Another day, another “culinary adventure”! That’s right kiddies, today we’re returning to the fantasy world of five course lunches prepared by culinary students at Wilkes Community College. We arrived a little early today but were seated immediately. And this time there was bread on the table!
Crusty, chewy fresh bread. And the cutest butter that I’ve ever been presented! I’m definitely doing this at home next time I have guests.
There was little time to enjoy that beautiful bread and butter as the fancier stuff began arriving.
Amuse Bouche --Stuffed Olive & Smoked Pork
As with all Amuses they were flavorful bites to wake up the palate. The smoked pork was perfectly cooked with good smoky depth of flavor. It was served with a sauce that wasn’t described on the menu, but I would describe it as a mustard-based barbeque sauce. It was tart, but not a vinegary tartness, more of a mustardy burn. as there was a bit of heat to it, too.
The olive was huge and stuffed with…I have NO idea. Menu fail on this one. It gave no clues. And whatever it was stuffed with was overwhelmed by the olive’s briny goodness. I love olives—so that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I think they missed an opportunity here to wow me. Or at least give me a clue as to what they had painstakingly stuffed into the poor little dear.
First Course-- Foie Gras Torchon with Toasted Brioche served with a Sour Cherry Red Wine Compote.
Foie Gras was PERFECT. Buttery, meltingly soft and rich like an Arab oil baron. I could find NO fault with this. None. The foie gras was smooth and even,with no pockets of fat that indicate an improperly cooked liver. The compote was a tart counterbalance to the richness of the foie gras. Technically, I don’t know if this qualifies as a true compote. I would have called it more of a fruit red wine reduction, as it was smooth and lacked stewed fruit but hey I’m not THAT picky when it’s that good!! The brioche was crisp, and lightly sweet, just as it should have been. Everything on that plate WORKED.
Second Course—Poached Cod with Mango Salsa and Sauteed Plantains
Circle the bases, they knocked this one outta the park. The cod was moist, flaky and well-cooked. I’m always so pleased to get perfectly cooked fish. It’s not easy to get it exactly right, and they did. Cod can be very bland, any poached fish can be, but the mango salsa woke it up. It was bright and full of flavor. It was served with a creamy coconut sauce that accentuated the creaminess of the fish and the coconut base notes complimented the mangoes. If there’s any complaint to be issued with this dish it was the plantains. They were slightly under seasoned – the only component of the day that had that problem. Plantains, like potatoes, take salt better during cooking. If you wait until later, they NEVER get seasoned well enough. But honestly, it was hardly noticeable and entire dish didn’t suffer greatly, since they were well-prepared and not at all greasy.
Third Course—Baby Arugula Salad with Cherry Tomatoes, Red Onion and Fig Balsamic Vinaigrette
It’s arugula. It’s tomatoes. It’s a palate cleanser. It didn’t do much. The fig balsamic dressing was nice, but once again this week, I felt the salad was completely under dressed. It doesn’t have to swim in dressing but there should be enough so that you’re not munching through dry arugula which can be quite abrasive.
Fourth Course—Roasted Stuffed Quail with Mushroom Queso Fresco Cheese Tamales and Roasted Red Pepper Sauce.
Beautiful presentation. The quail was well-seasoned and the chorizo stuffing gave it a nice, peppery bite that cut through the richness of the quail. The red pepper sauce offered a sweet balance to all the savory. My companion said that poor little bird reminded her of the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. It really did. You see it,too, don't you??
But I say, but I say, boy, bird was not my favorite part of that plate. It was the tamales! Creamy, corny goodness in a husk with earthy, slightly chewy mushrooms. In other words, it was like George Clooney in a corn husk. Mmmmmmmmmmmmm. To quote Ina Garten, "Who wouldn't want that?"
Fifth Course—Biscotti with Crème Anglaise, Poached Pears and Milk Chocolate Mousse.
There was a lot happening on this plate. And a little something wrong with all of it. The poached pear was robust, but still allowed the flavor of the pear to shine through. That was good. But the texture was off. Let me say, I don’t like mushy movies, sparkly mushy vampires, or mushy cooked to death fruit. But the pear was unyielding to my knife. It could have stood a few more minutes in the poaching liquid.
The mousse. Oh, my. I can’t say that I know exactly what happened with this mousse. But it had…issues. Like a “sparkly vampire stalker boyfriend who controls your every move and you stay with him anyway even though there’s a much hotter werewolf dude who would let you do what you wanted because he freakin’ worships the ground you walk on” kind of issues. It may look good from the outside, but when you get into the middle of it, it was a mess. Mousse is supposed to be light and airy. This was grainy. Like REALLY grainy. Whether it was over-beaten cream, or crystallized cocoa butter from overheating chocolate, I can’t say for sure. Maybe even a gelatin issue?? The flavor was good—it had a strong cocoa taste. (Hmmm. Maybe they used cocoa powder instead of melted chocolate and that caused a problem?) But I couldn’t overcome the texture issue, you can see the grain in the picture. Whatever it was that was on my plate, it wasn’t mousse.
Now. Let’s talk about biscotti. There are two things in this world that I love more than biscotti. My husband and my dog. That’s it. Anise seed biscotti, triple ginger biscotti, red velvet biscotti, pumpkin chocolate chip biscotti….I love them all. But there’s something you don’t do with biscotti. And that is slap it on a plate with a dribble of crème anglaise and call it done. No matter how much creamy vanilla goodness that crème anglaise contains. Biscotti are crunchy. It is "hard enough to break Chuck Norris's molars" hard. That’s why you serve it with coffee. Or tea. Or better yet, Vin Santo. I understand WHY it wasn’t served with Vin Santo. We’re not at George Clooney's Italian villa on Lake Como. And the college culinary department doesn’t have a liquor license. But coffee would have been nice. Or a nice little pot of something to dip the biscotti. It was a good biscotti. It had lots of stuff in it. The texture was spot on. But it was a little red-headed stepchild all alone in a mall without it’s mommy-- it was missing a very important companion element.
Overall, this meal was more solid than last week’s offering with only the dessert course falling flat. Seasoning was more even, the courses were more balanced. Dessert was only misstep and the flavor wasn’t bad, the execution was off. The foie gras really stands out. But for me it was the poached cod that took the prize for the day.
Both weeks offerings had a common thread. The menu card was lacking. I enjoy having the menu to tell me what I'm having, to be able to devour the meal in my mind before I take a bite. Sauces are SO important on a plate, but they are so rarely described. Key components are left out of descriptions. It may seem like a minor detail but if you're ordering in a restaurant, that description is your ONLY key. In that respect, even something as mundane as menu presentation becomes super important in your overall restaurant experience.
Another thing I want to add, both weeks I was able to purchase bread from the students. Last week a french baguette which was still hot from the oven and drove me to break my diet in the extreme! And today a lovely, lovely sourdough bread that is nothing short or exquisite. True sourdough, with layers of flavor. Kudos. And I paid a whopping $3 for it that boule of sourdough. What a bargain. If you get the opportunity to try one of the lunches or buy a loaf of their bread, whatever the type, do it. They may be students, but for the most part, you'd never know it.