Being a foodie is kind of like being a junkie — you’re always on the make for your next big score. So it was with great interest that I became aware of a French wine pairing dinner at Houston wine bar 13 Celsius.
This 6 course dinner had all the makings of an exceptional culinary experience. With limited seating and for one night only, a young and talented local chef would collaborate with a creative and inventive Houston wine bar.
Preparing the dinner would be Chef Olivier Ciesielski, formerly of Tony’s and an October ‘07 appearance on Iron Chef America (as part of Charles Clark’s team) against Mario Batali in “Battle: Halibut” (they lost to Batali by one point!).
Pairing the wines with Ciesielski’s menu would be proprietor Mike Sammons of the highly regarded Houston wine bar, 13 Celsius. The dinner would take place at 13 Celsius’ midtown location: a circa-1927 Mediterranean-style building that has been immaculately restored by 13 Celsius partner Ian Rosenberg.
So the stage was set. And yet I had … misgivings. Why? First and foremost, wine pairing dinners are always hit-and-miss affairs. It is both difficult and easy to pull off a dinner of this type — easy because you can put good food and wine in front of most people and they will be happy. Difficult because without a clear vision of the dinner there are a lot of things that can go wrong. Additional doubts arose from the fact that this would be a sophisticated dinner created in a place with no kitchen. And how would the service be in an improvised dining room?
These were all legitimate doubts and questions whose resolution I greatly anticipated upon arrival at 13 Celsius for the second, 9pm seating. Was this ambitious French wine pairing dinner a hit or a miss?
This wine pairing dinner was most definitely a hit, a great success.
By all indications this event was conceived with a sweeping, challenging palette of flavor, texture, pacing, and presentation in both the food and the wine. There was clearly a vision established first by the fall-inspired menu of Chef Ciesielski, and then that was “riffed” on by Mr. Sammons in the wine pairings. With a wine dinner like this the individual success or failure of a dish or pairing is unimportant. This dinner demands to be evaluated as a whole, rather than as a succession of individual parts. I’ll first describe the individual dishes and then try to bring it back full circle with an evaluation of the dinner as a whole.
Food: Seasonal hors d’oeurves
The 1st course was a rapid-fire succession of eclectic amuse-bouches. There were hits and misses. Fortunately the misses were slight and the hits were out of the park.
Legendary chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has said that “The amuse-bouche is the best way for a great chef to express his big ideas in small bites.” How perfectly applicable to this occasion. Chef Ciesielski was clearly foreshadowing the future courses in the diversity and balance of flavors and textures, particularly the combination of sweet and savory dishes.
The dishes included a gazpacho of tomato and butternut squash, proschiutto and melon skewer, crostini with truffle oil and cherry tomato, a liver and fennel tart, pepper-crusted tuna with goat cheese skewer, and climaxed with a fois gras and bacon lollipop (yes, you read that last one right, more on this in a moment).
The gazpacho was a “noble failure,” mostly in presentation. The luminescent fall-orange liquid was served in a clear, thin test tube. Presented to the guests in a test tube rack rather than a traditional (and useless in this case) serving tray, this was a provocative start to the dinner experience. Alas, the presentation proved the dish’s downfall. How exactly do you eat out of a test tube? You could not “drink” it because the liquid, both chilled and viscous, wouldn’t budge. A straw was not part of the place setting, so sucking it out like a milk shake was apparently not intended. We resorted to upturning the tube over a plate and waited for the liquid to slowly glide out (Carly Simon’s song Anticipation playing in my head now). A few timely shakes helped, but the gazpacho was still dribbling out when the next dish arrived. We spooned up what gazpacho we could get out — it was fresh and well-prepared — and moved on to the next offering.
The highlight of the 1st course was undoubtedly the foie gras and bacon lollipop. This was a round, half-inch scoop of foie gras coated with fresh, crumbled bacon chunks and then impaled onto a toothpick. The salty-meaty flavor and the buttery texture of the fois gras, combined with the crunch and smokiness of the bacon bits, was hedonistic. If there is a foodie heaven where you never get fat, never get tired of eating the same thing, and never worry about daily nutrition, then it would probably feature a never-ending buffet of fois gras coated in bacon chunks.
I suspect the wine pairing choice for this course was particularly challenging. There is just too much going on flavor-wise to choose a traditional “pairing” of wine. So I think Mr. Sammons did something both clever and obvious: choose a traditional aperitif in a sparkling Vouvray Brut. There is enough balance here to work with all the 1st course dishes, but also enough complexity to possibly pick up on some of the dish’s flavors. And although I may be reading too much into this choice of wine, the Vouvray with its sparkling, crisp, and fresh (sometimes called “lemony”) character could almost be interpreted as a palate cleanser between the many and combative flavors of the 1st course dishes.
Food: Tropical ceviche with scallop, shrimp, citrus and serrano
Ceviche is a dish that often separates foodies from non-foodies. Like many ethnic dishes — sushi, mole, natto — it can be an acquired taste. The typical American diner who frequents restaurants like Outback, Chili’s or even Red Lobster will surely never be presented with ceviche as a menu option. It is a challenging dish both in its consumption and preparation.
Chef Ciesielski’s ceviche was particularly inventive, mainly in presentation. The ceviche was served in a funnel-shaped dish that rested on a circular dish below. The lower dish contained dry ice in liquid that accomplished two purposes—one practical and one for presentation. First, it kept the dish chilled — essential for ceviche. Second, the dry ice made for a swirling, “steaming” presentation at the table. Coming after the test tube gazpacho, I began to think there may be a mad scientist theme to this dinner! The “steam” coming from the dry ice was reminiscent of sizzling fajitas brought to the table at a Mexican restaurant. I half-expected the server to say “Be careful, plate’s hot!” But of course this is a cold dish. I have no idea of Chef Ciesielski meant to elicit such a clash between expectation and reality, but I found it to be unique and creative.
The ceviche itself was of the tropical variety, containing scallops and shrimp, citrus and serrano. The citrus marinade contained lemon, lime, mango, orange and pineapple. The shellfish were properly marinated/cooked — tender and fresh. The citrus was overly sweet — I thought it could have used a bit more tartness for balance. I tasted no flavor of serrano. The wine, a Sancerre known for its tropical notes, was well matched.
Food: Baby pumpkin with crab, green onion, mushroom and red burgundy sauce.
This dish represented the first overtly fall-inspired dish of the dinner, both in presentation and in the use of a baby pumpkin as the main ingredient. The pumpkin was cooked until sweet and tender. The mixture of Burgundy sauce, mushrooms, crab and green onion was spread on top. The deep, earthy richness of the Burgundy sauce worked well with the sweetness of the pumpkin. The crab meat was an intriguing choice for this dish. I did not taste the flavor of the crab meat. It seemed to be overwhelmed by the Burgundy sauce. But the crab meat introduced an interesting texture to the mixture, adding a firmness that balanced the softness of the mushrooms. My portion lacked in green onions, which would have added a welcome “snap” or “tang” to the earthiness of the Burgundy sauce.
Also included as part of this dish was a jumbo shrimp on a rustic skewer. This seemed like an afterthought. I imagine that after plating the baby pumpkin for the first time, the dish appeared lacking and the shrimp was brought in to punch things up. I don’t think it hurt or helped the dish.
The real standout for this course was the wine. The Santenay Burgundy was off the charts. It paired well with the Burgundy sauce, the earthiness of the mushrooms, and the sweetness of the pumpkin.
Food: Beef medallion with butternut squash and yukon gold potato, with a shallot pepper sauce.
This course, the “entrée” of the dinner, marked a shift in pacing. After the mad scientist fireworks of previous dishes, this dish offered back-to-basics comfort food — good ol’ meat and potatoes. But if you weren’t paying attention, you may have missed a few details. First, the beef medallion was properly seasoned and cooked to a perfect medium rare with nice caramelization. A well-executed steak is not always guaranteed even in the best of restaurants. It is even more impressive here given the improvised kitchen. Similarly well-prepared, the potatoes and squash were crisp on the outside and moist on the inside. But what really pulled it all together was the classic sauce of garlic, shallots and cracked pepper. There was a subtle depth and balance here. The sweetness of the cooked shallots and garlic combined with the spice of the pepper worked well with the beef.
The choice of wine matched the dish perfectly. In some wine pairing dinners the knee-jerk choice for any beef dish would be a monster Cabernet Sauvignon. Fortunately, that was not the choice here. A restrained but still full-bodied St. Emilion was well-conceived.
Food: Blue Cheese Terrine with dried apricot, fig and pecan
After the relative restraint of the previous course, Chef Ciesielski once again amped up the dinner with a terrine of blue cheese (Roquefort), nuts, figs and dried apricots. Once placed in the mouth, the uber-savory blue cheese just went to war with the laid-back sweetness of the nuts, figs and apricot. But the extreme contrasts of the ingredients, both in flavor and texture, ultimately combined into a provocative and successful dish. This culinary détente was helped along by the inspired choice of wine — a Savennières from the acclaimed Nicolas Joly.
Food: Apple tart with vanilla ice cream
For the final course, Chef Ciesielski returned to a familiar, comfort-inducing crowd-pleaser — apple tart with vanilla ice cream. Nothing fancy, nothing tweaked, nothing elaborated upon. As it should be.
The crust was crisp, flaky and sufficiently carbonized. Proving his French background, Chef resisted the ever-present American temptation to over-sweeten the apple filling, rather letting the natural sweetness of the apple and caramelization do the job. The vanilla ice cream, reportedly made from scratch, added a nice counterpoint to the acidity of the apples.
The accompanying Sauternes dessert wine was an excellent match to the sweetness and acidity of the tart.
The service, carried out by 13 Celsius staff, was smooth, skilled and unobtrusive. The smallish, eurocafé-style, round tables were elegantly appointed and mercifully uncluttered. There were a couple of details that could have been improved upon. Not unexpectedly for a one-time, multi-course dinner, the servers were not as familiar with the dishes as they would be in a restaurant. Questions about the food often involved back-and-forth trips between the table and chef. Also, a nicely printed menu would have been a good reference for the guests. And this becomes not only a souvenir for the guest, but also a promotional tool for the host — many foodies will even frame these menus, or at least prominently display them in a scrapbook, diary, or blog.
13 Celsius is one of those rare establishments where once you get in and sit down, you feel like you’ve left Houston and been transported to a different city or country. For this dinner we could have been in a small café in the Marais district of Paris, sitting at tables pressed against windows overlooking the boulevard outside, dimly lit, with an attentive and harried chef working from a small galley kitchen (I realize that comparing midtown Houston to Le Marais in Paris is a stretch but, hey, I’m a romantic!).
Can a $110 wine dinner be a good value? I think most people would say it’s extravagant. It’s both. The same 6 course dinner at any high-end Houston restaurant would cost at least $200. In NYC, probably $300. And those are just the cold, hard numbers. When you factor in the convivial atmosphere, a creative and detail-oriented chef cooking for a small group, and an inspired sampling of low-production, high-quality wines, this was an extravagance at a very reasonable price.
The Bottom Line (9/10)
This wine dinner was successful because the chef put together a menu with an overall vision in mind, balancing and alternating between the sweet and the savory, the traditional and the experimental, the familiar and the unfamiliar, hot and cold, bold and subtle. Similarly, the wine pairings were chosen deliberately and thoughtfully. There was clearly a “method to the madness.” A few things did not work. But that doesn’t matter. It only matters that Chef Ciesielski and Mr. Sammons were willing to take risks, to try interesting and creative things, and execute them with care and precision.
My original notes are below: