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Bourbon Dinner at Terra, 12/15/2009

One of the very first food blogs I started reading was Mac and Cheese Review, so I perked up when she first mentioned that a Philadelphia restaurant would have a Bourbon dinner. Actually, I think she was just pointing out how very meat-oriented the menu was, since she’s vegetarian – but they caught her complaint and jumped to say that they would offer full vegetarian options. And then I was rather excited when she put out a call on Twitter for people to join in the excursion – yay, I wouldn’t have to feel like a stalker. ~g~

And, apparently, we’d met before and I’d talked to her, but I’d never quite put together the person at the food blogger pot lucks with the food blog author – go figure.

The scheduling ended up that it was just three days after the birthday party / scotch tasting, which has also been a few months in the planning. But, actually, the contrast was rather charming.

I’ve never really objected to bourbon, but it wasn’t until some random chance encounter at Positano Coast and a bartender taking pity on me and introducing me to Basil Hayden’s that I started to see it as a the kind of beverage worth sipping and discussing. Now mind you, I have a strict policy on alcohol, where I won’t drink something where I don’t like the taste. I’ll even sip tequila, if I’m going to be drinking it. If it’s going in my mouth, it has to be something I’m willing to enjoy. But there’s a step between enjoying something and savoring it and all. And here’s where that leap happened.

Right, so the small batch people at Beam got together with the people at Terra, the cozy restaurant underneath the Tavern on Camac, and they made a five course Bourbon Dinner, with beverage pairings for every course. So there!

Yeah, I ended up requesting time off work to attend because I work crazy late on weeknights, and the post was very specific about an early start time to the dinner.

So after a bit of negotiation, I made reservations and met up with Taylor and another friend for dinner. Here is her much more timely review with pictures (though I am backdating this post to fit the chronology better)

Ambiance – This was my first visit to Terra, and it was cozy with a lot of warm wood everywhere. It was mentioned that it seemed like a very masculine space, but I especially liked the benches around the edge of the room. It was just the place to curl up on a cold evening. I had, however, been to the Tavern on Camac above us before – a friend from high school used to bartend there, and there’ve been random parties there associated with the Philadelphia film festivals. The main floor is a traditional piano bar, with random outbursts of song, that speaks of another place and another era – but it’s good odds that the people there will be smiling and happy.

So the menu – because, really, that’s the important part.

amuse bouche
Steak Tartar
with Baker’s Bourbon Caviar
paired with
Baker’s Bourbon
served neat

Served in an asian soup spoon, the tartar had a clean, mild flavor of fresh beef mixed with a nice crunchy, tang of raw purple onions. Now I’ve been familiar with the theory of molecular gastronomy caviar for a while, but I hadn’t had the occasion to try it. And I must say that I always pictured it in my head as having that same taut burst as real caviar, but no – this was just tiny globules of mush. Another illusion dashed. It didn’t really harm the tartar, but it didn’t do anything to improve it, either.

The burbon, however, was quite tasty. It has a toasty, caramel flavor that was perfect for warming us and settling down.

first course
Arugula salad
Humbolt Fog cheese,
Jim Beam soaked Cranberries,
Roasted Parsnips, House Bacon
and a Ginger Bourbon Vinaigrette
paired with
Black Beauty
Jim Beam, Cranberry Juice
& DeKuyper Reach Schnapps

This salad was by far the most stellar dish of the evening, but I love salads. Every piece was delicious on its own, and they went together perfectly. My only sadness with the perfect union was that there was enough going on that I had no idea what the vinaigrette tasted like on its own, it blended in that seamlessly. The bacon was worth teasing the vegetarians over (but only a little), and the roasted parsnips were sinfully good. Humbolt Fog is one of my favorite cheeses, and it’s mellowness goes well with the arugula. And the Jim Beam soaked cranberries were just the right mix of natural tanginess with spicy smoke from the booze. I would eat this as an entree, if it made it to the regular menu.

Oh, and there was bread – caramelized onion brioche torpedoes that were hot and tasty, and I devoured mine before the salad even arrived. And Taylor, who swears bread isn’t usually worth a second bite, also praised it highly.

The drink? Well, it was the prized invention of one of the bourbon-mongers sherherding the event. It was a good premise, but it needed work. The peach schnapps made things a bit too sweet. But it was suggested (I forget by whom) that maybe adding more bourbon would improve the drink, and since we all still had some of the generous portion of Baker’s left, the experiment was attempted and met with success. It ended up going well with the fruitiness of the salad, even though I’m still not sure about it on its own.

second course
Smoked Pork Belly
Chestnut Bellini, Pickled Beets
and Maple Knob Creek Bourbon Foam
paired with
Knob Creek Manhattan
Knob Creek, Sweet Vermouth, Dry Vermouth,
Bitters & Fresh Lemon
with a Cherry garnish

I totally lucked out with eating meat here because the pork belly was delighful. I could have just basked in the smell… okay, that’s totally a lie because I enjoyed the toasty, smoky fatty joy of the pork. And my vegetarian companions had to made do with seitan that had not been particularly strongly seasoned to function the same way.

Also, the parts of the dish didn’t quite go together. The pork belly went best with the pickled beets, which were charmingly aggressively peppery in a way I plan to try at home. And the maple foam went well with the bellini, almost like breakfasting on buckwheat pancakes. But assembling all 4 together just seemed forced. And while I’m knocking the gastronomy, let me admit that I absolutely loved the foam. It was hard to corral, but it was very temping just to gather the last of it on a finger to make sure I didn’t miss any.

Sadly, I ended up trying to foist my beverage off on my dining companions because I just don’t enjoy bitters.

third course
Pan Seared Lamb Chops
Booker’s Bourbon Grits
and Szechwan Peppercorn jus
paired with
Booker’s Bourbon
served neat

Oh, man – so glad I eat meat. This was the best lamb chop I have ever had, and it took quite a lot of willpower not to completely melt about it because look at this contrast. They had perfectly seared the endge of fat around the tender, succulent meat. And the main place where the vegetarian option fell down was the not only did they have to substitute the meat, but they also couldn’t use the peppery jus, which was necessary to contrast the bulk of the bourbon grits.

Now, I’m not a fan of grits. I grew up with a mother from Mississippi, and I didn’t like her grits – and I wasn’t a fan of them either when there was a charmingly gentrified restaurant in Oxford, MS where the most expensive item on the lunch menu was fancipants grits. But these were rich and creamy and smooth, and I ended up eating every last grain. Without the flavorful sauce, however, the bourbon ended up adding an off whang that wasn’t pleasant at all. Probably would have been better without the bourbon.

The Booker’s bourbon was 127 proof, and it wouldn’t let you forget it. I believe the bourbon-monger said that it was aged 10-14 years in a single barrel, but it still felt like it was setting your nose hairs on fire. When it first hit the tip of my tongue, it was sweet, and then it washed over the mouth with heat. After only two sips, my lips were tingly and a little numb. Taylor had, despite the Black Beauties, saved some of her Baker’s for contrast… and, yes, the Baker’s was downright well behaved and mellow next to the Booker’s. The gentleman seated at the table besides ours ordered a glass of ice and proceeded to adulterate his until it was a bit more mellow.

dessert course
Black Forrest Gateaux
Coffee Granita
and Jim Beam Red Stag Creme Anglaise
paired with
Sleigh Ride
Jim Beam Red Stag, Hot Chocolate
& Whipped Cream
with a Cherry garnish

The dessert was not the best note on which to end the meal. I’m not fond of coffee, but luckily the granita was in an asian dessert spoon and easy to isolate from the rest of the dish (well played!). The creme anglaise was mild and not strongly flavored with the alcohol, but it couldn’t do anything to help the dense hockey puck of a cake. Nor did the abundant frosting and the reconsituted dried cherries in the frosting, which ended up so worked that they ended up chewy and a bit artificial tasting. Luckily, this isn’t a dessert even close to anything on their regular menu and must have been designed specifically for this event and need never be seen again.

I was also worried about the hot chocolate because Taylor had tried the Red Stag before and declared that it definitely tasted like cough syrup when plain. But the hot chocolate worked beautifully and the cherry booze just created a nice layer of flavor, instead of overpowering. It was lovely and warm and soothing – and a much better finish to the evening.