Behind the Scenes @ Napa & Co: Iron Chef Mushrooms

Jeff "jfood" Schlesinger

Napa & Company in Stamford, one of the elite restaurants in Connecticut, was founded several years ago and immediately created a frenzy of activity along Summer Street. Proprietors, Mary Schaeffer and Charles Morgan, have been fixtures within the high-end Stamford restaurant scene for many years and have raised the culinary bar in Fairfield County. They are known for their menu's dedicated farm-to-table approach with a focus on locally sourced seasonal ingredients, and an outstanding wine list. 

The kitchen is presided over by the very talented  Executive Chef Arik Bensimon, whose youth belies his extensive experience.  Raised in a restaurant family, he began cooking at the age of 14. After graduating from the CIA he worked at top NYC dining establishments including Le Cirque and Picholine. Chef Arik's unique ability to stay calm and focused sets the tone for this uncharacteristically non-frenetic commercial kitchen, and allows his efficient and friendly kitchen staff to produce an incredible array of inspired creations. 

In thinking how to best present the well established Napa & Company to the CTbites community, we asked if we could combine an “Iron Chef” single ingredient concept with a trip behind the scenes to watch Chef Arik in action. Chef Arik was quick to accept our challenge (which included my assisting in the kitchen). And now, Napa & Company meets Iron Chef…MUSHROOMS!!!

We arrived shortly after lunch and were presented with the four course mushroom extravaganza menu that Chef Arik would prepare.

  • Frisee, Wild Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, Bacon Vinaigrette, Poached Farm Egg from Chef Arik’s aunt Nelly Rabinowitz’s farm in Bethany, CT
  • Winter Black Truffle and Cauliflower Risotto
  • Halibut, Bluefoot Mushrooms, Wild Onions, Beurre Fondue
  • Squab Breast, Mushroom Ravioli, Porcini Jus

After donning a chef’s jacket and apron, Chef Arik brought me to his prep area and gave me an overview of what was required to prepare the four dishes 

I was put right to work. He placed a squab on the cutting board and instructed me to break it down. After filleting the first squab breast without the winglet, Arik showed me how to keep the wing attached and then French Finish to the first joint of the wing, a very nice addition to the presentation. The squab was then placed in a sous vide bag with the seasoning, some oil, sealed and placed in the 139-degree preparation tank for thirty minutes. The carcass was chopped, an onion was quartered and we moved to begin the sauce for the dish. The bones were quickly browned with the onion, star anise, and butter, white wine (a Pinot Grigio) was used to deglaze and some chicken stock was added for a reduction that would simmer for the next two hours.

The preparation of the Frisee salad was next and the end result would require combining three separate preparations. The first task was to prepare the warm bacon vinaigrette. The dressing included D’Artagnan double smoked bacon, cream, and sherry vinegar and when finished the result was rich and luscious. I also discovered that Napa cures its own bacon and we would later sauté this house cured bacon with the Hen of the Woods mushrooms (seen above). We set the warm vinaigrette aside for the final assembly and returned to the prep area to begin the Winter Black Truffle and Cauliflower Risotto.

When Chef Arik removed the lid of a one quart tub of Arborio rice I was immediately struck with the overwhelming aroma of truffle. There, buried in the rice, were three black truffles. He explained that by storing the truffles in the rice, the rice absorbs some of the flavor. The chef also mentioned that he sometimes keeps truffles with the eggs since the shells are porous and will also absorb some of the truffle flavor. We quickly disassembled a head of cauliflower and separated the green part into a sauce pan for the cauliflower broth and the white flowers into another pot for the cauliflower puree. 

The last items that needed preparation were the wild onions, the leeks, the black truffles and the onion. The leeks were sliced into rounds, the onion was diced and then Chef Arik taught me when prepping wild onions, there is an outer skin that when cooked, will be much tougher than the inner part. He showed me how to use my fingernail to carefully remove the outer skin and when I ate the scallion later in the day I took particular note of the soft texture throughout the wild onion.  This will now be a part of my routine when cooking at home. Finally we used a newly opened toothbrush and some white wine to clean the truffles, a method also shared by Chef Arik.

With the prepping completed, it was time for the chef to create the plates that we all see in Napa’s dining room. 

He first placed the previously poached brown eggs for the salad into the sous vide tank to bring to temperature. Then the house cured bacon and mushrooms were sautéed, the dressing brought back to temperature and the assembly commenced. A beautiful mound of Frisee was placed in a mixing bowl, the vinaigrette was added and the fried bacon and mushrooms joined. After tasting and adjusting the seasoning, the salad was placed on the dishes and Aunt Nelly’s poached egg was carefully placed on top for an exquisite presentation.

We took our first bite of the Frisee, vinaigrette, bacon, mushrooms and egg and exhaled a sigh of pure enjoyment. The crispiness of the bacon, the flavors of the mushrooms and Frisee, combined with the depth of the vinaigrette and brought to a higher level with the richness of the egg yolk was luscious. A bit of saltiness and crispness from the bacon, the smoothness of the poached egg yolk and the incredible flavors of the mushrooms and the warm bacon vinaigrette made this dish a feast all on its own. I wandered over to Chef Arik and told him I would love this on a piece of thick toast the first thing on a Sunday morning. He told me it was featured on the brunch menu. Perfect.

It was difficult to next choose between joining the chef in his preparation of the risotto or finishing the salad, and multi-tasking became a required sport. The first part of the risotto preparation was basic in sweating some diced onions in oil, adding the rice to coat each grain, adding some white wine (again the Pinot Grigio) and then the constant ladling of the cauliflower broth and stirring. Once the rice was the perfect texture, he removed from the heat and transformed a simple, basic risotto into one of the greatest eating pleasures I have ever experienced. To the rice he added the cauliflower puree, some butter, cream and parmesan cheese, constantly stirring to combine. Unsatisfied with the texture he added some more broth and stirred. Again, not to his liking and he added a little more broth and stirred; now it was the texture he desired. Some salt and pepper and he placed heaping servings into bowls. Now for the crown jewel, he grabbed one of the truffles, a truffle slicer and shaved 8-10 slices atop each mound of risotto. When we sat in the wine room to enjoy, Chef Arik joined us with his own serving. That was the signal that we were enjoying something very special and it was extraordinarily delicious. The risotto still had just a bit of tension, the cauliflower puree, butter and parmesan combined for created a richness that is almost indescribable for words and the truffles’ pungent flavor gave the dish a deep earthiness that days later I still taste. We can only hope that this dish makes it onto Napa's menu, and if it does...order it.

As I went back into the kitchen it was approaching 5 PM and dinner service would begin shortly. Chef Arik went into full speed to prepare the last two dishes. The first was the Halibut. I was unsure of the “butter fondue” concept, but I was about to learn. He heated some oil in the pan, added the filet, skin side up and fired. Of course butter was now added as well. After carefully flipping to skin side down, he placed the pan into the hot oven. Simultaneously he brought the scallions and leeks to temperature and likewise placed the pan in a cooler oven and then sautéed the mushrooms. Every few minutes he tested the fish for doneness and when he was satisfied he removed to the stovetop again and finished the cooking process. Then the chef introduced me to a ”butter fondue” as he flipped the halibut so the skin was again exposed and then leaned the pan forward and spooned the butter sauce over the time in a rapid sequence. All the elements joined together on the plate with a final squeeze of a beautiful Meyer Lemon.

We sampled this dish and were again impressed by the various flavors and textures that blended together on the plate. The crispiness of the wild onions, leeks and the skin of the Halibut were in sharp contrast to the rich, smoothness of the fish. The mushrooms once again added that earthy quality and they were slightly crispy on the outside while still moist on the interior. The lemon gave the dish both an added flavor and an acid as it played with the crispiness of the leeks and scallions. And the porcini jus created a slight background of depth. Overall this was a wonderful dish.

The last entrée for preparation was the squab. How simple, yet so elegant was the preparation and the presentation, respectively. When Chef Arik removed the breast from the bag, they were a bright pink, since the sous vide bath was set at a mere 139 degrees. The previously sous vide’d squab breasts were placed skin side down in a hot pan and seared.  Simultaneously he placed the Yellowfoot and Black Trumpet mushroom ravioli (made that morning) in salted water. When they floated to the top he removed and finished in a pan with some butter. The dish was plated, topped with a Porcini Jus, and we began our last adventure. The texture of the sous vide prepped squab was extraordinary. The closest comparison I can make is a perfectly seared piece of foie gras. It was soft, moist and with each piece that I placed in my mouth I slowly pushed my tongue through the delectable morsel, enjoying the rich deep flavor and the wonderful texture. The porcini raviolis and squab breast made for a perfect end to the 4-course tasting extravaganza.

So what to do after eating four fantastic courses? We sat in the bar area to reflect and have a glass of wine and were delighted to accept a gracious invitation by Arik to sample a few more of his creations. A plate of pate and breads plus a plate of Buratta with shaved brussel sprouts were  the first dishes to arrive. The Buratta was perfect, the outside was still in the solid state and the inside oozed beautifully when we cut into it. The shaved brussel sprouts brought a wonderful lightness to the dish. The next dishes to arrive were a platter of grilled octopus, plus a plate of their large rectangular French fries. The octopus was grilled and exuded a smokiness that was fantastic. The fries were a great accompaniment with the saltiness to offset the smokiness of the octopus. Then to cap off the day, a trio of delectable desserts including bread pudding, molten chocolate cake (cooked to perfection) and caramel flan were brought to the table.

The Mushroom Challenge was complete -- the winners clearly were everyone involved in the tasting. Seeing the vision of a dish being transformed from conception to preparation, and ultimately to presentation was an incredible journey. I left Napa's kitchen with a much fuller appreciation for what goes into the artfully created dishes that arrive at the table

To say I was a fan of Napa & Company before this adventure was a given, to say that I am a huge of fan of Napa & Company is now an understatement.

Napa & Company regularly hosts wine and food pairing event that are worth checking out. Here's the latest schedule.