Within a month, we were privy to not one but two amazing bourbon dinners in our little culinary hideaway, Winston-Salem, NC or as we locals like to call it, WSNC. This time we delve into Chef Travis Myers’ bourbon wonderland event at Willow’s Bistro. These drinks and cocktails were from the Jim Beam family of bourbons and the food pairings were right on point, making it a fantastic marriage of goodness. Chef Myers has taken Chef Will Kingery’s vision of Willow’s Bistro and enhanced Will’s baby to blossom into a foodie paradise. Let’s look at this pairing dinner.
Amuse Bouche: Country-Style Cajun Gumbo
Take pork belly mix it with seafood, scallions and a spicy gumbo broth, toss in a dollop of white rice and what do you have? Yumminess, that’s what. The salty pork with spicy broth was a great marriage of the earthy flavor. Oysters and scallions took the earthy to a lovely place in the sea with herbal essence and made the dish pop. The dish wasn’t overly spicy as Stephanie was afraid it would be since it is “Cajun.” Any self-respecting Cajun would want to pat Chef Travis on the back, I’m sure. A great starter, indeed.
This was paired with a Jim Beam Apple Mule which was fresh muddled mint, apple cider and Jim Beam Apple Whiskey all topped with ginger beer. When you take this drink and let it mix with the spicy gumbo, your tongue is at conflict with itself, but that’s a good thing. The cool crisp with the savory spice sends your taste buds into a flavor frenzy and really, what could be better?
Hunter Farms mutsu apples and cherry compote, charred bread, house pickles, candied pistachio, Lusty Monk grain mustard and Fair Share Farms microgreens. I have said it before and I’ll say it again: microgreens, while usually a minor addition, can take a relatively understated dish and turn it out like a debutante at her ball. That’s exactly what happens here, other than the dish wasn’t understated. It was a clever re-imagining of rabbit. The rabbit was ground and served pate style beneath the charred bread, covered with the compote with the pickles strategically placed between bread pieces and then dollop of mustard to the side. The microgreens, along with the pistachios, were scattered about the plate, in a controlled chaos. The rabbit wasn’t gamey but light and tasty. Take a piece of the bread, place a bit of rabbit on it, a small bit of pickle and compote and, trust me, you only need a small bit of the mustard and you have yourself a treat. Follow that up with a candied pistachio chaser and you’re in business. The mustard is delicious but if you put a lot in your mouth at one time, you’ll clear up, not only your sinuses, but any future sinus problem you may have in the next two weeks. But, that flavor is amazing, especially with that rabbit.
This was paired with a Basil Berry Martini which is fresh muddled basil and blueberries, Basil Hayden’s bourbon, fresh squeezed lime juice and simple syrup. They served it in a dainty little martini glass with a single blueberry. It was better than a lot of berry martinis that I’ve had. Understandably, you have to go light on these pairing dinners but I could have used a bit more of this one. It cooled off the mustard if you got too much. And the berry aspect went well with the rabbit, as well.
New Orleans Barbecued Shrimp, Grit Cakes and Chives
Grit cakes made from Old Mill of Guilford Stone-ground Grits covered with a pair of shrimp properly smothered in a bourbon-infused barbecue sauce and sprinkled with chives. The sauce was tangy and easy, not too heavy. The shrimp was firm but tender and the chives have an herbal lightening-up of the glazing you had with the sauce. The Old Mill of Guilford grit cakes offered the texture you needed with the shrimp and those cakes were delicious. I’ve only come into grit maturity in the last three or four years and I love it when I find something that rocks me like these cakes. It was on the bottom of the pile but I think it was the best supporting actor in the dish. The only bad thing about having the tails left on the shrimp is: with a dinner like this, I find it improper to pick up the tails and suck the leftover meat from it.
This was paired with Willow’s Twisted Old Fashioned made with Maker’s 46. Combine the Maker’s 46 with a crushed brown sugar cube, Crude orange & fig bitters, muddled orange slice and Bordeaux cherries topped with a splash of soda. The Old Fashioned is my absolute favorite classic cocktail and when I can get it made with new elements or with a few twists and turns in its concocting, that’s even better. This is especially true when you have it with a dish like the barbecued shrimp. Delicious.
Blood Orange & Beet braised Lamb Neck, Rice Grits, Dirty Style Barrel Aged Bourbon Gastrique
Border Springs lamb neck, succulent, delicious, tender. I don’t know how many more words I could fit in to describe this lamb. Combine that with the Anson Mills Carolina rice grits and you have a savory textured delight that is doused in a blood orange and beet sauce. Then surround it with a bourbon gastrique and this is a party in your mouth. But, guess what makes it all spectaculicious? That’s right, microgreens. I’m telling you, if you’re not on the microgreens train, no matter the style, you’re truly missing a treat. These babies really bring everything to a head and your dishes, and those who taste them, will thank you for it. There was nothing left on my plate when I finished this dish.
Another twist on a classic cocktail, this dish was paired with “Not Your Father’s Manhattan.” This was made with Baker’s Bourbon, dry vermouth, Crude lavender bitters all shaken with a cherry and garnished with a lemon twist. This was also served in the itsy-bitsy martini glass. A thing of beauty. I think the lavender bitters was the over-the-edge push on this one. The bitter (not the bitters) flavor of this drink was a perfectly compliment to the rice grit and lamb neck dish. A wonderful dish.
The palate cleanser for the evening was called The Sunbeam. Gray and Jessica, Willow’s mixologists/bartenders for the evening, took good ol’ Jim Beam and mixed it with local WSNC staple Sunshine Drink and juice from one to two limes. Light and refreshing with the patented “Pick Me Up” from the Sunshine with the grand old taste of Jim Beam’s classic bourbon and you were ripped and ready to hit the next course. It didn’t hurt that it was a delicious beverage.
Venison Loin w/Juniper Salt, Fig-Bourbon Gastrique, Black Trumpet Mushroom, Bacon Jam, Potato Pave ‘Tater Tots’ and Microgreens
When I was growing up, my father (who is still an avid deer hunter) would bring home deer meat and my mother would fry it up beyond recognition and I could never figure out why I hated it so. I steered far away from venison until way after I’d reached adulthood. When I realized that I like my steak and most other non-fowl meats at most cooked medium (I prefer most red meat to be rare/medium-rare), I decided to give venison another chance. I had it as our wedding dinner in Edinburgh, Scotland and I loved it. Now, I try it anywhere I have say in its cooked temperature or know the chef will not steer me wrong. This venison loin was made with juniper salt and cooked just medium rare. It was drizzled with the fig-bourbon gastrique and was fantastic with the bacon jam that accompanied it. That brought an extra saltiness to the deer. The potato pavé style tater tots were very flavorful for potatoes. I think sometimes potatoes have a tendency to just be plain. These weren’t plain and weren’t typical tater tots if that’s what you are looking for. Tater tots tend to be squishy and mushy. These tots were firm. Not a huge fan of mushrooms of any kind so I can’t really comment on those but what I can comment on: microgreens from Fair Share Farms! Add them to the bacon jam and the deer and that’s earthy, salty and savory all in one package. Très magnifique!
This is paired with a Willow’s staple: The Capone. The bartenders smoke each glass individually over hickory chips then add Booker’s bourbon, maple honey simple syrup, Crude smoke & salt bitters and top it with ginger ale and peppered bacon. Holy smokes (pun intended)!! Bacon, maple, honey, smoke? All that in itself would be perfect but then add some Booker’s on top and you’ve got yourself “Amazing in a Glass.” All that with the venison? There are no words.
Olive Oil Cake, Bourbon Caramel, Buttermilk Ice Cream, Glass Pecan Soil, Fig Syrup
The big finish. Two mini olive oil muffin/cupcakes. Between them lays a scoop of buttermilk ice cream and they’re all covered with a flavorful caramel made from bourbon and a fig syrup? Oh yes. Scattered upon these treats is a soil made of pecan glass in which Chef Travis told how they made but I was too busy eating the cake and marveling over the drink pairing to remember what he said. The cakes were moist, as you’d expect something made of olive oil to be and the caramel was buttery, again, as you’d expect. It was a little thick and sticky but the flavor was spot on. I mentioned the drink pairing:
It was a Bourbon Float. Read that again, a bourbon float. One made of Jim Beam Single Barrel Bourbon mixed with Uncle Scott’s Root Beer (non-alcoholic) and throw in a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The ice cream frothed right up as it does in a root beer float and then you get the kick of the single barrel bourbon in there, as well. Don’t forget the fluffy whipped cream garnish, either. A sweet ending to a great night of food and bourbons.
I don’t want to leave off the fact that Lele Nguyen and her staff were on top of everything and we never wanted for a new eating utensil or a water refresher or whatever our needs were. The kitchen staff were functioning like a well oiled-machine and Chef Travis and his team seemed to be having fun. Gray and Jessica, again, getting that many drinks out in such a timely manner, was a feat in and of itself. Kudos to the entire Willow’s crew for making the night memorable. And thanks to Beam Suntory Brands for having such beautiful bourbons for our entertainment. The portions of this dinner were just right; not too heavy, not too big, not too much bourbon (with all that we had). Stephanie and I felt like we left satisfied, well-fed and not over-stuffed. The food was all delicious and just shows the genius that Chef Travis Myers is. Chef Will Kingery has to be proud.
Chef Travis has a lot of ideas and plans to have a lot of themed dinners. You can visit Willow’s Facebook Page to find out more about these dinners (for some reason their website isn’t working). Willow’s Bistro is located at 300 S. Liberty Street, Suite 125 in Winston-Salem. Their phone number is (336) 293-4601. Another great resource for all things good happening at Willow’s Bistro is to follow Chef Travis on Twitter and Instagram both @Chef_Myers
One last thing, anytime you’re tagging Willow’s, Chef Travis or anything to do with the restaurants, be sure to include the hashtag: #SOB40 (South of Business 40). Bon appetit!