A Farm-to-Table Peruvian Pisco Dinner at Latin Bites
Photo by Mai Pham Exemplary: Gazpacho verde, grilled green cauliflower, purple cauliflower with passion fruit smoke, dry broccoli, pickled beets, micro mint.
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.
Photo by Mai Pham Left to right: Latin Bites beverage director Carlos Ramos, Pisco Porton's Johnny Schuler and chef Roberto Castre
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.
Photo by Mai Pham Tuna tartare and dragon fruit -- we were instructed to stir them together to get the full effect of the contrasting flavors.
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.
Photo by Mai Pham The night's second pairing was this Chiwilla cocktail: Pisco Portón, Amaretto, Pineapple, sugared rim
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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