Hunt, gather, eat, drink: A Hank Shaw dinner at Vie

October 28, 2011

I first met Hank Shaw, a rifle-packing Renaissance man, not through his own fine food blog (Hunter Angler Gardener Cook), but through that of his friend and neighbor's, the wildly widely read Simply Recipes. From there it was down the rabbit hole, emerging in Hank's world, one where he hunts and forages the wide open lands and seas for nearly all his own food, cooks it up with style—and finishes the night with a Fernet-Branca.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Hank just wrote the companion book to his life of adventure (Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast) and has been on a cross country road trip/book tour/hunting trip—punctuated with occasional author dinners with like-minded chefs and diners.

Hank recently stopped in the Chicago area at Paul Virant's Vie. Though we dined in the sleek dining room, on the beautiful dishes that earned a Michelin star, with lovely wine pairings—and a killer cocktail—by the end of the night we all lingered too late over drinks, stories, and the relish of physical nature usually reserved for campfires or lodges.

Hank sat with my friend Catherine Lambrecht and I at dinner, but between every course he got up to talk to everyone at every table, though with a limp: he'd banged up his knee on a tree trunk while hunting the nearly-mythical woodcock in Michigan the day before.

Paul and gifted sous chef Nathan Sears are themselves masters of the wild, and the markets. Their first course, parsnip tortelloni with slow cooked Tuscan kale and pickled fennel, held a pleasant, surprise ribbon of caramelized egg yolk and crunchy fried red onions—which they themselves called, correctly, Funyuns. Paired with a glass of Italian 2008 Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio.

Before the dinner, I'd sent Cathy Vie's email announcement, which showed a photo of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms in situ. She forwarded it to her friend, the mycologist Joe McFarland, who replied: hey, those are my mushrooms! (I've paraphrased.) In the second course, Joe's Illinois hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, acorn flour puff pastry, wild greens (chickweed, purslane, wood sorrel, dandelion, lamb's quarters), and pickled ramps met Alaskan birch syrup, and Colorado hawks wings mushrooms—foraged by Paul's sister, and found only above 8,500 feet. I've never had anything made with acorn flour. The puff pastry was like shortbread made by woodland elves and fairies. The wine paring, the white Italian 2009 Santa Barbara "Le Vaglie" Verdicchio del Castelli di Jesi.

The third course—local surf and turf—Walleye pike, ham hock brodo, celery root gremolata, and sauerkraut cake. Yes, you heard me: a savory sauerkraut cake. Think latke with kraut. An inspired heart for this dish which I finished with spoon and bread. Wine pairing, Oregonian 2008 Emerson Vineyards Pinot Noir

By this point in multi-course dinners, I'm pretty full, and planning ahead for dessert. But the fourth course—wood-grilled Hawks Hill Ranch elk loin, caramelized and fried sunchokes, burdock purée, and elderberry elk sauce—had me eating all the chips, no problem, and taking just a few more big rich bites. The wine pairing, the big red French 2009 Mas Carlot "Les Enfants Terribles."

But before dessert, an herbal, highly spirited palate cleanser—the killer cocktail—an elixir of Buffalo Trace bourbon, housemade black walnut nocello, Chartreuse, cherry bitters, and pear cider. I love complex, bitter, sweet, and murky—I'm still talking about the cocktail here.

And finally dessert. By talented pastry chef Elissa Narrow: pumpkin cake roulade, espresso semifreddo, candied walnuts, pumpkin, dried cherry compote. I am one of those diners some pastry chefs hate: I always want chocolate. But in the season of pumpkin, I want everything pumpkin, or more precisely, so-called pumpkin spice. This was all the classic American fall dessert flavors, refined and playful.

Below left, old friends and new: lovable Vie GM Jimmy McFarland (no relation to mycologist Joe), Elissa, Hank, Nathan, and Paul. Below right, Vie exterior at night.

Below left: Hank, Paul, and Hank's infamous white truck. Below right: a blurry shot of Hank's truck door. Did I mention that cocktail was killer?

What's not pictured are the three woodcocks hanging in back. After aging for a few days, Hank roasted them up at his next stop in the Dakotas. Not a book dinner; a just a beautiful dinner.

But back at Vie, before he hit the road again, mixologist and bar manager Mike Page and I shared in Hank's ritual night-ending Fernet-Brancas. Looking forward to the next one, wherever that might be.