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Dinner in Eight Movements: Mercury -- The Orchestra Redefined at Triniti

An eight-course dinner with an orchestra providing musical "pairings" for each dish seems a bit pretentious. Let's get that out of the way right up front. That's what many of you are no doubt thinking, and that's what my wife and I thought when we sat down to dinner at Triniti on Sunday night. The thought felt a bit ungracious, as we were guests of the house thanks to a last-minute hand-off invitation, but there it was.

Regardless of my general feelings on the perceived frippery of the proceedings, I was excited. I hadn't yet been to Triniti, and was eager to try the food I'd heard so lavishly praised. Honestly, I was also curious to see how they handled the musical pairings, and approached with an open mind, hoping to be proven wrong. After all, there's a very strong argument to be made, and I've had versions lobbed at me, that this type of dinner sans orchestral accompaniment smacks of pretense. Over the course of dinner, I found myself more and more won over to the concept.

As waiters perched tableside, bearing pitchers of oxtail consommé for the first course, the orchestra in position, an interesting thing happened. As the musicians put bows to string, the scent of that consommé hit my nostrils. It was wafting through the air, unfocused and without clear purpose, yet full and delicious. Likewise, the slightly unhinged music of an orchestra starting up, warm tones flitting about seemingly of their own accord, carried by convection along with the savory aroma, seeming to hit multiple senses in one swell rush. It was a surprising moment of synesthesia, and it helped set the mood for everything that was to come.

That first dish -- the consommé accompanied by a dumpling stuffed with velvety shredded oxtail, along with roasted peanuts and asparagus -- was lovely and genteel, but with obvious power behind it. The music followed suit, a Bach overture that moved between stately luxury and exuberant lightness filled the space of the dish, underscoring but also offering contrast. Rich and light, expected and unexpected (particularly a tempo shift toward the end, moving the piece toward staccato), finesse vs. impact. It was the dish, made audible.

If the opening salvo grabbed my attention, the second course brought me face to face with how wrong I'd been, and in the most surprising of ways. A simple salad of roasted carrots with a tart, fruity vinaigrette of tarragon and passion fruit, the dish was pleasant enough, but didn't really pop at first. Then, as the theme-and-variations of Geminiani's Concerto Grosso #13, "La Follia" made its rounds through and between phrases, offering twists both subtle and pointed, I found myself eating the dish differently.

Here, a more thoroughly cooked carrot, its buttery flesh yielding and sweet, with a swipe of tart sauce lancing through it. Then a barely cooked bite, with a slight crunch and an almost green and bitter-laced flavor, softened by the creaminess of what seemed otherwise like superfluous English peas. Unconsciously, I was compelled to move through different combinations of plate elements as the music shifted, the dynamism of the dish encouraged by the music. Theme and variation. Even the wine got in on the act, its forthright acidity pulled back by a surprisingly muscly, savory character. Stone fruit, tomcat, grass and a slightly earthy fungal note predominated, underscoring some commiserate passion fruit, with almost a hint of anise. They stood in for the elements of the sauce in their own way, a clever subterfuge.

As I bought into the concept, I found myself considering the pairings more and more, finding layers of connection that I wouldn't have guessed at. An un-devilish plate of Deviled King Crab, gilded with pressed potatoes and capers and caviar butter, had me and my wife discussing the nature of evil and its guises. We discussed Christina Rossetti and The Goblin Market as the sweet flavor of the crab gave way to the surprising and almost illicit allure of capers and caviar.

As Lully and Leclair's "Suite From Hell" washed over us, more puckish than demonic, we found a similar juxtaposition of form and content. A harpsichord wound quietly through the arrangement, the surreptitious element of discord, striking just barely opposed to the stream and vaguely ominous. As with the subtle current of cayenne on the plate, it was easy to lose sight of, distracted by other delights. Devils, after all, aren't always what you'd think them.

As far as sheer pleasure was concerned, I can't recall a dish in recent memory that I enjoyed more than a plate of "all mushroom, all the time," as Triniti's Chef Ryan Hildebrand described it. Centered around an earthy-sweet custard, the plate was a jumble of fungi in various forms, ranging from silky and slick to just-crisped and deeply meaty. A few stray crumbles of rye provided texture, and the whole thing, wine and music included, spoke of the glorious, heady richness of decay.

Though I was too focused on the food, this time, to pay the music much mind, I did find it clever to choose a piece at whose center is a solitary note, a C, voiced continuously by a wandering violinist as the orchestra spun through a scale keyed in the same, swirling moodily through its various forms, before descending into darker intonations. That C was like a continuation in spite, rather than a bright spot in the predominantly somber piece, and mirrored the single-minded bent of the dish well.

From there we moved to sweet prawns and tangy ratatouille, accompanied by a frenetic piece to mirror the crustacean's ill-fated struggle to survive. The dish was lively and charming, like the tale woven through the music, with a bit of calm at the end, as if the little scampi had reconciled its fate. An intermezzo of cranberry and lemon basil granita paired appropriately with an equally reserved Telemann Fantasia on harpsichord, both a bit icy and reserved, yet refreshing after all the meatier material.

Speaking of meatier material, the de facto main course, wagyu flank steak with a sweet potato and foie gras tlacoyo, Brussels sprouts and brandied peppercorn sauce, was unarguably delicious. Fatty and impossibly beefy steak streaked with a bracing minerality; the masa cake a sweetly earthy counterpoint; little explosions from the nearly candied peppercorns. It was unexpectedly delicious, an upscale riff on something I'd only previously had handed to me through the service window of a truck.

Fitting, then, that the accompaniment was a lovely piece of Mexican Baroque choral music, something I didn't even really know existed. It took the usual baroque forms, all stylized intricacies and fanciful curlicues of sound, and turned them festive and buoyant, a tambourine-waving vocalist wending her way amongst the tables, almost inviting a procession through the restaurant. Had the whole place joined in the song, I'd not have been surprised in the least, which was very surprising, indeed.

Dinner closed with a soufflé, bringing the assembled crowd along for the nerve-wracking ride that is preparing that particular dish. "If I talk too long, we're gonna lose it," explained Hildebrand of his brief introduction. They didn't. It arrived gloriously textured and rich, speaking of eggs without being eggy. Cognac-based Pineau des Charentes alongside amplifies the intent, willfully offering just a little too much. It's easy to eat a dish like this, not realizing what a precarious thing it is. The music served that purpose well.

The first movement of Vivaldi's Concerto for Violin in E Minor starts, nervous and apprehensive, delicate. As it swells to a dramatic wall of sound, there remains an intricacy that sits just below the surface, if you're paying attention. It's in the voicing of the violins, in contrast to the deeper movements of the piece, swelling and shrinking between pianissimos and fortes, the craft under the comfort.

As the group closed with "Autumn" from Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," I considered the effect of the evening. There was obvious joy written on the musicians' faces as the movements swelled and changed. Their love of their craft was evident, and it occurred to me that music, so much like food, is fleeting. It is there for the ears of those present, then gone.

When to whisper, when to shout; when to highlight, when to oppose. All of these are present across forms, adding to and informing the experience of each. Classicism and modernity compete for equal weight, with neither surpassing the other, as they are but degrees of each other. Neither exists in a vacuum, though there are those who may wish to believe so. The same is true for the myriad and wonderful forms of human expression, from music to food to wine. To think about it so obsessively may strike some as silly, and I still think there's something contrived about the whole thing. In the end, the evening was exactly, and not at all, what I'd expected. Who knew contrivance could be so nice.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall