Saturday, June 11, 2016.
Trio For Dinner: A New Special At Commander’s Palace.
This is turning into The Year Of Daniel Lelchuk for us. In 2015, Daniel called me on the radio with the first in a sporadic series of questions and comments about both cooking and restaurants. Along the way we learned that he was the second-chair cellist in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. And that he has a good palate and an interest in eating at the higher levels.
The next thing I knew I was reading his father’s novel (Brooklyn Boy), he provided the music for Mary Ann’s birthday party, and he became a regular guest host of the radio show when I am out of town. More broadly, his name and his cello have turned up in a host of performances around town–not to mention a goodly amount of travel to performance venues all over the globe. All this from a guy about Jude’s age.
And here Daniel is tonight, leading a trio that will play at Commander’s Palace. Daniel makes friends easily, and some months ago he got to talking with Dan Davis, the sommelier at Commander’s. They hatched a new wine dinner concept: an elegant menu, nine wines, and three performances by Daniel and friends.
“It’s a musical wine dinner in three movements,” says Ti Martin, co-proprietor of Commander’s and, apparently, another person under Daniel’s musical spell. Chef Tory McPhail adds his own spin with a food lineup similar to his nightly “chef’s playground” menu. The eats tended to the robust, surely because of the medium-to-very big red wines from the more remote crannies of Dan “Wine Guy” Davis’s cellar.
I have heard Daniel the cellist enough times to know that the music would be impressive. I didn’t expect Eric Silberger–a friend of his who spends most of his time performing around the world with his 1755 Guarneri violin. Eric’s virtuosity is so astonishing that more than a few mouths were agape. The fact that most of the attendees were within ten or fifteen feet of the performers made it even more impressive. Nobody gets this close to musicians.
We begin elegantly enough, with bubbly glasses of Billecart-Salmon Brut rose Champagne, handed us as we assembled in Commander’s grand patio. We scale the stairs to the Coliseum Room and find 2014 Andre & Michael Cunard Savoie Albymes, a white from the foothills of the Alps in France.
Also waiting for us is 2010 Zind-Humbrecht Riesling. This is an interesting surprise. Almost all the wines from Alsace are dry. This one has an unmissable but subtle sweetness. A nice little trick, pairing “chicken oysters” with this instead of a red wine. (Chicken oysters are little nodules of fat on either side of the rear quarter of a chicken. These were made to actually resemble fried oysters.)
Also on the plate are Florida hoppers, a species of shrimp that grows around Point St. Joe in Florida, where the water is so salty that these are supposed to be the world’s best boiling shrimp. But are they really better than local shrimp? And what happened to the local sourcing of food that the chefs have been telling us is so important for the last thirty years?
Finishing up this movement is a flan of all the elements of boiled crawfish. It was like a pate, and I was using the bread to pick it up. At around this time, I had made a connection with the main kitchen asking for them to send some garlic bread up to our table. Mary Ann is nuts about Commander’s buttery, crescent-shaped French bread bites. And so is everyone else there. We just had to make sure that none of the musicians would touch the garlic bread and then pick up their instruments. One of the few things I know about playing the violin is that a little patch of grease on a string is a disaster.
But a worse problem would come up. Benjamin Thacher’s viola broke a string. The musicians had a spare violin string, and a cello string rarely breaks. But a viola string? Daniel checked with his network and turned up nothing.
The only solution was to replace the two remaining pieces in the program. Fortunately, both Daniel and Eric have show-stopping pieces in their heads. The result was nothing short of astonishing, with Eric creating walls of music that didn’t seem possible. “He’s the best violinist in the world,” says Daniel. I don’t think he was exaggerating by much, if at all.
The second food course is a coq au vin whose preparation heads off in at least four directions: sausage, rooster leg and skin, seared breasts, and a sauce the looked and tasted as if it were trying to be gumbo. “Why not just make gumbo?” I thought, but I kept my mouth shut.
I was busy with the wines, anyway. Two Burgundies: Domaine Bachelet-Monnot Chassagne-Montrachet, and 2010 Maison Champy Premier Cru le Vergelesses. Not a lot of those wines comes my way.
We were almost exhausted by the intensity of the second musical element. And, I imagine, so was Mr. Silberger. I don’t know if he or his colleagues got anything to eat, but they had time to do so. The most substantial and best of the courses brought together lamb and baby goat–two meats I don’t think I’ve ever had together. I was already shaking my head from reading that the lamb loin is smoked with 1880s cypress wood. To my sensitivities, most of the food already seemed contrived. I wasn’t picking up a smoked aroma or flavor as it was, let alone any advantage that the meat would achieve from being smoked over 135-year-old wood.
The controversy between classical music and modern music came to mind. Should we push ahead to new frontiers for their own sake, even if they make us uncomfortable with their unfamiliarity? Or should we go after ultimate goodness of flavor, aroma, and those other matters?
I was very happy with the wines in this part of the cycle. My favorite wine of the night was a Bourgueil, a red from Loire Valley, which is much better known for its whites than its reds. The aroma was smoky and meaty, almost suggesting that one would need to chew it. The flavor had the same fascinating rusticity. The other two wines are more distinguished, and include a 1995 Pomerol from Chateau Gombaude-Guillot, served from magnums. Both this and the Chateau de la Font de Loup 2015 were much bigger wines, but I kept coming back to that fascinating red Loire.
The final course was a baklava of quinces and yellow apples. (Quinces remind one of apples, was the trick here.) And we go back to Burgundy for another new wine idea: sweet 2012 Thierry et Pascal Matron, Aligote Moilleux.
The creative concept in this dinner was to capture the spirits of the music, the food, and the wine and then attempt to make their sensations multiply. I’m not sure that this idea has matured yet, at least not at this level of cooking, writing and playing music, and wine making. The Italians have it down: big red sauces and pasta and cheese eaten as an accordion plays and wines are poured from barrels full of wine grown in the nearby fields. But it’s hard enough to get one’s head around what our trendsetting chefs tell is is the current state of the culinary arts, let alone adapt wines and music to it.
That said, its clear that the attendees found the evening rewarding, as did I–even though not many of us completely understand or remember the details.