Scarpetta: Trying Truffles and Being Served in the Best Seat of the House

By Tsz on October 27, 2010

It started out like any other Monday with an uneventful day at work. But when 5:30p came along, it was time for some serious fooding so I hopped in my car and sped (more like crawl) along Wilshire to get to the grand opening of Scarpetta, the newest venture of chef Scott Conant.

The funny thing though was I had no idea what I was in store for—certainly not a grand night filled with truffles.

You see, my research of Scarpetta was comprised solely of an 1 minute search on google, to which I made the assumption that it was a casual Italian restaurant. Since I’ve been craving a solid bowl of pasta and was extended an invite by KevinEats, it was on.

It wasn’t till I arrived on site that I knew I was in store for something more than a simple bowl of pasta.

Located in the grand Montage hotel, Scarpetta is a cavernous space dedicated to soulful Italian cooking.

Upon being seated with my dining companions, servers brought out a myriad of breads and accompaniments.
But before we could partake, it was time to order. The table decided upon an off-menu tasting and a minute later, I found myself and the rest of the table being ushered to the best seats in the house, located at the kitchen’s bar in the midst of all the action.

After that, food and wine started parading in and I felt like Alice in Wonder(food)land.

After settling, the servers arrived again with another bread basket, filled with hearty salumi stromboli and herbed focaccia. Although they provided lovely sides of fruity olive oil, mascarpone butter and eggplant caponata, the flavorful breads stood well on their own.

The amuse came soon after, a miniature pot of olives all’Ascolana: olives stuffed with a mixture of beef, breaded and deep fried. Can’t go wrong with that.

1. Hamachi crudo and tuna Susci
Speaking not as a fan of raw fish, I quite enjoyed the simple slice of yellowtail sprinkled simply with crunchy grains smoked of smoked salt. The tuna “roll” was decidedly more complex with diced carrots and sprouts, which was then layered generously with black truffles. Used to the blunt taste of truffle oil and salt but never the real deal before, the ethereal taste of the truffle surprised me.

2. Pumpkin soup with black truffles, faro and crispy pepitas
This next dish also featured truffles—there seems to be a theme going on here… Truffles aside, I adore the use of the entire pumpkin, from the tender cubes of pumpkin, its pureed form and its seeds. It was like eating a savory pumpkin pie.

3. Autumn vegetable salad with roasted root vegetables, black trumpet mushrooms stewed in liquified foie and roasted hazelnuts
Another aptly prepared *semi* vegetarian dish. It’s a successful dish when you don’t even miss the meat.

4. Sea scallop with sunchoke puree, porcini mushrooms and black truffles
A wonderfully prepared specimen, but unfortunately marred by over salting.

At this point, the sommelier walked by our table and places his version of the Margarita (made with Pimm’s!) in front of each of us. While I thought it was compliments of the house, upon receiving the check at the end of the night, it turned out to be a part of a $110 wine pairing. Ouch. The worst part is that I didn’t order it because I don’t drink.

5. Polenta with white truffles and assorted mushrooms
Arriving at our table modestly with a ceramic cover, this was anything but when unveiled. Heady aroma from the white truffle overwhelmed the senses—black truffles ain’t got nothing on this! The impossibly creamy polenta served as the vessel for the bouquet of fungi. A show stopper.

At this point, my stomach was nearing full capacity, so for the subsequent courses, I started packing them in boxes. By the end of the night, I had filled a shopping bag!

6. Spaghetti
Sounds simple—and it is—but perfectly executed. Springy noodles with a distinctive richness from egg yolks, aromatic basil and sweetly stewed tomato sauce, this was what I have been craving for. I would have been happy just having a big bowl of it to myself.

We were given a glass of aged 10 years old Brunello to pair with the pasta. Still under the belief of it being on the house (yes, I should have known better), I passed it along to my sitting partner. Ah, the beauty of miscommunication!

7. Ravioli with chestnuts and short rib
Chestnuts being one of my favorite foods, I greatly enjoyed the pairing of it with the savory beef. No complaints here.

This was paired with another red wine, which I declined to the puzzlement of Mark, the sommelier. He persuaded me to at least try some, which I don’t have much to say other than it tasted like wine? Sorry Mark!

8. Roasted duck breast with parsnips 2 ways, raisin mortarda and lentils puree
All I got to say is that duck with raisins = genius.
Accepted a sip of the Barolo as Mark insisted. Yep, my brain still hasn’t made the connection…

9. Beef loin with porcini, parmesan, baby potatoes, barolo reduction and white truffles
Didn’t get the logic of this dish as the beef and shaved parmesan overwhelmed the delicate truffles, which should be the star in my opinion. Wish they prepared it simply with a potato puree or a poached egg so I could get all the subtle nuances of the truffle.

The dish was served with the 2003 Bibi Graetz. From my sip, I thought it was the most robust tasting of the bunch. The watercolor label was very handsome.

10. Cheese course
• Parmigiano-Reggiano with aged balsamic: nutty
• La Tur with pineapple chutney: funky in a good way
• Caveman Blue with sour cherries: funky in a bad way
• Pecorino Fresco with apple mostarda: a more savory brie-like cheese and my favorite of the group

The cheeses were served with savory biscotti and a 5 yr old oaky Madeira.

11. Rum soaked cake with roasted pineapples and vanilla flan with marsala soaked berries
Light and refreshing. It’s a wonder how there’s always room for dessert!

The pairing for this was a Rose wine that even I had to partake for it tasted like a Shirley Temple for adults!

12. Amaretto flan with marsala zabaglione gelato
I’m not a big fan of chocolate desserts as I find them to be rather heavy, but this was absolutely wonderful from the crunch of the amaretto cookie crumbs, to the light yet flavorful creamy flan and the not-too-sweet gelato.

Was riding the sugar sweet high of dinner and dessert till the check came in. Turns out the off-menu tasting were $250 per person and $110 wine pairing—a bit of a sticker shock to say the least. Lessons learned?

1. Ask for prices for assumptions are deadly. In this case, it leads to unwanted wine pairings.
2. Know your dining companion’s eating style. The night could have been a complete 180 with a different group—know what you’re getting yourself into.
3. Truffles are $$, white truffles are $$$.
4. The ease of spending verses earning.

Despite the dreaded thought of the credit card bill next month and having to eat in for the rest of the year (and then some), I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.

I mean, how often can I say I was one of the first diners to eat at Scarpetta’s kitchen on opening night? Or having Chef Scott Conant personally serve me? Or going from being a truffle virgin to being around the truffle block several times over? Or (sssshhh) swiping fresh herbs from their centerpiece for my soup? Or perhaps going down in Scarpetta’s hall of records as the one who didn’t drink the wines from a wine pairing like an eccentric baller? And my favorite, asking for fashion tips from Mark, the sommelier? Check out his beautiful tie!


Catering for the Hypersthene Group

By Tsz on October 21, 2010

This past week, Yulree and I were cooking once again, this time for the launch party of the Hypersthene Group. It’s a company committed in bringing together diverse social circles by providing avenues and events—the brain child of the lovely Mini and Jueun.

We were given free reins, but with the challenge of serving in a venue with no stove nor oven. Not a problem however, for we were equiped with a microwave, a hot plate and the newest addition to the collection, a mini deep fryer! We rocked it out for 80 people with a menu inspired by the World’s Fair, paying tribute in our own ways to different regions. Here’s a little taste of the night’s offerings:

1. The Mojo
An amuse bouche if you will. The Mojo cures all with a blend of salted peanuts, chili limon, sun dried mangoes held together by a cloak of bittersweet chocolate. Gives me an excuse to work with chocolate !

2. Vegetable Samosa
Vegetarians needn’t suffer boring food with Indian inspired curried vegetable pastries paired with a mango and Granny Smith chutney. Our little fryer-that-could was invaluable for this through the night—my heartfelt thanks to Presto and Target!

3. Bruschetta Neapolitan
This dish was inspired by Italian vineyards with hearty garlic crostini topped with sweet tomatoes, salumi crisps, fresh basil and shaved Grana Padano. Tip to home entertainers: save time by having the bakery slice the bread ahead of time, your hands will thank you.

4. Hawaiian Cowboy Meatballs
Stumbled on this a while back when confronted with too many pork chops and not enough BBQ sauce. To make the sauce stretch, I blended pineapples, onion confit, garlic and various spices into the existing BBQ sauce. The result was a tangy, lighter sauce that complimented the richness of the pork.

Using the sauce as the base, we used it to glaze beef meatballs. The final touches were pineapple nuggets and a sprinkling of toasted sesame for these mini kabobs. The crowd favorite of the night!

We didn’t get to pay gastronomic homage to France, but I made do in other ways with freshly designed business cards. A fun project!

For dessert, our friend Grace from Cake Bar created a collection of cocktail inspired mini cupcakes. All were lovely, but I kept going back for the Irish Car Bomb confections. Guinness chocolate cake with dark chocolate ganache and a Bailey’s buttercream—it’s better than the actual drink!

Congratulations to Hypersthene’s momentous launch. Can’t wait to check out future gatherings!