Sunday, June 04, 2006

eat your heart out, vongerichten

Our dear friend Brian Quinn came up to Portland yesterday for an evening of fine food, wine, and conversation.

See, that rack of lamb had been burning a hole in my freezer (not literally) and I really wanted to have a little dinner party.

I also wanted an excuse to bust out the fine china.

Luckily, Brian is something of a connoisseur of haute cuisine and the grape, and he's been searching for weekend trips out of Cambridge while he waits for his MCAT results. Really, it was a match made in the kitchen.

Down in the 02138, Mr. Quinn packed his bags with wine and other liquors, while here in the rainy north I gathered my recipes and ingredients. Only a few minutes before his bus was due in at 3:30, however, I realized that my flat-leaf parsley was -- horrors! -- actually cilantro. (I chalk up the mistake to my allergy-clogged sinuses when shopping earlier this week.) I sent Jim off to the bus station, cilantro in tow, to have Brian confirm my diagnosis, and the two of them hit the grocery store while I made sure I hadn't made any other grave errors.

Like, you know, forgetting to defrost the lamb the previous night. Haha! I would never do that. (Sigh.)

I had put Brian in charge of dessert (and it turns out the grocery store trip was a necessity for him regardless, but more on that later), so I just had to whip up my herb paste for the lamb, toast my walnuts for the endive salad, and gather my mushrooms for the wild-rice pilaf saute.

No, seriously.

The food processor made fast work of my mint, rosemary, parsley (once the gents returned with a bunch), garlic, black pepper, thyme, and fennel-seed mixture, held together with some good olive oil. That sat around to let the flavors meld while the lamb came to room temperature. In the meantime, we sat around looking at Paris photos and giving Brian the run-down on the trip, which of course included detailed descriptions of everything we ate.

After about four Parisian dinner recaps, Jim pointed out that all the talk of food was making him hungry. And the cooking was on.

The rice simmered in vegetable stock while the onions and mushrooms got a good saute going. I seared the lamb, spread both sides with the herb mixture, and into the oven at 450 degrees it went for just over 15 minutes. Brian opened his contribution -- a Chateauneuf-du-Pape! -- to let it breathe a bit. Meanwhile, leaves of Belgian endive, toasted walnuts, and crumbled gorgonzola met up with a tarragon-Dijon mustard vinaigrette.

I pulled the lamb out, checked the temperature (perfect!) and let it rest while we sat down to salad. Le diner etait servi.

Not that you can really go wrong with endive, gorgonzola, walnuts, and Dijon, but the salad was really lovely. When we'd finished, Jim cut the lamb into chops. Truly, I have never seen a more perfect-looking piece of meat; it was gorgeous. I plated it up on the platter with the balsamic-grilled asparagus, and set the mushroom pilaf on the table separately.

Oh lordy was it delicious.

I admit, I was a little bit scared; I've never done lamb before, and there's always the worry that it won't taste right, or won't be cooked to everyone's liking, or blah blah blah perfectionist-cakes. But: Wow. Everything on the table was just divine.

When we could eat no more (but had saved room for dessert, of course!), we cleared up a bit and then Brian went to work. When the men returned from the store, Brian had been toting a bag full of berries. "Yeah, I realized last night I hadn't, you know, actually procured anything for my dessert," he laughed. "I was sort of asking myself, 'And just when did you plan to do that, Quinn?" Hannaford's to the rescue, it seems.

While I was doing my prep, he had macerated those delightful blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries in a bit of sugar, and now he brought out a recipe from his brother Jason for a Grand Marnier-white wine sabayon.

Jason, I should mention, has worked as a chef in several extraordinary restaurants. Brian told us that he'd asked his brother for a recommendation on what to make for dessert, and without reference to any kind of recipe or measurement chart, he rattled off the ingredients and proportions for the sabayon.

Me: "He just...came up with it, off the top of his head?"

Brian: "Yep, pretty much. I've almost never seen him cook from a recipe, and when he does, it's invariably Thomas Keller's."

Me: "Does he cook like this all the time?"

Brian: "Essentially. For New Year's Eve we made duck breast, and we were cutting and plating it in the kitchen before taking it out. He stuck a sprig of rosemary into each one, lit it, and then blew it out, so the plates were trailing this immensely fragrant rosemary smoke as we set them was gorgeous."

Me: "And why, again, is he going to become a philosophical historian? Why doesn't he open a restaurant?"

Brian: "Oh, he hates cooking."


Jim: "Well, that was the perfect punchline."

Anyway, Brian whipped up this sabayon -- which took a slightly grotesque amount of upper-body strength, as my pots and even whisk are quite substantial -- and we poured it over the berry-filled dishes, stuck in a sprig of mint, and sat down again.

I would have taken pictures of the dessert too, but it was almost as though three human vacuums had set upon the table and it was gone before I had the chance.

We lolled around in a stupor after that, reminiscing about, well, what we had just eaten. And what we had had to drink. The Chateauneuf, as is its wont, did not disappoint. No sir. I highly recommend picking up a bottle if you get the chance.

All told, the evening was as close to perfect as you can get in a tiny apartment in Portland, Maine. If med school (for Brian) and teaching (for me) don't work out, we figure, we can always take an executive stake in a restaurant. Brian and I could share menu duties, and Jim can handle the bar side. We'd fiddle with the presentations, come up with clever tasting nights, but not have to work horrendous hours.

It's only partly the worst idea ever. Restaurant name suggestions welcome, since the best I can come up with right now is "Quinn's Falcon."

...Or maybe I should just stay in the kitchen.

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