Wolvesmouth (Los Angeles, CA) [4]

Wolvesmouth Underground Dining
Various locations
Dining date: 11/22/13

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It’s been a busy year for Craig Thornton and his Wolvesmouth team. His underground dinners have continued to be in high-demand, easily the most noteworthy of its kind in the city (and perhaps country). The success of his underground dinners has spawned collaborations and events across the nation, notably in NYC and his ‘Cut Your Teeth’ residency at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoa).

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I was the lucky invitee as a guest of someone that got a reservation to this public dinner. Held in downtown, the decor of the dinners has continued to evolve, getting deeper into the wolf’s den theme. The SMMoa installments have really delved into connecting the dining atmosphere with the food for a more complete experience, and Thornton has brought more and more of that into his regular dinners.

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Wolvesmouth (Los Angeles, CA) [3]

Wolvesmouth Underground Dining
Various locations
Dining date: 7/13/13

Chef Craig Thornton’s Wolvesmouth concept has continued to grow in popularity. It’s been written about time and time again (see this New Yorker write-up) and Thornton has even taken the show on the road, hosting dinners in NYC. While Thornton and team have been working on opening up a full-time brick-and-mortar restaurant, they’re continuing to host private and public dinners in the LA area.

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It’s been a full year and a half since I dined at a Wolvesmouth dinner (though there was that collaboration with Miles Thompson of Allumette for Le Grand Fooding a few months back) and I was glad to be back. It was coincidentally the night before my birthday, so it was a great place/meal to celebrate the occasion.

As usual, the evening’s menu is scrawled on a piece of paper on the refrigerator. This evening’s dinner would be nine courses. Unique to these underground dinners is the ability to see everything happen right then and there – nothing’s hidden, and interaction with the staff is commonplace.

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Wolvesmouth (Los Angeles, CA) (2)

Wolvesmouth Underground Dining
Various locations
Dining date: 1/14/12

I first dined at Wolvesmouth about a year ago and it was one of the more memorable dining experiences of the year. I almost never get to see this caliber of cooking up close, and I found the process to be as intriguing as the food itself. Since then, I’ve dined at Wolvesmouth’s streamlined Beer Belly event as well as the gluttonous 40-course event, but this was my first trip back to the “standard” ~10 course setup. There was a fortuitous (for me) last-minute cancellation, and I jumped at the chance to fill in.

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The ever-changing menu is posted on the refrigerator, an amalgamation of what’s fresh at the farmers and fish markets (and meat purveyors), combined with whatever ideas come up in Craig Thornton’s head. While always different, the menu is reliably interesting, displaying varied flavors and techniques.

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potato puree, cheddar, broccoli cheddar fritter

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We started with this dish. The puree was very thick and rich, likely from the added cheese, and it definitely had a potato flavor kind of resembling a richer mashed potato. The fritter was tasty, fluffy and airy, with a little bit of texture (I think from the broccoli stems?) that worked quite nicely. Some lime juice was a nice touch to cut through some of the richness.

ocean trout, chickpeas, harissa, yogurt, meyer lemon

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The trout here was cooked well, and I thought the hearty chickpeas helped add some body to the dish. Yogurt and meyer lemon provided some tart acidity.

rabbit, cornbread, fried green tomatoes, tobasco

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Here, pureed cornbread polenta was topped with a slice of fried green tomatoes and a rabbit meatball. Interesting. The sweetness from the cornbread and tomatoes worked well with the savory meatball, while a touch of tabasco aioli really brought everything together. The delicate crunch of the tomato’s batter was pretty nice too.

chicken liver, radish, toast, apple, parsnip, almond

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The fresh bite of radish and green apple was integral here, complementing the rich mineral flavor of the liver. Some almonds added a nuttiness and crunch, while there were two different breads available for spreading.

squash, coffee, cider, pistachio, oil, cherry

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I liked the fact that this squash was roasted, bringing out a little more of the sweetness. The coffee cream added a lot of depth, while pistachios added a nutty texture. Some tart cherries completed the bites.

bay scallop, uni, sweet shrimp, avocado, cocktail shrimp head ice, cucumber, onion

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This was another very interesting dish, with flavors of a shrimp cocktail and a seafood salad. The shrimp head ice was very intriguing; it was cool, refreshing and slightly spicy at the same time. Tomato and a little bit of sea flavor were the primary complementary flavors with the seafood. I also liked the meaty avocado and the cool crunch of the cucumbers here too.

I caught these slabs of meat coming out of the oven. Nice!

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pork belly, jalapeno tofu mousse, glazed carrot, freeze-dried peas, crab

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When I saw the large slab of pork belly in the immersion circulator, I knew we were in for a treat. Cooked sous vide then crisped in the oven, the pork was luscious and succulent. However, I thought the skin could’ve been crispier – it was a little limp. The crunchy, glazed carrot was a nice accompaniment with a subtle maple flavor while the jalapano tofu mousse provided a very mild heat and creaminess. Lastly, freeze dried peas added some delicate texture.

duck, wild mushrooms, brussels sprouts, skin-breast-sauce, roman gnocchi

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The last savory dish was this piece of duck breast, served with brussels sprouts and gnocchi. The duck was flavorful and tender, but the skin wasn’t as crunchy as expected (diced and sprinkled on top of the duck), similar to the pork. I liked the balance of sauteed brussels sprouts and gnocchi with the duck though.

I found the wolf surveying the kitchen.

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malt panna cotta, pain perdu, whiskey banana sauce

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The panna cotta clearly showed off the malt flavor, and I liked the warm French toast to go along with the cool treat. Warm bananas and grated chocolate completed the dish.

vanilla pound cake, kabosu curd, black sesame, mandarin, lime pop rocks

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This dessert was a work of various textures and citrus. The kabosu curd and mandarin slices were the fresh, fruity base while the black sesame crumble and pound cake were the bulk of the body. Lime pop rocks were a fun addition too. This was rather light and a nice way to end the meal.

This meal was on par with my first Wolvesmouth experience. I think around 10 courses is ideal; each plate is substantial on its own, while still showcasing a diverse example of Thornton’s cooking. For me, the highlights were the fritter & potato puree, rabbit, pork belly and the last dessert. Considering the dinner as a whole, it’s easily still one of the unique and tasty experiences in the city.

Wolvesmouth (Los Angeles, CA)

Wolvesmouth Underground Dining
Wolvesden – Various Locations
Dining date: 12/3/11

I’m not sure how I first heard of the idea, but surely I thought it was a joke at first. But sometimes, ideas that start as a joke turn into a reality…even if they sound a little nuts. Exhibit A:

For my friend Remil’s 40th birthday, he set up a 40-course dinner with ever-in-demand underground dining chef Wolvesmouth. Craig Thornton (aka Wolvesmouth) created a 40 course tasting, almost all of which were just a couple bites. I will admit that I was both excited and a little scared to take on such an endeavor. A whole host of questions came to mind: Would this be way too much food? How long would this take? Clearly one thing was for sure; it would be a memorable meal.

As with other Wolvesmouth dinners, it’s BYOB. This was most of the alcohol we brought; luckily for our livers, we didn’t come close to finishing.

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The menu, 40 lines long:

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“caesar salad” baby gem, brioche puree, crouton, parmesan, meyer lemon

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85 day aged beef, shallot jam, horseradish, pink lady

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scallop, mango vinegar, mango, cauliflower

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carrot, chicory malt, carrot tops, lime yogurt

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uni tart, ginger lime vinaigrette

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mandarin concentrate, mandarin gelee

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cornbread soup, bacon, kale, onion

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fried green tomato, tabasco

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black eyed peas (boston baked), smoked tomato, pork belly

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pimento cheese, buttermilk corn fritter

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banana pudding, fruit salad poprocks

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date, almond, serrano ham, cabra romero, sherry vinaigrette, piquillo

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kohlrabi, caramelized onion, mascarpone, thyme

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duck, skin, sauce, brussels sprouts

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candy cap mushroom

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sweetbreads, lingonberry, dill, potato puree, creme fraiche

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chanterelle, pine soda

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squab, chestnut, maple squab jus, jerusalem artichoke

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fig (poached & fresh), roaring forties blue, hazelnut

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squash soup, goat cheese crumble, goat cheese, cider

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brown butter rice krispy treat, toasted marshmallow

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roman gnocchi, pesto

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beet, morbier, apple

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chicken liver, crouton, watermelon radish, pear

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broccoli, cashew cheese

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clam, potato

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crab, toast, pickled chili, chive

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rabbit, chipotle, grape, hibiscus onion, cilantro, cotija

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pork belly, pickled papaya, rice paper, garlic peanuts

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duck, orange, black vinegar

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lobster, celery root remoulade, black sesame cherry white soy vinaigrette

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persimmon, wasabi pea

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japanese black sugar shortbread, yuzu curd, green tea panna cotta

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delicata squash, yogurt, orange blossom

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tuna, haricot verts, 12-year balsamic

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fluke, spinach, meyer lemon, red pepper

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hobo fish, tartar sauce, blt, tomato

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rabbit, mustard, plantain, onion

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coconut sugar pound cake, coconut finger lime, lime curd

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tofu doughnut mousse, soy bean coffee

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In between courses, some people sat and chat, others walked into the kitchen to check out what was cooking, and still others walked around looking for extra stomach space.

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Craig and his small team (7 in total) did an impressive job putting this meal together. Pacing was quick and relatively even in between courses, completing the dinner in just over 5 hours. Apparently, we went through 560 dishes, 98 pieces of silverware, and 42 glasses. There’s only one sink (along with the 4 burners and 1 oven) and I’m pretty sure I saw someone washing something each time I looked over. Crazy. Of course the execution of the food was a crucial element of this meal, but the planning and organization behind it was just as integral. AND I’m happy to report that just about everyone finished all 40 courses (including me)!

With 40 different tastes, expectantly there were some hits and misses; however the former easily outweighed the latter. Below, some of the highlights:

#4 carrot, chicory malt, carrot tops, lime yogurt – The glaze heightened the sweetness of the carrot, but it was balanced by the bitter chicory and tart yogurt. The chicory also provided a slight crunch to the bite.
#9 black eyed peas (boston baked), smoked tomato, pork belly – One of the richer and more savory dishes, the pork was tender and luscious, while the beans and tomatoes added a very smoky complement to the meat.
#14 duck, skin, sauce, brussels sprouts – Succulent duck and duck skin! Loved the added crunch and flavor, as well as the brussels sprouts. Nice colors, too.
#15 candy cap mushroom – Very interesting. The mushroom’s flavor was extracted, leaving a liquid that had a bitter, earthy flavor upfront with an unmistakable maple character at the end.
#16 sweetbreads, lingonberry, dill, potato puree, creme fraiche  – this was very similar to a lamb dish I had at the Wolvesmouth dinner @ Beer Belly. Moist, crunchy sweetbreads were paired with a creamy potato mousse, while the lingonberry sauce really brightened up the dish.
#22 roman gnocchi, pesto – Not quite as pillowy fluffy as I was expecting, but this was still a light gnocchi and I really liked the crusty sear. The pesto was just what it needed to provide some vibrant flair.
#27 crab, toast, pickled chili, chive – A generous amount of crab, dressed in mayonnaise, rested atop a piece of toast. Somewhere between a crabcake and a crab roll, I enjoyed the chunks of sweet crab and crusty toast.
#31 lobster, celery root remoulade, black sesame cherry white soy vinaigrette – The lobster was cooked well, but I thought the sesame soy vinaigrette made the difference here, adding an intriguing nutty flavor to the mix.
#33 japanese black sugar shortbread, yuzu curd, green tea panna cotta – I liked the panna cotta and its subtle green tea flavor. I thought it went well with the creamy yuzu curd, though I wanted something with a little more texture than the soft shortbread.
#40 tofu doughnut mousse, soy bean coffee – Fascinating. The bottom of the cup held a light tofu mousse with a doughnut flavor, while the “coffee” was actually brewed roasted soybeans. The brew had a nice roasted, earthy depth of flavor that went well with the doughnut.

Thank you to Craig and team for making this happen. It’s truly a meal that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Pheast (Los Angeles, CA)

Pheast Underground Dining
Various locations
Dining date: 5/13/11

Pheast is one of the latest underground supper clubs to pop up in Los Angeles, a concept that seems to be on fire right now (the most notable example, of course, is wolvesmouth). Underground dining, at its essence, is where a small group of people meet up at a “secret” location to eat unique, spontaneous creations on a plate.

I first heard about Pheast from a random tweet by 3starbackpacker but a quick Google search at the time yielded nothing. It stayed in the depths of my memory until Kevin and Ryan went a couple of weeks ago. My interest was suddenly piqued. Isaiah Frizzell is the man behind the meal, a self-taught chef originally from Tennessee.

Cocktail

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This was explained as similar to a Greyhound, and sure enough the characteristic grapefruit flavor is what I noticed first. Refreshing.

Green papaya salad, escargot

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This was an interesting mixture of ingredients. The papaya salad was crunchy, acidic and just a little bit spicy. The acidity really played well with the richness of the tender escargot.

Uni, pickled oyster, celery puree, cucumber emulsion, sour cream chocolate

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The uni was a little bit warmer than I would’ve liked, as well as a little muddy and fishy tasting. Not good. However, the pickled oyster was bright and flavorful, while the sour cream chocolate was really interesting, lending a welcome sweetness to the dish.

Sweetbreads, rye puree, braised mustard seed, mustard, green leaf lettuce

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The sweetbreads were very tender and I thought really stood up well to the mustard. Rye puree…now that’s a novel idea. I thought this worked as well, adding a wheat flavor – in a way, this dish was sort of like a deconstructed sandwich.

Banh mi of chicken liver mousse, pork belly, daikon, carrot gastrique, baguette, microcilantro

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Speaking of deconstructed sandwiches, here was a version of a Vietnamese banh mi. All of the components were quite good, especially the chicken liver mousse. Rich and flavorful, it made a nice spread for the rich pork belly. The cilantro was  key in adding some freshness and brightness.

Shrimp, truffled potatoes, japanese tomatoes, microarugula, shitake mushrooms

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Isaiah explained this as an Escoffier-inspired dish. There were a number of components in this bowl, the most prominent being the shrimp and truffled potatoes. I think each of these worked well with each other, though I was looking for a little bit more of a textural contrast somewhere.

Bison, nopales, teff

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The bison, seared rare, was very good. This was my first time having teff, an African grain similar to quinoa. The cactus, with its slimy texture (similar to okra) was good as well, but I don’t think this dish was necessarily greater than the sum of its parts.

Bacon, butterscotch, apple, cantaloupe

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This was a play on the famed Alinea dish consisting of bacon, butterscotch, apple, and thyme. The bacon, from Lindy & Grundy, was probably the thinnest I’ve seen (1/16 inch) and had a crispiness and smokiness that was accented well by the sweet butterscotch. The sweet/smoky interplay was a clever transition from savory to sweet dishes.

Grapefruit sorbet, red bell pepper coulis, candied pistachio “praline”

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A bit of a palate cleanser here. The grapefruit sorbet was nice and refreshing, and the red bell pepper really mixed things up.  The pistachio added some sweetness and texture.

Candied baby walnut, homemade goat cheese, strawberry

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This dish didn’t work too well for me. I liked the walnut, but I didn’t think the goat cheese really paired well. Though, I’m not really a cheese person.

Cherries, dark chocolate crumble, milk chocolate ice cream, matcha & douglas fir cremeaux

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This was easily my favorite of the sweet dishes. I liked the sweet/tart combination from the cherries and chocolate, while the dark chocolate “soil” added texture. Both the ice cream and cremeaux (sort of in between ice cream and mousse) were very good.

While I didn’t love all of the them, Isaiah presented a suite of dishes that were creative and imaginative, drawing inspiration from the classic (Escoffier) and the modern (Alinea). Often when trying to continually be innovative and different the plates don’t always work, but when they do it’s something very unique and special. Having said that, I was amazed at Isaiah’s ability to prepare all of these dishes (there were 8 of us dining this evening) with minimal help. He carefully explained each dish as it arrived, and it was clear that a lot of thought and work went into each one.

Wolvesmouth – 1/15/11

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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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verjus, yuzu ice

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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.

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veal tongue dumpling, trotter and bacon relish, black vinegar, cabbage

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.