Food means different things to different people. To some, it is a way to express political, ethical or religious beliefs. To others, it is fuel that is consumed in precision to build an athletic machine. And, indeed, there are those who see food merely as sustenance, nothing more.
But to certain people, including me and the pack with which I hunt, food is adventure in its purest form—a means of exploring the world and testing the limits that define it. Those who subscribe to this philosophy wolf through the restaurant scene in search of the exotic and devour their finds with devilish bravado.
Zot Restaurant recently hosted a dinner that seemed to be designed specifically for this crowd—the Flintstone Dinner. Though somewhat of a misnomer (after all, there were no brontosaurus burgers or gravelberry pies), Zot’s Fintstone Dinner featured an array of exotic meats that you’d be more likely to find in a zoo than at your local butcher: snapping turtle, python, black bear, yak, antelope and—the real draw—African lion. The experience, however, turned out to be more tame than game.
To be fair, Zot did a lot of things right with this dinner. First, Zot deserves credit for hosting such a dinner in the first place. We sometimes forget that restaurants are businesses with narrow profit margins, and this is not the type of dinner you host with the expectation of raking in the coin. Second, with the exception of the python & foie gras course (a miss from conception to execution), each dish, individually, was well prepared. In terms of the progression, each plate that was put in front of you became your new favorite.
If this were any other tasting menu, that probably would be sufficient. But this menu, by design, was different.
Ultimately, if you showed up for this dinner, the one thing you wanted to be able to walk away with was a clear understanding of what each particular exotic meat tasted like. But that did not happen. Instead of leveraging the unique flavor of each meat, Zot, in most instances, chose to subdue them, mostly though seasonings. The lion, for example, was prepared as a stew with carrots, pearl onions and gnocchi. This dish was tasty. But the coriander-heavy spices drowned out the meat. As a result, I still have no idea what lion really tastes like. This was true of the yak and antelope as well. The python was deep fried and, hence, virtually indistinguishable from any other fried morsel.
With the snapping turtle soup, Zot intentionally masked the flavor. Turtle has a distinctive taste (sort of a fishy chicken). Once you’ve had it, you won’t forget it. We were told this batch of turtle was particularly fishy and were reassured that the dish was prepared so as to tone down the fishiness. Indeed, the soup’s cilantro, lemongrass and sweet carrots held the fishiness in check. But, as a result, you couldn’t tell that what you were eating was turtle. Again, it begs the question: Why mask the turtle’s unique flavor if that’s what we’re here to taste?
Zot appears to have been torn between and constructing dishes that would allow the flavors of these exotic meats to roam wild and constructing dishes that would stand on their own. At a minimum, the dinner's theme called for the former. Zot chose the latter. But the truth is that the two are not mutually exclusive.
The wine pairings, however, revealed that some things are mutually exclusive. To pair wine and food successfully, you have to know what the food tastes like. There’s just no way around it. Here, the wine-industry person who paired the wines told us that they were a vegetarian. I respect that as a lifestyle choice. But when it comes to pairing wine with exotic meat dishes, being a vegetarian, unsurprisingly, is not exactly the best skill set. For example, the Black Bear Bacon in Greens course was paired with a Rosé. On its face, Rosé would appear to be a safe bet—it’s incredibly versatile and goes great with salads. But the black bear bacon (the one exotic meat you could actually taste unadulterated) was far too intense for Rosé. In fact, the dish screamed for a Cote-Rotie or, as someone else at our table brilliantly suggested, an Hermitage. A person in the wine industry who tasted the food would have known that.
Zot is one of the few restaurants around that has the mettle to host dinners like these. And it should continue to do so. Next time, though, Zot should allow itself to be a little more…wild.
For more pics, check out my Zot's Flintstone Dinner set on Flickr.