Dan’s brother Sean and his lovely wife bought us the most wonderful and creative gift for Christmas this year — an exclusive tasting menu at a very upscale local restaurant. At his namesake eatery, Chef Stephan Pyles has a small area (only 4 seats) where he hosts and cooks his “Fuego” tasting menu. The menu features seasonal ingredients and showcases an array of molecular gastronomy techniques, from airs to reverse spherification to virtual smoking. We were presented four courses with seventeen separate dishes, each beautifully presented and demonstrating true genius. It was easily one of our finest dining experiences. (The photos do not even come close to doing this meal justice – we didn’t bring our good camera and the lighting was low. But hopefully you get the idea of what an amazing time we had.)
The setting for Fuego is intimate with great ambiance. There are four seats at the end of the bar area, directly in front of the wood-fired oven. Chef Pyles and an assistant chef prepared all of the courses in the area pictured above, while we watched from our seats at the bar. They cooked pretty much everything in the wood-fired oven, either on the stone surface of the oven or in cast iron skillets placed at varying degrees of closeness to the fire in the oven.
The first course, “Relax,” was a trio of cocktail tastes, prepared using molecular gastronomy. The Dirty Martini is on the left above, and was made using reverse spherification. It tasted exactly like a perfect vodka martini with just the right amount of olive juice.
We’re not sure how the Margarita was made, but it had almost a jello consistency and tasted like the best margarita with a salted rim ordered at your favorite Tex-Mex place.
Not pictured was the Hot Buttered Rum, which tasted equally authentic and delicious.
Chef Pyles and his assistant preparing the next dish, using liquid nitrogen.
The second course, “Amuse,” began with the Nitro Chile-Lime Mousse. This was a refreshing bite, but the neatest thing about it was that when we ate it, Chef Pyles told everyone to open their mouths and blow out frosty vapor. Awesome party trick — if you happen to have liquid nitrogen on hand and know how to make yummy hors d’oeuvres with it.
My favorite from the “Amuse” course was the Potato Chip with Vinegar Air. The perfect potato chip with just the right amount of salt & vinegar taste. I could easily have eaten 20 of these.
The third dish of this course was the Veal Sweetbread, ‘Hot Wings’ Style. I’m vaguely aware that sweetbreads involve inside parts of the animal (shhhh, no specifics please), but considering that this was veal and included “hot wings” tangy sauce, I didn’t mind a bit. And it was really good.
Being able to watch the chefs at work was so much fun. They explained all the dishes and were happy to answer questions. We loved this interactive aspect of the dining experience.
The first plate of the “Dinner” course was possibly the most beautiful dish of the evening — Pumpkin Panna Cotta, Crudo Salad, Maple and Sage. Almost too pretty to eat, and just as delicious. Each bite involved the perfect amount of fresh flavors and contrasting textures.
The second dish was Beets with Goat Cheese. The center bite is hollowed out beet with warm goat cheese in the middle. There were beets prepared a couple of other ways as well. I’m not a huge fan of beets, but even I could appreciate the fine execution of this dish. If you like beets, you would have loved it. The beauty of the tasting menu is that even if you don’t love one of the dishes, the bites are small and chances are that the next dish will be your favorite. Until the next one after that.
The next dish was our favorite in terms of presentation. Chef Pyles used a hand-held smoker to infuse a smoky flavor into the Virtually Smoked Salmon Pizza. It was an interesting technique that we had never seen before (despite how many episodes of Top Chef and shows on Food Network and Cooking Channel we watch on a regular basis.)
The salmon was placed on a little pizza crust (cooked in the wood-fired oven), then the pizza was put on a plate, covered with a glass bowl and “smoked.”
I wasn’t able to adequately capture the moment in the photo, but the dish was placed in front of us and the server removed the glass bowl in such a way that the smoke swirled out in a smoky spiral. Awesome.
Not only did we enjoy the presentation, but the pizza was really delicious too. You could definitely taste the smoky flavor. (And yes, Dan purchased his very own hand-held smoker shortly after this dinner. Raise your hand if you’re surprised. Anyone?)
Another specialty cooking tool on Dan’s wish list is the sous vide machine for home use (I’m going to need a bigger kitchen.) For those not familiar with it, “sous vide” refers to a method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic in a water bath for a long time at a low temperature. Chef Pyles had a sous vide machine set up at the Fuego tasting. We didn’t see him use it for any of the dishes, other than to keep certain of the sauces warm.
Not only did we enjoy watching the chefs cook by placing the skillets and pots and pans at various depths in the wood-burning oven, but sitting in front of the fire also provided lovely ambiance. (We know we’re probably repeating adjectives in this post, but with 17 dishes in a beautiful setting with innovative culinary techniques happening right in front of us, there is bound to be some repetition.)
The adjacent part of the bar at Stephan Pyles looks like a really nice place to dine as well, even if you’re not doing the Fuego tasting. Love the lamps set up along the bar.
From where we were sitting, we could also look into the open kitchen, where Chef Pyles would sometimes venture to check on things or obtain ingredients (we’re guessing).
The way each dish was served also made this dining experience unique. Chef Pyles explained each dish while handing the plates individually to a server, who would then place the plates in front of us one-by-one. Several times we felt like we were judges on Top Chef or some other cooking show while Chef Pyles waited to see our reactions from the first bites. So cool.
Back to the food — only about 7 dishes left, hang in there. This dish was “Foie Gras Twice, Cranberries and Orange.” It was good, but foie gras is not my favorite. Dan loved it and says the foie gras mousse was unlike anything he’s ever tasted. Very rich.
Oops, they accidentally forgot to put the cranberry on the foie gras dish, so they served it separately. Perhaps a testament to my unsophisticated (immature?) palate that this was my favorite part of the dish — like a fruit roll-up for grown-ups.
The next dish was Pheasant, Vanilla, Grits, Grapefruit and Truffles. A lot going on here, all of it delicious. One of the things we loved about this and several other dishes was how so many different flavors combined to create the perfect bite.
I forgot to mention that each dish was also expertly paired with wines to complement the tastes on the plate. Our server was wonderful and explained the origin and flavor profile of each wine.
Next dish — Kibbeh Nayyeh, Labneh, Sumac. Kibbeh Nayyeh consists of ground raw lamb — a first for us (we enjoy sushi, but raw fish is a pretty far cry from raw mammal.) Despite some initial trepidation, we enjoyed this dish and its Mediterranean flavors.
This may have been our favorite plate from the Dinner course — Pork Belly, Quince, Coffee-Cardamom Soil. The pork belly was outstanding on its own, but combined with the other flavors it was heaven. The “Soil” is a new (to us) molecular gastronomy technique involving powdering of the ingredients (we think.) Whatever it is, we liked it a lot.
The next dish was Red Hawk Cheese, Pears and Walnuts. Apparently I was still so enamored with the Pork Belly dish that I didn’t really pay attention to this one because I don’t remember much about it. Let’s just say it was a nice, palate cleansing bite, graphically presented in a modern glass serving tray.
This one I remember well — Apple Tart, Honey, Saffron. It was like apple pie on steroids.
The locally-sourced honey (pictured on the far right) made this dish for me.
The final dish of the Dinner course was Curry Ice Cream Sandwich with Warm Chocolate Sauce (which we poured over the ice cream sandwiches ourselves.)
The final course, “Farewell,” was Affogato. We didn’t quite catch the preparation part, but it was something involving ice cream or gelato and espresso. It was really good (even for a non-coffee drinker like me) and the perfect end to our perfect dinner.
Many, many thanks to S. and I. for such an incredible gift experience! The only way it could have been any better is if you had been there with us.