Tuesday, March 2, 2010

El Serrano - A rich & savory experience

The hubby called and said, “El Serrano is having a wine pairing dinner event.  $60 per person, then add tax and tip.  Want to go?”  Whoa, that would be a $150 dinner for two. 

“Pretty steep, don’t you think?” I asked, “And what if they don’t serve enough food?  Remember Aspen?  Expensive, pretty food, and you couldn’t wait to get your hands on a pizza?” 

Yet, in the end, we decided to see what El Serrano had up their culinary sleeve.  Besides, it was Friday night; time to let the hair down a little.

The parking lot was packed to the gills, and El Serrano smartly employed complimentary valet services to keep patrons from just driving off to avoid the angst.  As we entered the restaurant, I found myself fingering the heavy, intricately carved woodwork and admiring the decorative details that effectively transport visitors from the streets of Lancaster into the wonder of Peru.

The event was limited to 18 people and would occur in three different places within El Serrano, starting with a reception in the third floor Penthouse.  To get there, we were led through the main dining room, up an elevator, through the Culturas kitchen, and up the stairs.  There was a strong element of mystery and adventure, and though I had never met any of my dining partners, we found ourselves shrouded in a giddiness that productively broke the ice and resulted in excited chatter about where we were going.

The Penthouse had a modern feel with clean lines, reminiscent of a New York City art gallery. We were handed the first wine of the evening – an Argentinean Toso Brut that would be served with hors d’oeuvres.  “Brut” is the designation of the level of sweetness in a sparkling wine.  From Brut Zero (very dry) to Doux (sweetest), Brut is considered dry.  Paired with the Toso were Avocado Fritos – fresh avocado fried until golden brown, then drizzled with a balsamic reduction and wasabi mayonnaise and the Spanish specialty of Manchego cheese wrapped in Serrano ham, served with a dried date.  Of the two, I was enamored with the combination of the slightly salty and creamy Manchego cheese and the intense flavor and slight saltiness of the Serrano ham beautifully complementing the concentrated sweetness of the dried date.  Follow it up with a sip of the Brut sparkling wine, and it was a heavenly pairing.

It was here that we met Manuel, the gregarious and charismatic patriarch of El Serrano.  His passion for the wonderment he has been able to build and to share with Lancastrians was palpable and genuine, as was his desire for his guests to fully enjoy the evening. 

Manuel then led us through the maze of sheer splendor that is El Serrano, Clementina’s, and Culturas, to our next location – the Gold Room.  We crossed the courtyard and the 9-ton marble bartop that he had shipped from Peru, and I could only imagine how special an outdoor experience this would be in the Spring.  The Gold Room is a private dining room with a table seating 18 people.  Rodney Leitzel of Capital Wine & Spirits sat at the head to guide us through the wine and dinner pairing of four courses that would be served family style. 

A California Chardonnay was expertly paired with a Fish Ceviche and what I will describe as Tomato and Sardine Bruschetta.  I liked the heat of the red jalapeno in the ceviche, but deemed the lemon juice, which is the key ingredient to “cook” the fish, to be a bit overpowering.  As for the Bruschetta?  I absolutely loved it.  The sardines weren’t as aggressive in flavor as I had anticipated, and along with its sound marriage to the tomato and the crunchy texture of the French bread, it was a wonderful appetizer.  Manuel then said, “Hey, you know, the Malbec that we have paired with the salad at the end went really great with the Ceviche, I thought.  Let’s all try it!”  And out flowed the Malbec and more ceviche.  And of course, he was right.

The second course consisted of wild salmon with a coconut curry sauce and mixed vegetables paired with the Tohu Pinot Noir of New Zealand.  I find the Pinot Noir grape to be the riskiest of all the grapes because it’s so finicky and hard to grow.  When it finally gets to the shelf under hundreds of different labels, it’s hard to know what you’re going to get – the best Pinot Noirs are tremendous, the worst ones, undrinkable.  This one was fantastic.  Fruity and bright, it lent itself well with the moist salmon and simply sautéed mixed vegetables.  I almost missed the coconut curry; it had assimilated itself rather completely into the dish, and I wished it had made a stronger impression.  Nevertheless, the course was excellent.

Next, an item from the Culturas Kitchen – the Pinchos-Kebobs.  Pinchos refers to the kebab and is a typical tapas dish.  Filet tips, onion, and red pepper were skewered and marinated in an Aji Panca sauce, which is a Peruvian red pepper, and served with a green sauce that I believe the chef referred to as “Rocoto,” which is another Peruvian pepper, and combined with garlic, celery, and cilantro.  This dish may be my favorite.  The filet was tender, moist, with a bit of heat, and oh-so-flavorful, particularly when dipped into the Rocoto sauce.  It was served with a Spanish Granacha, you may have heard the grape called Grenache, that was bold enough to stand up to the dish, and the two danced a flawless tango in my mouth.  Astonishing.

The last dinner course was a cheese and salad plate, which is often served last in European countries because it supposedly aids in digestion.  An Argentinean Malbec was served with a 3-part plate of Tomato & Mozzarella Mixed Greens salad tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette, a Peruvian potato salad with beets, carrots, eggs and peas, and lastly, Goat Cheese and Tomato Marmalade Bruschetta.  Today, I am still marveling over the bruschetta and the savory sweetness of the tomato marmalade.

We ended the evening in the Wine Cellar, where Manuel had a spread of desserts awaiting us with a Tawny Port.  By this time, we interacted as if we had known each other for a long time.  We all raised our glasses and yelled, “Salud!” 

As I reflect on the evening, I find that the cost was well worth paying for such a rich, unrivaled culinary experience that ended in a happily satiated belly and, more importantly, newfound friends.  I also selfishly find myself reticent to write about this, lest the spaces fill up too quickly at the next event. 

El Serrano
2151 Columbia Avenue
Lancaster, PA 17603-4332
(717) 397-6191

No comments: