I really have nothing against chocolate. In its bar form, in fact, it is something I enjoy with all the savor and associations of great wine. In it’s bar form I probably eat half a pound a day, or maybe more when the stars are in alignment.
But chocolate as a theme, as a concept, as a pattern, a fashion, a mode — no. Nay. I do not like it. My initial, invertebrate response when my personal friend and professional chocolate supplier David Briggs said he was making a chocolate dinner was to recoil into a dark crevice somewhere, staring through the briny depths of my eyes with octopus horror. Sucking cold brine through my gills, my brain is reduced to its bivalve origins. Chocolate, my dear friend, is a food.
But immediately after that my knowledge of Dave, who owns and operates Xocolatl de David and is also Sous Chef at Park Kitchen, returned to assure me. Mr. Briggs’s unassuming manner cloaks a sophisticated palate, unflinching creativity, and an ever-expanding set of skills . So why not? A seven course chocolate-based meal paired with seven beverages, served at Park Kitchen, one of Jennifer and my favorite restaurants in town, and a place we freely recommend to out of town visitors and locals alike who visit The Meadow.
If Jennifer had qualms she didn’t express them; she just grabbed my hand and dragged me to Park Kitchen where 14 people (two cowardly louts failed to honor their reservation) were seated with the preliminary awkwardness that inevitably attends such public-private group encounters.
“Aren’t we all suppose to be friends now?” I probably wondered, aloud, trying to hide my own agoraphobia. “Can’t we all just sort of snuggle?”
Eventually (at my request) the empty chairs of the two no-shows were removed and I managed to coax two of the several attendees at the far end of the table (Western Culinary Institute students whom I soon came to adore after one of them plunked down $100 bucks cash to go Dutch on a chicken-infused mescal) to move in closer. We soon had more of a hive of hushed buzzing buzz of expectation going.
My only complaint of the entire evening had nothing to do with Dave, and happened right at the start. Strangely, the cocktail waitress asked Jen and I if we wanted a drink (which prompted the involuntary response of “YES”) from both of us. Then, strangely, she brought the cocktails, and then, within 15 seconds (because I do drink fast enough that any later and I wouldn’t have noticed) she served champagne intended as a pairing for the amuse bouche that was about to come out. There I am, listening to the sommelier’s explanation of a Jose Michele Pinot Meunier Champagne, fist still gripped around a very pickly and aromatic martini, and wondering how I am supposed to taste either.
Out of deference to the flow of the evening, my beautiful martini was left to grow gradually warmer, eventually exiting the table at the end of the evening as an undistinguished swill of grain alcohol and oil and brine and herbs. Poor thing. Jennifer was in the same predicament of cocktail-interruptus as I, the experience for which we paid something on the order of 24 dollars!
The Champagne was a distinctly forgettable Jose Michele Pinot Meunier Champagne, but on the heals of it service came Dave’s first creation–ingeniously conceived and masterfully executed: a smoked cocoa butter and olive oil emulsion on toast. What the hell?
That, topped with a few flecks of Iburi Jio Cherry cherrywood roasted deep sea salt from Japan. What the hell?
It looked like a slightly scary pat of butter; sort of a redolent beige reminiscent of some of the truly evil cheeses of southern England or the Alpine regions of France. Upon touching the lips, the thing melted into nothingness, bypassed the mouth’s organs of taste altogether and rocketed straight to the olfactory nether regions where it did unfamiliar and delightful things to the brain.
Next up was a HUB lager chelada, a sophisticated version of what I always knew as a Michelada — effectively a bloody mary with beer substituting in for vodka, and maybe some habenero peppers tossed in for good measure.
Dave then served corn milk ganache fritter with piperade. The corn was sweet, so he used 100% dark chocolate, for a crunchy beignet-like thing with the rich, corny, sweet pleasantly gooey inside. Very un-chocolately and yet very chocolately at the same time: an achievement in it’s own right.
Next up came a “chocolate panzanella” that was just that. But this was possibly the most beautiful panzanella imaginable, chocolate or otherwise. Crusty chocolate brioche, multicolored cherry tomato halves, string beans (haricot verts?), and certainly among the finest fresh-marinated anchovies I’ve eaten outside of Italy; all of which was drizzled with a harisa-like dressing of tomato reduction and cocoa. Citrusy (from the anchovies and tomatoes), teetering toward hearty, and at the same time garden fresh-tasting, served with an acceptable La Bota de Manzanilla Sherry.
Then came the pork belly confited in non-deodorized cocoa butter, which retains its characteristic earthy, musty, woodsy smells. It was served with chanterelles and white beans and was just totally over the top in the way of classical French magic acts, suspending richness, subtlety, and body in midair and gliding hoops over it: see, no strings attached. (Granted Dave says he was inspired by a recent trip to Spain.) The dish was served with a 2006 Chateau de Segries Lirac, which had all the friskiness of a late-model Oldsmobile sedan with no gasoline. The pork belly was so compelling that I hardly noticed.
Next up came what, if I must name a star of the show (and why not), fit the bill. Chilled chocolate consommé and a dollop of crème fraîche-like goat cheese, sprinkled with crunchy green nutty pepitas. Again, so delicate, so nice, so jam packed with je ne sais quoi I really don’t think I’ll even bother. It was bliss. Everybody freaked out. And then to top it off, the sommelier hit one out of the park, pairing the dish with a Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal that just… destroyed.
“Chichicapa is 2 hours south of Oaxaca, and 2 hours to the west on a dirt road. The pueblo elevation is about 7,000 feet. Chichicapa is separated from the valley of Oaxaca by a mountain range. The valley is broad, about thirty miles deep and ten miles wide. The climate is desert and tropical, with banana trees, guava, mangoes and other exotic fruits. Faustino Garcia Vasquez is the maker of Chichicapa. He is a humble and talented craftsmen with great respect for the ancient processes.”
Faustino is a god, or perhaps, rather, a fallen angel. Faustino probably parades around Chichicapa in a kilt, speaks Spanish with a thick brogue, lullabies his bambinos to bed with the bagpipes, and eats haggis, neeps, and tatties for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I am a passionate lover of mezcal and tequila, but my passions are alloyed with an irrepressible manly need for dalliance with single malt scotch whiskey — particularly of the highland variety. If Faustino bartered his soul to the devil in exchange for the powers to concoct mezcal, he most assuredly came away with the bargain.
The mezcal, for all its fulminations and flourishes, just purred like a kittycat on the lap of the ineffably yummy chocolate consommé, chilly-aromatic goat cheese, and pepita bits. Women squirmed in their seats, dissolved into the ether. Men fashioned spears from chair legs and went out spearfishing for barracuda.
Next to last was a trio of mostly single origin chocolate ice creams: a Claudio Corallo 75%, something or another from Madagascar (Valrhona?), and a milk chocolate that I cannot recollect. Each was served with a few crystals of a different sort of finishing salt. The ice cream was served with a “chocolate soda” that was crisp and refreshing and “more or less” non-alcoholic.
Last came chocolate milk and a nougaty-nutty cookie, which was starting to be more food than I needed, but which I obligingly wolfed down.
And I forgot to mention that maybe every dish was sparked to its fullest expression with a few grains of strategically selected finishing salt. Be still my heart — there was the regal Pangasinan Star, there was glowering Halen Mon Gold, there was the trusty Fleur de sel de l’Ile de Noirmoutier.
Dave, enough already. Open your own restaurant.