You know when you've been hearing about a restaurant for a long time, all glowing reviews and you try to find time to get to it, but it just never seems to happen? Then, the reservations are finally made and you find yourself consciously lowering your expectations in hopes of avoiding the disappointment when it doesn't live up to the years of fantasizing? This would describe me in the days leading up to my visit to Sheppard Mansion this past Friday night. From the moment my husband told me that this is where we were going for my birthday dinner, right up to the split second I received the first course I was telling myself that there was no way Chef Little could really present sophisticated cuisine while staying true to his (and my) PA Dutch, Central PA roots. Something had to be a miss - country, farm food is great, and should be appreciated, but trying to make a 5 course fine dining experience out of it couldn't possibly work.
And so, when the first of our "snacks" was set in front of us, a light brown liquid with cream colored foam in a demitasse cup, and we were told it was sauerkraut, I looked across the table. My husband had feared the worst about this experiment from the get go, which is probably why it took me 2 years to get here. There is only so much PA Dutch food the man can take in its natural setting as it is. The look on his face was clearly an attempt to hide his horror. But I smiled because I love sauerkraut and decided to dive in with complete trust. So while I was looking at the liquid, stirring the foam and delighting in the aroma, I heard the word "WOW." My husband had decided to take a sip before he could think about it further. I followed suit and warm, light but slightly creamy combination of salty and tangy left me speechless. To say we were converts from that second forward would be an understatement. We turned into giddy school children waiting impatiently for what we would receive next.
I have only had the pleasure of about 4 or 5 tasting menus, including this one, and often find myself remembering most the amuse bouche, and this meal was no different, except that you really can't call them that. Chef Little playfully puts the word "snacks" as the first item on the menu (sorry, I cut it off in my photo, it was just above "selection of breads"). What it really does is turn this 5-course meal into a full 8 courses. The soup was the first of 3 "snacks" we received. The second was tempura cauliflower with chow-chow puree. The wonderful thing about this was that when tasting the puree alone you clearly got the full flavor of the Dutchy pickled vegetables, but when eaten with the fried cauliflower - which was a lovely, sweet, lighter version of the fair favorite fried veggies - you got a truly asian flavor of the tempura with a sweet and sour dipping sauce. So, what could possibly be another classic Central PA snack? Potato chips, of course. And so, we each got a plate loaded up with potato chips with a bowl of what looked like a homemade french onion dip - which is exactly what it was. Only the organic potatoes to make the chips were dug up by our server from the chef's personal garden, they were actually really good potato chips (and I say that as a good PA Dutch girl that regularly finds herself partaking in genuinely serious discussions about one's favorite potato chip) and my bowl of dip had probably a full tablespoon of black truffle shaved into it. So tasty, so rich, yet fun. My husband looks across the table at me and says "This is a chef that isn't afraid to be silly."
So, we cleanse our pallets with some yummy breads. I had heard about his pretzel rolls, and tried that one - very good - but no others. I can only eat so much in one sitting, and had to save some room. I was especially excited about the scallop, because of the menu claiming it was served with Lebanon bologna and being a Lebanon Co. girl, I was very intrigued. So when the plate was set in front of me, I had to keep myself from saying "Hey! Where the hell's my Lebanon bologna?" Because then I realized that the twirl of sauce on the plate was the exact color of Lebanon bologna. Somehow, the sauce on the plate perfectly captured all the sweet, salty, smoky, fatty, beefy, spicy flavors I love about Lebanon bologna and mixed perfectly with the exquisitely cooked scallop and bitter chicory. This was my favorite course of the night and for the rest of the meal my husband and I found ourselves revisiting that sauce with the question, "how did he do that?"
The pheasant torchon was almost equally delicious and the apple butter vinaigrette another spectacular use of a local classic. This was my husbands favorite, and it might have been mine were I not such a Lebanon bologna freak. :)
The black cod was a more traditional course, as was the goose that followed. The cod was perfectly cooked the accompanying trotters and sweet potatoes were flavorful and comforting just as country cooking should be. I had never had goose before. I have to be honest that as much as I loved the flavor I found it a bit chewy. I was also starting to feel quite stuffed by this point, and was glad dessert was coming soon. I should say that my husband and I were extremely happy with the "flow" of the meal. There seemed to be a really logical transition from whimsical to serious and back again, and light to heavy in the way one should expect. Yes, I was stuffed, but in a good way.
The only thing that my husband and I felt we could have done without was the cheese course. The tomme didn't knock our socks off and didn't seem to have any of the chef's personality that had come through in everything else we had eaten.
I have been checking Chef Little's blog several times a year for at least 2 years. Of course, I had to give it one last peek before I visited, and found him waxing poetic about my childhood favorite - shoo fly pie. Truly, I felt as though I could have been the one doing the writing as he described his quest for the perfect one, except with one difference, I know where it is..... only, and I mean ONLY in my mother's kitchen - or if you are lucky, she offers one up at our church's fund raising auction where it can go for $100 despite the fact at only about 30 people are in attendance. Alas, this year my mother did not make one for Thanksgiving this year, or Chef Little would have found himself receiving a gift upon my arrival to dinner. It is shoo fly pie that inspired his dessert. Go read his blog to find out about it.
We did get the wine pairings, but while good, I don't recall having any of those 'a-ha' moments of tasting the food then a sip of the wine only to have a magical combination created on my palate. The tasting menu without the wines is a bargain at $70, it was a bargain even with the wine, but I think we will go again and not do the pairings. I think I will go again, and again, and again....
117 Frederick St, Hanover, PA