I rarely (read: never) have the opportunity to take advantage of true fine dining. First, of course, because it is cost-prohibitive, but just as importantly, because fine dining restaurants tend not to offer much in the way of vegetarian fare. So when a friend who works at Bacchus, the flagship of the Bartolotta fleet, let me know that the restaurant would soon be hosting its fifth annual vegetarian dinner, Steph and I decided to splurge.
The meal, held in Bacchus’ gorgeous glass-enclosed conservatory overlooking Lake Michigan, was a five-course prix fixe meal with beverage pairings. Designed and prepared by Chef de Cuisine Nick Wirth, each course featured a different vegetable in multiple multiple preparations. The courses were designed to highlight the versatility of each vegetable by showcasing contrasting textures and temperatures. Each dish was also designed to represent a fully composed meal, complete with meat, vegetable, and starch, although in this case, each element was, of course, made of vegetables.
Salad Course: Asparagus
The salad course featured the quintessential early summer vegetable: asparagus. The dish was a pairing of green and white asparagus, served room-temperature. The green was cooked simply, still crunchy, and rolled in fresh chopped herbs (I tasted parsley and tarragon, I think). The white was more unusual, rolled in brioche breadcrumbs and lemon zest. The brioche was sweet, and the lemon zest almost made it reminiscent of a spiced cookie. The asparagus was served atop an asparagus puree, which was silky and creamy, and went perfectly with both varieties of asparagus (although I think it complimented the lemon/brioche combination especially well). The dish was paired with a Wisconsin IPA beer, which was played beautifully with both the bitterness and smoothness of the asparagus. (Sidenote: I didn’t write down any of the beverage specifics, so forgive my lack of info. This will become particularly apparent when we get to the wines later on.) At a time of year where we see asparagus everywhere we turn, this was a completely original take, and was a fresh and vibrant opener to the meal.
Soup Course: Ramps
The soup course was the highlight of the meal for me (and based on the buzz afterwards, I think most people agreed). The dish featured the ramp, the wild, thin, scallion-like member of the onion family, often noted for its garlicky flavors. The bowl was served to us with just the garnishes: a delicate pile of tiny pickled ramp slices, topped with a few gently fried ramp leaves. The smooth ramp soup was then playfully poured into the bowl from a steaming kettle. Following the meal, I overheard the chef explaining to a diner that the soup had been started that morning and had been cooking all day, and this was clearly evident in the depth of flavor that had developed. The ramp’s natural sweetness had been brought out, almost like that of roasted garlic, but much more subtle and delicate. The fried ramp leaves had a toasty and slightly nutty flavor, and acted almost like croutons as they deliciously added an additional textural element and enhanced the depth of the flavor. My only critique (possibly of the entire meal) was that the soup came only with two large pieces of ramp leaves. I would have either loved more, or to have them cut in smaller pieces, so that I could have included them with more bites throughout the course. The highlight of the dish was the pickled ramp slices. The slices were so small and thin that I wasn’t sure if I would taste them, but they packed a punch. While the soup itself brought brought out the ramp’s garlicky side, the pickling process exposed the ramp’s natural onioniness. The pickles were ideal for cutting through the richness of the soup, and I was careful to save a couple slices for the very last bite as a palette cleanser. The soup was served with Louie’s Demise, a smooth amber ale from the Milwaukee Brewing Company, which was gentle enough to not distract us from the wonderful subtleties of the soup while still providing a contrasting flavor. I would return to Bacchus for this sublime soup alone, please petition the chef to add it to his regular menu.
Pasta Course: Peas
The pasta course featured another cool-weather vegetable: the pea. The dish was a raviolo filled with a smooth and creamy pea puree and soft goat cheese. The raviolo was topped with the most incredible carrot sauce, as vibrant in flavor as it was in color. This was topped with a thin slice of hard, sharp cheese and curly, crunchy shavings of fried carrot. All of this was sprinkled with peas and pea tendrils. The layers of pea green and bright, deep orange were beautiful to look at, but more importantly they created a flavor profile that felt like taking a big bite of summer. The flavors were so fresh and pure, it was like rediscovering the flavor of the pea. The course was paired with a crisp white wine, which I believe was a dry Riesling. The entire course was a wonderful alternative to a heavy, starchy pasta course. Instead, it offered something light and invigorating, and excellent preparation for the richness of the two courses to come.
Entree Course: Mushrooms
The entree was a mushroom crepe filled with brie blended with porcini mushroom powder, and sprinkled with some crunchy porcini powder as well. When previewing the menu, this was the course that I was least excited about; there’s nothing terribly new and exciting about a mushroom and cheese crepe. Not only was with crepe perfectly prepared, however, but the sauce it was served with was absolutely sensational, and elicited from Steph the evening’s only “swoon-face.” The sauce was described as a Madeira glace, and had the richness and sweetness of an incredible brown butter sauce. The richness of the sauce combined with the brie was almost too much to handle, but was kept in check by a side of simply prepared baby mushrooms. The crepe was served with a medium-bodied red wine, which was fortunate, as anything heavier would have put me over the edge. As a vegetarian, I am constantly eating mushrooms at restaurants, and like I said, I wasn’t necessarily expecting amazing things from this course. To my delight, however, the chef reimagined the classic flavor combinations here, making them fresh and newly exciting.
Dessert Course: Rice
All that remained was the dessert, in this case featuring rice. The chef prepared a rice pudding brûlée with an horchata ice cream. The pudding was dense and rich and sweet and absolutely wonderful. The brûléed top added just a touch of a welcome burnt caramelization. The ice cream highlighted the creaminess and the natural rice flavors, rather than the spices that can sometimes dominate horchata. The dessert was topped with what was called a “sweet rice chip,” which was a large curled sheet of puffed rice. Although it was called sweet, it was actually by far the least sweet item on the plate. I tried breaking the chip into pieces and eating it as a topping for the dessert, but I found I enjoyed it much more as a cleansing device in between bites of the otherwise incredibly rich and sweet dish. The dessert was served with a “Milk”waukee cocktail made with rum, brandy, and chocolate milk. The cocktail was topped with ground nutmeg, which completed the flavor profile of the horchata, and married perfectly with the dessert.
Viewed as a cohesive whole, this meal was absolutely incredible, both in its conception and execution. Each dish flowed into the next, and the progression made perfect sense as part of a larger narrative. Although the event took place at the very beginning of summer, the chef made incredible use of what was in season, and the entire event just served to fuel my excitement about the coming season. I regret that I have no photographs of the food that I enjoyed, as the dishes looked as beautiful and summery as they tasted. By the end of the meal, I had had the perfect amount to eat and the perfect amount to drink, and was perfectly prepared for the blissful walk alongside the lakefront back to our apartment.
Following the meal, we were introduced to the chef, and we were also informed that not only is Bacchus now featuring an entire, separate menu of vegetarian food, but they also are happy to cater to vegetarians at any of their other special event meals, with advance notice. Having given myself permission to attend this event on the condition that it was a one-time splurge, I was presented with conflicting emotions of excitement and dread. However this is an excellent thing to know about for the next big celebratory occasion, or the next time someone else offers to flip the bill.