Monday, July 30, 2012
'Whole Beast Feast' at Grace Restaurant
Chef Peter Sueltenfuss joined Grace nearly two years after opening, District (now closed), where he first gained popularity for his Charcuterie and brunch offerings of Chicken and Waffles. For almost a year, he's been leading the brigade at Grace, changing the menu significantly--bringing back his Charcuterie (HOORAY!)--and turning up the restaurants already existing focus on locally sourced produce and meats.
He and his staff recently took this to a completely different level than any other restaurant in Portland by offering a 'Whole Beast Feast' four course menu. The menu, designed for a group of six to eight people, utilizies an entire side of lamb from Northstar Farms in Windham. They also offer an optional beer/wine pairing for dinners.
On the night that they premiered the menu, the restaurant invited some local food writers, and their guests. We were lucky enough to have the owners of Northstar Farms, Phillip and Lisa Webster, join us for dinner as well. Because of my job, I get to spend a good amount of time with local food producers, but I have never had the unique opportunity to sit down at a dinner with the people who were responsible for providing the main ingredient. I can tell you that they are two of the most passionate, dedicated farmers I have met. Their connection to, and love of, our local food community runs deep and they take great pride in the animals they raise. Clearly, Chef Sueltenfuss shares that same connection and respect as he displayed it across four thoughtfully composed courses during the evening.
The amuse brought over by the Chef to start the evening was a lamb tartare, The raw lamb was blended with a smokey and spicy harissa paste, sesame seeds and cucumber. The flavor was much more assertive, both because of the harissa and inherent flavor of protein, than your average tartare and I appreciated the spice the harissa lent to the dish. The flatbread, served to the side, added salt to the main component purposefully and the combination made for a delightful start to the evening.
The next plate showcased some of the Chef's Charcuterie skills with a 'bresaola' served on top of a brush of charred fennel and balsamic with anise hyssop and arugula. It was extremely mild for cured lamb and the brush of fennel and balsamic brought on an intensely sweet punch. Not sweet enough, though, to stop me from stealing every last bit from my plate.
After that came a course of house made rigatoni with smoked lamb shoulder, sun gold tomatoes, goat's milk ricotta, Castelventrano olives with a bit of Ouzo. I'm mad that I couldn't get a good picture of the plate because it was one of my favorite of the night. The lamb was so tender, and so beautifully smokey, that the meal could have ended with this dish and I would have been more than content. But, there was also such a fantastic layer of acidity and sweetness from all of the other components that the lamb never felt or tasted heavy.
The fourth course was the showpiece, a giant lamb leg stuffed with corn and pinenuts, served family style with sides of tempura milkweed pods (!) and fresh corn polenta. I have to tell you, those milkweed pods were absolutely fantastic, tasting like slightly bitter fried green beans. While we were all first a little unsure of their presence, there wasn't a single one left at the end of the course. Nor was there any lamb, either. Phil was asked if he was ever tired of lamb and he replied, "Nope," as he scooped up his third piece of lamb leg.
We thought the leg was the last of the main courses when Mariah, our very knowledgeable and friendly waitress of the evening, brought out lamb chops. Meredith and I looked at each other with disbelief. The table had just finished off a generous leg of lamb and now we were going to have to muster up the gumption to trek on through another course. Once Mariah told us what was on the plates before us, I knew the table would have no problem meeting the task.
The plate consisted of a sumac and spruce spiced lamb chop served with a squash puree, pea greens, marinated summer squash and a lamb neck stuffed squash blossom. Lisa, who sat across from me for the evening, taught The Missus and I how to easily remove the eye of the chop from the bone. Well, it was easy for her as she had done it so many times before, but we needed a little more practice and reassuring words before ours rolled out of its fat cap and off of the bone. And, while the rib chops were cooked to a perfect medium rare, it was the singular stuffed squash blossom that stole it all for our end of the table. Delicate things like squash blossoms are usually stuffed with equally delicate things like ricotta or fresh chevre. While they're always nice, this was like a richly developed lamb demi glace contained in a fried blossom. It was unexpected and immensely enjoyed.
Sadly, I had stopped writing down the courses by the end of the meal and didn't get all of the ingredients on the dessert. I know there was ginger and blueberries, but could tell you nothing more. The Missus said it was one of her favorite dishes of the night because it was so light and refreshing compared to the rest of the meal. I completely agree that it was the perfect note to end on, but I more inclined to say the leg and shoulder were my favorite plates of the evening.
It was a truly enjoyable evening, from the company to the food, and we cannot thank those at Grace enough for inviting us along for this adventurous dining experience. I enjoyed more lamb in one evening than I have over the course of a year. And, while you may not be as lucky as I was to sit across the table from the owners of Northstar Farms, you can still book--with 72 hours notice--your groups own feast by contacting Grace directly at (207) 828-4422.