Sunday night, Marc and I attended a very special dinner event at Restaurant II, organized by 2 of their young and talented chefs. Pastry Chef Tom and Sous Chef Shane collaborated together to host a pop up gourmet dinner for an intimate round table of 10 guests. I had never been to anything like this before and didn't know what to expect. When we arrived, we found that the restaurant was entirely closed off for the event so the dinner guests had exlusive access to the whole of Restaurant II. Talk about VIP treatment!
After a brief mingling session with glasses of sparking wine in hand, we were lead to the solo table decked out specially for this dinner party. Tom and Shane gave us an introduction about their motivation behind this project. The idea of a pop up dinner is to allow chefs and guests to interact and exchange information first hand. From the chefs, we learn about what inspires them, where the ideas for the dishes come from and also facts about the produce being presented. In turn, the guests are able to provide immediate feedback on the things we love and provide suggestions on areas that can be tweaked. Moreover, it's an arena for people who love to cook/create/eat food to join together in a fun night of food, drink and discussion.
Our meal was spread over 5 courses, each with wine to match. As a wine novice, it was refreshing to hear that neither Tom or Shane were wine experts either and had pulled together the matches based on what they felt were complimentary. I don't have the wine vocabulary or knowledge to string together any form of complicated appraisal but I can definitely tell you if I think a glass tastes good or not. As far as food and wine matches go, that's all I need for now.
Oyster - with white bean and borage
Our first course was an amuse bouche of fresh oyster, white bean puree and borage flowers. The oyster was wonderfully fresh and balanced simply on a bed of black rock salt, garnished with the stunning lilac buds. What surprised many of us at the table was how well the white bean puree worked in this dish. It's not a combination I've frequently seen on menus but the puree lends a delicate creaminess that softens the salty, slippery oyster flesh.
Big bone, currently unharmed
Our second course began with a scene of theatrics. From the start of the meal, Marc and I had been pondering over the tool sitting on a table nearby. I joked that it was a bone saw but didn't really mean it. When Tom and Shane brought out a long bone, I realized that the instrument was truly a bone saw. They then proceeded to hack the specimen of anatomy in half to access the roast marrow interior.
Shane getting all American Psycho on the beasty limb
After trying the bone marrow at Gerard's, I was picturing something similar here. Instead, the dish ended up being a dressed up beef tartare rather than something with bone marrow as hero. There were some classic beef tartare elements such as cornichons and capers, along with less common additions such as the green strawberries and of course, the bone marrow.
Beef tartare - with bone marrow, green straberries and charred bread
My first comment is that with beef tartare, the focus comes down to the quality of the beef. As with eating sashimi, the produce has nowhere to hide. Raw food needs to be top notch or not only are the consumers unimpressed, we'd probably end up green and feverish. I thought the beef in this dish was beautiful. It was tender without a hint of sinew and had a lovely, natural flavor. The bone marrow was very subtle here, just detectable by the oily mouthfeel it leaves behind. As a marrow enthusiast, I would have loved more!
Crab - with compressed pickled cucumber, ginger and avocado
Next came the mudcrab medley. The plate was a mini smorgasboard of elements including the sweet mudcrab flesh itself, avocado smears, pickled cucumber, ginger sauce and nori crackling. The components worked extremely well together but it was difficult to get everything in one mouthful because there was so much going on. In particular I loved the crab with the avocado and nori, the last of which provided a welcome crunchiness. The pickled cucumber surprised me. It was sharp and tangy but rather than being overbearing, it cut through the other elements and served as an intra-course palate cleanser. Someone commented that this dish was more delicate than the tartare and may have benefited from being served first.
Corn beef - with baked potato puree, asparagus and strong cheddar sauce
We progressed onto what could be considered the main course: corned meat with baked potato puree and cheese sauce. The cheese sauce was VA VA VOOM, very cheesy. I liked that it had a bit of punch because the meat, asparagus and potato puree were nice but didn't stand out. Out of all the courses, I think this was the least impressive. It wasn't bad by any means but it wasn't as inventive, refined or memorable as the other dishes.
A couple of male representatives from our group expressed disappointment that we were getting 2 desserts instead of 4 savory courses and 1 sweet. As a caramel-slurping, chocolate crunching, cake-munching dessert fanatic, I was over the moon about a dessert double. The first of our dessert courses was the buttermilk panna cotta with cassis and sorrel.
Buttermilk panna cotta - with cassis and sorrel
The panna cotta arrived at our table still in the mold. We lifted the molds (effortlessly; none of that Masterchef 'Omg will it come out alright' drama for us) to reveal a perfectly wobbly, sexy, slippery cream pudding. The sorrel (described to us as 'an acidic herb') was served fresh and in granita form and worked well as a tangy, cool compliment to the decadent panna cotta.
Blackcurrent bubble burst
The cassis (Google tells me it's French for blackcurrent) was present in 3 forms: as a cube jelly, as a fluid and as a sphere sitting atop the panna cotta. The sphere actually burst when we pushed our spoons in, oozing luscious blackcurrent sauce. This dessert was definitely a crowd pleaser with many at the table claiming it to be their favorite. I would have been content here but little did I know the night still hadn't reached its gastronomical peak.
Tom being a dessert wizard
I'm sure this is open to debate but my favorite course was the final one, our second dessert. We got to watch Tom prepare some of the components while Shane described this as the most expensive dish on the list. Excitement grew as we watched smoke clouds and listened to the sound of much blending and chaos over from where Tom was working.
Smoked milk - with liquorice and chocolate
The menu description of this dish is inadequate at fully representing its complexity. The aero chocolate is spray-painted with walnut on the surface. The milk is smoked with lapsang souchong tea and wrapped in a layer of licorice. I thought the smoked milk was phenomenal. I've already mentioned that I'm a seasoned devourer of desserts. Even so, I admit that many can become too sweet, too heavy, too cloying and rich within a few bites. The smokiness in this dessert succeeded in overcoming this problem. It added a savory note without actually being salty. There was some controversy at our table over whether the liquorice was too subtle or too intense. Liquorice-lovers tended toward one opinion and liquorice-haters, another. There only seems to be lovers or haters when it comes to liquorice. It's a polarizing confectionary item. As a hater, I liked that the liquorice aspect of this dessert was in the background.
Mixing up our final beverage of the evening
To finish off our wonderful meal, we were given a digestif of something apple-based with bourbon and possibly soda. Is it obvious I forgot to write notes for this drink?
Unknown but magical apple drink
I feel awful for not remember what was in this drink because I absolutely loved it. It was calming and cleansing and served well to end our night on a high note. EDITED TO ADD: I have been since advised that the drink was apple bitters served with freshly pressed Granny Smith apple juice. It's a wide deviation from what I plucked out of my brain but there you have it!
I had a fantastic and memorable evening at Restaurant II. Tom and Shane were both remarkably friendly, approachable and entertaining as our hosts for the evening. It was an eye-opener to be able to hear the back-stories behind each dish and even learn a bit about the processes behind making the individual elements. My favorite dish was the smoked milk and chocolate dessert followed by the crab and panna cotta (tied in second). A special mention goes out to the apple drink. The food presentation could be best described as elegant with a dash of aesthetic flair. The boys produced visually attractive dishes without going overboard and taking the focus away from the ingredients. I am a huge fan of the concept behind this style of dining, bringing together the creators and the apperciators of good food to hopefully achieve some new level of insight at both ends. Even though this was my first pop up restaurant experience, I hope there's many more to come.