Friday, March 20, 2009

Recalling the classics: Beef Wellington

Posted By on Fri, Mar 20, 2009 at 12:44 PM

click to enlarge beef-wellington.jpg

There's something about the classics. Those dishes that have been around forever have been around for a reason. Steak Diane, Duck a l'Orange and the many others that have graced fine dining menus for the past century. Some folks find them a bit stuffy and I understand that. I tend to gravitate towards more contemporary and deconstructed dishes too (I haven't met a cheeseburger I didn't like), but there is that occasion that I see an old favorite on a menu and I can't resist. This was one of those occasions.

Two weeks ago I was sitting in a restaurant just outside of Boston during a blasting snowstorm and I was staring at a menu just full of these time honored dishes. Steak au Poive looked appealing but so did the Chicken Oscar, Shrimp Scampi and Roast Duck with Blueberry Compote. As my eyes continued to wander, there it was. At the bottom of the menu in beautiful calligraphy: Beef Wellington. Oh my. Can I order this? I mean, I'm at a business dinner. Will these people suddenly think I'm a stuff shirt? No matter. I haven't had this in quite some time and if they have the audacity to put it on the menu, I will eat it.

I think that Beef Wellington gets it high brow moniker because the ingredients are a bit pricy. Certainly tenderloin (where the filet comes from) is the most expensive part of the animal and there really is no substitution. Traditionally a pate is also beneath the pastry but I have seen this fade away in many modern versions. Mine did not have pate. But that's the expensive part. Everything else is pretty basic. Mushrooms, puff pastry, seasoning... that's it. Duxelle is a fancy word for the mushroom preparation that coats the steak before being rolled in the puff pastry. Perhaps this scary word is another cause for the pretentious feeling that Beef Wellington causes. No matter, Duxelle is usually a mix of mushrooms, shallots and herbs reduced to remove the moisture. Here is a video of Gordon Ramsey's version which looks really good but he takes a bit of artistic liberty by adding some thin slices of Parma ham and mustard. I would try this in a heartbeat. It looks spectacular.

Out comes my dish. Beef Wellington is a surprising meal because it almost looks like a dessert. The pastry hides the savory beef and mushroom layer with a golden, crisp exterior. This restaurant serves each individual order in its own pastry rather than cutting from one long tenderloin. The flavors are so classic and expected yet as welcome as though it were the first time I'd tasted it. On my plate was a port wine and shallot reduction that was too perfect for words. "Buttery" is used too frequently by food writers but a quick search of the thesaurus provides me with no other option to describe the steak. It was quite thick and cooked to a perfect medium rare. To me, this must be the hardest part. Getting the puff pastry the ideal golden color while seeing that the steak inside is cooked flawlessly seems challenging. They pulled that off well. Since we were being snobbish, I thought it only fitting to order a tawny port after dinner and sip the sweet drink with the bravado it makers intended.

All in all, a fine night. Now I can't expect you to travel to Boston to try an excellent version of this dish but a quick internet search shows me that Café European in Hyde Park offers their take. The review I read was mixed but I like this restaurant and would definitely be willing to give it a go. With all of the wonderful and energetic food coming from young chefs today, it's good to remember those dishes that inspired so many kitchens before.

(For anyone interested, this meal was at The Hardcover Restaurant in Danvers, Mass)

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