Sometimes I wonder if snagging a seat at Craig Thornton’s underground supper club, Wolvesmouth, is harder than landing a table at Totoraku, Momofuku Ko, and The Fat Duck combined. Given the recent blog and media coverage as well as the limited number of seats at Thornton’s events, that statement probably isn’t too far from the truth.
For the uninitiated, Craig Thornton throws what are essentially organized invite-only dinner parties twice a month. The 10-15 course menu constantly changes, and most impressively, Craig single-handedly sources, preps, and cooks every dish. Diners, for the most part, don’t know who they’ll be eating with, and suppers are donation-based (each person pays what he/she thinks is fair). Those interested in joining sign up via an online mailing list (here), and cross their fingers that someday down the road, they’ll get an invitation in their email.
While I haven’t had the luck of receiving a golden ticket in my inbox, I’ve always been intrigued by Thornton’s unique, imaginative, and cerebral cooking ever since I first stumbled across Wolvesmouth months ago. So this past Sunday, when I came across one of Craig’s recipes, Wolves in the Snow, published in LA Weekly’s food blog, Squid Ink, I couldn’t help but give it a shot. Here’s what transpired.
Craig calls Wolves in the Snow a “wolf attack-scene on a plate”, and the dish definitely captures it. The stage is set with raw cauliflower florets and maitake mushrooms scattered on a smear of cauliflower purée, which stands in for the snow. Venison is used to replicate a wolf’s prey, and blood comes in the form of a beet and blackberry gastrique.
I worked on the cauliflower purée first: most of the cauliflower was chopped up into florets, placed in a pan, covered with milk, seasoned with salt and sugar, and cooked until it was soft enough to be puréed with my immersion blender.
The gastrique was up next. I reduced some beet juice and crushed some blackberries through a fine strainer. This was all mixed together along with some powdered gelatin for some viscosity, as well as sugar and banyuls vinegar for a sour-sweet kick. It was my first time working with Banyuls vinegar; who knew it was so hard to find! I took a swig to see what it tasted like, and it reminded me of sherry vinegar.
I then started on a sauce made of Douglas Fir Pine Tea. Like the banyuls vinegar, this specific tea was an ingredient I’d never worked with before. I opened the tin and took a giant whiff: the sweet smell of pine was lovely. Someone should make Douglas Fir Pine Tea perfume. I boiled the tea, added some gelatin powder, and let it cool.
Maitake mushrooms were next in line. Along with chanterelle and oyster, maitakes are some of my favorite mushrooms around. I sliced a few pieces and let them sit in a hot pan with some oil. Once they colored, in went a few generous globs of butter and some chopped shallots.
Finally, it was time to cook the venison! It was my first time buying and working with venison, and it took me some hunting around to find it. McCalls, Figueroa Produce, and Whole Foods didn’t carry venison loin; thankfully, the nice men at Huntington Meats at the Fairfax/3rd St Farmers Market had one left in stock! A bit pricey as it came from a farm in New Zealand; hope this deer had a quick and happy death!
I eagerly opened up my package of venison loin and almost recoiled at the smell. I’m not sure if all venison smells this way, but it was CRAZY gamey! And this is coming from a dude who adores gamey meats. Is all venison like this? I’m not sure, but the first thought that ran through my head: this is probably what a deer’s ass smells like.
In any case, as I was just cooking for myself, I sliced the venison and just cooked half the loin. It was seared on a ripping hot cast-iron skillet, stuck in the oven for a few minutes, and finished off by basting it with butter, garlic, and thyme.
With the venison done, it was time to plate! First a smear of cauliflower puree, a sprinkling of maitake mushrooms and raw cauliflower, and topped with a few pieces of venison ripped apart with forks. Then came my favorite part, applying the gastrique. I actually went OUTSIDE of my apartment to do this! I set the plate on the ground, took my beet-blackberry gastrique, dipped a fork in, and slung some spirited lashings to give the impression of splattered blood. I was chuckling the entire time, reminiscing back to my naughty childhood. This is probably what my dad felt like when he gave me lashings with his belt….minus the blood.
So how did the dish taste? Well, turns out I overcooked the venison, so the meat was tough and the gameyness nearly knocked me out! Thankfully, I still had half a loin in my fridge; so I seared that, skipped sticking it in the oven, and it turned out great. I loved the varying textures: tender venison, smooth puree, crunchy bits of raw cauliflower, and crispy maitake mushrooms.
Impressively, the flavors really tasted like a wolf-attack-scene! The now-properly-cooked venison only gave off a slight hint of gameyness along with a rich, meaty flavor. Flavors of cauliflower, mushrooms, and tea were at once earthy, floral, and sweet, reminiscent of how a snow-covered mountain would smell. And the beet-blackberry gastrique sauce, with its sweetly-tart flavor, was probably as close as one could get to blood, both from a taste and visual standpoint.
I stabbed a piece of venison, dunked it in the gastrique, and popped it in my mouth. Really really good. The tartness of the sauce was the perfect foil against the earthy venison. A spoonful cauliflower puree along with a handful of crispy mushrooms followed. Yum. My haphazard stabbing, cutting, chewing, and dunking was likely the diametric opposite of how most of Craig’s refined dishes are consumed at Wolvesmouth, yet somehow it was SO satisfying. More than anything, this proved to me -at least based on this one dish- that Craig’s cooking, elaborate as it may seem, doesn’t hide behind unique flavor combinations and other shenanigans. At its core, it tastes great.
But what about dessert you ask? After making the venison, something simpler was in order: an affogato. Just three steps: