Making a signature dish for 250 to 350 people challenges a chef a whole a whole lot more than cooking for a table of two or four in his or her own restaurant. Even so, several creative chefs managed to produce some spectacular food at the lunches and dinners at this year's Masters of Food & Wine.
The 21st annual four-day event, billed as the final one at Highlands Inn at the Park Hyatt Carmel, concluded Sunday with a Champagne tasting and brunch. But before that, such chefs as Michel Richard of Citronelle in Washington, D.C., David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif., Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago, Douglas Keane of Cyrus in Healdsburg, Calif., and Wylie Dufresne of wd-50 in New York dazzled us with what they can do with food.
For the first course at Saturday's lunch, Richard pureed scallops with cream and cooked them lightly like scrambled eggs, topping them with Israeli couscous that he blackened with squid ink to resemble gigantic caviar. It was one of my favorite mouthfuls of the weekend, and it made a beguiling match with Josef Leitz Riesling Spätlese Rheingau Rüdesheimer Madgalenenkreuz 2004, whose refreshing grapefruit and peach flavors take less time to appreciate than to pronounce.
At the same lunch, Kinch stewed root vegetables and truffles to tuck under juicy roasted chicken and meld effectively with velvety, berry-rich Bergström Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Cumberland Reserve 2005 from Oregon.
For Friday's lunch, Achatz served rocks. Specifically, he nestled a hot river stone into a small dish of cacao nibs and crushed coffee beans to generate aromatics designed to enhanced a deceptively simple rectangle of braised beef short rib. Cacao nibs, coffee beans and cinnamon bark flavored the beef, which in turn enhanced the silky Merlot-based Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta 2003 from Chile served alongside it.
Keane also braised beef. His beef cheeks, glazed at the last minute with hoisin sauce, snuggled up well with Château Lagrange St.-Julien 1990.
Dufresne had the most beguiling noshes at the opening-night grand tasting, including a tiny seafood meringue that melted in the mouth. Fortunately, El Molino winery from Napa Valley was pouring its crisply generous Chardonnay 2004 just around the corner. The wine seamlessly complement the airy bites.
For me the most stunning wine and food pairing came at the final dinner. Open-textured and ripe with raspberry and exotic herb flavors, the Pio Cesare Barbaresco Il Bricco 1998 blossomed magically with rosy roasted bison loin over herbed spätzle from chef Gary Danko of San Francisco. At the Friday dinner, Highlands Inn chef Mark Ayers' roasted venison loin over cherry wood-smoked polenta made a vibrant match with Kathryn Kennedy Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains Estate 1996, a sleek and generous, perfectly-aged red.
I took a lot of notes to spark ideas for future dinners at my house. I'm running to replenish my supply of Israeli couscous and squid right now.