For awhile now, I had been reading about Wolvesmouth aka Chef Craig Thornton and his Wolvesmouth Underground Dinners from some of my fellow bloggers. These dinners consist of 10 to 15 courses for up to 12 guests at a secret location and are cooked solely by Chef Thornton himself. Diners have no advance warning of what the meal will entail since the actual menu isn't created until the day of the dinner. From what I could tell, the food itself seemed quite eclectic with a modern global spin on it and his use of a lot of different cooking techniques and the artistry in his plating was really intriguing.
Something else that was interesting had to do with Chef Thornton's philosophy of Pay What You Can Afford. Simply, at the end of the meal, diners are given envelopes that allows them to quietly pay what they think the meal is worth to them and/or what fits in their budget. To learn more about this Pay What You Can Afford take on dining, check out Chef Craig Thornton at http://bit.ly/fJ0Odc on Last Call with Carson Daly. You can also read Parts 1 and 2 of a Squid Ink interview at the links below:
With all this buzz, I knew I had to see what all the fuss was about so I signed up for the Wolvesmouth Mailing List (http://bit.ly/e6cyBp) and eagerly waited for an email to hit my inbox. Thankfully, I didn't have to wait long and soon I was joined by friends and met up with other diners at a secret location in Los Angeles. Walking into space, we were immediately faced with Chef Craig Thornton hard at work. To the left of the kitchen area was a long table for 12 diners with a hanging antler that presided over our entire meal.
Soon it was time to sit and enjoy what turned out to be an 11 course dinner, starting with tahitian squash. sweetbread. blis. Suffice to say, the names of Chef Thornton's dishes are to the point. Most tasting menus start with foods that tend to be more mild in flavor and as the menu progresses, the foods gets heartier and full-bodied. That wasn't the case here. This course was definitely on the sweet side, especially with the addition of BLis maple syrup to the squash. While the richness of the sweetbreads helped to balance the flavors, the overall dish still packed a punch.
Our second course was the crab. jerusalem artichoke puree. watermelon radish. pickled persimmon. I really enjoyed the pairing of the sweet-oceany crab with the fruity, yet slightly tart persimmon.
Next up was the scallop. potato. chive. chanterelle. The scallop was perfectly seared and tender and its mildness went well with the earthy chanterelle mushroom. I also enjoyed the potato and chives, which were first riced and then sauteed in brown butter.
The fourth course was tomato. olive oil. saba. This was a simple, but beautiful presentation of 4 different colored tomatoes dressed only with olive oil and saba, which is similar to a balsamic vinegar. Sometimes food doesn't need much adornment to be delicious and this dish proved that without a doubt.
What came next was ocean trout. pumpernickel. lingonberry. creme fraiche. I loved how the ocean trout was browned to perfection and yet, the fish was still moist. The lingonberry's fresh tartness and the pumpkernickel's slight tangy-crunch also added punches of flavor to the mild fish.
Sixth on the menu was rabbit. bacon n onion muffin. swiss fondue. green apple. mustard greens. This was one of those dishes where you wanted to take a fork and get a little bit of everything in one bite and what you'd get is a harmony of flavors and textures. One bite would get you the creamy-tang of the cheese, the pepperiness of the greens, a hit of saltiness from the muffin, the sweet-juiciness of the green apples, all together with the tender, slightly gamy rabbit.
Our next course was the pork cheek bao. This was a fun presentation. First, each diner had a rectangular-shaped parchment paper placed in front of them followed by the bao itself. As bao eaters know, usually there is a square paper at the bottom of one's bao, which should be removed before taking that first bite.
As for Chef Thornton's bao, it wasn't the fluffy, bread-like version that I was used to. Instead, it felt more like a dumpling wrapper and it definitely had more of a chew to it. The filling was an inspiration that was taken from the chef's grandmother's recipe for pulled pork, but with the addition of star anise and Chinese wine to give it an Asian flair. That pork filling was absolutely delicious, moist and one of my favorites of the night.
For our palate cleanser, we all got to try buddhas hand sorbet. Buddah's Hand is a citrus that I've never had before, so Chef Thornton brought one out for us to take a look. It's actually reminded me of a squid. Apparently, the zest is usually the only thing used from this fruit since it doesn't yield a lot of pulp. Other ingredients for this sorbet included gin, sugar, and salt. The sorbet was definitely refreshing and had a sweet and slightly sour tang that was appealing.
Our ninth course was the squab. roveja. prune leather. squab skin. sauce. tokyo turnip. In truth, I've never been much of a squab fan. I've tried many different variations of it, but just can't get into it, which is interesting because I usually don't have an issue with similar strong tasting meats. This squab didn't rock my world either although I know that a lot of my fellow diners enjoyed it. I'm always a sucker for fried skin, so that worked for me and I liked the prune leather, but that was about it for this dish.
Both tenth and eleventh courses were desserts starting with ube "mochi". coconut milk powder. palm sugar coconut shortbread. avocado ice cream. lime styrofoam. I thought it was cool to see the addition of ube, which is a traditional ingredient used for Filipino dessert. Overall, this dessert had a lot of interesting textures. You had the chewy consistency of the steamed ube, the melt in your mouth lime styrofoam, the crunch of the shortbread and the creaminess of the avocado ice cream. The myriad of flavors included sweet, salty, tart and sour.
The finale of our meal was s'mores. toasted marshmallow ice cream. graham cracker pudding. salted chocolate. smoked pop rocks. As you can tell from the ingredients, they weren't typical to what is normally used to create everyone's favorite campfire treat, but when put together, the essence of the s'more is definitely what I tasted.
Separately, each ingredient had a unique texture that mimicked a flavor component. For example, the salted chocolate was made with agar, which gave it a jello-like consistency while the smoked pop rocks reminded you of the campfire itself, especially when its "crackling embers" were popping in your mouth. This was absolutely a fun dessert to end the meal.
To end, this was a wonderful meal created by an extremely talented, out-of-the-box thinking chef. It was very clear while talking to him after we devoured all 11 courses that he's very passionate about what he does. This passion can be seen in many ways.
For example, he'll actually go through piles of produce just so he can pick out the perfect fruit and/or vegetables to be part of his culinary vision for the meal he's prepping for. He also actually forgoes eating the day before or the day off because he wants a clean palate when tasting the foods he's preparing for the meal. There's decidedly something special about Chef Craig Thornton and I'm looking forward to many more meals by him.
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