Friday, February 17, 2012

An enchanted evening, in six courses at...

For Valentine's Day I received one of the best gifts a girl could ask for... six courses of the decadent, fanciful cuisine of Belgium chef Bart Vandaele at Capitol Hill eatery Belga Cafe. Over the course of two and a half hours I tasted new things, encountered some favorites in surprising ways and did enough "mmming" and "ahhing" to make our closely seating neighbors more than a little uncomfortable. 

Valentine's Day dining is meant to be special, and the restaurant industry takes full advantage of the night to offer special meals and make a pretty penny. Belga's price-fix menu was one of the more expensive options for the night, but I think the 79.95 per person was a fair price to pay for what was offered. 

The menu was split into four sections - the temptations, the inter-courses, the event and the finale. Diners received two items for both the temptations and inter-courses, then chose one of three options for the event and finished with a sweet finale. Wine pairings were available for each section, but at 39.69 per person, we opted out for obvious reasons. A single glass of Malbec and regular refills of DC's finest tap water complemented my meal just perfectly.

The Meal
(All photos courtesy of Roderick Carey)
The Temptations - Foie gras push ups and Purple parsley potatoes
 Up first was the foie gras push-up - an adult push pop layers of foie gras, fig and speculoos, a gingerbread cookie flavored spread popular in Europe. Foie gras, a duck liver paste has a very strong and almost bitter flavor which the chef  nicely balanced with the sweetness of the other ingredients, but because of the vertical layering eating it was a challenge.  I found myself wanting something to spread it all and the basket of hot rye bread was luckily up to the task. 

 Next was the Purple parsley potatoes - simple, creamy and garnished with salmon roe. I couldn't resist biting into the bright orange eggs individually to get a good taste of their saltiness.

Inter-course 1 - Cupid's Asparagus Arrows
One of the biggest surprises of the meal came during in the 1st inter-course. Among the many elements of this beautiful plate - greens, avocado, oysters, hollandaise - sat what looked like a ball of cheese covered in a crispy coating. To my surprise it was a perfectly runny, bright yellow egg yolk, sprinkled with crumbled proscuitto. Now HOW did they do that?
Inter-course 2 - "Oh so sweet" lacquered lobster
 The second part of the inter-course was a simple but intense bowl of soup. The dish was initially served as hunks of lobster tail and sweet basil in a shallow bowl garnished with tomatoes and cream. The waiter then poured a piping hot broth over the mixture that released a vibrant aroma that made me smile. I was impressed with the liberal serving of lobster - some serious bang for our many bucks.

The Event for me  - Voluptuous pheasant breast and its tender legs
 My choice for the event was the "voluptuous" pheasant, and what a beauty she was. I chose it because I'd never had it before and I can report that this small game bird does not taste like chicken, but it does kinda taste like turkey. In fact my whole plate - white and dark meat pheasant, dollops of pureed potatoes, roasted vegetables and brown gravy - tasted like a perfect Thanksgiving dinner. The sophistication of the winter truffles and braised endive were not lost on me, but I loved that the dish had an overall homey feel.

The Event for him - Luscious loins of veal

 My date went with the veal - a meat I sometimes pretend to dislike for moral reasons, when in actuality I really don't care. My past experience with veal - slathered with ragu and parmesan in school cafeterias or pounded and fried did not do this protein justice. These "luscious loins" can only be described as ultra tender filet mignon - beautifully complimented by the intense flavors of almond, beets and bitter greens.

Finale - Belgian chocolate 

For the finale, my date and I couldn't help but channel Anthony Bourdain to make fun of the Dali-esque painting that arrived on our table. "Was the chef tripping on some really good acid?" "Has the 90s returned to haunt us?" Jokes aside, the main elements of the plate were beautiful. The creamy flour-less chocolate cake was near perfect - just missing a bit of crunch; the red berry sorbet was rich, with a vibrant flavor to match the color;  the butterfly cookie- the corniness of its shape aside - melted on the tongue. As for the many other elements on the plate - crushed pistachio, royal icing, fresh fruit - I could have done without them, if just for aesthetic reasons. I would've preferred my meal to end with a bit of understatement.

Final Thoughts

This Valentine's Day was truly a night to remember. Receiving the gift of this experience made me feel truly loved and understood by my partner and for that I thank him...again and again.

Throughout these six courses I never found myself disappointed. I enjoyed each dish not only for their flavor, but for the skill and artistry it took to create them. That being said, my favorite part of the meal was the course that I think hid its complexity best - the event. In both of our choices, the dishes - while complex and very advanced - felt simple and somehow familiar. I don't know why, but the idea of eating a better version of something you know is powerful, even in a meal that is purposefully forward thinking.

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