Bargains come in all shapes and sizes. How about four wines, nine courses and a taste of one of the world's rarest spirits, Louis XIII cognac?
Photo by Monte Costa
The Ultimate Dinner’s meat course is three perfect slices of medium-rare beef tenderloin, sprinkled with sea salt.
Feel like drinking something expensive? Something that’s been enjoyed by the likes of Queen Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill, yet is so hip that it was featured in Beyoncé’s “Naughty Girl” video? How about a little Louis XIII de Rémy Martin? A little is probably all you can afford. Louis XIII, named after the first absolute monarch of France, goes for $1,500 a bottle.
Even an empty bottle costs $100, since it’s a handblown Baccarat crystal decanter, with a fleur-de-lis shaped stopper that’s so well fitted, you can turn the bottle upside down without spilling any liquid—not that you’re likely to be tempted.
How did a liquor get so expensive that it costs $5 to fill an eye dropper? Louis XIII is a Cognac from the 200-year-old house of Rémy Martin. A cognac, as you no doubt know, is just a brandy, but one made in a small region of France nestled up against the Atlantic coast.
It’s a fair bit of trouble to make a cognac. First, you have to grow grapes and make wine. However, the wine of the Cognac was never going to make the region famous, hence the notion that it ought to be distilled into brandy. Cognac is distilled in small batches, not once, but twice. The devil himself gets credit for this double distillation.
As the legend has it, a 16th-century cognac maker, Jacques de la Croix-Maron, dreamed one night that Satan was trying to steal his soul&151;by boiling it. Not succeeding, the devil threatened to boil it a second time, at which point Croix-Maron woke up, having realized his brandy would come out much better if he distilled it twice.
Cognac apparently rises to theological dimensions. Once the devil gets his due with the double distillation, the angels get in on the act.
After the “heart” of the cognac emerges from the distillation process, you have to be patient. Cognac is aged in barrels of local oak, said to be the finest in the world, racked into humid cellars to control evaporation.
Even so, since oak barrels are necessarily porous, the cognac makers lose between 3 percent and 4 percent of their entire stock each year to evaporation, the equivalent of 27 million bottles a year over the whole region. This loss is referred to as the angel’s share.
By law, cognac has to be aged in casks for two-and-a-half years. Most cognac spends longer in oak, but perhaps none as long as Louis XIII. Cognacs aren’t dated—because all cognacs are blends of younger and older stocks. However, Louis XIII is blended from cognac stocks aged 40 to 100 years. The current cellarmaster at Rémy Martin is working on cognacs his grandson is likely to bottle.
One sip, and it’s like drinking a whole century.
Would you like to taste a little? Without, of course, springing $1,500 for a bottle, and $8,000 for the special edition black-crystal decanter.
Photo by Monte Costa
The aspic, made with Chablis, contains lobster and salmon. Underneath? Remarkably sweet slices of beets.
You have a couple of alternatives. For a mere $400, Rémy Martin sells a “Petit Louis” bottle. You get only 50 millimeters, roughly 1.6 ounces, in a reduced-size Baccarat decanter. Or, you could find yourself a top-end bar or restaurant, and order a shot, served up in a snifter. That should set you back $175 to $200.
But what if, for $190, you could not only get a taste of Louis XIII, but also have it preceded by a stunning nine-course dinner, and the satisfaction of helping out the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific?
Every year Rémy Martin teams up with about 100 restaurants nationwide to present the Ultimate Dinner, with some portion of the proceeds going to charity. Each restaurant comes up with its own special menu, featuring dashes of cognac here and there, and ending with a half-ounce taste of Louis XIII.
For the past seven years, the Halekulani’s La Mer has been the only Hawaii restaurant offering the Ultimate Dinner. In fact, for the past two years, La Mer has sold more of them than any other restaurant in the country.
I don’t know if it’s the ultimate dinner, but it’s a damn fine dinner, one you might be interested in even if you’re entirely indifferent to cognac. You can order it at La Mer any night up until Dec. 30.
It starts with a Jell-O salad. Well, sort of. It’s an aspic, a kind of natural gelatin, into which you can set a number of goodies. It used to be tough to make an aspic, which is why at one time it graced only haute cuisine tables.
However, since the basic concept now reminds people of Jell-O molds, you seldom see it any more except at classic French restaurants. French aspics aren’t made with Jell-O, needless to say. They tend to be much better, especially this one, made with Chablis and containing both lobster and bite-size pieces of fresh salmon. Slices of aspic are served on a cold plate, so they won’t melt. Ours came on what I took to be three perfect circles of yellow sauce.
Wrong. They were wafer-thin slices of yellow beet. Simply steamed, undressed, sweet, remarkably delicious. To the side was celery-root julienne in remoulade. You have to love French chefs. For them, the vegetables on the plate are never an afterthought.
How could you have an ultimate dinner without foie gras?
Foie gras preparations are often sweet, but I prefer savory ones, like this one, foie gras simply sautéed atop asparagus. This being high-end French cooking, the asparagus spears were sliced thin for easy eating.
There were two sauces, a dark brown truffle demiglace and a bright yellow shallot beurre blanc. The foie gras didn’t need sauce, neither did the asparagus, but the sauces were so good I cleaned off my plate with bits of the miniature baguettes served with dinner.
Unfortunately, the $190 for dinner does not include wine. Halekulani’s sommelier, Randy Ching, has come up with two pairings. The first, with still wines, goes for $68. The second, all sparkling wines, is $78. If you are drinking wine, spend the extra $10, because then—it’s champagne time!
The first two courses were served with a 1999 Piper Heidsieck rosé champagne. The rosé was a good choice, because despite its refinement, it has just enough body and flavor to stand up to savory foie gras.
As we moved on to the third course, we had a champagne from a small producer, Pierre Peters, a blanc de blanc (all that means is that it’s made entirely with chardonnay grapes). This was a wonderful champagne, especially for a blanc de blanc, which aren’t my favorites. Most tend to be sharp, but this had notes of roasted nuts and honey, and a sensuous, creamy finish.
I was grateful for Ching’s palate in choosing the wine, because I wouldn’t have known how to match the third course-a veal cheek, cooked until it almost melted in your mouth. The veal cheek was topped—well, maybe accented is the right word—with ravigoté, a term that sent me scrambling for my Larousse the next morning.
A ravigoté is a sauce that’s supposed to “reinvigorate” things that have been cooked a long time, like, say, the veal cheeks. It’s essentially a vinaigrette, with white wine vinegar, herbs and capers.
Here are some things John Heckathorn had to say in past months.
Soul de Cuba Café
Skip the mojito at Honolulu’s only Cuban restaurant and go straight for the caipirinha. Made with real cachaça and not vodka, “it’s a samba in a glass.” The grilled shrimp in black-bean sauce, sopa de garbanzo and fricase de pollo pack enough heat to light up your mouth. Reviewed in the October 2007 issue.
Brunch at Mariposa
Mariposa features “Brunch Lite,” a menu brunch instead of a massive buffet. Made-to-order eggs Benedict beat the buffet kind any day: “A fine slice of ham, freshly poached eggs with soft yolks, velvety Hollandaise, a sprinkle of paprika for color … make life seem worth living.” Reviewed in the April 2007 issue.
It was remarkable how well this bit of 18th-century cookery worked. It made special sense because the veal cheek was served atop a salad of baby frisee, so this dish was simultaneously rich and light, warm and cool, soft and crunchy.
From meat, we detoured back to fish. We had a fillet of a species usually called Chilean sea bass, although it’s not a bass, and it’s not from Chile. The fillet came nicely browned on top, not overdone, swimming in a bath of morel mushroom broth, which contained some perfect slices of green and yellow squashes, and some fancy cut carrots.
I told you this was a dinner that paid attention to vegetables. Perched around the rim of the bowl were three perfect little ovoids of parsley potatoes. These were billed as “lightly rolled in butter,” which is high-end chef talk for “slathered with butter.” The potatoes glistened, everything on the plate glistened, even the morel decorating the top of the fish.
Anticipating the next course, Ching reappeared with yet another champagne from a small French producer. This one, although another blanc de blanc, a Pierre Gimonnet 2002, was entirely different, steely, minerally, full of tart apples.
It had to be steely to stand up to the richest dish of the evening-a sautéed scallop and large shrimp, all wrapped in Serrano ham. Serrano ham is one of the things that make Spain proud-salt-cured for a year or two, until every molecule is focused on romancing your tastebuds.
The whole dish was a cavalcade of flavor: Anchoring it was a full-flavored risotto with vegetables brunoise, that is, finely diced and braised in butter. The sauce was a lobster coulis with, what else, Rémy Martin cognac. Not Louis XIII, because only an insane show-off would waste Louis XIII in a sauce. In fact, just regular Rémy Martin VSOP, about $45 a bottle retail, is sort of an extravagance.
The next course wasn’t even a course, it was a little dab of sorbet that served as an intermezzo between courses. Still, it set off applause. “This is why I showed up,” said one of the ladies at the table.
The sorbet tasted so powerfully of cognac, I was puzzled. There’s a problem with alcohol-based sorbets: Alcohol doesn’t freeze until minus 114 degrees. Nobody’s ice cream maker gets that cold.
Ah, yes, they admitted, it wasn’t really cognac sorbet. It was a tiny scoop of sugar sorbet with some Rémy Martin VSOP poured over it.
It was fabulous. I loved the way the chill and the sweetness muted the alcohol bite, and allowed the full floral and vanilla and fruit overtones of the cognac to emerge. It was the most I’d ever enjoyed cognac, but it was a kind of guilty pleasure, hardly a connoisseur’s strategy.
You’re not supposed to put cognac on ice, though people do. Hip-hop culture puts Rémy in all sorts of mixed drinks, even Louis XIII, which seems kind of nuts, since once you mix it, you lose the nuances you are paying serious money for.
Photo by Monte Costa
The chill of a sugar sorbet allowed the floral and vanilla overtones of the Rémy Martin cognac to emerge.
Usually, an intermezzo is not designed to call attention to itself, much less set off oohs and ahhs as this one did. It’s merely to clear your palate between two heavier courses, as we went from the ham-wrapped seafood to the meat course—three perfect slices of medium-rare beef tenderloin, sprinkled with sea salt.
Sorry to keep harping on the vegetables. But underneath the steak was butternut squash. Not all mushed up as you’d expect. It was slowly sweated in duck fat, seasoned with lemon, salt and pepper, served firm but tender. As good as the steak was, the squash was actually better.
There were also chanterelles and salsify. Salsify, if it’s not in your normal run of vegetables, is the root of a purple-flowering weed. Raw, it’s fibrous. But at this point, La Mer chef de cuisine Yves Garnier had wandered into the room, and we got into a spirited discussion of salsify, considering that we speak different languages.
Garnier peels off the black outer layer of the root, and, if I understood him correctly, cooks it slowly in milk. It comes out perfect, almost translucent, a little like an oyster in texture, a little sweet, until it melts away into sheer bliss.
The meat course presented sommelier Ching with a problem. We’d been drinking champagne all evening. Now he had to come up with a wine that would not seem too radical a departure, yet work with steak. He served something unexpected: an inexpensive Perlinga sparkling shiraz from Australia.
You may not have known there was such a thing as a sparkling shiraz, but it’s a fun wine. It’s the deep, dark red you expect from Shiraz, plus all those big, juicy, bad-boy berry flavors. But the bubbles impart a kind of elegance to the finish.
|La Mer at the Halekulani
2199 Kalia Road
Open daily from 6 to 10 p.m.
For reservations, call 923-2311.
“You know what’s great about this meal?” said someone at the table. “I don’t feel overstuffed.” At this point in the meal-four wines, six courses and an intermezzo with cognac—I thought, “Wow, perfectly paced, perfectly portioned. I am going to escape unscathed.”
I’d forgotten that at a French meal, you eat for hours … and then there’s cheese. Cheese is always my downfall. When they roll around the cart, I want the Morbiere, with its line of ash down the middle. I want the Explorateur, which seems to have more butterfat than butter. I want the Pont L’Eveque, made since the 12th century from warm Norman milk. And, of course, I have to try the cheese I’ve never seen before, the Chatzely Haxaire from Alsace, a soft little cheese with a deep yellow color, due to some secret Alsatian plant seasoning.
So enthusiastically did I attack the cheese cart that I was in no position to appreciate the desserts. I took half a bite of the dark chocolate cake and oranges, half a spoon of the panna cotta topped with strawberries in balsamic.
Everyone was anticipating the main event, the taste of Louis XIII, which arrived in small liqueur glasses. “At last,” said someone at the table. “Louie Louie.”
First you look at it: It’s a deep mahogany color, glistening like a polished wood-paneled room. When you realize cognac is clear when it emerges from the still, it shows you what many decades in oak can do.
Then you inhale gently. The first inhale is all apricots, oranges, plums, peaches. Then if you open your mouth and inhale again through your nose, you can actually feel the pepper, allspice and tobacco on the back of your throat.
If you ask me, smelling it is the best part. When you take even the smallest sip, you get the alcohol burn and all those scents disappear. But there is something about the taste of cognac: It always reminds me of the scent of wildflowers. Yes, I know you’re thinking, that’s poetic crap. How can a spirit taste like an odor?
If you don’t believe me, go taste it yourself.
John Heckathorn has been writing restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984. In 2007, he won a bronze medal from the City and Regional Magazine Association for his food writing.