A tasting menu night is a different experience than the standard salad/entree/dessert of a restaurant meal, mostly because you don't have enough of any one thing to feel stuffed. Even within each course there is sometimes a variety of small little bites.
This is the tasting menu from last night, which they let me take home. The waiter wrote down his wine choices for me:
Sea Urchin Panna Cotta, Roasted Hot Pepper and Crisp Pancetta. Wine: Dr. Loosen Dr. L. Riesling 2004.
Sea urchin is definitely an intense taste, with a strange undercurrent of smelly ocean, but whipped into the gentle panna cotta and in a small bite it was a tongue tickle. The crispened pancetta was a bacon-lover's dream. The Riesling was, finally, one of those not-sweet Rieslings I keep reading about but never seem to be able to identify -- simple, but it needed to be.
Heirloom Tomato, with Watermelon Basil Infused Fromage Blanc and Chervil. Wine: McManis Viognier 2004.
This was a sort of three-level sandwich of different colored tomatoes, beautifully dressed. The fromage blank was a sort of sauce rather than a piece of cheese. Very fussy, in a petit-four way. This was the point that we realized we were going to have stop ourselves from licking our plates, so flavorful were the dressings and sauces. The wine was SMOKEY!
Diver Sea Scallop, Blue Fin Tuna Belly Tartar, Caribe Potato, and Charred Artichoke Emulsion. Wine: Haute Noelles Muscadet 2005.
The plate was long and rectangular, with the three components of the dish in pretty little separate piles. The tuna tartare was flavored with things I couldn't identify, but which brought the fish to life on the tongue. The single scallop was large and charred and tender. My favorite part (though not Jim's or Denise's) was that amazing bit of what you might call artichoke-mashed potato. It was sublime, with a flavor that seemed new to me. Yum. The wine worked, but I don't remember anything stunning about it in particular.
Seared Foie Gras, with Foie Gras Financier, Endive Puree, Dates and Licorice Foam. Wine: Burbans Albarino 2004
I want to say "Chicogoans eat your hearts out" but actually the foie gras wasn't the best part of this course for us. Well, the piece of charcoal-seared foie gras in the middle of the small platter anyway -- it had an interesting and appealing flavor, but it didn't make you say "This is worth breaking the law to eat!". I loved the date puree, and even the endive. The licorice foam was more about unusual texture than taste or substance. This course was fascinating, actually, in the sense of many odd tastes that played around in your mouth, almost like a food game rather than a hearty substantial dish. I expected the wine to be sweet, like Sauternes (the foie gras and all), and it was, in an almond sort of way -- but I have since read about Albarino and it is described as dry so go figure. It cut the seared flavor of the liver.
Smoked Tenderloin of Beef, Mustard Braised Chard, Chantrelle Mushrooms, Crab Apple Preserve. Wine: Willifred Rousse Cab Franc 2002 (or so I think the waiter wrote down)
Oh my G-d! Now this is why you spend money at a nice restaurant. This is what all the odd flavors and textures had been preparing us for all evening. You wanted to wolf this dish down, and you wanted to savor every bite. It was absolutely delicious, from the sauce to the chantrelles (sic) to the crab apple preserve. There were more than a few bites here, but not so much that you felt stuffed. This is meat at its most obscenely delicious. Wow. Yum. The wine was a nice big red, which is definitely back in my comfort zone. Again: Wow.
Valrhona Chocolate Mousse Cake with Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce, Fleur De Sel and Chocolate Rice Crunch. Wine: Pineau de Charentes D'Orignac(?) NV
As Jim noted, chocolate rice crunch is a small pool of rich dark melted rice krispie (or maybe he said Nestle's Crunch). The chocolate mousse cake was a long thin rectangle of dark chocolate intensity. The fleur de sel was an intriging bit of salt laid down on the plate -- more intriguing flavors for your mouth and tongue. Once again we cleared every morsel off our plates we could. The wine is Cognac-infused, very much a dessert wine, great fun.
It was memorable. It was unusual. It was a great evening, lasting about two and a half hours and the time flew right by. In fact, the waiter asked at what pace we'd like to be served, and we went with leisurely but I remember not a single moment of thinking it must be time for the next course, so smooth did it all flow.
It was a meal as entertainment. It was great.