Wednesday, September 14, 2005

FOOD: Patina

Last Saturday, we took our friends Mark and Heather out to Patina for a special dinner. They had not been to the new Patina, nor had they been to the Disney Hall yet, so we arrived early and took a stroll around the "steel artichoke" and its gardens. It's a great addition to our downtown, and there are some nice spaces to wander around the building. The new Patina is nicely tucked into a corner of the concert hall, with a small outside patio and some window space. The room is modern, but understated, the most striking feature being wavy white ceiling "strips" with light coming from above them.

Dinner at Patina has always been a special treat. They serve some of the finest food in the city, and they do it in keeping with the French dinner tradition, with several courses, and little treats and tidbits between courses, all best enjoyed over the course of a leisurely evening. (While Patina is well-located for a pre-concert or pre-theater dinner, I couldn't imagine doing it the injustice. We were horrified when our waiter told us that some people arrive there at 7pm and expect to be out for an 8pm curtain.)

As we pondered the menu, a server brought us an interesting selection of delicious breads, including a dark olive bread and potato rolls. Our waiter was helpful in navigating the menu, especially for Heather and for George who each had special dietary concerns, and they were very accommodating in making rearrangements to suit. Shortly after our order was settled, a delightful "amuse bouche" arrived, a piece of sashimi in aromatic oil and tiny bits of fruit, just the thing to wake up our tastebuds.

For our appetizers, I opted for my "usual", the ocean quartet, a sampler of delicious seafood morsels varying with the season. Tonight it comprised a morsel of lobster clawmeat in a delicately seasoned crème, a chunk of hamachi sashimi with bits of mango, a piece of salmon sashimi in mustard sauce, and a fresh oyster on a bed of rock salt. The quartet is elegantly presented on a large square plate, with four small square plates that fit into the larger one. As I enjoyed my seafood, Mark and Heather savored a Hudson Valley foie gras with apricots and almonds, and George enjoyed his off-menu heirloom tomato salad.

Meanwhile, our wine arrived, a 2002 Justin Isosceles. (The wine list was a bit overwhelming. Patina has an extensive wine collection, with vertical flights from many wineries. Serious wine cognoscenti may appreciate this, but I found it a bit daunting, with the wine list reading a bit like a phone book. And I have to say the prices were a bit daunting as well. On this list, a very modest price bottle was $60-80, and the markups were around 150%.) Fortunately, the sommelier pointed out several suggestions based on our dinner choices, and I jumped at a name that I recognized and had very good memories of. I've always had great experiences with wines from Justin, a Paso Robles (central California) winery, and particularly remember the Isosceles from a wine-tasting several years ago. It is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, but balanced with a bit of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The result is as wonderful as I remembered it, very fruity, rich and velvety, like cherries and chocolate.

Presently, our main course was served, and I found myself greatly enjoying a succulent Kurobuta pork chop, topped with braised veal sweetbreads and chanterelle mushrooms in a mushroom glaze, and accompanied by gnocchi. (I'd been immediately drawn on the menu to that combination of several of my favorite things.) Meanwhile, George and Mark both enjoyed a saddle of lamb, and Heather had seared encrusted ahi tuna in a huckleberry emulsion with fava beans.

While all of this was superb, what followed is perhaps Patina's finest feature: the cheese course. Not only do they have the fine French tradition of a cheese course served from a cart from which there are many selections, but they have Andrew Steiner, their maitre fromager (think sommelier for cheese) to guide you through the selections. (Can you think of a better job than that?) This man loves cheese and knows cheese like nobody else, obtains marvelous cheeses from around the world, and makes the whole process of choosing cheese a delight. We got a plate of five samples to share, which ended up being seven after Mr. Steiner tossed in a few bonuses. (Mark and Heather related a story of flying business class on Air France last year on their honeymoon, which they said was excellent. After dinner had been finished, the attendant asked if they would like to have cheese before dessert. Their reaction: "But of course, we're not barbarians!") Our selections made, we embarked on our cheese flight in the recommended order, from milder to more powerful. We started with Chaource, from Champagne, a creamy mild cheese a bit like Brie but with a bit of salt and bite to it. Next came Ubriaco (Italian for "drunken"), a hard cow's milk cheese from Calabria that is aged in barrels that had held merlot. Then a Pecorino Fresco from Tuscany, not as hard and dry as Pecorino usually is, with a rich flavor. Fourth in the line-up was Monte Enebro, a hand-crafted goat cheese from Avila, Spain, hard but very smooth (not at all like typical goat cheese) and with a finish almost like a hint of bleu. Next, Tallegio, a cow's milk cheese from Lombardy, with quite a pungent aroma, but smooth and soft taste with a hint of earthiness. A dollop of fromage fort, a whipped cheese with garlic and herbs that spread deliciously on dark bread, had been made by Mr. Steiner himself. And our finale was Valdeon, a strong blue cheese from Leon, Spain, made from goat, cow, and sheep. Nearly as strong as Cabrales (the benchmark for strong blue), it was perfect with a bit of honey.

Continuing with the French dinner tradition, dessert comes after cheese. Mark enjoyed a cheesecake brulee, while George took a chocolate/espresso mousse with a praline crust, accompanied by an artisanal cream sherry. Heather and I both went for apricot tarte tatin with lychee sorbet, which turned out to be several tartelettes, each the size of a half apricot over marvelously light flaky pastry. It went perfectly with a glass of muscat. Andfinally, as in France, a post-dessert handful of small sweets, chocolates, and biscotti.

Ahhhhh. Dinner as it should be.

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