Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chaine Dinner

Last night the Beijing baillage of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs held its first dinner of 2010 at the Blu Lobster restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel. Blu Lobster has been considered one of Beijing’s best restaurants since it opened a few years ago, but since the Shangri-La is way out in the western side of town, we have never managed to make it out there. As soon as we heard that the Chaîne would be there we knew we’d have to go, especially since Blu Lobster is one of the restaurants that I was supposed to have sampled as part of my restaurant reviewing responsibilities for the magazine.

Decked out in our dinner jackets and beautiful waistcoats that our tailor made us about a year ago (incidentally, thanks to Alpha, those waistcoats are now so tight that we could barely breathe while wearing them; we’ll have to have them remade) we headed out by cab to the wilds of western Beijing. The hotel had organized circus performers as entertainment during the cocktail hour, so there was a flame thrower outside the entrance and men on stilts parading through the lobby, giving the hotel a rather festive (though incongruous) air. Once we checked in and paid our fee, we were in the restaurant bar nibbling canapés and sipping champagne.

The room is really lovely, with a long crystal light fixture with specks of blue glass undulating through the space, giving it a somewhat marine ambience. They set up three tables--one very long one under the crystal light, and two other, less long ones, in a sort of niche. The tables were covered in black cloth with slabs of granite bearing a slice of brioche-like toast at each setting, along with six glasses and all the cutlery we’d need for the dinner. Once they got the induction of a few new members out of the way, the dinner began.

We started off with a wonderful house-made terrine to go with the slices of brioche that were at our places; the terrine had a great, peppery, flavor that was complemented by the flavor of the accompanying champagne (Jacquesson). After the terrines, the wait staff came around pouring our second wine of the evening, a rosé that had people muttering about the appropriateness of serving rosé at such a dinner. But those murmurs faded when they sampled the wine with the course it was accompanying--a beautiful bowl of oxtail consommé with a single foie gras raviolo floating on top. The consommé had tremendous depth of flavor, and was served at the perfect temperature, so that the foie gras in the raviolo was nearly melted but not quite, and the rosé did a great job of cutting the richness of the dish while also providing some nice accents. Excellent!

Following the consommé we had a dish that was evocative of the restaurant’s name--a lobster thermidor. Each diner was served a whole lobster (not too big, maybe a bit less than a pound each, maybe more), with the tail section separated from the front section (the latter standing up on the plate as though it was rearing up to defend the tail from the diner). The tail was slit down its length so that the meat could be removed while maintaining the shape of the tail, and then was refilled with the lobster thermidor, which was also perfect--superb flavor, with lots of meat and just delectable with the organic Chablis that it was served with.

There was a brief break after the lobster, with a palate-cleansing dish of granny smith apple granité served to the guests. Normally these palate cleansers, I find, are not very interesting in themselves, and while chefs often try to concoct interesting flavor combinations, these often fall flat. But not here. First of all, they served the dish in pyramids of ice into which a spherical alcove was hollowed out in which a scoop of granité was placed. Leading into this alcove was a small tube-shaped hollow into which the servers injected (using an ear syringe, it looked like to me) a small amount of Calvados, which poured over the granité. The granité had amazingly bright flavors, and, perhaps because of the Calvados, was neither too soft nor too hard, but just right. Everyone raved about it. Even the accompanying slices of dried apple were a big hit with the guests.

The main course followed the granité, a small serving of Beef Wellington, served with mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts, and a Médoc to wash it down. Unlike most institutional beef wellington, this one was not too well done (though, for me, it could have been still rarer), and the puff pastry wrapping was not too soggy. The meat was extremely tender, and the duxelles had a lot of mushroomy flavor that stood up well to the sauce. J2 still believes mine is better (probably he’s right) but this was not at all bad. And the wine was a favorite of most of the people we were sitting with.

Before dessert they served us a cheese course comprising a long, thin slice of Brie de Meaux with a thin truffle layer running the length of each slice. Apparently they take the wheel of brie, slice it longitudinally and cover one half with the truffles before reassembling the cheese and letting it ‘marinate’ for a week (I know this because each diner was given a small book containing the night’s menu and recipes for each of the dishes). The truffles did not really add much flavor to the cheese, we found, but they did add an intoxicating aroma. And the little slice of toasted panforte that accompanied the cheese was just the right thing for it.

Finally, dessert was served--individual portions of Baked Alaska that had flaming sauce poured over at each setting. Frankly, this would not have been my choice of dessert for this dinner--I would have served something lemony to provide a bit of acid to put a coda to the very rich dishes that preceded, but the Alaska was very good (most people finished their portions, and the portions were pretty big). And the Sauternes that came with it was delicious, though I’d have preferred a Tokaji.

There was not a dud among the dishes served the entire evening, and we sat with some lovely people, our Danish friend Michael (whose wife was off skiing) and some of his friends, who made for a lively and fun conversation to go along with the meal. We got home at around 12:30, not too late really. But the dinner was not really over yet! As we left the hotel they gave all the guests a gift bag that I saw this morning contained a large Brioche Mousseline that was intended to be part of our breakfast the next day! I had noticed the brioche on the menu, and wondered when they would be able to fit it into the meal, never thinking that it would be for the next day. It made for an excellent French toast!