Mar 082010
“Deconstructed Strawberry Shortcake”

My weekend adventures aren’t restricted to climbing, diving, and traveling.  Sometimes, my most memorable adventures are of the culinary kind.  For my birthday, I recently had the pleasure of visiting The Dining Room, at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena.  I’m a huge fan of the Bravo reality television show, Top Chef.  One of my favorite episodes this past season was watching the chef contestants cook for Natalie Portman, a vegetarian.  Anyone who’s ever tried to order a vegetarian entree at a nice, non-vegetarian oriented restaurant knows that choices are limited.  Usually, there are only a few choices for each course, which makes it pretty easy to order.  Often, however, when the menu doesn’t include a vegetarian option, the waiter assures me that the chef will whip up an entree just for me, only to bring out … a plate of sauteed or roasted vegetables that I could have made at home.  Where is the creativity?  That wasn’t something I had to worry about with chef Michael Voltaggio – this season’s Top Chef winner.  (Michael was more than once compared to “Picasso” on the show.)

The tasting menu offered at the Dining Room is different every day, and it’s not written out on the menu.  In a leap of faith, you have to choose the chef’s choice, which is delivered in a parade of surprises to your table.  Amazingly, the chef will also prepare a 7 course vegetarian tasting meal with 48 hours notice.  I was the only one who picked the vegetarian option, but we all elected to do the wine and spirits pairing with each course.

Chef Voltaggio utilizes fresh and seasonal ingredients with a twist: he combines molecular gastronomy techniques with meticulous preparation and artistic whimsy.  Here is just a taste of what I ate:

  • We started with an Amuse Bouche, three types of bread, and salted and unsalted butter
  • Course 1: Pickled green baby peaches with “frozen yogurt” and charred grapefruit (paired with Sauvignon blanc)

  • Surprise of warm truffle roll paired with fresh goat’s milk butter
  • Course 2: Grilled pear with cauliflower three ways: custard, dehydrated and sauteed (paired with Tuscan white wine).  Pictured below.  The flakes in the foreground are made of butter, mixed with spices.  You can just mix it into your food for more or less intense flavoring.  

  • Course 3: Seasonal vegetables with burrata cheese under a “fruit rollup” (paired with unfortified vin jeune, or “yellow wine”). 
  • Course 4: Truffles, poached egg, Jerusalem artichoke foam, sunflower seeds and mushrooms (a nice nutty dish, paired with zweigelt, and Austrian wine)
  • Course 5: Spaghetti squash, artichoke, and kombu (seaweed) curry with puffed rice and spheres of yogurt (paired with spiced Belgian Ale – a favorite dish!)

  • Course 6: A “meaty” vegetarian creation of mushroom gelee with gnocchi, mushrooms and truffle butter (paired with red wine)
  • Surprise deconstructed strawberry shortcake – take a spoonful and let it melt in your mouth, to taste strawberry shortcake!
  • Course 7: Baba rhum desert, plus others (each of us received a different dessert).  I especially loved the sticky toffee pudding.
  • Final surprise: “pop rocks” chocolate lollipop, mini macaroon and fruit candy with edible wrapper

Total time: 3.5 hours!  Click here for pictures of my entire meal.

The meat version
The Veggie version

Hands down, it was the best vegetarian meal I have ever eaten at a restaurant in my life.  Best of all, I wasn’t stuffed.  The courses were perfectly proportioned, and much lighter than typical restaurant vegetarian fare.  I can’t wait until my next birthday….

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