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Let's eat.

From Big Sur's killer cliff-clinging eateries to Salinas' unparalleled produce, this blog aims to sniff out all things Monterey County can stomach, via picture and prose, curiosity and appetite, hand and mouth.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Velvet Underground: Inside a Semi-Secret, Wholly Symphonic Dinner

Local free-range chef Mike Whalen recently applied for two jobs on the same day—one scheming optical engineering for NASA (at their request) and one cooking at Saratoga's celebrated Plumed Horse restaurant.

Yes, the dude has a unique skill set. The dinner he prepped last week for a small group of friends was similarly unique.

A brief rewind: After designing lenses for our best interplanetary operations, he decided to abandon the lucrative grind and Southern California for the Peninsula. After landing in P.G., he started food-writing with the Weekly (check out his thoughts on fancy menu words) and cheffing with David Frappeia at Melange before volunteering with Michael Mina's team at Pebble Beach Food & Wine—and earning an invite to cook at RN 74 in San Francisco. He took to couch surfing and crashing in his car as he completed long weekend sequences. At this year's PBF&W he coordinated food demos. "It was surreal to have [Thomas] Keller's team calling me to get things squared away," he said, "Especially a year after doing anything just to be there."

When the S.F. sofa existence got to be too taxing, Whalen shifted back to this bay. But he didn't want to stop cheffing.

As he flitted about the kitchen at Le Normandie on Lighthouse in Pacific Grove during its one night dark of the week he questioned the sanity of assembling seven courses with as many as 15 ingredients each, then proceeded to ruminate on why he did.

It's not to make money, as with most "underground" supper clubs, which were at one point proliferating secretly in Bay Area houses so restauranteurs who could no longer afford (or wanted to pay) overhead could still make ends meet.

It's a purer thing. "I love wine and food," he said, "with friends..."

"and I like the challenge—the practice, the pricing—I write the menu (above), I figure out how to make it, then I work it out."

His wife Deirdre confided that he's often making things for the first time. He traversed almost every market between here and Santa Cruz, both farmers and brick-and-mortar, before he had all the instruments to play his scribbled sheet music. The lighter wine varietals he requested for each course worked well, despite the fact that vegetables can be so fickle to pair with.

"I'm trying to creat a $135 Michael Mina tasting here at an accessible price," Whalen said.

For us it was $40 for the food and a couple of the wine pairings he furnished; we also brought the aforementioned varietals, finding out later that at least three of us stopped by Monterey Wine Market (646-0107), where George Edwards (above) remains the can't-miss master of rock solid values with plenty of personality, like the Manu he found me for maybe $12.

The first order of business: a yuzu watermelon martini welcome. A summer treat for serious grown-ups. Whalen supplies the recipe below.

His amuse bouche trio included a cube of watermelon holed out to cradle 10-year balsmic gastrique (which he defines in his fancy word article); cleverly crispy okra in a nicely salty crust with avocado-buttermilk ranch; and the coup of the collection, a labor-intensive fava bean hummus on homemade za'atar flatbread that impressed unanimously with its zippy but subtle combo of sumac, thyme and more. (Whalen said that in the Middle East the recipes for za'atar are so sacred mamas sometimes decline to give their daughters the blend.)

The freshness and flavors of the first course served notice that he was serious about the whole summer menu thing. (The all-vegetable lineup was by request after some prodigious duck and beef bourguignon tasting menus, among others.)

The chilled vegetable and herb soup took the garden harvest flavor further. Fennel, asparagus, peas, taragon, dill, snap peas, leeks, celery, watercress, arugula and carrots all went into the soup and down our throats, with a whipped creme fraiche with fennel pollen ridealong.

Heirlooms with fromage blanc (with a little basil-pistachio sauce and micro cilantro) scored top taste for a couple eaters, a testament to the power of juicy, timely local tomatoes. The zuccinni "linguini" sliced from a Japanese mandolin was clever and tasty caloric intake too.

Then came the sweet pea risotto—with a mint puree and pea shoots. Succulent stuff, no meat needed.

More bounty from the fields: A garden grill crepe, with celery heart, fennel, red bell pepper, asparagus, fingerlings, sweet corn and shaved pecornio.

The deliciousness shone in the details here—as in the carmelized vidalia onion soubise (or classic French onion-based sauce) and crispy fried shallots on top.

The simple dessert simply dominated. A "creamsicle" knocked folks back in their seats by way of homemade vanilla bean ice cream, orange granité and Grand Marnier. Some Pedro Ximenez (PX) Spanish sherry made it even better, reminding us that to pair with desserts you have to go even sweeter.

Along the odyssey we peppered Whalen with questions on how the meatlover came up with so many veggie plates ("I wanted to use fava beans—what can I do with it?" "I never tried crepes, but that could work well") or the screaming ice cream (with a little gelato maker from Lello available on Amazon).

My question: When we doing this again?

Reach Whalen for consulting or special events—one diner and friend decided he would have Whalen run a dinner he's hosting for an out-of-town VIP—at (805) 451-6023 or

Here's the martini mix...

Yuzu-Watermelon Martini
2-3 oz good vodka, depending on how strong you like it.
I like 3oz, and I like the clean, no hangover taste of belvedere.

Splash (~1/2 oz) of yuzu juice
Very tart, be careful. You can sub (strained = no pulp) lemon juice if you can't find yuzu (check Asian markets).

1 1/2 oz simple syrup, depending on how sweet you like it and how much citrus you put in. Simple syrup is 1 part sugar to 1 part water, heated until the sugar dissolves, then cooled.

3-4 oz watermelon juice.
You can squeeze your own, but really, who wants to do that? Go to Whole Foods, check the Evolution juice cooler (across from the deli) and buy some. (The Evolution juice guys restock the cabinet saturday morning and it doesn't last long.)

Take a piece of fresh cut watermelon and run it around the inside and outside rim of a chilled martini glass.
Roll rim through ultrafine (baker's) sugar. Shake off excess. everyone loves a sugar rim...

Drop of 1/2 inch cube of cut watermelon into the bottom of the glass.

Pour the martini mix into a shaker with ice and shake it-shake it-shake it to a frothy frenzy.

Strain into the glass.

Garnish with a small mint leaf.

Toast, clink, sip, smile, and repeat...