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Alexander’s Great Meal at Steenbock’s

June 10, 2011

Having once had the pleasure of interviewing John Morgridge, we were eager to see the inside of the new Wisconsin Institutes of Discoveries (WID), which the wealthy alumnus had helped bankroll. When we heard that Food Fight Inc. had been given two of the dining concessions for the facility, opening Steenbock’s on Orchard earlier this year, our interest piqued even more.

And when we heard that Steenbock’s on Orchard – named for UW biochemist and scientist Harry Steenbock, known for the discovery of Vitamin D – was mounting a prix fixe dinner replicating the final dinner consumed by Alexander the Great … well, we couldn’t stay away any longer.

First, a facilities report. Based on the parts of the lobby we were able to see on the way to the restaurant, WID appears to be a fascinating place chockfull of technological conveniences, interesting little creature comforts and contemporary ambience. A solo musician, his guitar and harmonica amplified, was playing for what looked like a private reception in the large open lobby of the building when we arrived.

By the time we found our way to the restaurant several hundred feet to the east on the same level, the ringing music could no longer be heard. Steenbock’s embraces the same contemporary, open ambience, yet still maintains an unexpected intimacy we found comfortable for the entire six-course meal.

Chef Michael Pruett had cut his culinary teeth with a variety of California chefs including Wolfgang Puck before joining the staff of Johnny Delmonico’s, another Food Fight restaurant, two years ago. His interpretation of Alexander’s  final feast was an extravagant, albeit not overly filling meal that stressed flavor and variety over volume.

The evening opened with champagne, and each course was paired with a different California, French or South African wine courtesy of McFarland distributor L’Eft Bank Wines. Despite what at first seemed to be unusual matches, the wine/food pairing was the best we’ve ever had in Madison.

We opened with “fired” seafood, which contained a large and perfectly grilled sea scallop, a small clam, twin mussels served out of their shells and a bite-sized piece of langoustino. The front half of the langoustino’s body, now an empty shell with face, eyes and feelers in tact, was served as a garnish. The wine, 2010 Cline Viognier from California was lightly fruited and, as we said earlier, an excellent match.

We next segued into a tender line-caught swordfish in a sweet and sour sauce with blackberries, a blend that was innovative and a pleasant combination. The wine: 2010 Man Vintner’s Chenin Blanc from South Africa (see above for commentary.) Sardinian lobster came next, tender and succulent and served with a 2008 Ajello Nero d’Avola from Sicily.

Then we took a break to digest and watch belly dancer Mahela work her magic. It seemed logical that Alexander also would have had such dancers to entertain his men so, in the interest of historical accuracy we paid close attention to her every move.

Honey-glazed lamb done medium rare followed the dancer and was served with Israeli cous cous – larger than other varieties – pistachios and figs. The lamb was tender and flavorful, a nice match with the 2008 Chateau Doyac from Bordeaux’s Haut-Medoc.

The surprise hit of the evening was the braised goat served with fresh fennel, thinly sliced carrots and baby beets. The combination helped augment the meat’s characteristics and give the dish a richer, more satisfying flavor. The accompanying 2007 Vietti Nebbiolo Perbaco from Italy’s Piedmont region was an excellent match.

The evening closed with mission figs served in a honey and wine reduction sauce paired with a delightful Oremus Late Harvest Tokaji from Hungary, an excellent combination of both the sweet and the complex.

We’ve had few meals that were better or served in more delightful surroundings. Thanks to the campus parking challenges, Steenbock’s on Orchard is still a well-kept secret. You will want to stop in before the word gets out.

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