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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Finer Dining

Links in a Chaine Dept.: Back when chef Dale Miller took over the (now-defunct) Stone Ends Restaurant, he invited the local branch of the Chaine des Rotisseurs, a venerable fine-dining consortium, to hold one of its dinners there. He also invited me. Here’s the result.


FINE DINING IS AS MUCH of an art as fine cooking. The Chaine des rotisseurs is an international association dedicated to preserving both arts, with an impressive track record of doing so. How many associations can trace roots back to the 13th century?

Dale Miller. Photo by Tim Raab
Literally translated, it’s “chain of the rotisserie”; they police the fine-dining experience with dinners five or six times a year, each one preceded by an elaborate search for a good menu and sampling of its better items.

The Chaine and Dale Miller’s Stone Ends Restaurant were made for each other. Miller believes fine dining is an experience that should excite all the senses, and he’s eager to roll up his sleeves and show what he can do. The Chaine dinner provides that opportunity. He’s done it before, and done it well enough that they don’t even worry about tasting his menu samples. Besides, the menu is cooked up well ahead of time.

“I have to start six to eight weeks beforehand,” says Miller, who flew to California in July to visit Robert Mondavi’s winery in Oakdale and sample the wines that would be featured on the menu. “I had the Mondavi association in the back of my mind since the last Chaine dinner I did in April 1990. I wanted to prepare food that would be perfectly matched with each wine. Using Mondavi wines also allows me to serve American wine with American food.” Pairing food and wine is another art, one that can drown in pretentious mumbo-jumbo but, when approached without stuffiness, results in a pleasant, exciting enhancement of flavor.

“We like to create an atmosphere that excites all the senses, beginning with the fall decorations that were on the walkway.” In the bar area, a pot of apples and cinnamon was simmering for an autumnal aroma.

Miller admits that he may go a little too far in the fanaticism of his preparation. “I got this idea to deliver the dinner invitations in wine bottles.” The invitations were printed and shipped to Mondavi, whose public relations department commissioned a limited run of bottles corked and sealed – and containing only the fancy paper. Miller spent three days delivering the bottles to the homes of Chaine members.

The menu was developed by Miller and Stone Ends executive chef William Hohenstein in keeping with an “Autumn Fantasy” theme. “We put our heads together before and after tasting the wine.” It got easier – it usually does – after the tasting. Mondavi offered a sparkling wine for starters, something that’s not generally available to the public.

It’s a 1981 vintage, fermented with the skins and stems (“sur lie”) for six years to give it a warm, buttery flavor. Obviously the centerpiece of the opening course, it was served during the pre-dinner reception with an assortment of puff-pastry hors d’oeuvres.

Dinner proper began with a Lobster and Corn Cobbler with Lemon Thyme Chardonnay Sauce (see below), served, not surprisingly, with a 1988 Mondavi Chardonnay Reserve. Using the same wine grape basis in both the food and the accompanying wine is a simple way to assure a continuity of flavor. A garnish of baby corn also provided design continuity.

“The week before a dinner like this is the worst time, and the last three or four days I can count on getting almost no sleep.” Much of the preparation is same-day stuff: salads, for example, were made with fresh greens flown from Boston, presented in a whole tomato with a vinaigrette sweetened with currants.

A startling flavor contrast was achieved with a green apple sorbet. The bitter fruit was barely sweetened, and the texture was left grainy. It provided a fascinating bridge to the main course, Black Angus beef tenderloin seared on the stovetop and finished with a sauce made from venison prosciutto.

“I found the prosciutto through (former restaurant critic) Vinod Chhabra, who has a contact in New York who raises her own venison and processes the meat. The prosciutto sells for $45 a pound.”

Dauphine potatoes were painstakingly shaped into pears – again, playing with the harvest theme – and given stems of whole cloves. Two wines were featured to show contrast and continuity in a single grape: Mondavi’s Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from 1978 and 1988. The richly developed, complicated flavor of the older wine was a surprising divergence from the otherwise youthful vintages at dinner, and went especially well with the complicated flavors of the sauce.

Disaster threatened as the fruit and cheese were served, but first a word about that course. The winery flew in freshly-picked pinot noir grapes to go with the assortment of soft and hard cheeses, and served a must developed from the 1991 harvest as well. To demonstrate how the wine will develop, a 1989 Pinot Noir also was poured. “It’s a later-than-usual harvest this year,” said Mondavi representative Karen Smith-Sfara. “New York began picking grapes two weeks ago, but we haven’t developed the brix (sweetness) we’d like to have.”

Back in the kitchen, the carefully-formed tulips of white chocolate were discovered to have collapsed; Miller and crew hurriedly re-molded them using, conveniently, coffee cups. The bowls were cooled quickly and filled with an assortment of fresh berries colored gold and red and black. The finishing wine touch was a Sauvignon Blanc Botrytis, ‘83 vintage, with the consistency of warm honey and a mouth-filling sweetness to match.

“I won’t be doing another dinner like this for a while,” Miller says with a sigh of relief. Enjoyable to plan and execute, it still requires a post-prandial vacation.

Lobster and Corn Cobbler with Lemon Thyme Chardonnay Sauce

Serves four.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.


1 shallot, finely minced
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
I carrot, finely minced
2 stalks celery, finely minced
2 oz. butter
1/3 cup sherry
2/3 cup heavy cream
12 oz. lobster meat, diced
1 cup corn kernels, fresh or canned

Swab the vegetables in warm butter until the moisture is absorbed -- do not brown. Increase the heat and deglaze with the sherry; add heavy cream. Reduce over low heat until syrupy. Stir in the lobster and corn; add salt and pepper to taste.

Pastry Shell

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
5 tablespoons melted butter
3 1/2 tablespoons half-and-half

Sift the dry ingredients together; mix in the butter and half-and-half and work the mixture to the texture of cornmeal. Press the pastry into a lightly buttered and floured ten-inch tart pan, or use four four-inch tart shells. Reserve a quarter-cup of the pastry to sprinkle on top.

Bake the pastry shell for 12 to 15 minutes at 350 degrees, then fill with the cobbler mixture and continue baking for another five to ten minutes. The tarts may be browned quickly under the broiler.


1/2 cup Chardonnay
3 sprigs fresh lemon thyme
1 1/2 cup heavy cream
1 shallot (or less), finely minced
2 tablespoons butter, softened

Mix the Chardonnay, lemon thyme, heavy cream and (if desired) shallot and reduce slightly over medium heat. Finish by stirring in the butter. Serve immediately.

Metroland Magazine, 10 October 1991

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