Thursday, October 23, 2008

Slow Food - Annual Members Dinner at the Standard

Some Slow Food dinners focus on a particular cuisine, some focus on the general Slow Food philosophy of local seasonal organic ingredients well-prepared, and some, like the Mango brunch three months back and last night's Members Dinner focus on a specific ingredient.

That ingredient last night was the Navajo-Churro sheep. There's a full information sheet here; the short version is that this is the breed of sheep brought to the Americas by the conquistidors in the 1600's, taken up by the Navajo, nearly lost during the Indian relocation and wars and restored in the 1970's. It's still a rare heritage breed but it's on its way back. According to the info sheet, it's not just of historical interest but also especially tasty. By the end of this post you'll know my opinion on that.

The Standard's chef, Mark Zetouni, prepared the sheep (technically mutton in this case, but he--or possibly Donna Reno, I don't recall--explained that the dividing line between lamb and mutton is by size and the particular sheep we were eating was a large one. According to this USDA glossary that's not true. I don't mind myself and as Donna also explained about the difficulty they had obtaining Navajo-Churro meat of any sort I think even those who prefer lamb wouldn't grouse about mutton instead. Still, I would have preferred to start my meal without a serving of bullshit.) three different ways in a sort of pan-Mediterranean cuisine standard for the Standard. In typical Mediterranean style, his usual menu avoids dairy and wheat (also handy for those attending the attached spa as those are both common allergies and common scapegoats in crackpot diet cures) and focuses on whole vegetables, seafood and olive oil. We didn't actually see much of any of those three last night, now that I think about it.

Before I get to the actual meal, I should mention that the Standard's restaurant is on a patio on the northeast corner of one of those dinky little islands in Miami Beach looking out over the water with the lights of the city in the distance. Beautiful in the twilight in a way that my crappy little phone-camera couldn't come close to capturing, so I'll spare you the pics. Worth a look for yourself, really.

So, first course: Mezze & Share.
Grilled Lamb (not really) "Kibbeh" (I don't know why that's in quotes; It seemed like perfectly legitimate kibbeh to me.) with tzatziki
Feta and Watermelon
Hummus, Baba Ganoush, Marinated Olives and a Greek Salad

That's the last of the light I used to take those photos. The rest were with a flash which may make them turn out better but also required me to annoy my tablemates. I did see several other people taking photos so keep an eye out for other bloggers talking about this meal.

Let's start with the kibbeh. It was a little dry. At this point I assume that it's supposed to be like that since every kibbeh I've ever eaten had that same texture. I liked that it had a bit of lingering spice to it, but you'd have to concentrate to tell that it wasn't ground beef and then you wouldn't be sure it was any special sort of mutton. The chef got it pre-ground so not his fault. I thought the little rosemary skewers were cute but I was a bit disappointed they didn't add any flavor.

The watermelon and feta wasn't bad. The feta was nicely salty, and since I like salt on my watermelon, it's not too surprising I thought the pairing worked well. Since it was a pretty mild watermelon, other than a bit of extra sweetness, it was hard to distinguish from a standard Greek salad using flavorless supermarket tomatoes. I didn't get much from the little slivers of what I assume was basil either. I'm curious if I could match both properly flavorful tomatoes and watermelon with feta in one salad.

The hummus/baba ganoush platter was standard stuff, adulterated slightly by the watermelon juice on my plate, and hampered by giving us crackers instead of pita. The pita is just as important a compenent as the dips in this sort of thing, I think. Really good olives, though.

With the mezze I had the 2007 Dr. L Riesling which I liked. It had a pink grapefruit balance of sweet and tart. It had a long finish but just that single note to play; simple but not at all unpleasant.

Next up the Main Course.
Turkish Sheep Curry
Quinoa Pilaf with Dried Apricot and Cherries and Fresh Parsley
Fennel Pollen Dusted Sheep Chops and Loin
Stewed Chick Peas
Short Grain Brown Rice with Roasted Red Pepper and Almond Nuts (not pictured due to being boring)

Hmm, the flash wasn't a fabulous improvement. At least you can see something, I suppose.

I don't know if I've had a Turkish curry before. Google isn't much help here as it turns up Turkish curry the spice, but not Turkish curry the dish. If there was any Turkish curry spice in here, there wasn't much as it was very mildly spiced--which is fine since the sheep is the focus here. Beyond the sheep and the gravy, there were some potatoes in there too. The sheep was flavorful, but in that washed-out long-slow-cooked stew-meat sort of way. That hid whatever virtues Navajo-Churro might have brought to the table but the texture was fine and at least I could tell that I was eating mutton. Again, it was pre-cubed when the chef got it so what was he going to do?

I found that the quinoa perked up the curry quite well, both the good chew and saltiness of a properly cooked grain and the sweetness of the dried fruit added some interest to the meat-and-potatoes of the meat and potatoes.

The stewed chickpeas were creamy and slightly firm as one would hope. They were interestingly but not overwhelmingly spiced--with fennel I think. Not a choice that would have occurred to me, but pretty good. I thought that would make it match well with the fennel-pollen-dusted chop but I can't say it did.

That chop was rare, just barely butter-knife tender (which was good as a butter knife was all they gave us. I had a second piece later which wasn't and since I couldn't very well pick it up and gnaw off a chunk at a civilized dinner I didn't get to eat much of it.) There was a light crust on the chop which was nice and there was one bite from somewhere in the middle that finally sold me on Navajo-Churro. There was a burst of a sweet, grassy flavor that was distinctively mutton but without any gaminess; just fabulous. But the rest of the chop was kind of blah.

And speaking of blah, the brown rice.

With this course I had the 2003 Michele Chiarlo "LaCourt" Barbera D'asti. Barbera is the name of the grape there and D'asti the region. No, I hadn't heard of them before, either. I'm having a tough time describing this wine. It's really very red-winey. Usually you can pick out cherries or chocolate notes or wood or flint or whatever. Maybe it's me but this just tasted like wine. Not notably sweet, no tannins, not really big but not subtle either, maybe a little bitter. Smooth, tasty but not easy-drinking. Donated and chosen by Korbrand and I think they did a fine job of pairing it with the meal.

And finally, the desert course.
Mushroom Cookies (Mantar Kurabiye)
Spinach Cake
Turkish Shortbread (Un Kurabiyesi)
Orange Biscuit (Portakalli Biskuvi)

I'm not sure the flash helped there at all. You can kind of see a mushroom-shaped thing in the lower middle. No actual mushrooms in it, disappointingly. It was a dry almond cookie that begged for an espresso. Do you see an espresso cup behind it in that picture? No, you do not. Not too bad with the wine, though.

Even more disappointingly, the spinach cake (on the right) actually did contain spinach. You could quite clearly taste it and I, at least, rather wished I hadn't. Even if it wasn't there, the texture was a gummy lemon-bar-gone-wrong. The chef mentioned that it was his first time trying the recipe and declared the results "interesting". That it was.

The Turkish shortbread (on the left), was straightforward buttery shortbread. Maybe a bit less crumbly than Walker's Scottish. That reminds me, I really must get around to making Earl Grey ice cream with bits of shortbread one of these days.

Finally, the highlight of the meal--bar that one bite of chop (and maybe a green olive from the mezze)--the orange biscuit. This was a sandwich with two soft sugar cookies around an orange cream center. The good bit was how the cream was bitter with orange zest and a lovely contrast to the sweet cookies.

I just did a quick search to confirm the ingredients in the orange biscuit and it looks like all of the desert recipes came from here. That's a mite disappointing and I'm not entirely sure why.

So, overall:
Navajo-Churry sheep: worth keeping around but cook it carefully and don't waste it in stews.
Slow Food dinners: always interesting, but not always a full success. And there's more to Slow Food than dinners; they do good work too. Go to and see what they're up to.


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kat said...

Hmmm too bad the meal wasn't all you had hoped. Its interesting to get to try those things though & see if they are worth playing with in the future.
I think you can totally do a good salad with the watermelon, feta & basil. The watermelon is just so good with the salty cheese.