Written by Marisa Finetti and Kirk Peterson. Originally published in DAVID magazine.
Awarded best non-staff writer(s), Nevada Press Association
The lights are extinguished. The room now dark. The only glimmer of light comes through the floor-to-ceiling window panes facing Las Vegas Boulevard, twenty-three floors below. The lowest lumens are enough to keep us from knocking over the wine glasses, enough to find our fork. But that’s about it. There’s no color, only shades of grey. Dinner tonight appears like a 1940s noir detective film.
Five minutes earlier, we acquaint ourselves with dining companions. Reception cocktails are offered and accepted, small talk is made. A single, large oval table is meticulously set before us, 16 seats with five wine glasses each, in a private dining room in the Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire. Master Sommelier Will Costello explains the game: five courses, five wines, in the dark.
Now, it takes a moment for our eyes to adjust to shadows. How much does the experience of flavor depend on actually seeing what we taste? How much misdirection will Chef de Cuisine Frederic Don employ? Pierre Gagnaire explored what is now known as molecular gastronomy, long before it had a name. Using agar and foams to deceive and trick, surprise and delight, to manipulate the form and flavor of a dish and “twist” and incarnate it into something unexpected. It’s like the board game Clue. Colonel Mustard in the kitchen – with an immersion blender.
We have a guide of sorts, a Mad Libs-styled card describing the dish with key information left blank for us to solve. Then starts a practice run – a course of amuse bouche. Distinctively unique flavors and textures: one of them, a spherical puff; next, a delicate wafer; then, a liquid-filled cracker. And lastly, a cubed jelly on a stick.. What could they be? Besides delicious?
The first course arrives with a flourish – the staff unhindered by the darkness. Chefs often say that we feast with our eyes first. Despite the shadowy dimness, we recognize the lovely plating and presentation. With the first few bites the room bubbles into hushed questioning murmur.
What is this? Raw fish, sliced paper-thin? The guide reveals it swims near Gagnaire’s home in Brittany, France. But, we lack expertise in piscine geography. Besides, what are these diminutive crunchy bits on top?
Flavor is mostly aroma. And aroma – mostly nostalgic and emotional. That taste, that smell, they seem so familiar but peculiarly mystifying to attach a name to. This is why sommeliers train by blind tasting wine, to practice recognizing and putting a name to flavors and aromas.
The first wine is white (probably) and smells fresh and pungent, a bit like citrus and a bit like fresh cut grass. Too preoccupied by figuring out the unknown, we don’t notice that it matches the dish perfectly – until the last few bites.
The second course arrives. We settle into the confines of our senses. The group has grown more conversational. The aroma and texture point to fish. We discuss what this could be. Sea bass maybe? Halibut? What else is in the puree beneath? Certain only that it’s pleasing to the soul. The wine that accompanies is an exquisite match, cutting through the richness and refreshing the palate, making us yearn for more.
A more bewildering third course ensues. We squint in the darkness and advance comically taking small bites, while trying to discern what they are. Chef has successfully hidden the ingredient in “plain sight” in the previous course. But this one, according to our guide, was to be transformed. In the lowest light we see medallions of protein. One slice with the knife reveals a distinct skin which surrounds it – could be animal, but possibly vegetable. The taste and texture is so familiar but not exact. It rests delicately on a mildly-sweet puree. The taste of tartness, baking spices – it’s a fruit, or a maybe a medley of fruits. Pear?
Without our vision, aromas and flavors guide the way. In the darkness, we still close our eyes. We intensify our senses to our palates. We slacken our pace to feel the fineness, the coarseness – drilling down to the granular level. Day-to-day, we’d pay no attention to such subtle detail.
The wine is discernibly darker than the wines before. Reminiscent of candied red fruit, with a fresh and silky texture – a perfect match to the third course, which was still in question.
Yet course number four proves to be another test. We are urged to think of a winter protein. It is tender, mild, utterly familiar. Could this be beef? Alongside the succulent cut rests a sponge cake. Clearly Gagnaire’s classic molecular gastronomy is showcased here. A smaller companion dish presents something cold and elegant, creamy like ice cream. The flavor contradicts our expectations. Savory, not sweet.
The pairing wine is red and familiar. In a journey of expressive aromas, it is as though brakes are slammed and the airbag is bell pepper. Outstanding complexity and an equal match to the meal.
Finally, the dessert is a reflection of Gagnaire’s travels. We embark on a celebration of fresh and poached fruit, it’s both tropical and desert in origin. The textures so familiar. We imagine a landscape of colors. We are certain to encounter a citrus. Pomelo? Mandarin orange? Amid the monochromatic shadows, a reflective white tuile offers a welcoming crunch. Feather light and accompanied by a slight flavor of something … profoundly sophisticated. The wine with subtle hints of sweetness bursts with honey, tropical fruits and rose petals.
Then at once, the sensorial indulgence is finished. The tender moments of mystery vanished. A game played well with convivial company. And the final engagement is a personal summary of this evening.
The dinner was an immersion into Pierre Gagnaire’s creative genius. The masterfully-crafted feast was a lesson – in interpreting the slight, exploring the implied, enduring the suspenseful, and savoring each bite with zeal.
The room illuminated. And so did our senses.
Marisa Finetti, Kirk Peterson, David magazine
BEST NON STAFF WRITER, MAGAZINE CATEGORY, 2017
Intriguing concept and a wonderful exercise in descriptive writing.