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Steenbock’s Hunter’s Dinner a Hit

November 9, 2011

The mark of a good chef can often be seen in the way he or she treats the side dishes and components that come with the main entrée. Often greater care taken with, say, the vegetable signals a higher level of capability and commitment.

Based on Chef Michael Pruett’s treatment of the vegetables and starches that accompanied the meats served during his nine-course Hunter’s Dinner Nov. 8 at Steenbock’s on Orchard in the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery on the UW-Madison campus, it was clear to us from the start that we were in for a real treat from a first class chef.

The prix fixe dinner, a run-up to the Thanksgiving season, was also a fundraiser, with half the proceeds from the $100-per-plate evening going to Madison-based Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin. Second Harvest President and CEO Dan Stein and his wife were there to explain the growing need for food in southern Wisconsin.

The feast of game meats—an excuse, Pruett allows, for a chance to cook the game he grew up eating in his native Minnesota—was accompanied by nine impressive wines from Palm Bay International, a Florida-based importer of high-quality small-vineyard wines primarily from the north of Italy. In virtually all cases, the wines proved an excellent match for the food they accompanied both in terms of flavor and body.

Our first course, the fall field salad, was a blend of greens and cooked, chilled beats and carrot slices and paired perfectly with the Bottega Vinaia, a bright Pinot Grigio whose crisp tannins cut through the beets’ natural sweetness. We saw similar craftsmanship in matching the duck consommé, with its single duck-filled ravioli pocket afloat in a light-bodied broth, matched with the Bertani Valpolicella. The wine’s light body and full flavor balanced perfectly with the contents in the bowl.

For the next course, celeriac root had been pureed into a thick, creamy compote in which nestled fresh rabbit, a cube of pork belly and a turnip sliced very thinly. The accompanying Poliziano Rosso di Montepulciano, a light-bodied blend of Prugnolo Gentile and Merlot grapes native to the Italian district, offset the flavor and cleansed the palate nicely. The roasted squab that followed, although not generating a large fan base at our table, was beautifully presented and delightfully matched with Feudi Primativo, often considered the precursor to the American wine grape Zinfandel and hailing the Puglia region in Italy’s bootheel.

Could this get any better? Oh, most assuredly it did.

Duck—both in its foie gras and confit forms—followed, nestled in its own bed of flavorful pureed carrot. A robust 2004 Col d’Orcia Brunello, the oldest wine served that evening, counterpointed the dish with a mature, rich flavor that helped turn the corner for meals wine and food pairings.

The evening’s high point may have been the bison, served with pommes puree, dried cherries and crunchy granola clusters. The meat was fork-tender, the potatoes and cherries offing both sweet and tart components. The granola, an unusual addition, added an element of “crunch” that made this perhaps the most perfectly conceived dish. The accompanying oak-aged Fonterutoli Badiola, a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot grapes, was excellent.

Red deer followed, presented with cranberry, walnuts and nestled in a bed of cooked whole barley pearls. Although the cranberry was subtle to the point of absence, the unusual pairing of the barley gave this dish a most unique appearance and approach. The very dry Bertani Secco, dubbed a “poor man’s amarone” by the wine representative present, extended the food’s impressions, resulting in another great pairing.

When the waiters trotted out the Reidel wine crystal, we knew the next-to-last course, elk with rosemary, red cabbage and parsnips, was destined to be the evening’s highlight. (We also knew that from talking to Chef Pruett and finding out that the elk was his personal favorite.) Once again, the blend of expertly prepared sides matched with the tender elk meat. The accompanying wine, a Travaglini Gattinera made primarily from the Italian Nebbiolo grape, proved to be one of the most accomplished and pleasing of the evening.

To end the meal, we enjoyed cooked spiced pumpkin with a very small dollop of vanilla ice cream dressed with a sage leaf. The unexpected and delightful combination was matched to a Fontanafredda Moscato d’Asti Monucco, a wine who’s inherent honey sweetness had transformed into a blend more floral, with a sweet, but not cloying fruit presence.

At the beginning of the meal, the wine representative suggested that everyone go to the James Beard Foundation web site and nominate Chef Pruett for a prestigious James Beard culinary award. By the end of the meal, I don’t think any of us would have challenged his recommendation.

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