An intimate evening with Elena Arzak at The Press Club

She is the fourth generation of one of Spain’s premier food families and one of only three women at the helm in a Michelin three star restaurant.  She lives in a city famed for its innovative and avant garde cuisine and can transform cutting edge ideas into dishes that still impart a personal touch.  She is “…always thinking about food.  It’s always about the food.”  She is Elena Arzak.

In town for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival Langham Masterclass (quite the coup for this year’s theme – Women of the Kitchen), Elena shared her thoughts, “inspirations, aspirations and restaurants” at an intimate evening at The Press Club.  Elena was not cooking, which was the only downside to what eventuated in a truly enjoyable evening.  The man who created the eight course menu and was at the pass for the night was George Calombaris.  Considerable thought and effort went into the dishes, with menu tasting happening for a full month leading up to the event according to Angie Giannakodakis (restaurant manager).  The “intimate” part of the evening referred to the conversation about food, family and being female with Elena led by Matt Preston and supplemented with input from Shannon Bennett and Phillippe Mouchel.  Elena was charming.  Her answers, thoughtful and relevant.  At times humourous and at others, humble.  I surreptitiously scribbled a few notes in the hope of remembering more than just a few words, but it was hard to tear myself away from the food.

I really enjoyed the menu, both for the individual dishes and the progression of each to other to form a well balanced degustation.  Some courses espoused the deconstruction of well known Greek dishes that has become Calombaris’ signature, but with others he took a different path and played more with influences from other cultures.  In a manner very similar to the Thorsten Schmidt dinner, we started with some snacks.  This time taramosalata potato crisps and anchovy paximathi.  The paximathi won me.  The crunch of what I would describe as the Hellenic version of grissini and the salty hit from the anchovies went beautifully with the Raventos i Blanc de Nit Cava Brut Rose.  This Catalonian wine is superb, I will be looking for it again.

The next course was my favourite for the evening.

TUNA – feta brined watermelon, white bait, wasabi

Itsas Mendi ‘Txakoli’ Hondarrabi Zuri 2009, D.O. Bizkaiko Txakolina, Gernika, Vizcaya Basque Country

I want to say it was a triumph of texture and taste, partly because I like the alliteration but mostly because it was true, but I fear it will sound altogether too pretentious, so let’s just pretend I didn’t!  The brining of the watermelon gave it a textural feel akin to that of the tuna, but it somehow retained the unmistakeable crunch of watermelon.  The two together worked brilliantly, and it a long time since I have had such perfect whitebait.  Sitting atop the watermelon was one of the more interesting flavours of icecream I have had.  Not quite as mind challenging as wood icecream, but no less fitting or flavourful.  It was wasabli and feta.  The wasabi was perfect for the tuna, and feta with watermelon has long been a favoured combination of mine.

On to one of the more playful presentations

SPAM – of pork, lettuces, white peach

Chateau Pierre-Bise ‘Roche aux Moines’ Chenin Blanc 2007, Savennieres A.O.C. Loire Valley, France

This reminded me of the SPAM fritters Heston Blumenthal made in his 1970s inspired Feast, but it looked nothing like his plate of school dinner, nor could I taste any truffles!  The little spheres of peach puree and balls of what I am fairly certainly were deep fried pork fat complemented what was essentially a type of terrine.  I am curious as to where the original contents of all the SPAM tins went…

RABBIT – dim sims, miso melizanosalata, toursi

Domaine de l’Arjolle ‘Sarabande’ Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2009, VdP Cotes de Thongue, Languedoc-Rousillon, France

These are certainly not the dim sims that the local fish and chips chop of my childhood made a living from.  Which is, quite frankly, a good thing.  Served in their own whimiscal Press Club dim sim bag and wrapped in pastry made using a recipe that George got courtesy of the Flower Drum, these moist rabbit morsels could have comprised the entire course but they didn’t and the rest was just as good.  The miso melizanosalata is the luscious looking puree at the bottom of the plate above.  Here, again, Mr Calombaris is playing with Asian flavours in traditional Greek dishes, and to stunning effect.  It was silky smooth and perfect against the pickled vege (toursi).  Accompanying this array was the loin, which I unfortunately found a little dry, and the mini crumbed bit, which was moreish.  Terrible description “crumbed bit” but schnitzel is German and cotoletta is Italian and I wasn’t sure of the Greek.

AVGOLEMONO – quail,crab, chicken and duck

Yarra Yering ‘Blanc de Noir” Pinot Noir 1996, Yarra Valley, VIC

You would be forgiven for thinking there was a lot going on in this dish.  I want to say it worked, but the jury is still out.  On the night Matt Preston sang it’s praises, but I think that some of the subtle flavours got lost amongst the fray.  Avgolemono is a traditional Greek egg and lemon soup.  This version had crab and tapioca pearls through the chicken broth and a slice of quail breast.  I barely noticed the crab and felt that the quail was out of place.   The duck was not in the actual soup.  It was presented, with appropriate theatricality, on a plate covered with a glass cloche swirling with smoke.  Cloche lifted, wafts of smoke filled the air and before us – duck crackling.  A bit like the pork crackling that is so very very bad for you.  The duck crackling was a nice textural contrast to the soup, and on the whole I didn’t dislike the dish,  but I didn’t love it.

The last of the savoury courses was

LAMB – bastouma, cherry, fennel, pollen

Domaine Mercouri ‘Antares’ Avgoustiatis Mouvedre 2006, Ilias, Peloponessos, Hellenic Republic

I have never left The Press Club Hungry and this night was certainly going to be no exception.  This “best end” lamb was deliciously tender, moist and really really filling.  Quite a rich dish, the fennel puree and cherry jam worked well together with the bastouma.  I couldn’t finish it, but that may have been because dessert was still to come.

SANDWICH – sesame seed, tahini, liquorice

Campbells ‘Liquid Gold Classic Rutherglen Toaque’ Muscadelle NV, Rutherglen, VIC

But before dessert, “pre-dessert”.  That decadent little something that is sent out to pamper you and tease your taste buds before the main sweet treat.  Perfectly matched to the accompanying muscadelle, these just bigger than bite size sandwiches of tahini semi-freddo between sesame crisps made me realise that for someone who claims not to have a sweet tooth, I do rather like luscious morsels such as these when done well.

FRUIT – variations & expressions, peppered yoghurt

Braida Brachetto d’Aqui D>O>C>G 2009, Piedmonte, Italy

If I was sufficiently sated before the lamb, by this stage I was all but done for.  Fortunately the different expressions and variations of fruit were exactly the light and refreshing end to the meal I needed.  I cannot remember all of the different treatments given to the array of fruit but I enjoyed all of them and the peppered yoghurt.

Throughout the evening the conversation with Elena and the other chefs elicited some wonderful insights and opinions.  There was a discussion on why Spain appears to be number one for food and whether France can come back or if Scandinavia is now the stronger contender.  Both Phillippe Mouche and Shannon Bennett were (unsurprisingly) firmly in France’s corner and believe there are good places in France unknown because they do not seek the tourist dollar and focus on Cuisine du Terroir (the direct translation of which is food of the earth but should be taken to mean cuisine covering regional specialties with a focus on local produce).  Fittingly there was also some time given to the subject of women in the kitchen.  Women are everything in the Basque country that Elena calls home and Restaurant Arzak is quite the matriarchy, yet here the story is different.  Shannon has 65 chefs and only 10 of them are female.  The why wasn’t really uncovered which suggests to me it is a topic deserving of more attention.

The “intimate” conversation only seemed really staged a few times and the flow of ideas, particularly from Elena definitely added to my experience of the evening.  They talked about running restaurants in a more intelligent way and agreed that there are similar qualities that make a top restaurant, a certain je ne c’est pas.  Ultimately though, food is still food.

“If you want to be really good at what you’re doing, do it with passion and love”  Phillippe Mouchel
“Food should be humble and relate to every single person”  Elena Arzak
“You can spend hours perfecting a dish in restaurant but everything is stripped back when your three year old refused to eat and throw their food at you”  Shannon Bennett

George mingled at the end of the evening chatting happily to the table I was on.  I can’t help but wonder if the smile would still be there had he known I was a food blogger!  As a final thought I will leave you with the responses from the three chefs to the question of what was the most important thing they learnt in the kitchen:

“Respect. And loving your work”  Elena Arzak
“To be patient”  Phillippe Mouchel
“Treasure every moment”  Shannon Bennett

And their thoughts on the future of food:

“You need to know where everything comes from”  Shannon Bennett
“Will depend on your staff”  Phillippe Mouchel
“ about the product and it evolving all the time.  Everyone will still like to eat”  Elena Arzak

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