Recently honored with the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck hosted a celebratory evening of fine food and wine at his eponymous, Borgata-based restaurant.
There are some events in life mandatory in attendance and others that remain optional. Then there are those rarest moments, to paraphrase Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone in The Godfather, when you are made an offer you simply cannot refuse.
Such an occasion presented itself Friday evening, June 1.
When Austrian-born uber-chef Wolfgang Puck personally hosts an evening of food and fine wines at his Borgata-based restaurant, well, ’nuff said. So it came as no surprise when a hundred or so persons queued up patiently awaited entry. Making this event more auspicious was the reason: Puck being honored with a James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award — perhaps the single highest accolade for any chef in the New World.
Once we negotiated that snaking line stretching across the casino floor, the man himself stood at the rear by a wide-open private space, welcoming guests. Gracious enough to pose for pictures and autograph cookbooks, it remained obvious he was itching to get back into the kitchen and micro-manage his own fete.
Servers soon arrived, dispensing trays of tuna and steak tartare, skewered beef satays, tempura shrimp, and pizza — some with smoked salmon — alongside plenty of extraordinary Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine.
Our first course was a trio of amuse-bouche sized portions. On the narrow plate’s left side, an original Puck signature item, Chinois chicken salad. Crunchy, fresh with plenty of Nappa cabbage and radicchio, this starter served as a pleasant tip-of-the-cap by the chef. In the center, a fetching horizontal stack-referred on the menu as a “Layer cake” of razor-thin red beets, topped by a single slice of the golden version of that so-trendy root veggie. Finally, adding bright spring color and a definitive oomph, a tidy little espresso cup of green garlic soup. Fragrant, yet light and balanced, this blend gently tickled the palate, rather than overwhelming.
Delivered next, a pasta course, or more specifically “my grandmother’s” cheese ravioli. Three delicate little bundles of adroitly cooked pasta, dressed by a beautiful, shiny brown butter sauce. Of all the delicacies presented, this seemingly simple offering moved us most. Moist, tender and with just the right amount of cheese, the purses of ravioli alone were artful enough. But that sauce, hinted with just the slightest essence of sage, was a wonder of pure culinary refinement. We’ve said it before: name a dish after your grandmom — regardless the style of cooking — and it better be good. This went well beyond, into the realm of tearjerker, providing a remarkable glimpse into Puck’s even-more-distant personal history.
Following traditional dining structure, a fish course followed. This was almond-crusted “ivory” salmon, Jerusalem artichoke puree and Pinot Noir glaze. A subspecies of king salmon, native only to certain rivers in Alaska and Canada, ivory salmon is a rare genetic strain whose flesh does not obtain the famed crimson appearance of its cousins. It is also silkier and milder in taste, with a translucent, almost buttery feel.
We adored the selection of both the Jerusalem artichoke — not actually an artichoke, but a close relative of sunflower — and Pinot Noir. They added depth and complexity to the natural clout and Omega-3 fat of the salmon.
The meal’s crescendo was next, a duet of grilled cote du boeuf and slow-braised short ribs. The former, a steak cut taken from the rib, was a thick slice angled stage left in jaunty fashion. As for the short rib, this was a marvel of patience and attention to detail. Nearly fork-tender, the beef hadn’t lost any of its juices, a problem often plaguing restaurant versions of braised meat. Plated atop soft polenta with an Armagnac-peppercorn sauce, each of these cuts of meat demonstrated a lifetime’s worth of accumulated skill.
It also reminded us of the last time we encountered Puck, at the 2011 Savor Borgata event. That night he stood for hours next to an smoking-hot grill, soaked with sweat, hand slicing and plating Tuscan favorite steak Fiorentina like a primo line cook. The mere thought still provides goosebumps.
Finishing off a memorable evening was Kaiserschmarren, a baked specialty roughly translated as “Emperor’s mishmash.” This soft, eggy pastry is similar to crepes or pancakes, only possessing a heartier nature. Created in the royal Austrian Court, it served as a closing cultural coda to a truly memorable night with one of the world’s most celebrated chefs.
photo by amanda marsalis
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