“Pop-Up” is a relatively recent restaurant descriptor, typically utilized for a “one time” culinary event in a non-restaurant setting. More liberal interpretations are now used to describe unique or temporary menus or ethnic themes in existing establishments, or on a recent night in Lake Placid – a guest chef joining the kitchen staff at Liquids & Solids at the Handlebar. On a warm December Friday evening, John Vargo of Saranac Lake’s Eat ‘n Meet Grill & Larder joined Liquids & Solids’ charcuterie wizard, Tim Loomis, in the kitchen. No stranger to traveling with his knives, Vargo is an occasional collaborator with another North Country legend, Moses “Red” Lafountaine, in Red’s kitchen at Paradox Lodge. This event included six courses, each paired with a drink – two craft beers, three bespoke cocktails blended by L&S co-owner and mix-meister Keegan Konkoski, and one wine – a northern Rhone from Crozes-Hermitage.
We were lucky enough to score our favorite seats in any restaurant – the two bar stools closest to the service bar. Seriously. They are our favorite seats for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that you can eavesdrop on the staff gossip and learn what is working on that night’s menu – and what is not. Importantly, since the bartender and the dining room waitstaff are frequently gathered at that exact spot, those seats near the service bar usually assure very attentive service. We also like to be close to the liquor.
An amouse bouche from the kitchen was the first offering: a sprinkle of caviar topping a spoonful of liver pâté, all perched on a crispy morsel of chicharrones – a/k/a cracklings, a/k/a pork rinds, a/k/a/ Color me happy! A playful upscale riff on a southern farm classic. We were off to a great start.
Next up was a creamy spiced horchata “eggnog”, topped with a toasted sweet potato marshmallow, fried plantain, candied lime and roasted sesame seed powder. The sweetness of the dish worked perfectly with the accompanying mug of bitter Mikkeller Oatmeal Stout.
I attributed the next dish to Chef Vargo’s time spent in New Paltz at Gadaleto’s Seafood Restaurant – a crispy fried whole Portuguese sardine. How you dream up a paired cocktail to go with that dish I have no idea, but Keegan certainly came up with an original, made with gin, bourbon, ginger fennel honey, pomegranate lavender coffee juice, and a G&T ice cube.
The centerpiece of a traditional “Seven Fishes” holiday dinner is bacalao, and the kitchen offered a nice variation on that theme: salt cod, tomatoes, capers, octopus, served over creamy semolina. It was a wonderful mouthful of traditional Basque fisherman staples and just perfect for the season. It inspired me to start reconstituting my own store of salt cod for the holidays. Not surprisingly, the paired glass of Allagash (Maine) Little Bret complemented the salt cod perfectly, for the same reason beer goes with salted pretzels. Well done.
Traditional rustic cooking often means finding ways to take tough, cheap cuts of meat and tenderize them. A long-simmering low-temperature braise is the most common method. A confit takes it one step further, utilizing a fat to do the simmering. The next dish was a confit of duck gizzard. This dish was a new one to me, and one I would have guessed came about because of a lost bet between two cooks with a sense of humor. A duck gizzard is tougher than a crocodile snout and had I not tasted the result of this effort I would not have believed it. Not only was it tender, it was fabulous, served with a chestnut glaze, perched on a puddle of parsnip brandade. Those big flavors called for a big drink to wash it down, and Keegan mixed bourbon with rosemary, brandied ginger apple sauce, and white tea, chilled with hibiscus ice cubes.
If I had to pick a favorite dish, the next pairing of braised beef cheeks with pickled tongue, gnocchi, and Brussel sprouts served with a 2013 Saint Cosme Crozes Hermitage would be it. The cheeks are arguably the tastiest part of the cow, and this pairing with a young northern Rhone was a nice match.
Four hours after we arrived we were presented with a picture perfect finale of a dish: Belgian Chocolate gingerbread pudding, drizzled with a rum plum sauce, and speared with a flat of peppermint spun sugar. A glass of barrel-aged Negroni pitted the Campari’s bitterness against the sweetness of the chocolate dessert. I am happy to report that they fought to a delectable draw.
If you are lucky enough to get an invite to one of these events in the future, I highly recommend that you accept!