January 2, 2009

not for the vegetarian-hearted

My Christmas is full of funny stories, and that’s in progress.  But first: Our New Year’s Eve dinner was nothing if not decadent.  I took notes up until dessert so that I’d remember every last bite.

We went back to Valentino’s, because I have sentimental feelings for them now (first oyster, the veal cheek, etc) and went balls out on the NYE Tasting Menu with Wine Pairings.

For a moment last night, I had the thought that maybe, at some point, I should start feeling a little guilty about what I’m eating, but, to be honest, I mostly feel guilty about not feeling guilty.  My thoughts were more about, “Why would anyone live in California, or up in the Pacific Northwest, and be vegetarian?”  If I’m going to do this, I might as well go all the way, no point in hesitating or sobbing over the dead stuff on my plate.

The appetizer was a trio.  A fat slice of prosciutto rolled around leaves of arugula, a shaving of swordfish laid across a branch of frizee, a beef popatil.  (From my searching, I don’t think I’m spelling that last one right.  It sounded like he said “popatil.”  I’d like to know the proper spelling so I can find a recipe, because this was basically a small, fancy meatball, but the best goddamn meatball I’ve ever had.)

Jodi, I see you making horrible faces at me.  You best stop reading now, it’s for your own good.

First, before the appetizer, we were given a small flute of sparkling white wine, and then the appetizer was paired with a white wine. I didn’t take particular notice of the first couple wines because I’m not a big fan of white.  Though I DID take notice how well they did actually taste with what we were eating.

Next, another white wine to go with the mini lobster ravioli in broth.  I have had lobster before.  I’ve had lobster ravioli with a vanilla cream sauce that I didn’t quite think I liked, but the flavor was memorable and has stuck with me since I first had it a year ago.  This lobster ravioli, in the broth, was truly divine.  I wish I were good at describing flavors, but I’m not. So just trust me on this.

Then came the mushroom tartine with black truffle sauce.

I don’t like mushrooms, I’ve never liked mushrooms, or so I thought.  Then one day, in Prague of all places,  I had a mushroom soup, creamed, and realized that I love the flavor of mushrooms, it’s just nibbling on their little textured shapes that I’m not fond of.  I was given black truffle oil once long ago as well and found that I also really like the flavor of truffles.  (The menu suggested the option of trading out black for white truffles, for an add’l $45 but whatever.  I’ll try out white truffles some other day.)

This tartine was both our favorite food of the evening.  Not only the tartine, but the wine as well.  The moment the sommelier poured it and the wine hit my glass, I asked Boyfriend, “Did you smell that? Is that… vanilla?” Then Boyfriend said the magic words.  “No, it’s… butter.”

The red wine, chosen to go with our mushroom tartine, so help me god, smelled like butter.  Buttery.  Now, that may not sound so good to some of you, but I love wine and I love butter and I wanted to drink nothing else beyond this buttery wine for the rest of the evening.  I’ve never cared to inhale a wine before, but that’s what I did, all night.  The smell of this wine was big, huge, and came leaping out of the bottle the moment it was uncorked and sat there at our table until the glasses were cleared away.  The flavor, Boyfriend described as smoky, and I think he picked up chocolate.  With the tartine… dear god, this, to me, was a wine pairing. This made me understand the point, the science of wine pairing.  All those years of ignoring or just not getting it when doing tastings, and being given bits of chocolate or cheese while sipping this or that red, and tasting only the very separate flavors of the wine and the cheese… I get it now.  (We asked for the name of the wine again, and upon searching, I found many different years, all for around $12 which is AWESOME.  We were expecting to not be able to afford it or not wanting to put the money out for it. I plan on buying a bottle of a few different years until I find the one that smells like butter.  Then I will buy a few.  FYI, the wine was “Fontanafredda Barbera” and apparently comes from the town in Italy where our waiter was born.)

Then came the crab cannelloni and freshwater shrimp.  This was also paired with a red.  It was also very, very good but there just isn’t much to say after that mushroom tartine.

Next came the dish I felt guilty for not feeling guilty about.  Roasted quail and veal shank.  The roasted quail was fabulous – fabulous! And the shank… because I’d had a million glasses of wine by that point, I was able to dig in without reservation and actually chew & taste it (as opposed to my sober, timid nibblings where I couldn’t get past what it was to actually taste it) and I confess: the flavor, the texture was beyond pleasant.

I was, unfortunately, getting full at that point.  The shank was kinda big, compared to most of the dishes on the tasting menu and I barely got through a third of it.  (It’s still sitting in our fridge, but when it comes to my meat-eating, I kinda have a “if it’s not fresh, I’m not touching it” mentality.  Not because I’m all hoity-toity about my food now, but because I’m still, when sober, a little squeamish about sawing through a medium-rare veal shank.)

I’m pretty sure they totally skipped our cheese plate and I’m not sure if it’s because I was showing signs of slowing down or what – had I not been so full, I’d have complained.  Instead we went right to dessert (no new wine pairing, so I went back to finish my beloved Butter Wine.)  Look at that, I already forgot what dessert was.  A spoonful of mango sorbet, topped by a square of flaky pastry.  And a spoonful of something chocolate that was between ice cream and mousse, sandwiched between two very thin squares of dark chocolate.  I don’t need to tell you that THAT was good.

Boyfriend seemed a little deflated about dinner later, that it hadn’t been quite as phenomenal as the first dinner we had there.  Granted, we are ready to start branching out, I just happen to have sentimental attachment to a place that deflowered me as this one did.  However, I also know that when you (the ubiquitous you) have an amazing experience, you tend to continue chasing the first-time down, trying to recreate the same experience.  You never get that first time back.  Plus, in my own personal experience, spontaneity is key.  The first time was completely spontaneous,  we weren’t expecting me to eat oysters and veal cheek that night.  This second time was planned, we had expectations.  Expectations often equal death.  I walked into Valentino’s that night, bearing all this in mind and no, the experience itself wasn’t quite as mind-blowing as the first.  But for me, it was still exciting and exhilerating eating all these foods that I’ve never tried before, eating them without hesitation and enjoying them to boot.

And yeah, this was a pricey endeavor.  PRICEY.  We feel very, very lucky, the way things are going these days, that we can do things like this and cringe over the bill because it’s expensive and we know it, but it’s worth it and do-able to us.  Knock on wood.

We’re thinking we’ll try another place out, another Chef’s Tasting Menu in a few months.  Or we may go to Vegas where I can try out Keller’s restaurant Bouchon (since French Laundry is so damn hard to get into) or perhaps this other fabulous place I read about in Santa Monica.  (Well, which one… there’s so many!)

In the meantime, I might need to get a shirt that reads “Meat Slut” or “I’m a whore for bacon.”  Because dammit, I like meat.  I really, really like it.

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