Chef Marcel Vigneron has dragon's breath! Not BAD breath, dragon's breath: a white stream of smoke is streaming from his nostrils and mouth. The occasion is the first Guest Chef Dinner at JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery in Paso Robles. Chef Vigneron, who wowed us with his molecular gastronomy on Bravo's cooking show Top Chef is proving to me that my mouth won't be "burned" by eating the crispy wild rice and sugar appetizers rolled in liquid nitrogen. Instead I experienced a light shock of coldness, the crisp taste of sugar, then "smoke" streamed from my nose.
Molecular gastronomy is fun! It is the marriage of science and food creating novel forms and textures, such as beet foam, spherical noodles, or powdered olive oil. You can trace its origins to the Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti and French physical chemist Harvé This who held "Molecular and Physical Gastronomy" meetings with chefs to demonstrate new techniques like making meringue in a vacuum chamber. Ferran Adrià gained worldwide fame from his molecular gastronomy at El Bulli, said to be the best restaurant in the world before it closed in 2011.
After appetizers that included mini "ice cream cones" filled with goat cheese and grapes, bitty potatoes that looked liked rocks with dill crème fraiche, oysters with foam and the aromatic 2011 JUSTIN Chardonnay, JUSTIN founder Justin Baldwin invited the guests into the cavernous 30,000 sq. ft. barrel room, made intimate and romantic with candles, for the gourmet meal. He introduced each course with an explanation of the pairing, saying "what we are striving to make here are food friendly wines." JUSTIN brought worldwide recognition to the Paso Robles viticultural region in 2000 when their Bordeaux blend ISOSCELES was named one of the top 10 wines in the world by Wine Spectator. They have consistently garnered top ratings and praise for their wines, including Wine Enthusiast's "Top Cabernet and Blended Wine Producers List" for seven years running and their tasting room has been my favorite in Paso Robles, both for their terrific wines and for the friendly staff.
The dinner benefited Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution Day.
Jamie Oliver is the intrepid Brit leading the charge to change school lunch programs and how we cook in our kitchens, saying "For the first time in history, being overweight is killing more people than being underweight, and at least 2.8 million adults around the world die each year as a result of being overweight or obese…We need to become a conscious community and understand the food choices we make on a daily basis, which includes making food fresh from scratch and avoiding junk food." Food Revolution events were held in 660 cities in 63 countries on May 19th to improve the way we eat and combat obesity. Learn how to cook seasonally with locally sourced organic food! It's better for you and your family and better for our planet.
We enjoyed the 2011 JUSTIN Sauvignon Blanc with a light, slightly foamed, chilled pea soup with vanilla cured salmon and a tangy pickled radish. Compressed cucumber gave he dish texture and Meyer Lemon Puree added a bright note. The luscious 2009 JUSTIN Reserve Tempranillo was paired with steamed halibut and Portuguese sausage cooked in "Crazy Water": an Italian broth. "Acqua Pazza" is traditionally made from cherry tomatoes, water (sometimes seawater), salt, olive oil and sometimes the seeds, stems and pomace left after pressing grapes for wine.
JUSTIN's flagship wine, the ISOSCELES was paired with slow roasted veal, not something I normally eat, but it was fantastic. The au jus, made with ISOSCELES, was irresistible, deep, rich and complex. The flavor-infused morels were out-of-this-world fantastic. Dessert, served with the 2010 JUSTIN OBTUSE, was a flourless hazelnut chocolate cake with a coconut espuma. Espuma is a molecular gastronomy technique where a natural ingredient (like coconut milk) is mixed with a stabilizing agent such as agar or lecithin, then extruded through a whipped cream canister charged with nitrous oxide. The result was a purely flavored foam of coconut with a slight crust. The creamy pudding of roasted banana and peanut butter had a wonderful texture and pronounced flavor of ripe banana.
My friend who accompanied me to the dinner is a vegetarian and she was accommodated by the chefs with a special vegetarian option. Her second course was a delicious risotto that had a foam incorporated into it and had baby carrots as a side. Her third course was a riff on the classic Northern Italian dish of asparagus and egg that had the warm morels that were also part of our veal dish. The egg was obviously farm-fresh with a deep orange yolk cooked au point.
Not only were the food and wine top-notch, but JUSTIN accomplished something that is not easy to do: to create an evening that was elegant and sophisticated, yet warm and familial. The fabulous food and wine, the personal touch of the founder, the friendliness of the staff, and the impressive setting created a magical evening. As we walked away from the convivial lights of the winery, the night sky was inky black and thick with stars. Our only regret after a perfect evening was that we were not one of the fortunate guests who had booked a stay in one of JUSTIN's luxury suites and would not be having breakfast there as the morning sun brightened the surrounding vineyards.
JUSTIN is the only winery in the Central Coast to have a full-time chef creating in-house wine pairing recipes. Executive Chef Will Torres creates locally sourced cuisine in the Restaurant at JUSTIN and works with guest chefs in the winery's series of dinners. Past celebrity chefs include the “Iron Chef America” winner Chef Kent Rathbun and James Beard Award-winner Chef Barbara Lynch.