With the overdue arrival of cool weather, my heart turns to the rustic central European pleasures of Charivari. So we walked in last night only to discover that Johann Schuster – my absolute favorite French-techniqued German chef from Transylvania – had “gone Peruvian” on us. From the special fish he served to the wines he poured, the country that grew up with the ancient Incas around the Andes Mountains is alive and well at Charivari. And Chef Johann has made no fewer than four trips there to figure it out.
Of course, there are many non-Peruvian reasons to go to Charivari this time of year. As this basket of chanterelles makes clear, no place does a better job of cooking and serving “wild” mushrooms. And as each autumn for going on twelve years now, this is the season for Charivari’s special wild game meu. We sampled the wild boar chops (a bit of unsweetened chocolate in the sauce, as often in Tuscany) and the venison saltimboca. Both game dishes were amazing, especially when sided with Schuster’s wild mushroom risotto with a bit of truffle from Alba shaved aromatically over the top.
In some dishes, wild mushrooms from places like Oregon aren’t just bit players anymore. For example, here is Chef Johann’s lush mushroom “cappuccino,” essentially a cream of mushroom soup better than anything that ever came out of any can. We liked this even more than the cream of garlic soup that Schuster serves in the spirit of his Transylvanian roots, even declaring it “Dracula’s” on the meu. On the other hand, a vampire according to legend won’t go near garlic, unless maybe this Count is half-Italian.
Since we knew that the chef and his wife ran a restaurant in Germany’s Black Forest before relocating to Houston, we couldn’t resist the strudel for dessert. The pastry was paper-thin and crisp enough to be at least as Greek as it was Austrian, and the dark fruit filling beneath the snow of powdered sugar was incredible. Schuster makes all his own ice creams too, some exotic and some “plain vanilla.” Thanks to his mastery, even vanilla doesn’t taste “plain.”
More than wines from Argentina or Chile, the Peruvian vintages poured at Charivari strike us as very French – which is nobody’s idea of a bad thing. Most of the varietals are familiar from either Bordeaux or the Rhone, with the reds pairing perfectly with all that wild game. There is, however, a nifty sauvignon blanc for that special Peruvian fish – called paiche (pa-EE-che), carefully and sustainably farm-raised till up to 500 pounds in the Amazon region. Pan-sauteed over mashed Peruvian purple potatoes, it was one of the mildest, sweetest, flakiest fish we’ve ever tasted. For a long time last night, I debated suggesting Chef Johann use paiche to make British fish and chips, fearing that poor man’s dish might be beneath him. When I dared, he merely grinned and said, “I already made it. And it was great.”