Holiday Dinner 2010: Craig Hopson and Pierre Poulin at Le Cirque
Le Cirque 2010 Holiday Tasting
Recipes and Wine Pairings by Chef Craig Hopson, Pastry Chef Pierre Poulin, and Wine Director Paul Altuna of Le Cirque
Butternut Squash Agnolotti, Puntarella, Marsala
Paired with 2009 2007 Henry Fessy Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau, Burgundy
Atlantic Cod Baccala, Razor Clams, Prosciutto, Porcini
Paired with 2007 Rully “La Gaudine,” Domaine de L’Ecette, Burgundy
Squab Breast, Farro, Chanterelles and Candied Orange
Paired with 2006 Hall Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Venison Medallion, Pear, Chestnut, Celeriac and Coffee Infused Jus
Paired with 1999 Renaissance Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Sierra, Foothills
Praline Tortellini, Exotic Fruit Minestrone, and Basil
Paired with Braida Moscato D’Asti
Pumpkin Souffle, Jack Daniels Crème Anglaise
Paired with Braida Moscato D’Asti
Petit Fours and Bon Bons
Aussie import, former hero of Picholine, and recent champion of One if By Land, Two if By Sea, Craig Hopson is a quiet, calculated risk-taker. So it’s no surprise that when preparing the holiday menu items for Le Cirque—essentially placing one grand tradition (the holidays) within another (the monolith legacy of Le Cirque)—Hopson brings a few new elements to the table without losing sight of the restaurant’s entrenched European elegance. His holiday dishes have all the expected star players of cold-weather cuisine—gourd, game, pork, spices, citrus, and all manner of earthy, comforting ingredients—but they’re combined with an emphasis on subtlety (a rare commodity in the holiday season), minimalism, and Hopson’s own modern, cosmopolitan savvy. The result is an elegantly pared down holiday feast—a seasonal miracle fit for Hallmark, ensconced in the grandeur of an ultra-luxe New York institution.
Whether he’s a holiday fanatic or not, it’s clear Hopson likes cold weather. For one thing, it’s the restaurant’s busiest time of year. “We do a lot of our business in December,” he says. “We get a lot of big tables. People like to bring their offices out, and luxury items like caviar, Dover sole, and foie gras fly out the door.” Beyond the major payoff (for restaurant and caviar-gobbling office workers), Hopson simply enjoys the flavor profiles at his fingertips in the colder months. “It gives me the opportunity to do heartier dishes and that’s what I look for in the colder seasons,” he says. “And truffles, of course.”
But Hopson doesn’t concede to every holiday expectation. Even with dropping digits on the thermometer driving us all towards heartier and (ahem) larger portions, Hopson is crafting a lighter kind of richness at Le Cirque, substituting olive oil, vinaigrettes, and reductions for classic staples like cream and butter (presumably on the ingredients “naughty” list). The good news: none of the richness is lost in translation.
For this reason alone, Hopson is a surefire contender for the culinary “nice” list. And it doesn’t hurt that he plays well (and comfortably) within the classic profile of Le Cirque. Hopson started a recent Holiday Dinner tasting with a Tuscan-inspired dish of butternut squash agnolotti, a combination of sweet, spice, and savory that could arguably cover all the bases for holiday flavors: spicy Italian sausage, warm squash filling, hearty bitter greens, and a Marsala reduction redolent of gently burnt sugar. “It’s a modern take on what they do in Tuscany,” says Hopson. Le Cirque Wine Director Paul Altuna paired the dish with a young Beaujolais: light, bright red fruit on the nose and a clean tannic finish to cut through the sausage and lush pockets of agnolotti.
Atlantic cod followed, a tender, lightly salt-cured fillet paired with the subtle earthiness of porcinis and a kiss of nutty Prosciutto di Parma. Altuna’s pairing, Rully "La Gaudine" Domaine de Recette, cut into the fish with a subtle minerality (called “pierre a la fusil” in France after the steel used to strike sparks from a flint) and just enough butteriness to stand up to the nutty broth and tender fish.
With tasting menus like this, Hopson plays around a little more freely—capitalizing on seasonal ingredients and a lighter, though still classically French-Italian structure, and a few deftly applied exotic grace notes. His squab breast had a North African flavor profile, courtesy of almonds, raisins, candied orange and Moroccan Pastilla spices. “Sweet and spicy is one of my favorite flavor combinations,” says Hopson, who uses Italian farro to ground the dish’s subtle exoticism with a recognizably European grain. Altuna’s pairing of a Hall Napa Valley Cabernet had enough fruit and herb—best of all, a teasing tincture of licorice bark—to stand up to the sweet, spicy meatiness of the game bird.
Hopson finished with venison loin rolled in ground espresso and served with chestnuts, celeriac, pear, and coffee-infused jus. “Venison’s one of my favorite kind of meats to cook,” he says. “It’s got a delicate yet rich, definitive taste.” And he works with that taste with a gradient progression of flavors (sweet, spicy, earthy, caramelized), manifest in the variously smooth, toothsome, and fork-tender textures a mouth craves this time of year. The star players here were a delicately gamey venison loin and the robust (but judiciously applied) espresso, and Altuna found a sufficiently rugged California Cabernet to co-star. Its 11 years of maturing lent flavors of coffee and tobacco, a wild feral savor surprisingly akin to venison, and the unmistakable aroma of fallen leaves.
For Hopson, modern is as much about “lighter and fresher,” and for Le Cirque Pastry Chef Pierre Poulin, it’s much the same. “At the end of the meal, I don’t want to go crazy with heavy chocolate stuff,” says Poulin. His Praline Tortellini does the trick, balancing rich, nutty praline ganache and savory al dente chocolate pasta with a light, basil-accented fresh fruit minestrone—brightened further with a lightly sweet, crisp Moscato D’Asti pairing.
Like Hopson, Poulin likes to play—carefully—within the traditions of the restaurant’s French-Italian perspective. “My bosses are Italian,” he explains. “They deal with pasta all the time, so when I came up with the idea of pasta, it didn't make sense to them.” But Poulin made it make a very special kind of sense with an al dente chocolate pasta cradling just the right amount of smooth praline filling (and, like any good pasta, finished with the clean bite of fresh basil). Poulin’s Pumpkin Soufflé is another half-concession to tradition—in this case, sentimental ingredients—with a modern twist. Pumpkin, ubiquitous holiday gourd, becomes a warm lush pillow of soufflé which Poulin tops with a flurry of powdered sugar and a generous pour of chilled crème anglaise. Diners beware: that warm rush of goodwill you feel upon eating the soufflé is more likely courtesy of the Jack Daniels lacing the crème anglaise—Poulin’s wink to the diner, and a wise concession to what every hard-working adult needs this time of year.