On the sixth of the Twelve Days of Christmas at The Restaurant at Meadowood, Christopher Kostow gave to me one of my favorite chefs in the country right now, Matthias Merges.
Formerly the chef de cuisine of Charlie Trotters for more than a decade, Merges now owns his own restaurant, Yusho, in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, where I ate earlier this year. I so loved my meal there – a soulful review of Japanese street and home cooking – that I invited him to participate in the Harvesters’s annual Chefs Classic in Kansas City in June and encouraged Kostow to invite him to this year’s Twelve Days of Christmas dinner series in St. Helena.
Marking the halfway point of this year’s Twelve Days of Christmas at Meadowood Napa Valley, last Friday, Merges and Kostow served an eight-course dinner paired with wines by winemaker Philippe Melka of Melka Wines.
When you interact with Matthias Merges, he gives you his full attention. I like that about him. I also like that he is an endless source of positive energy. Thoughtful in his response, wise in his advice, and constructive in his criticism, he is also full of great stories, and even better ideas.
Never one to underestimate others, Merges consider himself a student. He is always eager to learn from others and treats every minute of his day as an opportunity to better himself, to sharpen his mind (he says he likes to use long, skinny chopsticks to keep his mind focused on his tasks), and to expose himself to new perspectives. That is why he and his chef de cuisine, Jennifer Petrusky, jumped on the line to help with the cooking and plating for Jason Franey’s dinner the night before theirs. To Merges, it wasn’t just another night of work, but rather, a chance to learn from others and connect with others.
During staff line-up, Merges used neatly hand-drawn sketches and diagrams to help the cooks understand and visualize the plating for each of his courses. He gave the staff some background about each dish, telling them, for example, that one of his desserts – a sugary “honeycomb” (essentially, honey caramel agitated by baking soda) served with honey and dehydrated bees – was inspired by a restaurant he visited in Japan that only served animals and insects that fly.
He also served a “tasting of skins,” a collection of puffy and crisp rinds from animals and plants alike, that has become quite popular at his restaurant Yusho. Each was seasoned differently. The onion skin, for example, came dotted with a tangy, ponzu gelée condiment. The pork rinds were dusted with a fiery mix of togarashi (these were especially great – super-crisp and clean, leaving no gummy wake).
Merges’s canapés were terrific. Among them was a small bundle of hon shimeji (brown beech) mushrooms wrapped in a tender strip of duck breast meat, grilled over binchotan (white-hot coals). There were also small spring rolls filled with sea urchin, burdock root and shiso leaves and dusted with shaved Buddha hand. Those were incredibly fragrant. But my favorite was the takomaki – a type of griddled beignet filled with tender octopus, a popular street snack in Japan (the one I had at Yusho was filled with salmon roe).
My favorite dish from Kostow’s team was a bowl of crunchy sunchoke-sesame granola with brook trout roe into which was poured a milky sunchoke soup, slightly sweet and nutty. This dish had the effect of eating a bowl of morning cereal, but with an unexpectedly sophisticated layering of flavors and textures. I especially loved this dish paired with the Lail Vineyards “Georgia” Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that offered a creamy, slightly oaked finish that lifted the roasty, toasty flavor of the granola.
You’ll find the entire menu from last night’s Twelve Days of Christmas dinner with Matthias Merges, and a slideshow of the dinner below.
Yam Mochi with Curry
A Tasting of Skins
Pork, poularde, salmon, monkfish, and onion.
Kushi Oyster Chawanmushi
Horseradish, black lime.
Smoked trout, brook trout roe, a variety of sorrels.
Black trumpet, truffle, salsify, and squid.
Triple-Seared Kagoshima Ribeye
Barbecued veal sweetbreads, umeboshi, fermented garlic.
Curry Crème Fraîche Ice Cream
Turmeric, kaffir brittle, and coriander root.
Lail Vineyards “Georgia” Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, 2010
Melka “CJ,” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2009
Melka Metisse “Jumping Goat Vineyard,” Napa Valley, 2009
Melka Metisse “La Mekerra Vineyard,” Knights Valley, 2008
Melka Metisse “La Chatelet Vineyard” St. Emilion Grand Cru, France, 2007
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