Monday, April 23, 2012

Chef's Tasting | Um Segredo Supper Club, ii

I had the happy fortune of attending another one of Chef David Santos' Um Segredo Supper Club dinners this past week. When I found out he would be doing another installment of dinners in April, I was crossing my fingers, hoping I'd be able to make one, especially if any of the given menus were especially enticing. I was in luck -- one of the dinners was a sea urchin/uni-focused six-course tasting. Lisa and I are HUGE, HUGE, HUGE uni enthusiasts (at times, it is a borderline, serious addiction if you ask me), so I immediately thought of asking her to accompany me. Now the only caveat was that it also happened to fall on the date of Marcus and I's two-year anniversary. We had already planned on going to Philadelphia the following day to celebrate at Stephen Starr's Barclay Prime, but I still wanted to make sure it was all cool with him. I wasn't sure if he planned on doing anything more on our actual anniversary, and knowing that he's not a big fan of uni, I wanted to give him the option of whether or not we should go ahead and make reservations. I wouldn't have made it such a big deal if it weren't for the rarity of such a tasting menu -- I mean, it's sea urchin for heaven's sake! After explaining what the dinner would entail and seeing how much it would mean for us to go, Marcus, without hesitation, simply answered, "Of course we can go with Lisa!" Another reason why I love him so much -- always a trooper! :) I was curious to find out what Marcus would think about sea urchin by the end of this dinner anyhow -- i.e., would he still think it to be overrated or would he completely switch sides and fall in love with it as Lisa and I have? Only time could tell!

Not more than a minute after, I was texting Lisa, explaining to her the gravity of the situation -- after all, we were dealing with our beloved infatuation with uni -- and ultimately, her answer: "You had me at uni!" Now there is another comical part of this situation. The next Table Conviviale dinner that Lisa and I planned on doing once again in my kitchen will be centered around uni, and the date we selected two months ago to finally execute our "study" of the golden ingredient would be the following weekend. Yup, overdose of uni was imminent, but do you think that stopped us? Hell no! :P

Chef Santos decided to create menu for this tasting because of a special request he received from one of his Um Segredo guests. It was a menu that he had been thinking about, but she was the one who finally sealed the deal -- she left her scarf at an Um Segredo dinner back in February, asking him to bring her scarf to a City Grit event she planned to go to. Then, he forgot to bring her scarf, and by this point, he just had to do an uni dinner. Dubbing it the "Forgot Your Scarf" dinner, this uni-focused tasting was intended to be both fun and challenging due to its obscurity as a shellfish.

Communal dining table at Um Segredo.

Since Um Segredo is essentially BYOB, Lisa and I each contributed a bottle from our growing vault of wines -- hers was a fancy bottle of Champagne by Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin given to her from her former workplace and mine a medium-dry riesling I found at Downtown Cellars. Needless to say, both bottles were demolished by the end of the night! :P

{1} Homemade bread was served with an interesting alternative to the usual olive oil and butter -- {2} Portuguese butter made using lard, garlic, black pepper, and artichokes. Man, this was so awesome -- dripping in buttery richness with the biting deliciousness from the garlic and the thickness from the puréed artichokes. Definitely need to figure out how to make this amazing Portuguese butter one of these days -- I really could have eaten the whole basket of bread by slathering this stuff all over it and nomming away. Luckily, I have a little self control! :P

The first course was uni from Santa Barbara with truffles, grapefruits, and chicharon (i.e., fried pork rinds). The thing about Santa Barbara uni is that you can never go wrong with it. It is always almost plump, glowing like golden saffron, and richly buttery -- just as it was here: simply heavenly. With the interesting combination of fried pork rinds and grapefruit, the amuse-bouche had a little tartness paired with crunchiness from the savory fried pork rind. The unlikely union of these ingredients made for a wonderful introduction of what was to come.

Prior to the next course, the three of us ventured to the kitchen to check out what Chef Santos was up to. We also had some questions about where he recommends non-chef folk like us can get our hands on some quality uni. As expected, he gets his from a supplier with whom he's had a long relationship throughout his career as a chef in the city. Luckily, he was able to point us to some places where we can find some for our study of the mysterious echinoderm (will reveal more in a future post).

So while we were chatting up Chef Santos, {1,2,3} he was plating the next course with much precision and alacrity. One thing I really like about his dinners is the wide array of noteworthy dishware used throughout the meal. These glossy, squared glass plates were no exception. Being in such close proximity to the trays of uni that Chef Santos was using to prep and plate the upcoming courses was such a tease -- we were very much tempted to just swipe a tray and eat it straight!

The second course was a tartare of marinated branzino with an uni emulsion (of celery, I believe), artichokes, and fried shallots, topped with a few pieces of Maine sea urchin and some yuzu granita. While Lisa thought this course was just okay, I really enjoyed it. What surprised me most was how much Marcus enjoyed it -- I could see a conversion on the horizon! :P Anyways, the branzino absorbed the intense flavors of the creamy uni emulsion as well as the tart and chilly yuzu granita. The emulsion was so good that we all could not let it go to waste -- we used bread to soak up even last drop of the wondrous foamy butter. Even our neighboring diners at the table couldn't resist! Overall, a great spring/summery starter!

The next course was uni chawanmushi with crab, tomato marmalade, and arugula pistou topped with a couple lobes of Santa Barbara uni. A traditional chawanmushi is a Japanese, appetizer-intended egg custard dish served in a tea bowl, so Chef Santos' take on it was an uni custard with very untraditional toppings served in a mason jar. While the presentation was very well done, I felt the execution was a little off when it came down to the combination of flavors created by the ingredient choice. The custard itself was really good, as was the crab and the sea urchin lobes. However, the marmalade (which had a cool kick) paired with the pistou (arugula here instead of the traditional basil) made for an unpleasant combination on my palate. While the marmalade of tomato added another dimension of texture and savory sweetness, the pistou of arugula was really bitter, which pretty much overpowered the rest of the ingredients. This was probably my least favorite dish of the evening.

The fourth course was a wonderful saving grace from the uni chawanmushi. It was an uni and shrimp risotto with fava beans, sugar snap peas, and carrot foam. What I love about seafood risottos is that there is no cheese -- a weird proclivity, I know, but alas the palate wants what the palate wants. :P The uni melted right into the risotto, adding to the light and creamy carrot foam on which the grains of al dente arborio grains floated fluffily. To contrast the creaminess, the fava beans and crisp snap peas were crisp and snappy and gave some pop of color to the risotto as well. The chunks of shrimp were juicy, complementing the undertones of uni within the risotto. Ahhh, so good! Definitely my favorite course of the night -- it was the ideal risotto, with the giddy bonus of uni!

Last of the main courses was Chef Santos' uni-inspired "surf and turf" -- Iowa Farms pork loin with soba, shredded shiso, mushrooms, watercress (I think?) and uni butter (on the side and drizzled atop). The "surf" part of this dish was well done -- that uni butter was to die for! The soba and veggies mixed really beautifully with the uni butter, but unfortunately, while the pork was unbelievably flavorful, I am sad to report that it was a little overcooked. I wish I could have enjoyed this dish a lot more than I already had. It was just really chewy, making it hard to eat with the rest of the dish's components.

When it comes to satisfying one's sweet tooth, Chef Santos never disappoints. The last course of the evening was a deconstructed lemon meringue pie. A marshmallow seared lightly for a smoky flavor topped the ice cream over crushed graham crackers with a lemon sauce on the side. It was certainly a lot lighter on the stomach than a traditional lemon meringue pie (thick crust, heavy filling, and all), considering we had five courses preceding this one. The taste was refreshing and light, with just a little sweet-and-tartness from the lemon to conclude an awesome uni-driven dinner.

Findings: Once again, Chef David Santos has proven that he can orchestrate one hell of a themed tasting menu (first veggies, now the dark and spiny echinoderm). While there were a couple misses during our meal, we still enjoyed the experience very much. Not very often do you get to convene with other fellow uni enthusiasts and go on about how amazing uni roe really is, to the point where the coming together nearly becomes a support group. I particularly admired the risks that Chef Santos took with the menu, especially with the atypical pairings/execution, e.g., chicarones, chawanmushi, risotto, and uni butter. While I enjoy a good donburi of uni as much as the next fanatic, it was refreshing to see new ways to enjoy the luscious lobes of gold where hope is not lost for creating newly curated courses. Perhaps my only wish was that there was more uni (though I think I'd feel that way with any amount of uni at hand :P), and I thought the $75 price tag on the menu was a steal of a price. Um Segredo could have undoubtedly a little charged more (I assure you that the demand would've remained the same, if not rocketed even more) and thus would have been able to lop on some more pieces for its guests to enjoy.

Additionally, it was fun to chat with Chef Santos as usual and to meet his cooking buddy, Chef Andrew Kraft -- picking their brains about where to find the best uni proved to be quite helpful. Lisa and I certainly found this dinner to be a nice prelude to our study of uni next weekend for our second installment of Table Convivale! Uni overdosage, here we come!

Last thought here: Marcus and I seem to always have luck on the actual date of our anniversary -- we always find some kind of cool dinner to go to! Last year's was Chef David Bouley's opening of his newest restaurant, Brushstroke, and this year we get to spend it with a lot of uni! Not sure how we will top this once again next year, but I have faith that something wonderful will come along. Thanks to Marcus and Lisa for accompanying me -- again, always a treat to go out with my "BF" and "BFF"! :D

Looking forward to another menu exploration with Chef Santos at Um Segredo again very soon!

Price point: $75 cash donation, plus gratuity for service; BYOB.

--April 20, 2012

Um Segredo Supper Club
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