Thursday, July 30, 2009

From The Chesapeake to The Four Seasons

Great food and wine go together, and lovers of one are likely to appreciate the other. I’m someone who believes firmly in the symbiotic relationship between the two: A great meal—for me, at least—is somehow incomplete without wine; and a great wine is often lifted even higher by the right food.

Readers of this blog know that, over the past several months, I’ve visited some of the most interesting wine regions in Europe, from Bordeaux to several regions in Austria. I’ve posted tasting notes, travelogues, and videos, and have focused primarily on the wines themselves, the production techniques, and the land from which they come. Indeed, the process that a wine goes through, from grape to glass, has been a recurring theme in my coverage here.

Today, then, I’d like to look at the other side of the coin and talk about food—specifically, a recent experience I had that was as profound and exciting as any food and wine lover could hope to have.

Several weeks ago, I received an invitation to attend a small lunch in the private dining room at The Fountain Restaurant at The Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia. The General Manager, Harry Gorstayn—known to one and all as “Mr. G.”—is an avid and accomplished fisherman, and he had recently returned from Florida with a seriously successful catch.

From snapper fish and chips with a mojito aioli, to dangerously addictive kingfish quesadillas, to sautéed mahi mahi with mango pineapple salad, this was a feast in the truest sense of the word. And the fact that we enjoyed it with beers from Land Shark and Corona and a crisp, refreshing Arneis, all in what I personally feel is the best restaurant in Philadelphia (and I’m certainly not alone in that assessment—here is the link to the recent glowing review in The Philadelphia Inquirer) made it even better.

And as great an experience as that was, it was just a prelude, because a few weeks later I had the chance to join my friends from The Four Seasons on a fishing expedition to the Chesapeake to see for myself what went into a meal like that.

After a 2:45 a.m. meeting time in the lobby of the hotel (my wife and I slept there the night before to lessen the pain of the middle-of-the-night wake-up call; I got up at 2:00…she slept in while I literally foraged for food that she would enjoy later that week…poor girl!) and a two-hour drive to the Chesapeake, we started motoring out to the fishing grounds.

Our boat, the Jennifer Ann from the excellent Fish Fear Us Charters, must have had the best luck of any vessel on the Bay that Monday. Because within just a couple of hours, we had caught our striped bass limit of 13—two for every guest on board and one for the boat. The real pro that day was Farra D’Orazio, the hotel’s Director of Public Relations: Her almost preternatural ability to lure fish to her hook and lift them into the boat would have been a thing of beauty had it not highlighted my own lack of skill on the sea. (The fish are safe if I’m holding the rod!)

Also fishing that day were Mr. G; Rafael Gonzalez, the executive chef at The Fountain; Scott Turnbull, the sommelier; and Bill McGaughey, who shot a fantastic video (click here for the link).

After fishing our striped-bass limit, we headed out to find spots, a much smaller fish that’s perfect for the fish tacos that Chef Rafael does so well. And that’s when we hit our jackpot: 48 fish in what must have been some sort of record time.

Thoroughly exhausted from the early-morning wake-up call and in a collective state of deeply satisfied, food-based sleepiness from the sandwiches that Rafael had brought along, most of us passed out in the fresh breeze of our boat ride back to land, dreaming about what the fish in the cooler would taste like when we prepared them back in the kitchen two days later.
Fish scales can move. You wouldn’t think so, but those little guys can really fly. So it only makes sense that, after scaling three or four fish, I would spend the rest of the day with gently shimmering hair, the occasional scale that I’d missed catching the light and sparkling like an odd-smelling jewel.

Upon arriving that morning in the kitchen of The Fountain, I was presented with a Four Seasons chef’s jacket, led downstairs to a tiled room with gleaming stainless steel counters, and introduced to Sang Luu, the restaurant’s expert fish butcher. He and Chef Rafael took me through the process of scaling, removing the fish’s organs, de-boning, and slicing the meat into appropriately sized filets—a skill that, like sushi-rolling or golf, requires years of dedicated work to master.

Once we’d worked our way through 45 minutes or so worth of fish, I headed upstairs to work with Chef Rafael on the lunch. The alchemy of great cooking—like great winemaking—verges on the miraculous. Just two days earlier we had caught the fish that we were about to enjoy in one of the most beautiful, elegant dining rooms in the country. And the transformation of those fish from jittery, flopping creatures on the deck of the boat to the deliriously delicious and perfectly composed ceviche with ginger; seared fillets with sweet corn, fava beans, cherry tomatoes, and lobster; and a steamed composition with tabbouleh salad and a dill-cucumber yogurt, was nothing short of astounding.

Then again, maybe I should have expected it: This was not just a seafood version of the much (and justifiably) lauded farm-to-table eating. It was, rather, something far more profound—a meal that I had seen through from its very beginning, on a fishing charter in the Chesapeake, to its thoroughly wonderful endpoint at a table in the dining room of The Fountain.

With great food, as with great wine, that kind of experience is as satisfying, and as life-affirming, as it gets.


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