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Review: The Encore Outlaw Dinner

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Aug 23, 2006 2:00PM

We hope that everyone who wanted a final slice of foie gras got some before the city’s ban on the delicacy went into effect yesterday. There were some restaurants that decided to serve it in defiance of the ordinance (mainly bandwagon jumpers who had never served the dish prior to the ban, but see the frivolous nature behind the ban). We spent last night at home, watching Alderman Joe Moore on “Chicago Tonight”, who refused to let common sense get in the way of politics and bureaucracy, defending the ban. If City Council could only only turn this can-do spirit on enforcing the Shakman decree, removing ghost employees from the payroll, and finding a solution, other than soft asphalt, to fixing that pothole in Pilsen that nearly swallowed our bicycle whole last week. Still, it's nice to see Alderman Moore stick to his guns, even if he's only carrying empty water pistols.

If anything has come out of the ban, it’s that foie gras now has the heightened profile chefs and connoisseurs have been wanting of the dish, and only the most hardcore, malnourished vegans think the ban is a good thing. Folks who dine on it regularly are understandably disappointed, while people who never heard of the dish are saying to themselves, “Now what is that again, and why can't we eat it?” Almost all of them find the ban epitomizes the overreaching of government.

2006_08_gadsby.jpgHere at Chicagoist, we’ve pimped this “Outlaw Dinner”, at the Omni Hotel’s 676 Restaurant, for a couple months now. Unlike other dinners served around the city that shed light on the foie gras ban, executive chef Robert Gadsby – who also helms Noé in Los Angeles and Houston – decided to place foie gras in context with other foods that have seen their respective shares of controversy in the past, like morels, hemp seed, and meats cooked at low temperatures. Gadsby looks at cooking as “a celebration of life; the purest act of generosity and love”, sees the lack of logic behind the foie gras ban for the grandstanding that it is, and realizes that it isn’t just relegated to Chicago.

The Outlaw Dinner has been doing bang-up business in Los Angeles, and Gadsby was present at 676 Restaurant the other night for the final hours of legal foie gras in the city. It was a bit hard for us to shift gears from South Side cheap eats and comfort food to slow dining, but we’ve done it enough to be able to fake our way through the hard parts. We have a review of the seven-course Outlaw dinner after the jump.

2006_08_outlaw1.jpgOur meal started off with the food at the center of it all. The foie gras flight included a seared slice of duck liver, served on toast with a strip of bacon and a poached quail egg; foie gras au torchon, wrapped in prosciutto, and served with an apple-fennel gelee; and a foie gras bonbon with pop rocks. When the plate was set in front of us, we could hear the faint crackling of pop rocks, so that’s what we ate first. Oddly enough, this dish worked, the savory texture of the foie gras mixed with the childish glee from the pop rocks to put, as Moe Szyslak famously said, a party in our mouth.

This was followed with a dish containing sweetbread nuggets, serve with morel whipped potatoes and summer truffle jus. Morel harvesting was at one time banned in some states, as a means of protecting people from possibly picking poison mushroom, by mistake. Our experience with sweetbreads has usually been limited to char-grilled selections at Tango Sur, so this flash-fried morsel of gland was a welcome surprise, complemented perfectly by the truffle jus. The potatoes were packed with morels, which lent a semi-sweet quality to the dish.

2006_08_outlaw2.jpgNext up was a fried island creek oyster, served with caviar and a chive crème friache, and paired with a green fairy cocktail. Instead of absinthe, however, our cocktail was made with Absente. The cocktail, with its prominent anisette/licorice notes, was a perfect palate cleanser, after the strong flavor of the oyster, which was on the half-shell, atop a bed of sea salt. That was followed by a kampachi ceviche, served with a hemp seed tabouli. Between the hemp seed and the absente, we were hoping for a slight case of the munchies to kick in. Instead, we concentrated on the focused spice of the ceviche, and awestruck by the way the tabouli complemented the dish.

Even with foie gras on the menu, for us the most controversial course on the menu was a Liberty Farm duck breast. The duck, served with Romesco breadcrumbs, a garlic emulsion, and marcona almonds, was prepared using the sous vide technique. Think of how a pressure cooker works, and you’re on the right track to understanding sous vide. When cooking using the sous vide technique, you’re cooking at low temperature, in a vacuum. Many municipal health inspection offices consider sous vide to be a violation of code, as the threat of botulism is present, if not prepared properly. We say, if you’re vain, scrape off some of that botulism and inject it into your forehead, to remove the wrinkles.

Chef Gadsby said that after seasoning the duck breast, it was vacuum sealed, and cooked at 147 degrees for 4-1/2 minutes, with the skin side of the duck facing down, to prevent overcooking. He said that one degree more and the duck breast would have been overcooked. We liked the breast, but thought the pairing with the garlic emulsion and almonds was too much of one thing. We would have preferred a sweeter emulsion, like tamarind, to heighten the flavor of the duck.

2006_08_outlaw3.jpgOur favorite two courses on the menu were the unpasteurized cheese flight and hot chocolate, infused with foie gras. The cheeses were simply amazing, particularly this goat cheese that was whipped with raspberries to the consistency of a cheesecake. Served with a straw, the first taste of the hot chocolate belied the savory texture of foie gras, followed by a rich, semisweet chocolate flavor. Toasted marshmallows and a nutmeg dusting complemented the cocoa.

Even with foie gras banned, Gadsby hopes to make the Outlaw dinner a regular event at 676 and both Noé locations. Plans for future dinners include a lobster-themed dinner, to highlight the recent decision of Whole Foods to stop sell frozen lobsters exclusively, which the soft-spoken Gadsby declared asinine. “You can’t buy a dead lobster. What’s the point?” What we liked most about the Outlaw Dinner was the historical references behind each course. Each course featured an ingredient or cooking technique that is either outlawed in some form, or was once banned, with a brief historical reference behind each dish. The courses were also perfectly paired with wines, specifically this elegant ’98 port paired with the cheeses. It’ll cost you (about $140 per person with wine pairings), but it’s really money well-spent.

We should also give much love to the staff at 676, who were well-informed on each dish, attentive without being cloying, and crisp with their service. A wonderful job all around, we hope to see more Outlaw Dinners in the future.