Wolvesmouth is a menacing name for an extraordinary culinary experience. It is an underground dining club at which Chef Craig Thornton (below) cooks elaborate multi-course meals for a dozen guests in a dinner party setting. The only thing scary about a dinner at the Wolves' Den is how talented Chef Thornton is. He has an impressive resume: he used to be a private chef for actor Nicolas Cage among others.
The dinner party atmosphere is one of the key components that helps make the experience so special. When you walk into the Den, which at the dinner I attended was a downtown loft, there is a table set for twelve. Guests are encouraged to bring their own wine and to share it with each other. There is a convivial atmosphere as the guests are like-minded people who all are passionate about food. There is time to mingle beforehand but guests are asked to be on time as the meal will start with or without them. There is no fee to attend the meal; rather guests are asked to pay what they wish at the end, in envelopes provided for this purpose.
The dinner exceeded my expectations and was among my favorite meals of 2010. There was only one course I could not eat due to my dietary restrictions, but there was more than enough flavor and food in the other courses that I did not miss it.
Course 1: Sweetbread with sour cream and onion potato chip puree. The sweetbread was smooth in texture and very savory. The potato chip puree was a playful touch. This was a light introduction to the meal.
I skipped course 2, which was scallop, but continued onto the third course, Cornbread Soup with Apple. This course was supposed to have both lobster and bacon in it, but I was able to have it without and I enjoyed the version I had. The soup was creamy and the apples provided a nice textural contrast as well as sweetness.
Course 4: Wandering the Forest: Braised rabbit and saddle, fir gelee, roasted carrot, hen of the woods mushrooms, black truffle soil. This dish was rich as both the rabbit and the mushroom components were meaty. The presentation was visually dramatic and the shredded rabbit was especially flavorful. The title of this dish reminded me of Manresa's famous Into the Garden, but the dishes are quite different in style and execution.
The John Dory was presented whole to the table. That was one big fish.
Course 5: John Dory. It was served with its juices, butter and pomelo juice. The butter flavor came through as the fish flesh itself had a sweetness to it. This was not a meal for dainty appetites.
Course 6: Bone marrow was prepared with mitsuba (Japanese parsley), wasabi peas, and lemon. A house-made crouton was served alongside. The marrow was easy to get at as it was served "trough style" rather than "cylinder style." I would have been happy to eat a second helping of this course. The crouton was light and was a good carrier for the richness of the marrow. This dish illustrated the adage that if you have good ingredients, don't hide them.
Course 7: Banana Pop Rocks with Finger Lime. This was a playful intermezzo before the main meat courses of the evening. This dish was a cool play on the visual similarity of two dissimilar ingredients. The pop rocks had their signature effect of popping in your mouth and the finger limes lived up to their reputation as "citrus caviar" and also popped in my mouth, releasing a lemon/lime citrus flavor. This was a fun dish that could have been silly but started a lively discussion.
Course 8: Peking Duck. Crispy skin, confit stuffed breast, green onion. Served with pickled cucumber and steamed buns. The crispy duck skin was wonderful candy. The vinegar in the pickles cut the richness of the duck. The buns were fine but the meat itself, both the confit stuffed breast and the skin were the stars of the show. The breast was cooked to a rosy pink and the confit was rich. Combination bites were excellent.
Loin and belly of lamb on the counter before carving.
Course 9: Lamb: Loin and belly of lamb, beet, rye profiteroles, pickled red onion, horseradish and dill. This was my favorite course of the evening. I love lamb and this was a beautiful piece. Both the loin and the fatty belly were delicious. I ate every bite on my plate not to miss any of the flavor. The red onions had been pickled, which like the cucumbers in the prior course, cut the richness, although the onions were a much more assertive flavor than the mild cucumber. The presentation of this dish was arresting with the streak of beet sauce, the horseradish sauce, the lamb, onions, dill and rye profiteroles strewn across the plate like a landscape. More please.
Course 10: Mexican Hot Chocolate Panna Cotta. For the first of the two dessert courses Thornton prepared a Mexican Hot Chocolate panna cotta with a cinnamon fritter. Cinnamon and chocolate is a tasty classic pairing.
Course 11: Milk & Coffee. Buttermilk sherbet and Coffee Cake. This dish with a playful name was a fun way to end the meal. The buttermilk sherbet was light and provided the moisture that coffee cakes need. This was a light end to the meal, though I was quite full at this point.
Here are but a few of the wines that were consumed by the thirsty diners in attendance. I brought a Spanish cava by German Gilabert, that was recommended to me by the staff at Domaine LA, as well as an Eastern European red that paired well with the meat courses.
With only a small staff of three or four helpers to cook, plate, serve and clean, the pacing of the meal was impressive, without significant waits between courses. There was none of the formality one often finds at fine dining restaurants when having a chef's tasting menu. Instead, the whole experience was about hospitality. The dinner party vibe, the comfortable setting, the sharing of wine, the pacing of the meal, the small size of the party all contributed to the feeling that we were experiencing not only something special, but something fun.
As I left the sanctuary of the Wolves' Den and stepped out onto the downtown sidewalk I thought that Wolvesmouth more than delivered on his motto of "Come curious, leave sated." Sometimes it seems like foodies and bloggers in this town travel in packs; when it comes to the Wolves' Den, this is a pack worth joining.
Learn more about Wolvesmouth here at www.wolvesmouth.com Or follow @wolvesmouth and @dimsumpup on Twitter