Saturday, January 24, 2009

life lessons

Everyone has a few life lessons they've learned the hard way.

Some of them are plain common sense: "Wear oven mitts even if the pan doesn't seem too hot to touch bare-handed." Some of them are famous: "Never get involved in a land war in Asia." And some of them aren't quite so pithy, but they're worth repeating anyway: "Don't go to a food bloggers' dinner if you actually intend to make any headway on your Fed Tax assignment later."

I learned that one on Thursday night. I completely failed to untangle the intricacies of adjusted gross income and section 61(a) of the Internal Revenue Code, and consequently followed very little of the professor's lecture the next day. Apparently, paying attention to the contents of your inbox may be hazardous to your academic resolve.

There are two items I occasionally daydream of seeing in my inbox: one, a message from Serious Eats telling me that I've won a cookbook from one of their "Cook The Book" threads, and two, a message from a publisher offering me a book deal that will allow me to avoid actually becoming a lawyer after law school.* The actual contents of my inbox are considerably less exciting: comment notifications, the occasional exchange from a blog event, and stray bits of spam that have escaped the filter.

And then came the unexpected a few weeks ago: an invitation to a Boston food bloggers' dinner from Chris Lyons, a public relations consultant representing several restaurants in Boston.

Which is how I find myself on Thursday night, not seated at my desk, tackling my Fed Tax assignment like a good law student, but at Sandrine's Bistro, seated at a table with Richard of A Passionate Foodie, Jacqueline of The Leather District Gourmet, Pam of Cave Cibum, Megan of MenuPages, and Chris Lyons herself. As you'd expect of a group of food bloggers, we discuss cooking and restaurants and the ins and outs of blogging. And we eat. Oh, how we eat.

Sandrine's serves a mixture of classic French bistro fare and dishes from Alsace, the region of France that borders Germany and Switzerland. We begin with tarte flambée, a specialty of Alsace. The flatbread is baked in the wood-burning oven behind the bar, and the crusts are incredibly thin, crisp, and flaky. The traditional version is rich with smoky bacon and sweet caramelized onions; a vegetarian version comes with mushrooms and Swiss cheese. I try to stop at one piece of each. I don't succeed.

We peruse the menu, consider our options, and make our selections. I opt for the house's terrine de foie gras as an appetizer, and choucroute garnie, the classic Alsatian preparation of sauerkraut with various cuts of meat, as an entree.

I've eaten terrine de foie gras before. In fact, I ate quite a lot of terrine de foie gras during my summers in the hotel kitchen, because it was served on the buffet and it was my job to neatly arrange all the tiny little slices on beds of fresh salad greens. Any broken slices (and there were always a few) couldn't be served, and they usually ended up supplementing my lunch. I figure I know what to expect. Terrine de foie gras is terrine de foie gras, isn't it?

To borrow an expression from Douglas Adams, I am almost, but not quite, entirely wrong.

The terrine de foie gras maison at Sandrine's comes in two generous, majestic wedges, perched on beds of lightly toasted brioche. It is accompanied by sparkling cubes of diced aspic, and a scoop of fruit compote. You cut a piece of terrine and toast, add a smear of compote, and top it with a cube or two of aspic. The result is a spectacular combination of flavors and textures: the creamy foie gras contrasts with the crunch of the toast, and its richness is enhanced by the sweetness of the fruit compote. It's all balanced out by the aspic, which has the slightest alcoholic bite.

Speaking of alcohol, we're drinking one of the most unusual white wines I've ever tried, a blend of the five types of grape grown in Alsace: pinot gris, pinot blanc, gewurztraminer, riesling, and muscat. It has the sweet, floral aroma I associate with muscat, but it tastes light and crisp, like pinot gris. When our server comes around to switch out our glasses for the entree, I'm almost tempted to hang on to mine. I behave myself, however, and the next wine, a red from the Côtes du Rhône, is poured without incident.

Our entrees arrive, and I realise that despite its deliciousness, I maybe should have skipped over the terrine de foie gras in favor of a light salad. The choucroute garnie is enormous, a deep platter of sauerkraut with an artful arrangement of bauernwurst, weisswuerst, wiener, grilled smoked pork loin, ham hock, and a hickory-smoked bacon-wrapped potato, with spicy brown mustard for dipping. (For photos, head over to The Leather District Gourmet.)

Choucroute garnie literally translates as "dressed sauerkraut," and after tasting the sauerkraut at Sandrine's, I finally understand why. It's sour without being unpleasantly vinegary, and actually has a proper cabbage-y flavor. It's good enough to eat on its own.

Not that the meat is bad, of course. The weisswurst (a sausage made with veal) is sweet and mild, and the bauernwurst (also known as farmer's sausage) has a faintly spicy quality. I'm not such a fan of the wiener, but that probably has more to do with the fact that I really only like hot dogs from New York City street vendors.

The "weird bits" are usually my favorite cuts, so it's probably no surprise that I thoroughly enjoy the ham hock, which has the rich, unctuous texture of slow-cooked, collagen-rich meat. I've met very little fresh pork loin I've truly enjoyed, but apparently smoked pork loin is (if you'll pardon the pun) a very different beast: a little like good ham, but sweeter and smokier. Finally, the bacon-wrapped potato is satisfyingly crisp and salty on the outside, and tender within.

I work my way around the plate, alternating bites of each meat item with sauerkraut, and before I know it, I've eaten almost the entire thing. This is not a smart move. In fact, this is really a rather stupid move, as I discover after our plates have been cleared. The pastry chef arrives with a platter of desserts for the table, and I'm not sure I can eat another bite.

The platter is a tour through the dessert menu: crème brûlée, the signature kugelhopf (a rich warm chocolate cake), a pear tart with meringue brûlée topping, lemon layer cake with lemon curd, apple cake with apple sorbet, and a chocolate-hazelnut napoleon with banana sorbet.

I do manage a bite of everything, but I'm clearly not going to do the desserts justice in my overstuffed state. Although the crème brûlée is excellent, and the chocolate-hazelnut napoleon has its appeal, I like the sorbets best. Of course, that might just be because they're going down more easily than anything else.

Coffee provides a welcome (and necessary) jolt of caffeine, and after a little more conversation, we call it a night. There are plans for more Boston food blogger events in the future, and I'm already planning not to repeat my mistakes. Next time, I will do my best to finish my Fed Tax assignment before I go out to eat.

*Respective chances: somewhat possible, incredibly unlikely. But it's nice to dream.


Megan said...

such a pleasure to meet you!
ps. i got nothing accomplished after getting home as well...Menupages Megan

Virgin In The Volcano said...

I'm holding out for you and that book deal. Screw fed tax.

Googie Baba said...

Adele, the dinner sounds divine. If you fail out of Fed Tax, I think it would be worth it.

Yulinka said...

I get unreasonably excited whenever I get a PR pitch in my e-mail (it doesn't happen often). I've never been invited to a dinner, though! Sargento cheese samples aren't nearly as exciting.

adele said...

Megan - It was a pleasure to meet you too!

Virgin - After looking at next week's assignment, I think I'm with you.

Googie - I'm inclined to agree, although I don't relish having to face my parents.

Yulinka - Cheese samples sound pretty good to me. :)

Rozmin said...

I love weisswurst!

Oh, and you have a very nice blog. :-)

adele said...

Rozmin - Why, thank you. :)

Family Nutritionist said...

Oh! I feel for you.

Kelly said...

Ha, that's wonderful. I love the idea of meeting fellow bloggers. As my friend Alice and I say (as two foodies): when we get together our appetites combine in a rainbow of color and light, food and joy and possibility... :)

Pam said...

It was really great to finally meet you!

adele said...

Family Nutritionist - Thanks.

Kelly - It was definitely great to be able to put faces to names.

Pam - It was great to meet you, too!

Julie said...

Sounds like a wonderful evening.

And I hope you get a cookbook deal some day (are you sending any proposals?)

The tax code stuff? Even though the closest I've come to reading tax code was listening to the selections my husband read aloud to me just to illustrate how painful tax code was when he was in law school, it was enough to make me realize I'd never, ever want to be in any situation where I had to read them.

adele said...

Julie - It was a lot of fun. I'm joking about the book deal; I haven't written to any editors.

The tax code starts to make more sense after you realize that it's written in some bizarre language that bears a strong resemblance to English, but is not actually English.