Wolvesmouth Underground Dining
Wolvesden – Various Locations
In my opinion, one of the most exciting dining trends in 2010 was the pop-up restaurant (think LudoBites and Test Kitchen). In a similar vein but yet, entirely different, is “underground dining” – the most notable of these in LA is Wolvesmouth. Wolvesmouth (aka Craig Thornton) is the chef behind this unique dining experience. He creates 10-15 course market-driven meals, constantly changing for each dinner party. The food is imaginative, thoughtful and artistic. Oh, and I’ve heard it’s delicious too.
Why underground? Well, it’s not a restaurant; it’s more like an organized dinner party. It’s invite-only (get on the mailing here). You don’t know where the location is until the night before. You don’t know what the menu is until you get there. You don’t even know who you’re dining with until you get there (well, I did know one person – Christina of food, je t’aime also came). For legal reasons, there is no set price to the menu. It’s cash donation-based, so you pay what you think is fair.
Tonight’s dinner was set in a downtown loft. One of the things that immediately struck me was the intimacy of this meal. The dining table was just a few feet away from the kitchen which, by the way, was completely open. This led me to my next observation – this whole dinner would be created in a modest kitchen with four burners and one oven. A ton of organization and planning was necessary to put together these ten courses at a consistent pace.
The affair is strictly BYOB (no corkage). Thinking that the alcohol would be wine heavy (it was heavily weighted toward reds), we opted to bring a selection of craft beers. Not knowing what the menu would be, I selected an array of beers: The Bruery Orchard White (Orange County), Ballast Point Sculpin IPA (San Diego), La Chouffe (Belgium), Stone Double Bastard Ale (San Diego), and Rogue Chocolate Stout (Oregon).
squash, cotija, crema, nopales, white onion
We started with this soup. The squash was very sweet on its own, and I thought the tangy crema and sauteed white onions did a good job of tempering this.
Dungeness crab, meyer lemon, malt vinegar sabayon, old bay profiterole, mustard mizuna
One thing that Chef Thornton had talked about, when serving this dish, was how you always wish there was more crab in your crab dish. He responded by giving a generous portion of Dungeness crab here, complemented with an “old bay” profiterole stuffed with a malt vinegar sabayon. Some meyer lemon added nice citrus notes to accompany the chunks of sweet crab. The malt vinegar was a good accompaniment to the crab as well, and I thought the profiterole was a fun “vessel” for it.
John Dory, swiss chard, sweet and sour shallot
John Dory is a firmer fish, one that I usually don’t find as moist as other lighter white fish. This was an example here – I thought the fish was cooked well, but just wasn’t as moist as I would have liked. The sweet and sour shallot was really nice, and thought it matched well with the fish.
snails, wild mushrooms, black walnut, crouton, pine
This dish had a bunch of components that could be found in a forest (perhaps by a wolf?). Three kinds of mushrooms (black trumpet, chanterelle, and hedgehog) were plated with snails, toast, walnuts and maple syrup. I’ve never had snails in such a “natural” state (it’s often slathered with garlic and butter), and they were actually quite mild in flavor on their own. The mushrooms added to the earthiness of the dish, but I thought the maple syrup really brought this together for the sweet/savory combination.
squid, 38-day aged steak tartare, creamed kimchi, Asian pear
Excellent dish here. The squid was perfectly cooked, leaving it very tender. The creamed kimchi (kimchi cooked in some pureed kimchi and heavy cream) was a revelation – the creaminess tempered the spicy kimchi a little, so as not to overwhelm the mildly-flavored squid. The Asian pear was crucial in adding some fresh fruit flavors. I probably didn’t even need the steak tartare (it was seared rare then chopped up) for this dish to be successful.
verjus, yuzu ice
This next dish was a bit of a palate cleanser. I thought the yuzu and unripened grape juice was a good pairing, and I appreciated its lightness.
veal tongue dumpling, trotter and bacon relish, black vinegar, cabbage
This was probably my favorite dish of the night. When we talked about this dish, it sounded like an incredible amount of time and preparation for one dish (especially when it’s one person). The pork trotter was soaked for four days in order to remove impurities. The veal tongue was braised a day ahead. The dumpling dough was made fresh – the dumplings were filled, steamed, then slightly boiled until done. The result? A delightfully chewy pasta and a rich, meaty filling. The relish lent an extra dimension of pork flavor, while the raw cabbage did a good job of cutting some of the richness. An excellent dish; I just wish there was more!
roasted chicken home style, glazed carrot
Chef Thornton explained this dish as a fairly simple one that the home cook could make. This was a roast chicken (seasoned with salt in a hot oven) that was cut up in small chunks. The drippings were turned into a pan sauce, and then the chicken was tossed in this sauce and served. What separated this dish from other roast chickens was that he removed the skin immediately after roasting and tossed it back in the oven to crisp up. It resulted in a very nice crispy skin. The chicken was a little bit on the salty side for me, but was still quite good. Both the white and dark meat were moist, and the sauce really added that extra layer of flavor.
french toast ice cream
This was pretty much as advertised. It was a french toast ice cream done very well. It was appropriately sweet with a hit of cinnamon spice; it totally tasted like french toast. Just as important was that it was served at an ideal temperature. It was a few degrees above frozen (almost slightly melted) so that the flavors were very apparent at that temperature. I really liked this one. We drank this with the Rogue Chocolate Stout…this would be perfect for a beer float.
chocolate panna cotta, chestnut purée, coffee shortbread, pear ice, coffee meringue, warm pear
There were a number of components here. The flavors that stood out to me were the chocolate and pear, as well as some coffee with the shortbread. When I first tried the chocolate panna cotta and pear ice, I thought to myself, “Hmm…that’s interesting.” As I ate more and more of it, the flavors really started to meld well together. The chocolate flavor was kind of mild, so that it didn’t overwhelm the pear. The coffee shortbread was fantastic; it had a rich coffee flavor that went well with both the chocolate and pear.
We were given these puffed rice crispy treats to take home. I think we were the first group to get something to-go.
These had a nice crunch, yet were still chewy – I enjoyed them the next day with a cup of green tea.
At the end of the meal, Chef Thornton talked about some of his inspiration behind the dishes and to answer any questions.
This was one of my more memorable dining experiences in recent memory. The food was fun, inventive and, most importantly, tasted good. I loved being able to watch all of the action in the kitchen; I’m still amazed at how Chef Thornton and his three assistants were able to put all of the dishes together so efficiently.
Listening to Chef Thornton talk about the dishes (how and why he did everything in that way) was fascinating to me. Everything was so meticulous and deliberate, you would think he’s been planning and refining this menu for months…which isn’t the case at all. His cooking finds a medium somewhere between what he wants to cook and what he thinks the diner wants to eat. Without any of the restrictions that having a restaurant brings with it, Chef Thornton is able to let his creativity run wild and keep the menu fresh and exciting.