Friday, 3 February 2012

This Is Ohio?: An Adventure at The Refectory

The Refectory Restaurant and Bistro on Urbanspoon

Late night greetings (and a special salute to French 418)! As the midnight hour approaches at the start of my writing this post, I continue to hear the sounds of the familiar weekend college crowd, a rather stark contrast to the experience I was so fortunate to enjoy this evening. But before I continue, for those of you who make the random trip to this blog post on a pseudo-regular basis, my apologies once again for not having written much as of late. I know I've said this one too many times in the past, but this week in particular has not left me much time at all to cook, let alone write (though at least I've surpassed my own New Year's commitment to writing an average of at least three times a week). This is not to say that all things food-related have escaped my consciousness altogether as we move into February; rather, I'll sincerely take this to mean I have been fed centuries of gastronomy this week especially in preparation for a true culinary adventure. From the Gauls and the Middle Ages, the French gastronomy class I'm auditing this semester has made the transition to the Renaissance (by the way, many thanks to the Italians, i.e., the other half of my culinary comfort zone) and through the era of Louis XIV when France began to develop a "French" culinary identity and establish itself among the gastronomic elite. The timing for our transition, I think it's safe to claim, could not have been any better, as our French professor Christine had the good fortune of reserving limited special first Friday prix fixe menus at The Refectory Restaurant & Bistro in Columbus. Little did I realise when we left campus on our adventure with Christine earlier this evening that our adventure awaited us at the dinner table 45 minutes away.

On a personal level, my dining experience at the L'Atelier du Peintre in Colmar continues to define my culinary point of view. On a more academic level, however, my dining experience tonight at The Refectory affirmed the impact that knowledge has on the food we consume and has begun to shape my sense of a gastronomic (food and culture) point of view. In this, I would like to draw particular attention to the difference between knowing of food and knowing about it. Certainly a nitpicky distinction, I stress its importance because, in retrospect and within the general context of the liberal arts mentality, the excitement and energy around food was heightened at this dinner than any other I can remember, in large part because of our direct connection, in many respects, to the "source material" of this meal. For example, foodstuffs such as chervil, artichoke and Chantilly meant much more to us than simply elements on a plate. From a purely culinary perspective, they certainly performed a sensory role in the meal. From a gastronomic perspective, they served as not only items to be tasted in order to be understood, but as conversation pieces and direct connections to history which led to better understanding. Moreover, and as we learned from Lyon native Chef Richard Blondin (who studied under the direction of Pierre Orsi and Paul Bocuse), many of The Refectory's ingredients are sourced outside of Columbus and as such have their own contemporary migratory stories, just as he has his own. While I won't go into too much detail here, it should be noted that the inspiration for first Friday meals such as this one comes from and in honour of a famous French chef; tonight's chef, as Chef Richard shared with us at the end of the dinner service, was fellow compatriot of Paul Bocuse (check out a the above video), Chef Roger Vergé (check out some of his cooking demos here), known as both a figurehead of contemporary French gastronomy and as having worked in the development and standard of what la cuisine française actually means today. Also inspired by art and presentation, this "culinary painter's" approach to food as described in this 1988 article is loosely translated as "Mediterranean cooking, inspired by coastal peasant food," many notes of which are strewn beautifully (inclusive of the pain noir) throughout the course of this evening's meal here in central Ohio.

All told, for our [barring one, "our" will here on out generally refer to Christine, me, four Denison French majors/minors and Christine's son, Max] first course, we began with "calamari spaghetti and smoked mussels symphony" accompanied by a crème vinaigrette. By name alone, we took seafood to suggest a strong Mediterranean and quite possibly Italian influence (again, at this point, we weren't sure who inspired this menu). Perhaps I heard our waiter incorrectly, but as it was explained, I heard that the spaghetti was infused with calamari; in actuality it seems the spaghetti was made/infused with calamari ink, though I'll admit to a very mild seafood aftertaste. Surrounding the pile of pasta, which was topped with a grated mild cheese that added a slight salt element to the dish, were four pairs of truly smoked mussels. The exterior flavour was assertive without being overpowering and the crème vinaigrette that it was served with worked with the softer bite of the interior. Garnished with sprigs of chervil (a "forgotten" but nevertheless common French herb seen in Lyon and used in milder dishes; as such, I saw the inclusion of chervil on the savoury dishes as Chef Richard's signature and homage to his roots), a light chive-infused olive oil brought harmony to the dish, surrounding the light flavours.

By far, the most memorable thing on the dish, however, were two small servings of brunoised tomato topped with Fleur de Sel, a firm maritime salt most often associated with northwestern France (such as the Fleur de Sel de Guérande of Brittany which I have used before in my salted caramel /bacon brownies), as well as southern France (e.g., the Fleur de Sel de Camargue harvested from Salins du Midi in Aigues-Mortes). [Click here for one blogger's take on gourmet salts.]The tomatoes, even at such a small dice, held their shape extremely well and their strength seemed to be mimicked by the salt which in turn complimented the spaghetti (giving the dish texture) and the mussels (giving the dish continuity). Perhaps the only other time I can remember getting so much flavour from so little was in Boston a few years ago when I ate a small, simply presented dish of ratatouille.

For our second course, we had a "roasted quail medallion" served on a céleri root blini, sauce Périgourdine and a carrot nest. I can safely say I have never had quail and while I enjoyed it, the quail itself was the second weakest componentof the entire meal. Granted the difficulty of cooking smaller game birds, I found my serving at least to be cooked rather unevenly, with the small drumsticks and the thinner parts of the quail being completely moist while (strangely) the relatively thicker breast meat was dry and stringy. The quail sat on top of the single component I took the most issue with: the celeri root blini. If you go back to my post on potato pancakes, it was clear to me the potato had been milled/food processed (which in itself is fine), but I found the texture to be rather weak and on the mushy side, complicated by the fact the sear on the blini did actually add flavour and it sat on top of a delicious sauce (albeit that was one of this dish's saving graces). When I think blini, I think of a firmer texture and vehicle on which to consume the food sitting on it; this was not the case however as it tended to fall apart first cutting into it (definitely because it had soaked up too much liquid-- apparently, this was similar to the Middle Age's tradition with its starches) and then as I actually ate it (though it did help to carry on the subtle nuances of celeri root). [Perhaps it should have been kept in a purée form?] I should also note the fact that the quail (among the prized games meats of upper class reserves) sat on essentially a bed of potato could not be coincidental, but surely influenced by the potato's history and slow introduction into France's general population, with its imposition on the lower classes by the intellectuals of Louis XV and its official approval by Louis XVI.

This being said, the Périgourdine sauce was one of the best sauces I had all evening. As noted in the directly aforementioned link, a sauce à la Périguordine refers to a one garnished with truffles; in this case, it was a Bordelais (veal) sauce infused with chocolate (read: black) truffle oil. Interestingly (though given the French emphasis on regional, terroir cooking, unsurprisingly), the French region of Périgord is located in the southwest and home to black truffles (as well as raised quail). The sauce itself was complex with rich tones from the veal and a slightly salty quality which paired well with the black peppered quail. All of this was topped with shaved carrot (which I enjoy on most any dish) and was without a doubt the most important element of the dish given its natural sweetness to cut through the heaviness of the dish and its crunchy texture to balance components that were much softer in contrast.

The stylings of southern France continued into our third course with "trio 'Lucullus' of [counterclockwise from 6:00] veal, beef and lamb" with bleu d'Auvergne and Bordelaise. Lucullus, a Roman emperor who apparently loved to eat and was known for his banquets in the 1st century BC, is a claimed Epicurean who followed the Greek philosophy which pre-dated him by two centuries. The philosophy (and I roughly translate here from the directly aforementioned link) states that truth rests in both the body and the soul. As such, pleasure is important to reaching happiness which in itself cannot be found at random. Instead, one must search for harmony, a concept which certainly drove Lucullus toward gastronomy, cuisine, and fine dining during the age of Antiquity. In addition, it should be noted that the term lucullan means lavish, luxurious and gourmet (but also take note it doesn't translate to gourmand), and certainly this third course well represented his lifestyle in the Mediterranean and its inspiration to be found in southern France. Cooked on the rarer side of the meat spectrum (a choice that can best be appreciated when served high quality meat), the three cuts highlighted traditional representations and presentations of each. Additionally, each piece was topped with a relatively mild bleu d'Auvergne cheese (Auvergne of which is located in south-central France), adding warm notes to compliment the meats very well and cut down on the "rare" taste presented to us.

All of this sat in a delicious Bordelaise sauce (a recipe of which can be found here). Bordelaise, named for its regional source (i.e., Bordeaux in southwestern France), principally includes a reduction of a demi-glace and red wine, the demi-glace of which is notably made with a bouquet garni. I mention this, in particular, because the era of Louis XIV, as we learned in class, brought recognition to regional French ingredients, many French herbs of which continue to be included in contemporary French herbal palates.

At the center of the plate rested a grilled [globe] artichoke heart, in which sat a roasted red bell pepper. The globe artichoke, otherwise known as the French artichoke, was brought over to France by Catherine de Medici in the 16th century; by contrast, it should be noted, the Jerusalem artichoke (known in French as topinambour) was brought into France in the early 17th century and looks completely different than the one photographed above. In any case, these were both sweeter than I had expected and as such added a contrast to the smoky sauce that hugged the dish. I should note here that each course was served service à la Russe, i.e., in succession one at a time, and in our case with service ware that was both clean and functional to each dish being served. This was made especially clear for this third dish with the presentation of a flattened spoon that I am convinced is meant for specifically eating the artichoke. Underneath the artichoke was a small serving of truffle-infused risotto (also of Italian/Mediterranean influence) which had a nice bite and garnered some creaminess from the sauce but for some reason tasted rather grainy and borderline undercooked. Finally, for odd-numbered symmetry, three stalks of asparagus (which were cooked perfectly-- tender with a slight bite) divided the dish into three sections, clearly separating the experiences and stories of the three meats on the plate. With a history also dating to Lucullus's time, asparagus grew in abundance and gained popularity along the eastern Mediterranean, and by the time it reached Louis XIV, was dubbed "The King of Vegetables" (and later the "Food of Kings" by Louis XVI). Today, fresh asparagus can be found in the markets of (hopefully unsurprisingly at this point) southern France.

When we spoke with Chef Richard  at the end of the meal, Christine asked him whether he prefers to cook fish or meat. His response was that he prefers dessert. And my word, our final course in the form of "Tessora Limone Napoleon" with caramel sauce was simply outstanding! Similar to Ohio-fabricated limoncello, Tessora Limone is a lemon based liquer produced and bottled a short drive away from Granville, in New Albany, but with its roots originating from the Abruzzo region of Italy. The liquer was incorporated into a light cream layered between layers of pâte feuilletée (puff pastry). This preparation is known as a mille-feuille, named for the layers of pastry and cream. Additionally, it's aptly known as a Napoleon, named for Corsican Napoleon I of France; regionally Corsica is a bit of a middle ground between the Italian influences presented throughout the meal and the French techniques used in their preparation.

Topping off these layers of pastry and cream (bites of which brought me back to childhood memories of barquillos and ice cream-- perhaps there were indeed some wafer layers) was a layer of hardened sugar and a drizzle of caramel (an American invention which un/consciously served as a bridge between the presented Franco-Italian cuisine and what Chef Richard described as the adaptation of his training to American expectations).

Perhaps it's just me, but of all the different techniques that can be applied to food and its presentation, anything with a coulis has the potential to be even greater than a version without it. This was especially true for this dessert which included a raspberry coulis and fresh raspberries, the concentrated tart flavours of which cut through the richness of the creamy layers. Paired with curled white chocolate, the raspberries made so much sense in this dish, especially when considering their own migratory history and place in cultures along lines of class.

To conclude this overall wonderful and memorable (as well as memory-rendering) meal, we were served with a petit four of crème brûlée served in a mini chocolate cake shell. And as if this wasn't enough (and has been mentioned quite a few times already), we had the pleasure of conversing with Chef Richard after the dinner service, at which point it made complete sense when it was revealed that Chef Roger served as the inspiration for this evening's meal, especially given that much of his inspiration is pulled from his experiences in Aix-en-Provence. As again noted in the aforementioned article toward the top of this post, the canvases of food presented by Chef Richard beautifully presented Vergé's "bright, fresh, lusty flavors of the south of France." In many respects, I found the success of this meal (at least on a personal level) to coincide in harmony with the artistic experience I had in Alsace where, too, the blank canvas and artistic expression elevate and bring forth the joy of the dining experience.

This photo of the roof of the adjoining restaurant currently serves as a place holder; at its foundation, The Refectory used to be a mid-19th century church.
What I found to be quite extraordinary was the amount of training and experience that exudes from Chef Richard as he speaks; this is--so it seems--the life he has built for himself and one which he is extraordinary at leading. Between balancing a life with roots still very much tied to familial life back in France and the success of The Refectory, as well as the 50+ hours per week he devotes to the restaurant, he serves as a true inspiration to any and all interested in food. From what I gathered from our group's interaction with him, one of many signs of a great chef rests in the inspiration pulled from non-complacency and creativity which is then perfected in his trade, somewhere between the lines of chimie et art. And it's wonderful to know that here, in central Ohio of all places, his passion is extremely well translated throughout the restaurant, onto the plate and into our memory. For the complete album of photos, click here.

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