Johnathan L. Wright •
The RGJ's food and drink editor celebrates fall with a dinner at the Atlantis Steakhouse.
Guess who’s coming to dinner? Me — and maybe you.
On Nov. 13, I’m the host — as I was for the first time last fall — of a wine dinner at the Atlantis Steakhouse that fêtes the change of season and ingredients.
Once again, I’ll be sharing stories about these ingredients. Steakhouse chef de cuisine Dan Bauer and Atlantis assistant executive chef Dennis Houge will once more lead the kitchen through six courses. And Christian O’Kuinghttons, the Atlantis’ cellar master, is reprising his judicious mating of food with adult beverages.
But this year also marks changes to the dinner.
The first course is being paired with a ginger syrup and Belvedere vodka cocktail created by O’Kuinghttons; he calls it the Wright way in honor of yours truly. (Aw, shucks.) O’Kuinghttons himself, however, won’t be introducing the pairings as usual because he’ll be in Hawaii assessing the state of tropical winemaking (colleague Shelley Curt is doing the honors).
And unlike last year, this year’s menu emerged only after many long sessions in which ingredients and dishes were discussed at length (thanks to frequent but enthusiastic digression), then settled on, then discarded like bay leaves, then returned to consideration. Or maybe not.
But what emerged from this give-and-take fueled by flatbread and lamb sliders was one of the best menus I’ve worked on in some time. And one of the most luxurious for the money: $95, including tax and tip.
Now, a $95 dinner isn’t an everyday meal, true. But when that meal is fashioned from lobster tail and chestnuts and sustainable salmon and porcini mushrooms and Cornish game hen and beef short ribs and local produce and a dessert as showstopping as a Vegas headdress, well, the price might begin to seem like a bargain.
Consider the lobster. Specifically, a 2.5-ounce tail. Bauer is grilling the meat, then butter poaching it and serving it in the shell (also grilled), along with roasted corn pico and beurre blanc.
“Poaching the meat makes it more tender and moist,” the chef said. “There’s cilantro oil in the pico and some roasted jalapeño for a bit of a kick.”
Chardonnay often is the default pairing with lobster, but O’Kuinghttons wasn’t having it for this first course, a very substantial amuse-bouche. Instead, he mixed up the ginger-vodka cocktail (with dashes of Meyer lemon extract and elderflower liqueur) to “contrast the aromatics and spice against the rich lobster.”
With the next course, an exceedingly rich chestnut bisque scattered with sun-dried fruit chutney, the cellar master might again have gone the chardonnay route, with something thick and fleshy, “but I tasted many pairings and wanted to get away from that,” he said. “I didn’t want to go white, the expected wine.”
His eventual choice? A very unexpected, “out of the envelope,” insistently fruity yet still acidic Chamisol pinot noir from the Edna Valley appellation in Southern California. The wine, O’Kuinghttons said, had enough weight to balance the bisque.
South American salmon
Folks from Verlasso, a new outfit that sustainably raises salmon in the chilly waters off Patagonia, Chile, were in town during the recent Reno Bites restaurant week. The Atlantis ranks among the first local placements for Verlasso salmon, which is attracting increasing interest from area chefs.
“It has a clean flavor, it’s more moist and really holds up,” Bauer said. “Some salmon will overcook on you easily.”
At the Nov. 13 dinner, the kitchen is sending out Verlasso that’s been lined with Swiss chard, porcini mushrooms and pancetta, then rolled up and sliced on the bias. Butternut squash spattered with chive beurre blanc surrounds the roulade.
O’Kuinghttons selected Four Graces pinot blanc, from the Dundee Hills of Oregon, for its “toasty aromas of almonds, chestnuts and hints of oak, but also more ripe flavors of Granny Smith apples. It creates a bridge between the fish and the butternut squash and chives.”
In the early years of the last decade, Bauer worked at Thunder Canyon country club, where he served Mississippi quail with applewood-smoked bacon stuffing and apple cider foam. He drew on that dish, he said, when he was tinkering with the fourth course, a Cornish game hen — “game hen is bigger than quail” — fanned open to shelter a heap of smoked bacon and wild rice.
The hens glisten with brushstrokes of acidic pomegranate glaze. The wine pairing, Scott Harvey Old Vine Reserve zinfandel, unites the acidity with ripe fruit. The vines the wine is made from are at least 75 years old.
Beef — you knew it was coming — makes its debut with the fifth course: Niman Ranch short ribs braised for five hours and plated with roasted Brussels sprouts from local Lattin Farms and with a sweet potato hash that almost didn’t make the menu (but you’ll be glad it did).
“I love braised dishes this time of year,” Bauer said. “The sweet potato hash is cooked down with maple syrup. It’s savory-sweet.”
Cheesecake, I’ve written in another forum, is like the halibut of the dessert menu: obligatory, ubiquitous.
But there’s nothing ho-hum about the pecan and pumpkin cheesecake created by Kayline Amos, the Atlantis’ assistant executive pastry chef, for the dinner’s closing course.
A fluffy cheesecake cylinder rests atop a plinth of caramel nougat. Honey bourbon sauce dotted with chocolate encircles the cheesecake. Three glazed pecans on nougat stand sentry, while delicate, interlocking sugar circles flare from the surface.
Take a look again at the photograph on the first page: If that doesn’t get you to the dinner, I don’t know what will.