BEIRUT: Satisfied and slightly dizzy from their bottomless wine glasses, dinner guests left the Phoenicia’s Eau du Vie Monday night were practically sweating cheese.
French fromager Claude Lauxerrois served four cheese-infused courses and endless taste tests as the guest chef of Eau de Vie, which looks out onto Beirut’s yacht-lined bay from the roof of the Phoenicia Hotel.
Lauxerrois is the master cheese-maker of Ferme Jehan de Brie, located in Doue in northern France. The fromager has made nearly a dozen trips to Beirut, each time bringing with him a selection of his handmade cheeses, from subtle Munster to buttery Roquefort.
Though the thought of an unassuming cheese platter conjures up visions of nothing wilder than grapes, baguettes and art gallery openings, Monday night’s dinner was an unexpected journey into unbridled decadence.
The chef shaved, stuffed, melted and froze bits of his delectable product, which won the 1977 Mercure d’Or prize, into every dish. That paired with copious amounts of local wine made it unclear whether Lauxerrois was just a talented Frenchman or a human incarnation of Bacchus – the Greek god and giver of ecstasy.
The dinner began innocently enough, as just a handful of guests waited for the dining room to fill. A simple starter of warm bread and olive tapenade was paired with the first-course wine, Ksara’s award-winning 2010 Chardonnay.
Lauxerrois stood at the front of the burgundy-colored hall, manning a five-star spread of cheeses as people began trickling in. Serving suggestions decorated the outer edges of his sideboard: dried kiwis, fig jam, crusty bread rolls, dehydrated mango, nuts and grapes, of course.
The fromager is known to enjoy local wines wherever he travels, and chose to pair each of the dishes with a glass of corresponding local wine from Chateau Ksara.
The first course of the night was an endive salad sprinkled with a very light white-balsamic vinaigrette. The punch of the salad came not from the dressing but the marriage of poached pears and shavings of tangy, salty blue cheese.
More accurately identified as Roquefort – a very specific identification for sheep’s milk blue cheese aged in the limestone caves of France – the cheese was like shavings of butter that instantly melted on the tongue to reveal layers of pungent, piquant flavor barely cut by the bitter endive and sweet pears.
The main course started with a switch to red wine – Ksara 2008 – to complement a generous slab of rare beef tenderloin. The chef paired the meat with a simple sauce made from its cooking juices, and it was so tender and perfectly seasoned it seemed to evaporate off the plate in minutes.
A small bundle of caramelized apples topped with baby carrots and parsnips packaged a gooey dollop of melting Camembert fondue.
The climax of the dinner – and certainly the most-awaited moment for Lauxerrois – was the third-course cheese platter, featuring six different slices of the cheese-maker’s best.
By the third course the full weight the dinner’s richness and three glasses of wine – plus refills – was beginning to bear down, rendering the small tastes of cheese a much-needed change of pace.
Any hint of Lauxerrois’ age disappeared when the fromager was asked to talk about the cheese plates. The short, white-haired man, in his late 70s, danced around the table identifying the yellow wedges and white slices enthusiastically.
For sensitive palates, Lauxerrois presented a cow’s milk Boulonnais, a mild semisoft cheese native to the north of France. He also offered a Munster with a buttery texture, tangy bite and stronger odor than any store-bought variety.
At his sideboard, where Lauxerrois prepared the platters, only a tiny sliver of Munster remained after a slew of second helpings whittled his supply down.
Among the stronger varieties was a soft goat cheese called Maconnais. The goat cheese’s characteristic funky tartness was surprisingly fleeting, and accompanied by a light saltiness and creamy texture.
Other favorites included a nutty, gooey Reblochon and a blue cheese with a powerful tang.
When the cheese was cleared, stomachs relaxed at the sight of a small dessert approaching on serving trays: a single scoop of maple ice cream over a hazelnut biscuit.
The ice cream was light and refreshing, the biscuit simple and sweet and topped with just the slightest squirts of chocolate ganache. Hidden among its simplicity were sudden tangy bits of goat cheese.
The waiter barely had time to pour a final glass of rose desert wine before the table succumbed to the onslaught of dairy, waiving white dinner napkins in surrender, taste buds beaten.
Lauxerrois will hold two more dinners in Beirut Wednesday and Thursday at Sydney’s restaurant at Le Vendome Hotel. For reservations or more information call 01-368-800.