René Redzepi, Executive Chef at Noma, one of the most highly rated restaurants in the world (this year it was #2) was in Chicago for a book tour and dinner in his honor. As I would be surprised if I had the time and money to visit Copenhagen, Denmark in the near future, I decided that this was something that I really wanted to do. His book, A Work in Progress, is a 3 volume set comprised of a journal, a book of pictures, and a cookbook that, while it also has great pictures, would be difficult to cook from simply for the availability of ingredients. The cuisine that Chef Redzepi does at Noma is called new Scandanavian and is fiecely local and seasonal. In order to do a dinner in Chicago, he decided to partner with a Chicago chef that shares his mindset, Chris Pandel of Balena and The Bristol. The dinner that they designed, was not something that would be served at Noma because many of the ingredients that would be used in Denmark would not be available locally. What they designed was a 10 course menu of local and seasonal food for Chicago in the fall. The dinner was held at The Bristol with a cocktail reception in the lounge that normally occupies the second floor. The way things were set up for the dinner was that when you arrived, you checked in and then went upstairs to the cocktail reception for a drink (on the house) and they would bring you down to be seated when your table was ready. We had a relatively early seating so the time between when we arrived and when we were seated was pretty quickly. The dining room was set up like it normally is although I think it was using more candles for lighting and there was a welcome sign for Chef Redzepi on one of the chalkboards that usually lists menu items. The normal progression in a fine dining restaurant is bread, salad, soup, fish, fowl, red meat, cheese course, and dessert which was the progression for this meal.
For the first course, the bread course or as they called it, Butter, we were served Housemade Butter and Whole Wheat Rolls and Buttermilk Crackers salted with Icelandic Sea Salt on which to serve it. The whole wheat rolls were fragrant and dense, providing a very good vehicle for the butter. The buttermilk cracker was interesting. It was unevenly shaped but generally long, narrow, and very thin and fragile. It was very easy to break a small piece for eating by hand but it was so thin it wasn't so easy to spread butter on as it would likely break. Whether the butter was spread on it or not though, it was good.
The third course was the first course that I had to ask about because I was unsure what the emphasized ingredient was by name. The dish looked good and the rest of the ingredients sounded like good ingredients so I was unworried of the taste. I just wanted to find out what I was eating. The dish was called Cardoon and was served with Goat Cheese Curd, Isaac's Mom's Lime Curd, and Candied Black Cumin. The Cardoon was the leaves and stems on the dish. It is also known as an Artichoke Thistle and is related to the Artichoke and had a vegetal flavor with a bit of pickled artichoke. The goat cheese was smooth, slightly sour, with a gamy, goaty finish. The candied cumin was interesting because I would have never have thought of candying a spice seed. It went well with the Cardoon and the goat cheese. The last ingredient was really good and interesting and also required an explanation. Isaac's Mom's Lime Curd was a lime curd made from limes from a tree in Isaac's Mom's yard in the southwest suburbs. Isaac is a chef at the restaurant and limes don't normally grow in the midwest. In any case it wasn't quite as tart as a regular lime but it was still pretty good.
Course number four was another course that tasted much better than it looked. It emphasized corn and included a Masa Tamale, American Guinea Hog Farce, Fermented Tomatillo, Henry Moore Hominy, and Iroquois Corn Porridge. I am not sure if farce is anything other than a misprint. What was in the tamale was ground American Guinea Hog. It was coarsely ground and spiced well. The dish had a lot of corn flavors that went well together and also had a nice spicy finish.
Course number five progressed to the first of the fish courses and while it was rather simple as far as ingredients were concerned, those ingredients went together well and the dish was much more photogenic. The dish was Smelt with Wheat Berries (Bulgur), Horseradish Shoots, and Dill. To me, this was a one bite wonder. The flavor progression went from the slightly fishy smelt, to the crunchy wheat, then dill and finished with the burn of the horseradish (it wasn't the sinus clearing flavor of much horseradish, but it was there).
While I had liked all of the dishes to this point, course number six was the first of my favorite dishes (although I did really like the lime curd with the cardoon). It was Catfish with Paw Paw Curry, Preserved Sour Oranges, and Dhana Dal. Catfish has a stronger flavor which went well with the curry and sour oranges. The curry was sweet and spicy, the sour oranges were small and dried and I think only the skin was used. It was tart like lemon zest but also a little more bitter. and the dhana dal (preserved coriander seeds) were an explosion of flavor. They had a nutty, spicy, orange flavor that tied the curry to the sour oranges.
The next course, course number eight, may have been my favorite, it was called Venison and had venison four ways. There was a Venison Tenderloin on the left, a Braised Venison Leg in the middle, and an Andouillette Sausage featuring Venison Heart and other offal on the right. The andouillette was topped with what they called a Venison Cracker but I would call a Chicharron. The dish was finished with a splash of Jus on the braised leg and some Raspberry Jam with the sausage. The tenderloin was rare and tender and was probably the least gamy and the Andouillette was the most gamy. It had a gamy and mineraly flavor but I did like it and the raspberry jam did help. The chicharron was a nice bonus with a nice crunch, a light mouth feel, and a light venison finish.
The venison was the last of the savory courses so in a normal progression the next course would be a cheese course, and it was, after a fashion. Course Nine was about Acorns. It started with Acorn Cheese which was presented with Copiette, thin slices of Pork Jerky, and Acorn Gel. This tasted very rustic and woody and reminded me of something Native Americans might have eaten in the fall. In this way there was also a progression from Thanksgiving through Venison to the Acorn. The acorn cheese was smooth, nutty, and buttery (similar in texture to peanut butter) and the acorn gel was like a nutty gel. What can you say of pork jerky? It was chewy, salty, and tasted strongly of pork. It was very good.
The dinner finished, of course, with dessert which, while it did go with a rustic look, it was a very tasty and complex work of art. The dish was focused on Elderberries and started with an Elderberry Sorbet cradled in a Corn Silk Candy nest (like an egg). The nest was sitting on a Celery Root Cake which sat in an Elderberry Gelee. The dish was sprinkled with Green Coriander. The elderberry flavor really stood out in this although the corn silk candy did have a light sweet corn flavor. The celery root cake had a light flavor but texturally helped to tie things together. The dish was fun and very tasty.
This event was a lot of fun and it was very cool to meet Chef Redzepi. The food was very good, the service was excellent, and it was also fun to see the names of the Chicago culinary community come for the dinner and meet and greet as well. In addition to Chris Pandel, who I was not surprised to see, I also saw Rick Tramonto, Giuseppe Tentori, Homaro Cantu, Richie Farina, Claire Crenshaw, and Curtis Duffy, and those that I immediately recognized. If another event like this occurs, I will definitely keep it in mind.