I can’t wait for our next prix-fixe dinner—Chef Alexander’s interpretation of “Alpine Cuisine”—to be over because since we started planning for this week-long event, February 18 to 23, the same image has been trapped in my brain: a man standing in the Swiss Alps dressed in lederhosen blowing into an impossibly long horn, intoning. . .”Ricccooollaaaa!”
These prix-fixe concepts don’t simply appear out of the mist; a lot of thought goes into the germ of an idea, and once that is settled, Chef Alexander is on his own to flesh out the menu. He taps into his own experience, of course, but he also consults his library of literally hundreds of cookbooks to find inspiration.
For this month’s Alpine Cuisine theme, I automatically assumed his motivation was to dovetail with the Winter Olympics. Quite the contrary; though he is a skier, it was simply the promise of snow and proximity to our own Sierra that clicked in his head. The menu he designed carefully reflects the types of seasonally available foods. As he said, “When you think Alpine, you don’t think tomatoes and zucchini.
Prepare to salivate because here’s a course-by-course overview of Alpine Cuisine:
First Course (choice of one):
Melted Raclette Cheese: “Raclette” is not only the name of this dish, it is also the name of the cheese being showcased, according to Chef Alexander. “Traditionally, large chunks of raclette were stored near open hearths because when it gets warm it doesn’t get runny,” the Chef explained. The French word, “racler,” translates “to scrape,” and that’s exactly what mountain peasants would do: scrape off portions of the warm cheese and serve on potatoes with pickles and ham and slices of French country bread.
Chef has chosen heirloom potatoes (whatever happened to plain, old regular vegetables?) that he’ll cover with a “perfect cow’s milk cheese” and place in the oven in a small cast iron skillet called a “cocotte,” until it melts into “gooey deliciousness” (a direct quote). Served alongside are rosemary sliced ham, sliced pickles and Dijon mustard (but not Grey Poupon!).
Bündnerfleisch: Don’t you just love the two dots over the “u”. . .what’s that about? Punctuation aside, this hearty mountain fare is a Swiss-style dish that starts with a beef eye of round that has been cured for more than a month in salt and spices (Chef has sourced this product. . .full disclosure), sliced thinly like Carpaccio. It is arranged on a plate with Tete de Moine cheese and mixed winter fruits (pears, pomegranates and dried fruit).
Wild Game Dumpling: This course is inspired by a dish Chef Alexander was introduced to when he worked at Montagna, a restaurant specializing in Alpine cuisine at the five-star, five-diamond Little Nell Hotel in Aspen Colorado in 2000. It starts with ground wild board and venison combined with a selection of herbs and spices. This mixture is then stuffed in pasta and poached in mushroom consommé. . .think “porcini”. Served with pumpkin chunks, savoy cabbage and a unique pine needle oil. “The goal is to bring to the table a taste of the forest and the aromas of the mountains,” Chef explained.
Second Course (choice of one):
Roasted Chestnut and Apple Soup: If anything on this menu conjures up the sensation of winter, it is this dish, a staple of Valle d’Aosta in the northern reaches of Italy near the Alps where chestnuts abound. An amazing puree of roasted chestnuts, celery root and apple, this soup will warm your soul and sweeten your disposition with a garnish of sage and candied chestnuts glazed in sugar, honey and butter. Oh my!
Winter Greens Salad “Savoyarde”: You want salad in the Alps, we’ve got it. “Savoyarde” means “in the style of Savoie,” a region of the French Alps near Chamonix and Mount Blanc (the highest mountain the range). It is a very rustic, satisfying cuisine. The Chef sticks to the classic preparation: winter greens, smoked bacon, Gruyere, fingerling potatoes and house-made walnut vinaigrette. Hmmmm. . .to do, to do.
Main Course (choice of one):
Roasted Arctic Char: Arctic char is a freshwater fish related to both salmon and trout that breeds in fresh water and can then survive landlocked or migrate into the sea. Native to the arctic, no other fish survives so far north, but it is also common in the Alps, in lakes as high as 8,500 feet. Farming of this fish is common, and the Arctic char the Chef has selected is sustainably raised in the Cascades.
Roasting the fish is a simple matter compared to making the Rye Knodel that is part of this dish. This is a European dumpling—akin to a stuffing—made from diced rye bread combined with seasonings then moistened with stock and eggs; then it is packed in a cheesecloth bundle and poached in broth. Finally, it is sliced and sautéed in butter, served with winter veggies—beets and Brussels sprouts—and christened with shaved fresh horseradish.
Beef Cheek Goulash: Perhaps no other food conjures both images of wintry days and Alpine lifestyle more than beef goulash. . .and in Chef Alexander’s concept, the beef is beef cheek, one of his signature dishes. This meat stew is flavored with paprika and vegetables like onion, carrots and celery, then paired with creamy polenta instead of noodles. Served with a dollop of crème fraiche and a bouquet of herbs to help tame the richness.
Venison Loin “Au Poivre” ($10 Supplement): High-altitude game is a classic part of the Swiss diet, and this dish celebrates the tradition. “Au Poivre” is the process of encrusting the venison in peppercorns before roasting. It is served with elderberry-braised red cabbage to create the sweet and sour flavors associated with the region (note: we can’t get native elderberries so Chef is substituting elderberry syrup). This is served with a classic potato dish, “parsnip rösti,” grated potato and parsnips formed into cakes and sautéed until crispy. Tradition demands a pairing with chocolate, so the plate is treated to a swoosh (think Nike) of the best bittersweet chocolate we can source.
Dessert Course (choice of one): The Hobson’s Choice with this course is to take both or nothing at all. How could anyone make a rational decision to do otherwise? Desserts are created by Chef Courtney McDonald.
Warm Apple Strudel: This dish is on virtually every Alpine restaurant menu, so it’s on ours! Chef prepares apple compote and wraps in crispy pastry sheets. . .like a burrito. . .drizzled with vanilla brown butter and paired with house-made ginger ice cream (basic custard base flavored with dried and fresh ginger). Served warm and yummy.
Black Forest Cake Parfait: What’s more decadent than black forest cake? How about Chef McDonald’s deconstruction of perfect layers of chocolate cake chunks, chocolate mousse, cherry compote and whipped cream made with Kirschwasser, a cherry-flavored schnapps? We’re checking to determine if we need a special license to serve this because it should be illegal.
So here’s the deal:
TiVo the Winter Olympics and come join us for Alpine Cusine, still just $49++ per person for four courses. Vegetarian options available, but no split plates or substitutions. For reservations, call 530-823-0320 or go to www.opentable.com.