A Special Night at the JeffersonJune 14, 2018
By Michael McHenry, Vice Conseiller Gastronomique, Bailliage of Greater Washington, D.C.
On June 14, 2018, members of the Bailliage of Greater Washington gathered for a truly special dinner event at the Jefferson, only blocks away from the White House in the center of downtown Washington. The evening mixed history, gastronomy, fine wines, and the opportunity to welcome two new members to the Chaine and the bailliage in a venue that had unexpected relevance and resonance. The kitchen and culinary team, led by Executive Chef Ralf Schlegel and pastry chef Fabrice Leray, was the same that recently earned a Michelin star and that holds a 5-star Forbes rating.
The hotel's Gallatin Room, finished and furnished in Federal style, is named after Albert Gallatin, a self-made man. Born in Switzerland, he emigrated to the United States at the age of 19 and made his career in politics and finance, serving as the Secretary of the Treasury under presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, as Minister to France under Madison, and as Minister to England under Martin Van Buren. A statue of Gallatin stands in the front of the Treasury Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, next to the White House.
The selection of the Jefferson and the Gallatin Room was especially appropriate, as our guests of honor were the Swiss Ambassador, Martin Dahinden, and Mrs. Anita Dahinden, who were inducted into the Chaine as Chevalier d'Honneur and Dame de la Chaîne by Bailli Provincial John Fannin, assisted by Bailli Judith Mazza and Argentier David Burka. Mr. Fannin read a letter of welcome from Bailli Délégué Hal Small as a part of the induction ceremony, explaining that the title of Chevalier d'Honneur is a rarely awarded title reserved for heads of state and their ambassadors. In addition, the Jefferson's historian, Susan Lagon, gave attendees a brief overview of Gallatin's career and the assistance that he provided as a financier and statesman—and the confidence that he earned from leaders such as Jefferson and Madison—during the earliest days of United States. During her remarks, Ms. Lagon highlighted a letter (the original of which hangs in the Gallatin Room, on loan from the Geneva Museum) from Thomas Jefferson, writing from Paris in 1786, testifying to Gallatin's "life, health, and…fortune."
The evening began with our traditional Champagne reception. Passed hors d'oeuvres started with kumquats that had been hollowed out and poached (to soften them and remove traces of acidity), filled with a foie gras mousse, and topped with a thin and delicate single sheet of phyllo; the citrus flavor from the kumquat perfectly balanced the richness of the foie gras mousse while the phyllo gave a touch of texture and crunch. Vermouth infused cantaloupe wrapped in duck prosciutto with a cylinder of dried fig took the classic melon and prosciutto to a new level, with the flavors of thinly sliced duck prosciutto working well against a flavorful cantaloupe and the sweetness added by the fig. A third small bite was a carrot "sphere" served with pickled ginger—the carrot had been pureed and spherified, and when tasted, released a burst of intense carrot and ginger flavor. The group was treated to two Champagnes with the hors d'oeuvres, both by the same vintner—a Billecart-Salmon Champagne Brut Rosé NV and a Billecart-Salmon Champagne Extra Brut 2006. The rosé had light aromas and flavors, with a citrusy and fruit finish; the vintage brut was bone-dry and crisp, with citrus flavors and a strong mineral character. Both were excellent matches to the hors d'oeuvres.
Our first course showed Chef Schlegel's extraordinary skill at taking familiar ingredients and turning them into something special—a Matjes herring filet, served with purees of deep red Bull's Blood beets and green beans, the herring plated on a thinly sliced potato square, the beets and beans piped onto a thin sheet of soubise (traditionally, a béchamel sauce thickened with puréed rice and used for coating ingredients, but here thickened and cut to form a rich base for the beet and bean mousses). While herring is often assumed to be intensely flavored, Chef Schlegel's interpretation was subtly flavored and seasoned. With this course, we savored a Trimbach Riesling Reserve 2011, from a winery from the Alsace region known for its Rieslings that combine fruit, acidity, and mineral undertones. This wine was at its ideal drinkability, with strong flavors of citrus and sharp acidity that both cut through and complemented the distinct flavors of the herring and the beets.
As a second course, Chef Schlegel offered a seared rabbit loin, with a purple haze carrot, a touch of savora mustard, a sprinkle of potato crumble, and a seasonal ramp gel. The rabbit was light and tender; the carrot provided both vivid color and a bit of sweetness to the overall dish, and the ramp gave an additional splash of color to the plate and some sharpness. The wine for this course was a Nicolas Rossignol Volnay 1re Cru "Clos des Angles 2012"—a pinot noir from a small vineyard in Burgundy with a bouquet and taste that combined fruit with a touch of minerality, that matched well with the lightness of the rabbit and the flavors of the garnishes.
The entrée was an Elysian Field rack of lamb with herbs, a touch of bergamot, fava beans, and a black garlic jus. The lamb was a beautifully cooked medium rare, and Chef Schlegel explained that it was pan seared briefly before being roasted in a relatively low 350° oven until barely done—beautiful color, beautiful texture, and beautiful flavor! Plating for this course was classic—the lamb arranged to show its colors and texture with a garnish of fava beans and the black garlic jus. With this dish, we enjoyed a Bodegas y Viñedos Maurodos Toro Fina San Román 2011—a large wine, perfect for drinking slowly with a dish that was, at the same time, simple but with complex flavors. This wine had a beautiful color, complex fruit and floral aromas, and a hint of minerality, all of which had matured and smoothed out well. The wine had a rich texture and mouthfeel, and it was an excellent accompaniment to the perfectly prepared and presented lamb.
Finally, dessert! A honey-marzipan croustillant was served with apricot "pearls," caramelized pine nuts, a sprinkling of bee pollen, and a quenelle of rosemary ice cream. Each of these elements was a tribute to the mastery of the pastry chef, Fabrice Leray. The croustillant was crispy and flavorful, the apricot pearls released bursts of flavor, and the rosemary ice cream added an herbal element that allowed each of the other elements on the plate to shine. With the dessert, we enjoyed a real gem—a Château Coutet 2004 Sauternes,. This wine, from one of the oldest Sauternes vineyards, matures to develop a flavor with hints of honey, vanilla, and dried or candied fruit, and has a wonderful rich, deep aroma. This wine was an excellent pairing with Chef Leray's dessert offerings and a true wine to savor.
As the dinner concluded, Chef Schlegel took a moment from his busy kitchen to join us briefly, answer questions, and accept a Chaîne plate as a token of our appreciation for his work and that of his team. Truly, a special evening from beginning to end!