Re:Contingent Feastivus 2010
A pint of Turtle Sundae and a quart of German Apple Struessle(sp?) stayed cold in our trunk all the way back to Chicago. ChiTownDiner made his Kopp's stop before dinner!
As for that dinner, what a thing of beauty! Cocktails at 5:00 gave us an opportunity to relax and unwind from the long drive north. I missed the last outing, so it was a real treat to greet everyone as they entered the open bar area.
After a bit we moved into the private dining room for a magnificent meal. We started with a Serb salad made up of chunks of tomato, diced onion, and shredded goat (or maybe sheep) cheese, all marinated in a light but intensely flavored vinaigrette. I have to say I still prefer Three Brothers version of this salad, only because they chop the tomatoes into smaller pieces which I think incorporates the flavors better. Also, TB uses more of that luscious, rich cheese. Still, this was a wonderful salad, perfectly accompanied by baskets of Serbian bread with small tubs of ajvar (a roasted red pepper spread), and kajmak (a rich dairy based spread) for shmearing on top. Just when you thought it couldn't get any better, out come trays of finger food sized portions of light and moist cheese burek.
After the salad course massive amounts of food arrived all at once. I think my favorite item was the stuffed cabbage rolls. What differentiated these from other versions (including the ones served by my Russian/Polish Grandmothers when I was a kid) was the distinct and pronounced flavors of each of the individual ingredients that made up the rolls.
Back when the Grannies made them, the flavors became homogeneous and rather boring. The cabbage flavor melded with the beef and rice filling and it was all overwhelmed by the tomato sauce that smothered it. Ilija's version stands out. The cabbage had a bright, vinegary tang that was completely separate from the slightly sweet and mostly savory flavor of the ground beef filling. I don't even think there was a tomato based sauce involved in Ilija's cabbage rolls and it certainly wasn't missed.
Along with the cabbage rolls were huge plates of roast pork and lamb shanks. Some folks thought the pork was a bit dry and tough. The platter served at our table had no problems. However, I will say that the lamb far outpaced the pork for both moistness and overall flavor. The shanks were rich, succulent, and beautifully seasoned to bring out their natural lamb-y flavor.
The meat platters also featured roasted potatoes that were done just the way I love them. A slightly crisp skin on the outside with a bit of caramelization to add flavor, giving way to a fluffy inside. They managed to soak up plenty of those meat juices too, adding richness and a good meaty, umami quality.
Also on the table were platters of fresh green beans, cooked to a lovely tender crisp texture. More important than the texture though was the incredible flavor. Ilija adds plenty of garlic to the dish which heightens the taste of the beans and gives your taste buds something extra to play with. If my Mother had made green beans like this when I was a kid, I would have licked the plate clean every time instead of fighting with her over how many individual beans I had to eat before getting dessert.
Which brings me to the final course. It should be noted that the Pie Diva's dessert talents go far beyond pastry crusts and fruit fillings. She absolutely outdid herself tonight with a chocolate macaroon base, filled with whipped cream, topped with a lacy chocolate "doily", sitting next to a nest of fresh mixed berries, all floating in a gorgeous honey and bourbon (I hope I'm getting this right) sauce.
My first bite made me exclaim, very loudly, "Holy crap!" It was so good it almost made you forget the exquisite meal we had just finished. The macaroon had a slightly crisp exterior with a dense filling that somehow was chewy and melted in your mouth at the same time. The whipped cream nestled between the two layers of macaroon (it almost looked like a deconstructed whoopie pie) was light and rich and added a wonderful mouth round feel when mixed with a bite of berry. And then there was that sauce. Almost like a Sabayon sauce, but lighter, so it soaked into the bottom macaroon, making it even more "melt in your mouth". Wow.
So, that's it. This was a perfect way to spend a freezing, windy early winter evening, visiting with good friends and great food (or great friends and good food; it works either way). The best part is, Jim and Bobbi aren't leaving just yet, so this wasn't really a firm good-bye. We'll have more opportunities through the winter and into the early spring before they actually leave us.
So where to for the next "good-bye"? Another Milwaukee stop, or somewhere in Chicago? Thoughts?
Thanks again to Jim and Bobbi for organizing and making that incredible dessert. And thanks to all our Roadfood friends who made this another special evening.