Spago Chef Wolfgang Puck called me the morning after he catered the dinner at George Clooney's house for President Obama, and he was kind enough to detail the menu for that special evening. It began with an artichoke salad, went on to sautéed diver scallops, then Peking duck with tiny buns, followed by lamb and beef cheeks with caramelized Brussels sprouts and roast potatoes... ending with a do-it-yourself ice cream sundae from pastry chef Sherry Yard.
He then extended an invitation to me to join him and legendary Chef Alain Ducasse at the Hotel Bel-Air on the same Friday evening for a special dinner arranged by the Dorchester Collection, the Sultan of Brunei's folks who own the Hotel Bel Air, the Beverly Hills Hotel, Paris' Plaza Athénée and the Dorchester in London, among others. (Ducasse has restaurants at the latter two.) Of course I cancelled all plans and arrived at the Bel-Air at 6 p.m., to be seated at a table next to the recently-arrived General Manager of the Hotel Bel-Air, a charming woman named Denise Flanders who had been G.M. at the Four Seasons in Chicago for several years before coming here seven weeks ago. We exchanged pleasantries about our pets, me showing a picture of my big male cat, Pyewacket, and she showing me a picture of her three cute little French-bred dogs... they looked somewhat similar to the Lhasos I once had, but she explained that she had found the breed during a trip to Burgandy some years ago. I was the only male at a table of six lovely females (the cool. collected Amy Scattergood of L.A. Weekly on my other side, an attractive woman from Angeleno down the table, and Alisha, a stunning woman from the hotel staff across the way) so naturally I was content, happy and hungry.
Laurent-Perrier "Cuvee Rose" Champagne France NV was served to the table by the hotel's suave Director of Food and Beverage, Stephane Lacroix, as we nibbled on the three amuse-bouche: Osetra caviar in a spoon atop wasabi crème fraiche snow (the caviar from northern California), along with smoked chicken liver pastrami with a shallot compote on a rye crisp, while I eagerly awaited the last, the hand-cut steak tartare with egg jam herb aioli and chives, my favorite of the trio. Stephane told me that the two chefs were alternating courses for the meal (and I knew that the hotel's exec chef, Sonny Sweetman, was in the kitchen along with Ari Rosenson of Wolf's Cut), as the smartly-attired wait staff then brought the first menu course, a spicy crab salad with avocado, citrus and pepper condiment. I thought the crab was a bit salty (probably naturally) and only ate a few bites, knowing of the wonderful goodies to come. Interesting white wine came, a Cold Heaven Viognier from Santa Ynez, a vineyard I didn't know but a wine which I quite liked.
The second course was a line-caught Monterey Bay red salmon served with English peas and fava beans, and a cherry tomato vinaigrette. My delightful companion, Denise, told me of her love for fava beans, not usually one of my favorites; these were good, but I preferred the peas. The salmon was cooked to my liking, still pink in the center. I had opted to include the wine tasting with my dinner ($70 additional to the $190 cost of the meal) and it proved to be a smart choice, Here was a Bouchard Pere & Fils Mersault "Les Clous" Premiere Cru, Burgandy, 2009. Surprisingly rich and strong. The next course was actually my favorite dish of the night, a Wolfe Ranch Quail. I pontificated to the table that Brent Wolfe was a poultry farmer in Vacaville, California, who had managed to perfect the (difficult) art of raising succulent quails and squabs, much larger and more tender than any others. I knew that Wolfgang loved this bird, and it is also a mainstay of Thomas Keller's The French Laundry and Alice Walter's Chez Panisse, as well as other top California eateries. Unfortunately, these delectable quail are not available retail or I would be eating them regularly at home. The quails were stuffed with brioche bread crumbs and Morel mushrooms, alongside wild ramps, drizzled with a Bay natural 'jus.' My friend offered me half of her bird and I greedily accepted. The wine was another favorite, the Jermome Chezeaux Vosne-Romanee "Les Suchats" Premier Cru Burgandy of the 2006 vintage.
The final entrée was a loin of Colorado lamb served with a Mediterranean relish and eggplant tian, the meat lean and medium rare, stunningly good. The wine was a Napa Valley Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon "Howell Mountain" from 1998. I again showed off for the ladies by saying that I loved two California Central Valley wineries, Justin Vineyards and Laetitia, the latter owned by Selim Zilkha, who lives within walking distance of this hotel. Interesting, most of the table did not finish their lamb ... and I remembered a note I found this week which said that 40 percent of Americans had never even tasted lamb (my favorite meat). No great dinner ends for me without a cheese course, and here the rolling cart with a dozen fromage was welcome, and I enjoyed a French triple-crème and two semi-hard cheeses, eaten with the pretzel bread I had been saving for this course. The meal ended with a splendid dessert from Wolf's baking partner, pastry chef Sherry Yard, something which the menu called Crispy Short Stack. It was a nutty, crispy savarin, with apricot croquettes and Marcona glace. The final wine was a Chateau Rieusec Sauternes 2006 from Bordeaux, a nice reminder of what a good sweet wine does to end a great dinner. (Yes, I did smoke a Padron cigar on the way home.) Coffee was a rich blend (and fair-traded.) Truly a stunning delicious and carefully orchestrated dinner which this jaded journalist `thoroughly enjoyed.`
As I left, I encountered Wolf and Alain chatting at the entrance, and reminded Ducasse of a meal we had shared many years ago on the patio of Spago with his then girlfriend/translator, now wife, Gwenaelle, when he told me of the small plane crash which had almost killed him and changed the course of his life for the better. He regarded me for a long moment and then went behind the desk to hand me a gift: a copy of his new cookbook, NATURE, Simple, Healthy and Good. It was a fascinating collection of 190 recipes from this French master chef, and I spent this weekend devouring it with rapt attention. Oh, my, I love eating and reading about great food from great chefs. It makes life truly worthwhile.
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