I distinctly remember the first time I met Johnny Schuler, master distiller for Pisco Portón. Schuler, known to Peruvians and pisco aficionados as "Pisco Johnny," is a TV personality in his native Peru and the world's foremost authority on Peruvian pisco. It was April 2011, and we were meeting because Houston was one of the first four markets selected for the brand's new product launch -- an ultra-premium pisco called Pisco Portón (I was the first to write about its debut in Houston here).
Fast-forward to 2014. Pisco Portón, a mosto verde premium pisco, is now the number one pisco exported by Peru. It is also the number one pisco in its category of ultra-premium pisco. Schuler was recently back in Houston as part of a worldwide tour, and he spent one of his evenings at Latin Bites for a Pisco Portón pairing dinner.
Latin Bites's executive chef, Roberto Castre, was one of the earliest and staunchest supporters of Pisco Portón in the area. Perhaps because of this, Latin Bites offers some of the best pisco cocktails -- and certainly the best pisco sour -- you'll find in Houston. This fact was reinforced at the pisco dinner as guests were served six totally distinct, yet deliciously prepared, cocktails crafted by the restaurant's beverage director, Carlos Ramos.
Latin Bites closed its doors to the public as it played host to Schuler, Pisco Portón representatives and approximately 50 dinner guests. It was a good move, since it allowed the chefs to focus entirely on the evening's food. In an exercise in creativity, Castre and his team had taken a farm-to-table approach, writing the menu based entirely on ingredients they picked up at a local farmers' market.
Dinner kicked off with what turned out to be my favorite cocktail of the night, an Ica Fizz, presented initially to each guest as a champagne glass containing one medium-size square ice cube that had been frozen with green grapes inside. A server then came around to each person to pour the bubbly cocktail, a mix of Pisco Portón, elderlfower liqueur and Prosecco. The drink was lightly aromatic, mildly sweet, fizzy and deceptively light (it packed a punch).
The Ica fizz was paired with a dragonfruit tuna tartare, prettily plated in a shallow white bowl and garnished with edible flowers. We were instructed to mix everything together, much like you would a beef tartare. The flavors of the dragon fruit -- rather nondescript yet fruit-forward -- mixed seamlessly with the tartare, which had been lightly touched with creamy spices. I loved it.
The second course could have been art as food -- a study of greens, purples and whites -- but it was so deftly put together that everyone in my party tried to lap up every last drop of the delicately sweetened gazpacho verde; you could hear the cling-clang of the spoon against the white china as we scraped our bowls clean. Adding to the perfection of the gazpacho itself were the vegetable garnishes, which brought pops of color, flavor and texture: grilled green cauliflower added smoky char; purple cauliflower was accented with a tangy passionfruit smoke; pickled beets added acidic crispiness; dry broccoli added another dimension of textural contrast; and micro mint added just a hint of something herbaceous. Paired with a Chiwilla cocktail of Pisco Portón, Amaretto and pineapple in a sugar-rimmed martini glass, the dish was absolutely superb.
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From there, we moved on to the meatier courses of the evening, starting with a 48-hour sous vide pork belly, arranged on the plate amid smears of Asian-spiced sauce, edible flowers and bits of fried quinoa. The flavors were reminiscent of Chinese roast pork dipped in hoisin sauce. Paired with a Green Aqua Chilcano made of Pisco Portón, Midori liqueur, coca leaf liqueur, lychee and ginger ale, the Asian-themed course was a nod to the strong Chinese influence in Peruvian dining, known as chifa.
Castre always comes up with fantastic duck dishes and our fourth course, a grilled duck breast, or pato a la brasa, definitely delivered. Marinated a la brasa style, the flavorful duck was cooked to a good medium rare, fat fully rendered. The accompaniments -- grilled carrots, pear puree, and a deep-purplish duck demi-glace with mixed berries -- enhanced the slight gaminess of the meat exquisitely. Served with a strawberry fields cocktail of Pisco Portón, fresh berries, agave nectar topped with balsamic foam and a single leaf of crisped basil, the dish and cocktail complemented each other very well.
By the time our fifth course -- kobe beef marinated anticucho-style (the traditional preparation for beef hearts in Peru) -- arrived, the dining room had reached peak levels of noise (the happy noise of people high on food and drink). We were on our fifth cocktail -- a slightly spicy and refreshing Pepino Habanero made with Pisco Portón, fresh cucumber, mint, açai liqueur and habanero bitters -- and all was good in the world. It didn't really matter that the dish was a bit on the dry side (the combination of grilled choclo and a dehydrated powder seemed to suck away all the moisture), because the night overall had been remarkable.
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And it didn't end there. A final course offered wow factor. For cocktails, Ramos wheeled a small cart tableside, then proceeded to hand-whip the spiked, dark pink chicha morada (purple corn) sorbet at the table with the help of smoking liquid nitrogen.
This was followed by a dessert course, entitled "Seven Textures," for the seven different components on the plate. Of these, the highlight was a small canning jar of hazelnut sorbet with cajeta and goat cheese, which also made use of a smoke element: Opening the jar unleashed a cloudy whiff of smoke that smelled of sweet candied bacon.