A taste of language is one of the perks of truly great dining

HAPPY EATER

March 07, 1993|By ROB KASPER

The broccoli was a "coulis," the beets were in a "mille-feuille," and frozen ginger mousse traveled with a "tuile."

It was the Great Chef's Dinner at the Brass Elephant, a meal that left me sighing with delight and running to the reference books to look up what I had eaten.

The great chef was Don Yamauchi, who came in from Carlos' Restaurant in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park to team up with the Brass Elephant's Randy Stahl and make an ordinary old Tuesday into a culinary experience.

I knew the night was going to be special when I ate hors d'oeuvres in the parking lot. The asphalt lot next to the downtown restaurant had been covered with rolls of green carpet, the kind you find on miniature golf courses. A big white tent with white walls completed the transformation of parking lot to lounge. Waiters in tuxedos walked around carrying trays of grapes covered with "chevre," another way of saying French goat cheese.

I felt as if I were at a wedding, a big wedding. About 185 people bought $150 tickets for the dinner, which was a benefit for the Child Abuse Prevention Center of Maryland.

In the tent I bumped into the visiting chef, Yamauchi. In a telephone interview a few days earlier, he had told me he was 26 years old. In person he looked 18. Greatness is looking younger and younger.

The kid could cook. That became apparent when the cocktail hour ended and diners filed out of the tent and took seats in the restaurant.

The first course put in front of us was pan-fried triggerfish surrounded by broccoli that had been given the coulis treatment. A book told me a coulis is a liquid puree.

Chefs seem to regard a coulis as paint for plates. Yamauchi, for example, used the broccoli coulis to make a colorful green ring around the serving of white triggerfish. It was my first encounter with triggerfish. It was firm, with faintly sweet flavor, but a bit dry. Between the fish and broccoli was a bed of cabbage, and somewhere on the plate were little crouton-like critters. These were poached sweetbreads. If you make sweetbreads look like croutons, people will eat them, Yamauchi said. It worked on me. I ate the sweetbreads and sipped the wine, a smooth 1990 Le Clos Chardonnay.

The main course was beef tenderloin, marinated in herbs and garlic, then roasted. It was topped with an olive puree, leeks, and with something like the outline of a game of tick-tack-toe. The tick-tack-toe topping turned out to be a lattice made of potato strips. The meat was so tender I could cut it with a fork.

Hiding underneath the meat was a tiny crab that had been marinated in a soy bath and veal stock, then roasted. Other people found theirs; I never found mine. A red wine, a hearty

1989 Cuvey Run Cabernet Sauvignon, was good company with the meat.

I am a confirmed carnivore, yet my favorite part of the meal was the vegetable course, the part when the beets appeared in a mille-feuille. In chef talk, a mille-feuille is a pastry with a thousand layers. This one was neither a pastry nor a thousand layers tall. But it was magnificent.

The beets were mixed in with layers of couscous, a steamed grain that hails from North Africa. This towering vegetable structure was flavored with balsamic vinegar, which, I read, is an Italian oak-aged vinegar, and with turmeric oil, which, I read, is a -- seasoning related to ginger, and with truffle oil. It was a dynamite dish.

Beets can bully, overpowering anything you put near them. But in this dish their taste was restrained, blending nicely with the couscous and the oils. Maybe the beets were tamed by the turmeric or the truffle oil. Or maybe they were just scared of heights. Whatever made these beets behave, I approved. I could have eaten two towers.

There was a "symphony" of desserts, which meant everybody got plates filled with lots of little sweet things. There was white chocolate mousse formed into a teardrop, a piece of raspberry chocolate mousse cake.

My favorite was a frozen ginger mousse served inside a tuile. A tuile turned out to be a crisp, thin cookie shaped like a tile. These desserts were made by Celeste Zeccola, the pastry chef at Carlos' Restaurant.

In all, it was quite a meal. I figured whatever damage it had done to my waistline was more than compensated for by the improvement in my vocabulary.

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