually, ummm….

That was enough for me. I nonchalantly snapped a few pictures of the menu so I would remember every single thing (for you, for me) and then couldn’t resist a few more.

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However, I did not take a single shot of my food. And for that, you should be proud of me.*

*Go to Degustation’s website to see a few pictures of food off their regular menu.

Now, onto the food…

First Course: Oyster ‘Taco’

Before this, I had never eaten an oyster before.

I was terrified.

Oysters = Slimy. Chewy. Yucky. This was the preconceived idea I had and I was basically ready to take a bite of my ‘taco’ and then pass the rest over to Hubby. Then I watched as the oysters were dumped from a pot of hot oil to drain. Fried oysters? That’s something I think I can get behind.

Apprehensively, I took my first bite. The shell was tiny, about the size of a biscuit. A white spread, the oyster and some greens were piled on top of one another.

My gut instinct told me to pass it on to Hubby after I ate my first bite, but my mouth wouldn’t let my hands give this new found delight away.

Second Course: Focaccia Toast: Warm Lardo, Red Onion Jam

Here is where I got a little antsy. I grabbed my phone and hid it under the table as I frantically Googled “Lardo”. That little ‘o’ on the end made me question if it was related to lard, or something far more unusual and complicated.

Lardo, dear readers, in down right, straight up, holding no punches, Layman’s terms is pig fat.

After spreading the red onion jam (mind blowing!) and a few other fancy frills on top of the focaccia toast, the chef then laid a piece of lardo on top and used a kitchen torch to crisp it.

It was still a little chewy in spots, and difficult to cut, but it gave an amazing flavor to the toast. If you are someone who likes your bacon on the less crispy side (like Hubby) you will love lardo. Me, I could have eaten an entire loaf of bread with the red onion jam only.

Third Course: Burrata: Chinese Oregano, Nasturtium, Puffed Wild Rice

This course was one of my favorites. A lot of Italians crave mini mozzarella balls or mozzarella and tomato drizzled with balsamic. Though I desperately want to, I haven’t shared that sentiment. There are some times that I love the flavor of the cold mozzarella, and other times that it makes me cringe. This course made me realize that it is most likely the quality of the cheese.

In other words, I’m a snob.

But we pretty much knew that from my stance on leftovers.

Burrata, which yes, I needed to Google, is a cheese made from mozzarella and cream. The outside is all mozzarella while the inside is softer due to the combination of mozzarella and cream. It was topped with a little oil, Chinese oregano, nasturtium (a kind of watercress), and puffed wild rice.

This cheese was the best cheese I have ever eaten in my life. Hubby wanted more puffed wild rice. While the rice and greens were a nice addition to the cheese, this was a cheese I could have eaten by the handful. It was incredibly smooth and creamy, but not only that—there was a flavor that I have yet to taste in ordinary grocery store mozzarella.

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Fourth Course: Scallop: Thai Red Curry, Finger Lime, Shiso

I wanted desperately to request for my scallop without the curry. I knew it was going to be too spicy for me and that it would affect my scallop in a negative way.

The scallops used were jumbo scallops. I could have probably eaten five or six of them had this not been an eight-course dinner. They were cooked to perfection, served with a curry sauce drizzle, a little greenery, and a side of sliced finger limes.

Of the entire dinner, the finger limes were possibly the most fascinating thing I experienced. Finger limes look like limes that have been shrunk down to the size of an almond. They were given to us sliced in half and we were told to squeeze them over our scallops to help cut the spicy flavor. Instead of juice squeezing out, little bubbles that I can only liken to caviar in size and presence came out. These bubbles burst with a citrus flavor when bit into.

Though originally a fruit of Australia, the finger limes we enjoyed were grown in California.

Fifth Course: “Green Eggs & Lamb”: Poached Egg, Lamb Belly, Smoked Maple

This course intrigued me the most, mainly because even after watching the chef prepare it again and again for other guests, I still had no clue which element was the lamb belly. What we were given was a poached egg drizzled with a green and brown sauce topped with what I originally thought was some kind of bread crumble. When I ate it, I realized that what I thought was a bread crumble was really a sort of corned beef hash of lamb belly.

Hubby, being a big fan of corned beef hash, loved this course. The lamb belly was a little too tough for me. I felt that for such a tiny item I was chewing it an awful lot—of course, perhaps I was eating it wrong. This is always a possibility!

I was more interested in the poached egg. I have never poached an egg before and found it mesmerizing to watch as the chef’s assistant cracked the eggs (they were poached in the shell) and would gently rock them out of their shell and into a bowl. I think poaching eggs will be in my near future. I better dedicate a good dozen to this venture.

Sixth Course: Squid Ink Spaghetti: Soffrito, Bottarga, Blue Prawn, Chorizo Crumb

A few weeks ago, I was in an Italian market in Princeton and saw fresh squid ink spaghetti. On first look, I thought it might be interesting to make something with squid ink spaghetti. Then, as I further considered why the spaghetti was black and the fact that it was SQUID INK I decided then and there that I would never, ever attempt to make a meal with squid ink spaghetti.

By this point, the chef had proven himself to be able to not only convince me to eat anything, but also that he could make just about everything tasty and delicious. Despite the stance made weeks ago in Princeton, I knew I was going to have to eat this spaghetti.

Using a tweezer like utensil, the chef twisted each serving off a pan and onto the plate. I know that all the other elements listed were put on top of the spaghetti, because I watched the chef do it at least a dozen times, but I honestly don’t even remember eating them—I was so focused on the spaghetti. It tasted like any other spaghetti, except with an obvious homemade quality to it. Though it definitely pulled me out of my comfort zone to eat (I ate the entire serving!) I more than likely wouldn’t order it again. Not because I disliked it, but more so because there were so many other courses I enjoyed more.

Seventh Course: Beef: Sunchokes, Parsnip, Chestnuts

Such as the seventh course. Going into this course I knew one thing: I like beef. I figured, worst case scenario, I could avoid all the other elements of this dish and hone in on the meat.

The meat was the best meat of my life. I know I’m really playing up this meal, but in all honesty, I have never had a more tender or flavorful piece of beef. Ever. From a distance, it looked rarer than my preference, but as I ate it I knew that the chef was a complete genius.

The beef, however, was not what made this my favorite course. I sliced into my sunchoke thinking that I would give it a taste, and then if I didn’t like it no one would fault me for pushing the vegetable to the side. The texture reminded me of a potato, and the flavor was better than the best red potatoes I have ever enjoyed. It had a subtly sweet flavor to it, the outside was lightly crisped and I portioned it out so that it was the last bite I took of this course.

Though my gut says, go buy some sunchokes and cook those bad boys up, my heart says that only Degustation should ever serve me sunchokes again.

 Eighth Course: Cheese, Candied Walnut, Churned Seashore Honey

I absolutely love candied walnuts. I love them alone, I love them on salads, I love them with dessert. Naturally, I had never heard of churned seashore honey before, but I had the privilege of watching as the chef used two plastic spoons to ease each serving out of the jar, and then attempt to get the entire serving onto the plate artistically, rather than leaving a confusing blob on the plate.

This quickly became another favorite course of mine. As someone who isn’t a fan of honey flavor alone, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Consider churned seashore honey to be ordinary honey’s rebelliously cool older brother. It was so sweet and creamy, I could have eaten the entire jar. Until I got home and discovered that it costs about $30 a jar. Looks like this portion control thing  is important not just for your belly, but for your wallet too!

Dessert: Spanish Torrija & Cajeta

Wikipedia informed me that torrija is a typical dessert of lent or Holy Week in Spain. After eating it, I’m ready to convert! (Just kidding, mom.) Think French toast…but a French toast so rich and creamy that you need to have it for dessert just for your peace of mind. Especially when it is made with cajeta, which is essentially Mexican caramel.

This dining experience opened my eyes to a new way of eating. Not only was I over the moon with my Hubby and his dare-to-be-different mentality, but I was already planning the next time we could share in such a delectably enlightening thrill of a dining experience. If you ever have the option of participating in a chef’s tasting menu, put all your inhibitions aside and go for it! You won’t be disappointed.

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