Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Really Great Food By Kevin (Woodfire Grill)

Last Friday my wife and I had the pleasure of dining at The Woodfire Grill in Atlanta. This restaurant has a recently famous executive chef, Kevin Gillespie. Kevin was a "cheftestant" on season 6 of Top Chef, which aired last fall. Kevin won many of the challenges and made it all the way to the final three. We were rooting for him to win it all, but he came in third. Ever since the season finished Kevin has become quite popular and so has his restaurant.

We wanted to go sooner but were unable to make it happen until this past weekend. But it was definitely worth the wait.

There is an open air kitchen on one side of the main dining room, separated from the diners with just a half-height brick wall. This kitchen includes the wood-fired oven where many of the pork dishes are prepared. And this is where Kevin stands overseeing his team of chefs. Our table was about 20 feet from the kitchen, and we got to watch Kevin at work the entire evening. Quite a few people stop to talk to him on the way out, and there are many times when his disappearance to the front of the restaurant is followed by a flash then his reappearance in the kitchen.

I attempted to take pictures of our plates as they arrived. But apparently I still have a lot to learn about taking non-flash pictures of food in a dark restaurant with a point-and-shoot camera. I have included some of the pictures in this entry, but when you look at them please bear in mind that they are not as good as I would want them to be, and in some cases don't really do the food and presentation justice.

Despite the many intriguing things on the menu we decided to have the 5-course tasting menu. The interesting thing about this tasting menu is you are not told ahead of time what is on it. Every course is a surprise when it is served. The restaurant is centered on the theme of "local, sustainable, organic." Which also means that menu items will change based on the food that is available locally and in season. So if we were to return in the spring, the regular menu and the tasting menu would be entirely different.

The added wrinkle to our evening is the fact that my wife does not eat meat. For most restaurants she merely orders a collection of side dishes. Some restaurants will promise a special vegetarian plate, but it usually ends up being steamed vegetables sometimes with a boring sauce. That single plate would be the extent of the chef's cleverness in preparing vegetarian cuisine. Not so at the Woodfire Grill. As the menu says, "vegetarian tasting menu is always available". Could it be that the chefs can actually prepare five interesting vegetarian dishes? Oh yes can they ever!

Before our first course we both received an amuse bouche. This was a play on a traditional southern dish. It was a fritter of black eyed pea and carolina heirloom rice on top of a bed of collard green gribiche, topped with a touch of hot sauce, and served on a metal spoon. It was everything an amuse bouche should be: a single bite with an explosion of flavors. It was paired with a 2008 Monte Castrillo Rosé from Ribera del Duero, Spain.

For the first course I was served warm spiced local baby carrots over sweet and sour cabbage, surrounded by liquified carrots. The dish was very good. The carrots had a great taste to them thanks to the spices. This was paired with a 2005 Domaine Schlumberger Gewurtzraminer from Alsace, France. It was a sweet wine with a good finish. My wife was served a kale and seaweed pocket on a variety of beets, surrounded with olio nuovo (super fresh extra virgin olive oil). We both agreed that while the dishes were good they weren't as good as the fritter.

The second course was a seafood course. I'm not a big fan of most seafood but tonight was a night to be adventurous. My dish was a pan roasted scallop, a confit of laughing bird shrimp, served on very thinly sliced marinated radish (carpaccio-style), with some Satsuma mandarin and olio nuovo. The scallop, although properly prepared, was rather tasteless. Perhaps this is how scallops are supposed to taste or perhaps my palate is not well tuned to the subtlety of seafood. But the radish underneath the scallop provided an excellent boost of flavor to the scallop, and the mandarins were wonderful. This was paired with 2008 La Crae from Vouvray, France. My wife had a sous-vide egg over a hazelnut spaetzle and sweet potato garnished with a cheddar cheese crisp. She was instructed by the waiter to break open the egg and let it pour out over the top of the spaetzle. My dish was tasty and interesting, but still not as good as the amuse bouche. My wife's dish got extra points for cleverness and presentation.

For the tasting course I was served a kusshi oyster with fennel cream and sweet vegetable pickles. I really don't like oysters, but I had to try it. This oyster must have been properly prepared because its taste and texture weren't too bad. Not my favorite dish but I am glad that I tried it. This was paired with a 2008 Domaine de la Frutiere from Muscadet, France. Supposedly you can taste the sea in the wine. I couldn't. My wife had a shot of celery soup with white truffle foam and a garnish of arugula. Interesting dishes, but not really a favorite.

The fourth course was a wood grilled local bobwhite quail, served with small potato and black trumpet mushroom ragout, preserved lemon, potato emulsion, and roasted chicken au jus. This was excellent. The quail was small and perfectly cooked. The chicken jus was an wonderful complement to the rest of the dish. This was paired with the 2007 Quierciabella Mongrana en Maremma from Toscano, Italy. This is a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cabernet, and it was my favorite wine of the evening. My wife had a puff pastry topped with vidalia onion, hen-of-the-woods and porcini mushrooms, micro greens and "very good" sauce (we can't remember exactly what the sauce was). Both dishes had complex and enjoyable flavorings, they left us wanting for more.

The main course was, of course, pork. Not just pork, but pork three ways. A modest slice of wood smoked Berkshire pork loin was served on top of a fig glazed pork belly and a braised shoulder and pork rind risotto, with braised endives and a smear of apple balsamic. I have never tasted pork this good. I have never really liked the idea of pork belly before, thinking it rather unappetizing. Tonight it was more than edible. It was great. The fig glaze gave the fat plenty of flavor. The loin was perfectly cooked: moist and firm. The smokiness was very evident but not overpowering. The risotto was a bit firmer than I usually prefer, but this was easy to overlook because the flavorings were so amazing and complex. The endive, however, was a bit beyond me and remained unfinished. This dish was paired with a 2006 Long Hop Grenace from Adelaide, South Australia. An excellent wine, but its predecessor from the fourth course was stiff competition. My wife had an item from the regular menu: creamy sunchoke carnaroli rissoto with roasted apples and toasted walnuts, served over a celery salsa and topped with long slices of salsify.

Finally, dessert! We were served two different desserts which we shared. One was a vanilla sponge cake bread pudding, cinnamon meringue, apple cider caramel, sautéed apples. The other dish was dark chocolate stuffed crepes, cocoa nib streusel whipped cream, and latte sauce. There were two wine pairings and I was originally poured the one that wasn't port. After a brief "discussion" with the waiter he gladly poured me a glass of Grahams 10-year Tawny Port, which of course went very well with the chocolate dessert.

When we were done with this fine meal we received a souvenir copy of the tasting menu signed (initialed, actually) by Kevin. On our way out we stopped and talked with Kevin briefly, he "disappeared" with us to the front of the restaurant, a waitress made our camera flash, then he reappeared in the kitchen. Meanwhile we were left with the following picture, memories of a wonderful dining experience, and a firm desire to return for more adventures.

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