Thursday, February 25, 2010

Potato Pandemonium at Possum Trot

Last night was an underground-ish dinner down at Possum Trot Tropical Fruit Nursery. Robert Barnum, the proprietor of the place (geez, now they've got me doing the alliteration) was our host and chef. Margie of Bee Heaven Farm helped organize it. Marian Wertalka of Redland Rambles did some previews on her blog and took a bunch of photos too so I think you can expect her write up on the event too. They both mentioned being part of the taste testing in preparation for the evening and I believe Margie supplied the potatoes. Robert of Robert is Here is also thanked on the flyer but his contribution isn't explained and I didn't meet him there to ask. That is a different Robert than Robert Barnum, right?

Robert served eight dishes for, I'd say five or six courses depending on your definition. He was aided in the kitchen by three interns or hired help or some such. I didn't get everyone on film or catch all their names so I'll have to refer you to Redland Rambles again because I'm pretty sure Marian was rather more conscientious about that than I was.

All the dishes featured potatoes; Several just were potatoes. Refined fancy cuisine this was not. Then again, professional chef Robert is not and the point of the evening was more to highlight the quality of the produce than to wow us with technique.

That causes a bit of a problem for me since that makes my usual write-up of bitchily picking apart and critiquing the dishes seem a bit mean-spirited. For the Cobaya dinners I know the dishes are experimental so maybe my feedback is helpful. For the other dining events I just expect professional results from professionals and the public ought to know if the chefs deliver. Robert told me straight out he's not going to be reading this so the first justification doesn't hold and he's not running a restaurant so the second doesn't really apply either. ... OK, I've given it a bit more consideration and I think I've changed my mind. Robert is intending to do more of these dinners if there's demand, it's easy enough for feedback to get back to him though Margie or Marian and he does have "Cantankerous Chef" on his business card. So bitchy critiques it is.

As usual, I let other folks take pictures of the people while I concentrated more on the food. I refer you again to the Redland Rambles blog if you want pics of who was there. I did take a few shots during Robert's brief tour of the farm immediately surrounding the house. Here he is proffering a, I think, cas guava or possibly an araçá.

I had some forewarning of local coffee but I had no idea you could grow cinnamon around here, miracle fruit or bay leaves. Funny you don't get more bay in tropical cuisines if it's a tropical plant. We also saw the smoker out back which will come into play later.

There were around ten of us in attendance. Two people expected didn't show. I barely made it myself given the weather, traffic and the Google Maps directions that sent me to the unmarked back entrance. Luckily, I stumbled across the front door where they had stationed a fellow with a red truck visible in the gloom to wave people in.

Before dinner, we had a bit of homemade wine. Ignore the labels, these bottle have been refilled. I had a brief tour of the winery after dinner. It's not a big operation, just 45 gallons this year. Robert had several varieties on offer (and several more not on offer including lychee and antidesma wines); I had the dry bignay wine which I found easy drinking--smooth, light and floral. Not complex, but nice. Miles better than Schnebly's tropical fruit wines to my mind.

The first course we sat down was the vichyssoise with potato chips. It needed a bit of salt, probably intended to be supplied by the potato chips, but I wasn't going to waste extra-tasty fresh potato chips by dunking them in cream soup. Luckily there was a small pot of salt supplied although I didn't see anyone else taking advantage of it. It's not an insult to the chef to add salt, you know. Experience of flavors is subjective and varies between individuals. If you, like I, have a low sensitivity to salt, you need to add more to bring the flavors out. That's just the way it is. Anyway, once properly seasoned, the soup had some good potato flavor with little potato shreds adding texture.

Next up was a potato salad with carambola relish and smoked eggs. The dressing looks heavy, but it was really quite light and the potato flavor came right through. There were several sorts of potatoes in there and I tried to taste the difference but if there was any it was lost on me. The carambola was the particularly sour sort which was an odd pairing, but not bad. A little more fo the pimiento, celery, curry powder and/or smoked egg would have added some dimension, but it was pretty much just potato.

The dishes started piled up at this point. Here you can see, in the back, scalloped potatoes with betel leaf and a beef stew with potatoes and carrots. In front are smoked potatoes on the left and parsleyed potatoes on the right.

There's not much more to the front two dishes than those names: smoked potatoes with a little olive oil and rosemary and boiled potatoes slightly mashed with parsley and a little butter. Neither really needed any more. Both had moist texture and a good balance of flavors and would have been fine side dishes in a more sensible meal.

Robert skimped on the betel in the scalloped potatoes. Partly as a deliberate decision and partly due to how badly the betel bushes fared in the cold. It really could have used more and the cheese he used didn't have a lot of flavor and the dish could have used something to punch it up. I saw a lot of this dish leftover at the end of the evening.

On the other hand, the beef stew was quite popular. I'm not entirely sure why, though. If the grass fed beef (from 4 Arrows Ranch in Citra, FL) was anything special, that specialness had been boiled out of it. The gravy was rich, but greasy and the vegetables on the edge of mushiness. What I really liked, though, was the raw white carrot that garnished the stew. That was sweet, bright and crisp--pretty yummy.

After a few minutes wait so it could come out of the oven perfectly done, came a light and fluffy potato soufflé. I'm told that the trial-run soufflés fell and tasted like potato pancakes. These stayed up and tasted mostly of egg with a subtle note of hashbrown. I might have added a little maple syrup and/or hot sauce to round out the flavors myself, but since Robert didn't expect it to turn out so breakfasty, I can understand why he didn't.

And finally desert--potato pancakes with cas guava/passion fruit drizzle, chunks of mango and slices of another unidentified fruit underneath. Along with that we had small glasses of araçá wine. The wine had a liqueur-like intensity with caramel notes balanced against green apple. It was fairly tart, but much less tart than straight araçá (or so I'm told never having tried araçá before). This dish was the most professional of the night, with a lovely balance of sweet, savory, tangy and tart plus a variety of textures.

And that was the meal. Overall, a lovely evening and slow food in every sense but the capitalized one, but to be honest, that's way too much potato. I get the idea of featuring one item in multiple ways, but when your secret ingredient is something as meat-and-potatoes as potatoes, you've got to be extra clever to make it continually interesting over the course of an evening Robert is no iron chef. There were definitely some good dishes in there, but they'd be stronger in contrast, not surrounded by similar-tasting dishes. I'd certainly consider coming to another Possom Trot dinner, but I'd have to consider the concept and the menu first.


Marian said...

Thanks for the shout out! Dinner is finally served. Here's my take on the Potato Pandemonium:

A few minor corrections:

Robert Barnum = Possum Trot Tropical Fruit Nursery
Robert Moehling = Robert is Here market (was not at the dinner)

Robert was proffering a cas guava. Although the araza trees bloom and bear several times a year, we didn't go to that section of the grove.

Bignay and antidesma are two different names for the same thing. Betel leaf is a climbing vine.

billjac said...

I'm surprised at how much I got right. Thanks for clarifying.

Marian said...

Details, details! Overall, a good review. Robert will appreciate the feedback, to make improvements.

I have a couple pics I want to send you. What's your email? You can contact me at redlandrambles(at)