Longform

Xtreme Cuisine

Page 3 of 12

If those mouth-watering medallions of Bichon Frise did not teach me why entree to a Le Menu dinner is one of the hottest and most exclusive tickets in town, subsequent courses most certainly did. After another intermezzo, this one a ramekin of Key lime custard, made with sea-turtle eggs, and garnished with lime zest, we're brought what at first resembles a petite Cornish game hen or a quail. It is in fact a ferruginous pygmy owl, roasted with the head intact so that we can see, despite its denuded state, that what we're noshing is one of those endangered cactus dwellers, so beloved of Arizona environmentalists that the creature's mere presence has halted the construction of schools and roads. The tiny, browned bird body before me could fit neatly into the palm of my hand.

"Chef Kaz encourages our guests to enjoy the fowl whole, bones and all," our dazzling maître d' informs us, her white teeth glistening beneath glossy pink lips. "The bird has been roasted with its internal organs intact, and is best eaten with the black napkin provided atop your head. This is copied from the way the ortolan is eaten in France. It's meant to enhance the sensation of devouring this delicious creature. Bon apptit!"

The waiters help the older members of our party place the black napkins over their heads. I wait 'til the last moment before donning mine so I can catch a glimpse of the surreal scene, each diner outfitted as if for his or her own firing squad: like something out of a Magritte painting, or a mise en scène by Luis Buñuel. As our hostess mentioned, we're supping on pygmy owl after the manner of Gallic gourmands gobbling ortolan, the tiny orange-breasted sparrow whose consumption is now forbidden in France. The birds are netted in the wild, fattened on a diet of oats in captivity, then suffocated in cognac and roasted whole. The eating of them was once considered so great a sin that, by tradition, the diner was to veil his or her eyes in shame with a napkin. Strangely, though, this only enhances one's experience by forcing concentration on the taste and smell of the precious warbler, its enticing odor captured by that same funereal serviette.

I devour half my owl in one bite, and find it crunchy and succulent, brown juice covering my fingers and running down one side of my mouth. The heart, liver and other innards pop with an explosion of warm saltiness as I chew into them. Moët & Chandon is poured into our champagne glasses, and a swallow or two eases this heavenly hooter down my esophagus. I greedily ingest the rest, polishing off the remainder of bubbly, and I'm quickly offered another flute of same. I feel a twinge of guilt, knowing the rarity of this especially rara avis, but I admit that there's the flush and tingle that accompanies doing anything so very, very wrong.

Our main course is anticlimactic: three strips of bighorn sheep in a light dusting of peppercorns with a maple-whiskey glaze, and a side of fingerling potatoes and white heirloom carrots. Bighorn sheep can be hunted in Arizona, but they are subject to a highly regulated lottery system, and a gamesman is allowed to take only one during his entire hunting career. They're sought after mostly as trophies, and, to be certain, the meat tastes a lot like venison, though gamier and greasier. It was hardly the high point of the meal.

The final course is not dessert, but rather two pieces of seal sushi, prepared nigiri-style, wrapped in gold leaf and served with an amber cordial glass of very expensive and very sweet Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. The seal had been harvested recently during the massive Canadian seal slaughter, protested by the likes of Paul McCartney and Pamela Anderson. Chef Yamamoto felled one seal during an expedition to the Great White North for the hunt. Imagine fatty tuna (toro) crossed with raw wagyu beef, and maybe a touch of yellowtail. The diners moan their approval while chasing the seal with the Muscat. When Yamamoto emerges from the kitchen sipping a goblet of Pinot Noir, he embraces his hostess, who is actually his companion of several years, Scottsdale native and former model Alexis Bridgemont. There is polite but enthusiastic applause for the couple. Yamamoto shoots me a triumphant glance. Chef Kaz is on top of the world.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons