Tuesday, June 15, 2010

CALIFORNIA AVOCADOS ~ Every Little Taste of Them Was Magic!

Avocado Tempura Ponzu
The Hass Avocado. If you’re a California Native, like I am, you know it well. You grew up eating them. When those bumpy black avocados were in season, summer wasn’t far behind. They were the hit of every bar-b-que, every burger slathered in guacamole, or covered with its sliced green goodness. No salad was complete without being enhanced by that lovely grass-colored meat. We all understood that Hass were the best kind of avocado, to the extent that they were the only acceptable ones to buy. When my mother went to the market in the late summer, she would skip right over those thin-skinned yellowy-green avocados beginning to be placed on the shelves and look for the last Hass of the season.

We had been trained to seek out only the bumpy black avocados with the richer, nuttier taste. They were creamier, smoother, more full of that delicious avocado-y essence. We waited for Hass to be in season, going without avocado for several months out of every year because nothing else would do. I remember that when the Hass avocados began to disappear from the grocery store shelves to be replaced by their thin-skinned cousins, it was depressing. As a kid, it meant more than suffering a burger without good avocado, it was an omen. The final signal from Mother Nature that the halcyon days of summer were behind us. We mourned the loss of those lovely black pears until Spring brought them round again. All throughout my childhood Hass were considered the real deal. California grown. The best. So many years later, and not much has changed. Avocados still rock my world.

Recently I had the rare opportunity to enjoy and appreciate this beloved fruit of my youth as interpreted by  Chef Mark Dommen, the world-class visionary behind One Market in San Francisco. I was a guest at a lovely dinner given by the California Avocado Commission, which was beautifully pulled together by Golin Harris. An opportunity to mingle with like-minded lovers of the art of good food, the menu was an epic adventure of imaginative delicacies, each course enchantingly designed to feature and celebrate the California avocado.

After some words of welcome from the folks who were our hosts for the evening, we sat down to enjoy some good company and well-prepared food. We began with Chef Dommen’s Amuse Bouche: an appealing little Tempura Ponzu of avocado, with the fruit itself hidden inside a deep-fried wrapper of crunchy tempura goodness. The chill of the avocado hit the tongue like a tiny blush, the outside still hot from the fryer tingling against the tastebuds. There’s something wonderfully naughty about the single bite of an amuse. Like you have to pop it in your mouth while no one is looking...do the calories count, or is it like trees in the forest with no one watching? To me, eating an amuse feels a little like taking a bite of Eve’s apple.

Chilled Avocado & Pea Soup
The first official course followed. It was a spring soup of Chilled California Avocado & Peas. It was lovingly garnished with a bit of smoked sable fish and shiso, a form of Japanese mint. The flavors were fresh and seasonally appropriate, the tangy snap of the peas mixed well with the creamy flesh of the avocado. The peas were the slightly stronger flavor, which I thought was the right balance for this dish. When the smoky kiss of the occasional bite of fish made its way into the forefront of a mouthful of creamy soup it made for a lovely change-up and coupled nicely with the rest of the flavor profile. The soup was accompanied by a nice pairing of J. Vineyards & Winery Brut “Cuvee 20" (Russian River Valley, NV) a California sparkling wine. Superbly crisp and inviting way to set both the palate and the tone for the remainder of the meal that was to come.

Dungenes Crab Salad
The next treat Chef Dommen had prepared for his guests was a Dungeness Crab & California Avocado Salad garnished with lemon grass sorbet. Served almost sushi-style, the roll was a combination of tastes similar to what one might see in a traditional Japanese offering, though in this event the addition of a sorbet of lemon grass gave it a creative change up in character. The classic blending of the mellow sweetness of the crab and the soft fatty taste of the avocado are a personal favorite of mine, as they meld beautifully together. The fresh crabmeat was tucked delicately under wafer-thin slices of avocado, and slices of radish, all accompanied by a well-seasoned preparation of cucumber and other greens, all flavors masterfully topped off by the mixture of lemon grass, cilantro and jalapeno contained in the sorbet. The flavors of this dish had a wonderful pop, that bit of tangy heat really set off the sweet fresh crab. As a pairing with the crab salad we were served a Smith-Madrone Chardonnay (Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley 2007). Though I am not a wine expert, I found this wine set off the seafood beautifully.

Sous Vide of Alaskan Halibut
The next chapter in our little avocado story was a "sous vide" of Alaskan Halibut, garnished with California Avocado “hollandaise” and Quail Egg. I should mention at some point, that I am fairly fussy about my fish. Raised on red meat and chicken, I do not naturally gravitate to fish as a menu choice. That said, in light of the many new techniques available to Chef's with which to prepare their seafood these days, I am rapidly becoming a convert. Chef Dommen’s halibut steak was a masterpiece. Extraordinarily tender and impossibly moist, it was almost the consistency of a stiff pudding. At first glance, the process of sous vide appeared to me like those horrible “boil n’ bags” of my childhood, but the current product is the antithesis of the fare that those bags produced. Flavors are more than “locked in” as the slogan went, they are imbued with the Chef’s choice of seasonings in an alchemic fashion, much like Rumpelstiltskin turning straw into gold, and Chef Dommen apparently knows all the magic words. He chose to develop a faux hollandaise from the fruit of the avocado as his vehicle for its incorporation into the Halibut, bringing its flavors into the dish while preserving the subtlety of the halibut. The sauce was creamy and unique, yet it did not undercut the natural flavor profile of the seafood. As my quail egg broke and the yolk mingled with the other creamy flavors on my plate, I was in heaven. The combination of savory flavors and velvety textures was a resounding success. The asparagus served beneath the fish — likewise prepared by the hand of a master — had the perfect crunch. Spot on. This course was served with a delectable MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley, 2007).

Grilled Steak with Avocado "Chimichurri"
In my mind, perhaps due to my palate being skewed toward the heartier proteins, the next course was the “piece de resistance.” Chef Dommen prepared beautiful slices of perfectly rare, red-at-the-center slabs of Wood Grilled New York Steak accompanied by a colorfully appetizing California Avocado “Chimichurri” and a Fresh Corn Polenta. Each of these relishes that arrived on my plate to accompany the meat were just delightful. The chimichurri was layered with tiny cubes of avocado, red peppers, tomato and a hearty dose of remarkably fresh sweet corn. There was a nice kick to the seasoning of the chimichurri, which I found particularly appetizing. The lush polenta and the juice of the hot peppers all mingled with the sugary corn to slap my mouth with happy. There is just nothing that tastes better with nice, rare beef than sweet summer corn. My mouth is watering, and I can taste it again as I sit here and write about it, the meal was so vividly and expressively laid out on that plate. I can experience again the sweetness of the corn polenta as it ran swimming with the jus of the meat, the smoky outer edges of the beef crunchy and crystallized where they had been caressed by the grill. This whole course was a slice of heaven, and I ate every bite. The meat service was rounded out with a robust Skylark Grenache (Mendocino, 2007), whose full-bodied flavor picked up on the red of that meat and really set it off. Sublime.

Meyer Lemon-Olive Oil Cake
with Avocado Ice Cream
After an amazingly well thought out meal, we had now arrived at dessert. To complete his delectable meal and to stave off the creeping melancholy inspired by reaching a conclusion to an otherwise perfect evening, Chef Dommen had prepared a delectable little array of toothsome goodness. Collaborating with One Market’s Pastry Chef, Patti Dellamonica-Bauler, they had concocted a Meyer Lemon-Olive Oil Cake, which had a lovely resistant texture to it, flaky and light but with a bit of sponge to it, almost like a cross between pastry and cornbread. To accompany the cake, Chef Dommen had whipped up a California Avocado Ice Cream, and sprinkled the plate with strawberries and almonds. The fruit was as sweet as baby’s kisses and the ice cream delectable. The use of avocado in the ice cream made it rich, but kept the result from being cloying. It was a luscious, sugary blend of flavors grounded by avocado, which made it extraordinarily creamy. This course was paired with a Calera Mt. Harlan Dessert Viognier (Hollister, 2006).

Lastly, we were fed tiny White Chocolate and Avocado Truffles. The hands flew into the dish so fast I was unable to capture an image of them for the blog, but that speaks volumes as to their appeal. And the taste was...Bellisimo!

I’ve spent the last year blogging about food, and more precisely, the experience of enjoying a good meal. When I dine I am looking for visual display of proficiency and skill in plating, unique flavor combinations that will stretch my palate and most importantly, the loving hand of a culinary artist whose goal is sincere. I will fall in love with the food of a Chef whose hand is guided by honest emotion. Give me a Chef who cooks with love over a Chef whose dishes are grounded in training alone. During our question and answer session with the Chef, others asked how he had chosen to prepare this dish or the other. I asked him why he does it at all. The answer was as I expected, because he loves it. The look on someone’s face when they taste something new, or experience a memorable meal is his reward.

Given the authentic emotions that went into it, I can honestly say that this meal, thanks to Chef Mark Dommen and his competent staff, rates right up there with the best I have ever had. I expected to enjoy a meal inspired by avocado. It is after all, one of my favorite foods. Yet I hadn’t anticipated something this entertaining and creative. The people I spent the evening with were likewise delightful, and as the evening unfolded, I found myself sorry to be heading home.

Well done all! So I generally conclude this blog with a note to the general dining public to check a place out. One Market is definitely a place worth checking into. With Chef Mark Dommen at the helm, you will be in good hands. If I can add something I learned from the experience, it would be that whenever a meal touches you, inspires you or simply makes you happy... tell the Chef. It’s why they do it.

One Market
1 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94105-1420
(415) 777-5577