Connie, Susan, and I (Christine) each had the opportunity to parttake of the Dissident Chef’s “Niman Ranch Meal” this past weekend. The Dissident Chef/Subculture Dining is something I’ve written about here on Muffin Top before–an underground dining experience drenched in secrecy, anticipation, and adventure. You don’t know what you’ll eat (well, this time we knew it was a Niman Ranch meat-focused meal) and you don’t know WHERE you’ll eat until a few hours before mealtime. You only know WHEN. (The direct link to the Dissident Chef’s website is here).
There’s just something about that kind of setup that sets a diner’s mouth salivating. (not a pretty picture, I tell you).
Having eaten and reviewed a previous Dissident Chef meal, I was curious as to what I’d experience next–would he try something new? Would it be consistent with my previous meal experience? Would I last for 9+ carnivorous courses? (At the end of our meal on Sunday, the diners were sprawled across the couches and floor in the living room, giddy with full stomachs and food coma). And I was curious as to what Connie and Susan’s opinions would be.
(Not to mention that Michael Bauer, the SF Chronicle’s food critic, blogged about the Dissident Chef preceding the dinner nights–it was definitely a topic of conversation amidst the diners).
We ate on separate nights–Connie and Susan dined on Saturday night with 40+ diners (in a residence, with a residential kitchen, something to keep in mind–and they sat at the same table). I dined on Sunday night, with 12 diners in the same residence. Needless to say, this affected mood and kitchen pacing, etc., as you will read in the interview that follows.
The menus differed. My Sunday night menu was:
1. Pig trotter terrine on cucumber with fennel drizzle (pretty good)
2. Breaded pig tail on celery root salad (fabulous, and it fulfilled a childhood fantasy of eating pig tail)
3. Pan seared kobe beef and foie gras sauce
4. Boiled beef tongue on pickled radishes and beeets and blood orange vinaigrette
5. Pork belly trio: confit….apple salad and smoked bacone and apple cider, souvide and frisee
6. Lamb sweetbread (yummy)
7. Pork cheeks on cannelini beans
8. Grilled and braised shoulder of lamb with turnip and farro
9. Honey tangerine anise sorbet
10. Cameo apple pie with pork fat crust and meyer lemon buttermilk ice cream
Saturday night’s menu:
1. Pork trotter terrine with frisee salad and meyer lemon vinaigrette
2000 Westman Chardonnay
2. Pan seared wagyu with foie gras, marrow and anchovy vinaigrette, with parsley shallot salad
2004 Jacques de Merial Bourgogne Chardonnay
3. Pork blood cake and poached egg with blood orange vinaigrette
2003 Marc Cellars Syrah
4. Beef tongue and chervil with beets marinated in zinfandel vinaigrette topped with sea salt.
2003 Montelpulchiana (sp?)
5. Lamb sweetbreads with braised radicchio, green garlic and lamb nage
2001 Spence Roloson Palaterra
6. Pork belly tasting – cider glazed applewood smoked bacon with apple salad, sous vide with lentil salad and confit with mashed turnips
2003 Wyndham Estate Bin 555 syrah
7. Braised lamb shoulder with farro and mint lime au jus
8. Sous vide lamb shoulder stuffed with pork sausage, truffles and ??? with fingerling potato and artichoke
3 Thieves Saturday Red
9. Pomelo sorbet
10. Chocolate cake with pork fat leavening, with coconut creme fraiche and buttermilk ice cream
Cava Pere Ventura
Here are our thoughts–we each answered 5 questions. Some of our answers were surprising, some expected, but I hope this provides you with some thoughts on the experience, one that was truly a culinary adventure (more so than his “normal” meals which don’t have the pressure (a la Iron Chef) of producing meat in each and every single dish).
1. What were your expectations going into the dinner? How would you describe the vibe of the
Susan: I think the vibe was one of excited anticipation. People seemed very happy and excited coming in the door, and everyone appeared to be delighted with the cushy slippers that our hostess provided. There was some scuffling over the coveted red and purple slippers, which were rarer. (I got red, yay!) The atmosphere was beautiful. I thought the upside-down salad fork (the way they set the table) was interesting but I did not ask what the significance of that was. The double stemless glasses were visually beautiful but we had about seven spills at our table alone. Not very practical. I think the vibe really varied from table to table, from room to room and at various parts of each table. My friend and I were seated with two delightfully gregarious women and we discovered that all four of us were originally from New York, so we had an uproarious time together. It may have been more tense or uncomfortable with other people, so we felt like it was a perfect pairing. One of the women was a very adventurous eater and she coaxed us into trying things we were afraid of. I feel like we really lucked out and the vibe was very happy/friendly and celebratory.
Connie: I had high expectations of the dinner. The meal was not cheap, and if I’m paying that much, I think
that the equivalent of Michelin 2 star is reasonable. Initially, the vibe was a little intimidating (the mingling with strangers thing) but once we were seated, my fellow table-mates were pretty friendly (not psychopaths), and we learned that we had mutual friends.
Christine: Having eaten with the Dissident Chef before, I had an ENTIRELY different expectation of dinner! Sure, I expected multiple (read: 100%) courses of Niman Ranch meat, but his previous meal was way more mainstream (truffles topping a scallop, risotto, fish, etc.). I also expected him to be creative, as he always is. I definitely expected an eclectic crowd as before, and an open mindedness to the diners (I mean, really–if you’re signing up for a mystery location, and open to a menu that you do NOT choose, chances are you’re fairly open minded and flexible).
2. What was your favorite dish? (most surprising/memorable)?
Connie: My favorite dish was definitely the applewood smoked bacon in the pork belly tasting. It was browned perfectly, and the julienned apple salad accompaniment matched well with the cider glaze. The last time I had pork belly done so well was at Pierre Gagnaire.
Susan: My favorite dish was the pork belly 3 ways (aka bacon). It felt insanely sinful and delicious, paired with apples, lentils and turnip puree. I also loved the Kobe beef.
Christine: You know–even though I expected to love the pork belly tasting (3 ways for us) and the kobe beef…I really loved the pig tail. It was just so delightful and memorable and surprising all at once. I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House in the Prairie” series and the first book of the series details how delicious a pig tail could be (they fried it in the book–and oh yes, they would blow up the pig bladder and bat it around–but that’s another “story”). I had ALWAYS wanted to eat a pig tail ever since! It was delish–so fatty and delectable, the best of “off the bone” meat. I just loved its celery root salad pairing too–a wonderful and surprising compliment.
The whole meal was surprising–like Iron Chef (secret ingredient: offal!), and even if I didn’t embrace every dish I was delighted by how he approached the ingredients. Terrine of trotter (like aspic, I loved that but it didn’t top the pig tail) and beef tongue were other “unusual” dishes, and the kobe beef and lamb shank were well received too. Oh and fascinating how he incorporated carnivorous ingredients into dessert (our night? An apple pie with a crust made of pig fat–fllaaaaakey!).
3. What was your least favorite (surprising, memorable) dish?
Susan: My least favorite and most surprising was the first entree: the trotter terrine. It filled me with horror and despair that the whole meal would be this way (it almost was). And the blood cake almost made me faint. It wasn’t surprise so much as deep shock that almost turned to giddiness.
Connie: I thought that the only dish that might have been a misstep was the pork blood cake. I actually like pork blood when it’s done right, especially boudin noir. The coagulation factor though, can be really tricky, so the cake was overdone, dry and mealy. I was delighted to see a poached egg as an accompaniment, but I felt that some bread (even though it would have been filler) would have been nice to sop up the yolk. Also, I think there might have been some difficulties with timing, as the dish arrived cold.
Christine: Okay–ditto! Pork blood cake. It looked so beautiful, like dessert–red velvet cake and whipped cream, to be exact. The pork blood was cooked in a neat little square and topped with a poached egg. There were several people at our table who LOVED the pork blood cake, but I–I ate one bite (I am all for eating “at least one bite” of a dish) and left it at that. This was a seriously risky dish, and I laud the chef for taking it!
4. Was there anything you’d never tried before? If so, would you eat it again?
Susan: I’d never tried trotter, blood cake, tongue or sweetbreads. I bravely tasted all of them, but I would never eat them again. The experience made me realize that my carnivore preferences are FIRMLY limited to the bodily flesh of animals. No organs, bodily fluids, feet or parts of the head for me. Ever again.
Christine: Pig tail! I would eat it again and again. (yes, I’ve had pork blood before (although prepared differently) and it has never been a favorite).
Connie: I feel pretty confident in saying that I have a fairly adventurous palate, so there was nothing in the meal that I hadn’t had before. However, I would have loved to try the pig tail from Sunday night! I’ve always wanted to try it!
5. If you could alter the meal in any way (keeping in line with the Niman Ranch meat theme), what would you do?
Christine: 9 straight courses of meat (including a carnivorous dessert), never again! There was one course that was non-meat, and it was an oh-so refreshing tangerine anise sorbet.
Susan: I would have loved short ribs. I would have loved ANY kind of ribs. I’m a pretty traditional meat eater, and I like comfort food, not discomfort food. It would have been interesting to have some kind of fancy meat pie, or original type of meat loaf, or…?
Christine: Oh! Short ribs! Yes. Big thumbs up on that suggestion, Susan!
Connie: Like Susan, I would have enjoyed an aperitif at the door. Speaking frankly, I’m somewhat antisocial.
Mingling with a bunch of strangers makes me nervous, but I find that a drink eases the anxiety.
With the meal itself, it was really offal heavy, so I think that an entire offal themed meal would have been interesting (especially because I love it). However, it might scare off a bunch of people! Like I said before, I would have loved to try the pig tail, and in addition, I would have liked to see marrow bones and pig’s ear.
In terms of saucing, the dc relied really heavily on vinaigrettes. I know that the acid was necessary to lighten the heaviness of all that protein, but I would have liked to see a classical demi-glace wine reduction.
Also, I realize that Saturday night was a really full house, but a few of the dishes arrived cold. I know the trotter terrine was supposed to be cold, and that the wagyu was supposed to be just seared, but the pork blood cake was cold and the sweetbreads were just warm – I like my sweetbreads hot and melty.
Finally, the wine glasses were disastrous. I’m pretty klutzy, so at my end of the table, there were easily seven spills per individual, as the wine glasses tended to have a domino effect. Luckily, the spills were confined to the table (and laps and chairs), and none of the liquid made its way to the floor.
Susan: Last notes! I liked about half of the wines. But I was shocked to find out that my FAVORITE wine (the Weston Chardonnay) cost $4.99 at BevMo! I guess that is a good thing because I can now go out and buy a case or two of it. And I wanted to note that the worst part of the meal was not the food; it was the wobbly plastic chairs. They were SOOOO uncomfortable that I was aching and in severe pain about halfway through. I had to keep taking breaks to rest on the couch because my back was in so much pain. For a five hour meal, people need comfortable and sturdy chairs -I would recommend folding wooden or bamboo chairs with cushions. And my last note: I thought the Chef Himself and his staff were all totally delightful.
Christine: Yes! I love all the Chef’s people. Our server, “Rocky” was terrific.