A Little Pork Fat and a Little Red Wine -- Just What the Heart Needs
Sunday night, 20 miles south of Houston, two culinary heavy hitters knocked it out of the park at the Revana Wine Dinner at Killen's Steakhouse. Chef Ronnie Killen and Chef Randy Rucker began preparing weeks in advance, tasting wines and developing recipes to pair perfectly with Revana wines.
It was a six-course culinary adventure as never seen in Pearland, Texas. If Pearlanders showed up expecting only steak and potatoes, they were in for quite a tasty shock. As a newcomer to Pearland, I was proud of my neighbors for stepping out of their comfort zone and indulging in unforgettable culinary masterpieces.
The wines were provided by Revana Family Vineyard. Founded by Dr. Madaiah Revana, a cardiologist and internal medicine physician in Houston, the vineyard is a culmination of his dream to grow and craft wines of exceptional quality. Dr. Revana explains, "I grew up on a farm in India and never touched alcohol until my early twenties. But I have come to believe that moderate wine consumption, in the proper setting, can be a healthful and medically defensible daily pleasure. Louis Pasteur, the eminent scientist, said that wine is the most hygienic of drinks. My own habit is to drink wine daily, with dinner, and almost always in the company of family or friends. From my perspective as a cardiologist, wine is one of nature's most welcome and wholesome of gifts when enjoyed in moderation at the table."
Located in the heart of Napa Valley, Revana Family Vineyard is a vineyard and winery estate focused on producing world-class Cabernet Sauvignon. Dr. Revana also has a vineyard in Oregon's Willamette Valley, Alexana Winery, named after his daughter Alexandra, where he produces Pinot Noir. He shared wines from both vineyards at the wine dinner.
Chef Killen started the evening off with a hamachi crudo and Henriot Champagne before he moved into the Revana wine pairings. The hamachi was served with blood orange segments, smoked trout roe, kosho and a ponzu sauce that took more than four weeks to make.
It's easy to buy ponzu in a bottle or even a starter and add your own elements, but that wouldn't set them apart, Ronnie says. It was the perfect first course to wake the palate. The silky creaminess of the hamachi surrounded by a moat of briny, sweet, salty, citrusy, fishy ponzu sauce was enough to make me crave that dish days later. But Ronnie added the blood orange segments, micro-sliced Thai chiles and kosho that sent it over the top. The pop of the smoky roe against the silky firm flesh of the fish and the slight tingle of Thai chile on your lips was harmonious. The chile sting was put out by the Champagne. It was the perfect balance of the fruitiness of the Champagne and the briny fruitiness of the course. This was a daring dish for Pearland and I am proud of Ronnie for nudging Pearlanders out of their comfort zone.
Chef Rucker stepped up next with sweetbreads cooked over dried sassafras leaves and roots with a warm salad of yellow wax beans. The sweetbreads were grilled on open flame with the sassafras leaves and roots. There was a subtle hint of rock concert, Randy said, but no concert I've been to served anything as delicious as those sweetbreads. They were perfectly grilled with a creamy, unctuous center that had the deep umami of liver. They were served with crunchy, tangy wax beans that were perfumed with the floral notes of thyme, and the entire dish was heady with smoke. It was paired with an '09 Alexana Pinot Noir. The sweetbreads brought out the butter notes of the wine, which had wonderful cinnamon, pepper and a slight berry note to round out the sweetbreads and wax beans. This was a beautiful wine with a perfectly complementing dish.
Next Chef Rucker lightened things up with a chilled blue crab with greenbriar, wasabina and pureed green apple skins flavored with nasturtium flowers. Randy is well known for his foraging talents and thankfully brought some fruits of his labor. The greenbriar grows wild in North Harris County, and although Seussical in appearance, it tastes exactly like asparagus. Interestingly, Ronnie's menu features an asparagus dish with crab meat, and I found this to be a whimsical play on that dish. Who needs asparagus when you can get greenbriar? It was so fresh and hearty-tasting at the same time. The blue crab meat was beautiful and clean-tasting. It was blue crab in its purest form. Randy added a smooth wasabina and green apple skin puree that provided just the right amount of tanginess the crab needed to come alive. This was paired with a '10 Alexana Riesling. The wine was soft and clean but had a bite of crisp green apple. It was perfectly suited to Randy's chilled crab.
At this point, some patrons were getting restless and were overheard wondering why we hadn't had any meat. We were at Killen's Steakhouse, after all. Ronnie responded loud and clear with a hickory-smoked pork belly, glazed cherries and a port cherry glaze on a bed of pureed potatoes with star anise. Luckily, you can now find this dish on his menu, because I would cut somebody to have it again. It is unbelievable -- decadent, sweet, fatty, salty, tangy...oh, I've got to stop, my mouth is watering just remembering this dish. Ronnie sous-vides and then grills his pork belly. He then adds cherries that have been marinated and glazed with his port wine reduction and cherry glaze. It is topped with crispy Japanese rice crackers and slivers of green onion. When you take a bite that is composed of all the elements, it is a taste like you have never had: vanilla, cherry, sweetness, smokiness, tanginess, fattiness, saltiness, creaminess, faint anise. Ronnie has balanced these flavors and textures so perfectly you start to wonder: What kind of genius is he? It was paired with an '09 Sitar Pinot Noir Verse. This Pinot was dark and deep and tasted of Red Hots. It cut through the fat of the pork belly and stood up to the sweetness of the cherries. This wine and dish were absolute perfection no matter how you sliced and ate it.
The next course made the regulars very happy. Chef Rucker pulled out the venison. He made Texas venison laced with cedar needles and juniper berries and served it with carrots and wild mulberries. In the kitchen I saw the pan of those glistening, ruddy-colored venison tenderloins covered in cedar and juniper. Their scent at this stage was intoxicating. Randy seared them off over open flame until they were succulent, rare and meaty. They had the texture of the finest filet mignon and a deep, beefy flavor that was not too gamey for Bambi lovers. The sauce was sweet and had echoes of cherry cola from the mulberries. The wine was an '06 Revana Cabernet Sauvignon. The first hit to the nose was of marinated strawberries. It finished out like dark chocolate-covered strawberries. It was deep and heady enough to stand up to venison and sing in harmony.
The last pairing brought out the beef. Chef Killen knew his audience and wasn't going to disappoint them. He was going to push their limits, though. Rib eye, no. Strip, no. How about Mishima Ranch beef cheeks? Eyes got big at the table next to mine -- what were they about to taste? Ronnie made beef cheeks with a Chianti reduction, white corn grits and roasted beets. If you have never had cheeks before, their texture may surprise you. Rather gelatinous but incredibly rich and delicious, the meat is soft, melty and sweet. As a Southern girl, I have had many plates of grits in my day.
The grits Ronnie served are like none I have ever known. They are hand-ground to his specifications from white corn, and he stood over them, lovingly stirring, for three-and-a-half hours. The cheese, cream, salt and white pepper came together with those grits to make something not of this world. One dining companion said, "You could put a wedding ring in the bottom of those!" Another said, "This is food porn." The pickled beets on top of the beef cheek were like little jewels of tang that cut through and enhanced all the fatty, creamy, cheesy goodness of the cheek and grits. They were paired with an '08 Revana Cabernet Sauvignon. This vintage was much milder than the '06 and had a creamy, sweet finish. This dish was over the top. I didn't hear anybody saying they wished they'd had a long-bone rib eye after those cheeks.
Pastry Chef Johnny Wesley brought home the evening with a little old-school PB&J. Well, that's if you'd call a chocolate peanut butter custard, peanut cookie and brittle shards, and a cherry foam "old-school." Chef Wesley made a silky-smooth custard with a layer of pulverized peanut cookies and peanut brittle, topped with a tangy cherry foam. And to bring us all back down to earth, a little, he made a strawberry and pink peppercorn leather. The dessert was nostalgic in flavors, but sophisticated in skill and presentation.
Chef Killen and Chef Rucker took us all on a culinary journey we won't soon forget. It was paired beautifully with wines from Dr. Madaiah Revana's two vineyards. Here's to an over-the-top culinary experience quenched with excellent and heart-healthy wines. Thank you, Ronnie, Randy and Johnny.
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