Some great pics/add’l thoughts here: Instant Gratification
I haven’t been to Rainbow Lodge since the days of Lance Youngs, so certainly this was my first trip to the location on Ella. We gathered in the Tied Fly Bar, and since I was in for the wine pairing I had a skyball cocktail before dinner. Enjoyed some nice conversation with SteveP and Sammy_Ford, and we all were in eager anticipation of what was to come. We were escorted into a large open room with a huge table set relatively sparsely for about 20 people. The front end of the table had no chairs – only two platters filled with live Pacific sea urchin – at least 15 or 20 of them. They were beautiful – dark and purple, and much bigger than I had imagined. The room itself had a pitched ceiling, and a loft area was visible up and above us. Someone more familiar with the place (I think it was tastybitz) mentioned this area led off to the wine room upstairs.
Course Zero – live uni demo and tasting
Randy Rucker came in with a great big steel prep bowl and did a demo of how to butcher the urchins. It’s a pretty simple process, actually. A large pair of kitchen shears is used, the tip inserted just next to the mouth. A cut is made about halfway down each side of the urchin and then the whole shell is cracked open. The innards are remarkably sparse – I would judge that about 75% of the material inside is roe, with the remainder being liver and other organs. The creature is most likely filled with some type of liquid/seawater that aids digestion, and this obviously is purged when it is removed from water. Randy offered all of us that wanted some a taste of this ‘live’ urchin. Although I dropped a huge glob on my shirt, the roe was a very unique flavor – somewhere in between the intense buttery minerality of the big gate crab I had in China and the freshest oysters Ive ever tasted. It was not nearly as iodinic as I expected, and the texture was much creamier than the uni I have had at sushi restaurants. It really was a flavor to ponder and think about, and was an experience I will not forget.
Course 1: uni popcorn – uni powder seasoned poporn
Wine: Roderer Estate sparkling
I don’t think I realized this was ‘the’ uni popcorn until I got to the bottom of the conical dish it was served in and found the little bits of uni powder that had aggregated there. The popcorn didn’t taste of uni at all – but boy did the little bits – mega concentrated flavor of uni roe, caked solid. The folks at my end of the table were all a little disappointed that these weren’t a bit more spread out over the popcorn itself.
This got served in the middle of the urchin demonstration, so impact was a little lost. I also ended up letting my sparkling warm, and so didn’t really enjoy it that much.
Course 2: live uni with olive oil, persimmon vinegar & chive
The most interesting thing about this dish was how the uni changed with the ‘quick cure’ (Randy’s words) done tableside with the vinegar. The roe was much firmer, and closer to the texture I was accustomed to. The eggs were still noticeable in the roe, and it still had a creamy texture and the lovely sharp salinity/metallic flavors. The micro-chive wasn’t especially noticeable on my dish, and the persimmon vinegar was a nice whip to the little bit of sweetness in the uni itself.
Course 3: raw uni with smoked miso and brown butter
Wine pairing: ibid
This little dish was served in abalone shells. Raw uni was placed on top of a dollop of smoked miso and sprinkled with flakes of dehydrated brown butter. The best thing about this dish was the dehydrated butter – a genius idea that inspired me to want to put it on nachos. The little butter flakes melted instantly in the mouth, providing the sensation of butter ‘fullness’ without any hint of greasiness. The uni of course, was fantastic but I got a little too much miso in my bite – it really overwhelmed the uni flavors and some of the freshness. Not everyone around me felt the same – but not everyone around me gobbled down all the miso either 🙂
Course 4: baby white geoduck clam & a vinaigrette made from uni, meyer lemon & caramel oil
Wine: Ravines Dry Riesling, Finger Lakes 2006
Pronounced ‘Gooey-duck’, it is a native North American clam/bivalve with a tongue that can reach many feet in length. It’s exceptionally tasty when cooked correctly – just the right amount of chewy and without the normal depth of earthy flavors that can accompany other clams. This dish paired it with a really delicate vinaigrette, the meyer lemon floral flavors pronounced and the caramel flavor subdued. Honestly, uni flavor was not really apparent until the last bite, but it was a great dish, something that could inspire an entire salad-style entrée. The dry Riesling didn’t have the normal pop of sweetness, but the acidity and minerality worked well. Riesling was definitely the one wine I knew I would be drinking (the only thing my non-oenophile mind could come up with to pair with the complexity of uni), so no surprises with the selection.
Course 5: lots of different eggs both hot and cold
Wine: Laird Pinot Grigio, Carneros 2004
This was my personal favorite dish.
In a small shallow bowl were uni, paddlefish roe, a slow poached duck egg on top of salsify ‘dirt’, which is the root vegetable roasted heartily and chopped finely. It resembles earth and has a taste reminiscent of bacon. Poured over all of this was a warm dashi. This dish worked magnificently. The duck egg became the sauce – the dashi and salsify melded together into a smoky broth and the uni and slightly salty and inky paddlefish roe really brought out the sweetness of the uni. It was really something special. The only challenges to the dish were in balance – the dashi, at first, made the salsify look a little strange. Once it sat for a moment it turned into a lovely paste-like consistency and was easier to eat with the other components. Also, the duck egg was a little large – a quail egg might have had the same effect and been in better balance with the other ingredients. However, as anonymouseater and I agreed when the argument is over the better merits of a quail vs a duck egg in a dish, you’ve got pretty good food in front of you. The wine pairing left us both perpelexed at first – but this pinot grigio was quite sweet, and was really a great counterbalance to the rich flavors of the egg dish. In my opinion it was the most successful pairing of the evening.
Course 6: almond gnocchi with caviar, coddled buttermilk & uni
Wine: Trevor Jones Chardonnay, Australia 2007
Of all the dishes, I had the most trouble ‘getting’ this one. The almond gnocchi was really more like a biscotti in texture. It was somewhat bland at first taste, but had a nice sweetness that hit the back of the palate. The coddled buttermilk was sour to be sure, and the uni stood alone as a flavor component. There were a few bitter baby greens on the plate, and my first few bites left my mouth in confusion. These flavors weren’t melding together. However, as I ate more of it and started chasing with the Chardonnay, things began to meld, at least a bit. The Chardonnay had the sweet qualities normally indicating an all-steel fermentation, but the label mentioned some limited oak barrel agin and malolactic fermentation. It was OK wine with an OK dish.
Course 7: slow poached iowa pork belly seasoned with carbonized onion powder & re-seared, creamed kimchee and uni toast
Wine: Buil & Guin Gine Gine (Priorat ??)
This was really something, and was my second favorite dish. Randy described this pork belly as having been poached for three days (in an immersion circulator, of course), and was the only dish which he advised us how to eat, recommending we make sure and get each of the components in each bite. A powerful warning, as the ‘carbonized’ onion powder was pungent stuff, meant to add a ‘grilled’ flavor to the sous-vide meat. The house made kimchee stole the show, as it had a strong vinegar kick and a layered spiciness that worked well against the saltiness of the uni and the astringency and smoky flavors of the carbonized onion. Whould’a thunk it – but the pork belly almost acted as a simple canvas for these other flavors to play around on. This was the first time I had ever had a Priorat, and I really liked this blend. However, the pairing was uninspired. In my opinion the juiciness of the wine was wasted alongside the layers of flavor in this dish. However, anonymouseater disagreed strongly, and thought the blend of big red grapes was a good counterpoint to the engineered nature of the dish. Side note – the carbonized onion captured a childhood flavor for me – my grandmothers fried okra, which she would roll in cornmeal and absolutely blast for me. All these years I’ve been eating and loving ‘carbonized’ okra and never event knew it J
Course 8 (BONUS): uni and micro chives over forbidden rice
This was the third place dish for me. Simple, elegant, beautiful and delicious. The forbidden rice was evocative of Italian arborio – nutty and slightly creamy. It melded really nicely with the wonderful dollop of uni roe on top. The chive offered a nice mellow crunch in each bite. The Priorat worked well with this dish – balancing out the nutty fullness of the rice in a way it could not with the pork belly.
Course 9: sea urchin frozen yogurt & our papaya ceviche
Wine: Yalumba Botrytis Viognier (Wrattonbully, 2006)
This was another dish I just didn’t get. The uni yogurt was good but it tasted like frozen yogurt. I didn’t get a lot of uni flavor from it. The papaya ceviche was a slice of house-pickled green papaya, which was intensely sour. It all balanced nicely, but after the previous two dishes it was quite honestly a little bit of a letdown. This dish may have worked better as an intermezzo between the egg dish and the almond gnocchi dish. I liked the late harvest viognier, it was tasty and not too sweet. It worked quite well with the bitter/sour flavors of the dish.
Course 10: uni and white chocolate
Wine: Kings Estate vin glace late harvest pinot gris (Willamette valley)
I’m not a fan of white chocolate. In general, I avoid it. However, this dish has reintroduced me to white chocolate as a vehicle for tasty emulsions like this. Randy has already gained my utmost respect for introducing me to the joy that is the foie-gras milkshake – a dish that on the surface sounds disgusting, but is equally ingenious in using a milk/chocolate base for an emulsion with savory fat. This dish works on the same principle. The cocoa butter just extends and deepens the uni flavors, and the touch of sweetness from the white chocolate shavings and crunch from the walnuts were the icing on this proverbial cake. What an end point to a great meal, and a dish I will not soon forget. The vin glace was done in the eiswein style, but didn’t have the depth of a traditional ice wine. It simply didn’t have a chance against this wonderfully complex dessert.
BUT WAIT … THERE’S MORE
Course 11: split and lightly seared spotted prawn
Shortly after the meal ended, tastybitz gave Randy a hard time – he had seen some spotted prawn in the walk-in before dinner and wanted to know if we were going to get some. A joke, but it paid off. Shortly after this Randy came out with platters of split prawns in olive oil and garlic, which had been flash seared with a handheld kitchen torch. The flavor was really nice – sweet and meaty, somewhere in between the flavor of Pacific tiger prawn and the deepwater Gulf ruby reds I had in Alabama last summer. Someone asked Randy what you called a seafood course after dessert – I call it delicious!