Corralling four dozen food fanatics into a classy restaurant's wine dinner might sound like an event only four dozen food fanatics would want to hear about. But hey, we're nowhere near as stodgy as you'd think. Sure, we dress well enough, know where to place our napkins, and generally refrain from gargling the grappa. But that doesn't make us dull.
You should see the way we sniff, swirl, and sip. You should marvel at our forksmanship. Some of us even get drunk; undeniably, we all get plenty disorderly -- at least by gourmet standards. We shamelessly name-drop: Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, Michael Symon. We trot out hoary tales of wondrous dining adventures in faraway lands: Napa, Las Vegas, Miami. Sometimes we even get around to dissing Columbus dining magnate Cameron Mitchell. Geeky? Oh yes. Stuffy? Not a bit.
So it was at the debut of Lockkeepers' newest series of Wine Dinners, which rolled out on February 21. Although the multi-course events were popular at the restaurant's former Canal Road location, this night's shindig was the first held in the chic new private dining room and featured both the culinary talents of Executive Chef Morgen Jacobson and the viniferous insights of master sommeliers Larry O'Brien and Matt Citriglia.
O'Brien oversees Lockkeepers' award-winning beverage program, and his colleague, Citriglia, serves as regional sales manager for Vintage Wine Distributor in Columbus. As two of the world's 105 master sommeliers (a designation awarded only to those who have completed rigorous study), the two have immersed themselves in the fine art of food and wine pairings; on this evening, they were prepared to employ 11 different wines, each specifically chosen to complement the food, to guide the way through a remarkable five-course dinner.
"Romantic Reds" was the unifying theme, and while the festivities began with a toast of pale bubbly, from then on it was all about the dark stuff. In fact, two different reds accompanied each course -- one chosen by O'Brien, the other by Citriglia. Each duet comprised an Old World beauty from Europe and a New World star from places like California, Australia, Chile, or the Niagara Peninsula. Of course, any slacker can pull a bottle of Bordeaux off the shelf and pour it into a glass (Spiegelau this night, by the way -- be still my beating heart!). The real fun came when the experts slipped into a good-natured Siskel and Roper routine, critiquing the products, bantering about their choices, and tossing off esoteric bits of wine wisdom as casually as we might twitter about last night's West Wing.
Among the Revelations: The 1999 Rutz Pinot Noir "Maison Grande Cru" embodies the very essence of Russian River style. The exuberantly fruity Valdivieso "Caballo Loco No. 4," from Chile's Central Valley, is aged, solara-style, in French oak barrels. And the Italian sparkler Nino Franco Prosecco di Valdobiaddene Rustico ranks as the world's finest value in high-quality champagne look-alikes, and is being guzzled by the gallon in N.Y.C.'s better bars.
But the wine, after all, was only half the evening's equation, and as provocative as they were, those big reds turned out to be merely the diamonds on the lapels of Chef Jacobson's stylish dishes.
Since arriving at Lockkeepers last summer, Jacobson has vowed to pilot the restaurant to the forefront of Ohio's dining scene and ultimately see it recognized as the premier dining destination between Chicago and New York. That's a big boast -- and one, frankly, that lots of hotshot chefs have made, usually just before their projects crash and burn. But Jacobson, for one, has the résumé to support the swagger. Over the past decade or so, the Missoula, Montana native has honed his Henckels in some of Manhattan's hottest kitchens -- at the innovative Quilted Giraffe (now closed, but often credited with helping usher in the American era of fine dining) as well as at Bouley and the Sony Club, before moving on to Quince, his own successful Big Apple venture. (Diners can thank Jacobson's wife and Shaker Heights native, Courtney, for delivering him to the Cleveland area.)
Credentials and courage can take a chef just so far, though, and ultimately, the proof must be put on a plate. Turns out, eating Jacobson's food is even more exciting than hearing him talk about it -- which he does with eloquence and verve. For this night's event, he employed earthy, seasonal ingredients (sage, bitter chocolate, organic red garnet yams) to build dishes of haunting flavor. Never in-your-face, never muddled, and always artfully plated, each course was pared of excess and self-indulgence, until what remained was as refined as a Donald Judd sculpture.
There was that golden pouf of sautéed Scottish salmon -- captured in a sheer rice-flake crust beside a spoonful of jammy quince-braised cabbage, dabbed with vivacious blood-orange sauce. There was the breast of squab, redolent of smoky wood fires, settled on a bed of finely diced root vegetables and fregola (a nutty semolina, similar to Israeli couscous), moistened with a soupçon of consommé, elusively flavored with allspice, bay leaf, and star anise. Then there was the pièce de résistance -- the flavors deep, dark, and unctuously rounded -- arriving in the guise of roasted venison loin, draped across a dainty dollop of mashed yams, with a scant puddle of venison-veal-and-port reduction, finished with unsweetened chocolate; a single spear of braised Belgian endive served as a bittersweet exclamation point.
While Jacobson was basking in the admiration of his appreciative audience, kitchen duty was in the capable hands of Executive Sous Chef Pamela Waterman. Yes, the challenges of preparing and serving 50 dishes at a time, five times over, took a toll on some of the courses. Some diners, for instance, found their salmon slightly dry; others noted that their squab could have been warmer.
But a puff of brioche, plump with warm L'Edel de Cleron (a soft Vacherin-like cheese) in a frill of green watercress, couldn't have been more luxurious, especially when melded with the essences of thick Medjool date puree and syrupy droplets of 50-year-old balsamic vinegar. And certainly there was no fault to find with the cool, creamy dessert (the province of pastry chef Wendy Thompson), a sweet-tart twosome of goat-cheese cheesecake, topped with strawberry sorbet; a compote of rhubarb and strawberries reiterated the tongue-tingling theme.
The night drew to a close with dessert wine (the amusing Italian, Elio Perrone "Bigaro," and the sublime Canadian, Inniskillin Cabernet Franc ice wine) and a round of well-deserved applause for the chef, his staff, and the sommeliers. Coffee service would have been a nice final touch, and with a four-hour duration, the event's pacing probably could have been a little brisker. But those are small grouses.
The bottom line is that this was an evening of laughter, painless learning, and truly fine food and wine. In most food lovers' dictionaries, that's the very definition of perfection.
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