Friday, March 21, 2008

the day of

Early Monday morning, Caleb and I go to the flower market in New York. Last year, when we came down to the city to do our James Beard dinner, the house florist had given us the name of a wholesale florist up on 27th between 6th and Broadway. He said to ask for Paul, and to tell him Joey had sent me. We go see Paul again this year, and become seduced by the purple lilac, the flowering quince, ivy berry resembling clusters of grapes, white snaps, tight buds of pink peony, and an armful of white tulips. Miraculously, we get a taxi right outside Paul’s door and take our booty into the solarium at the James Beard House. Caleb begins to sort through the kitchen. Our friend Sean, a talented chef with his own restaurant outside of Philadelphia ( Alba in Malvern) arrives, and Lindsey, our current apprentice and daughter of cheese makers John and Janine Putnam of Thistle Hill Farm and the famed Tarentaise, arrives. Interns from local culinary institutes arrive. Mr. Beard’s small teaching kitchen feels cozy and abuzz. Everyone looks smart in their chef’s whites.

Mr. Beard’s kitchen is one of charm if not complete professional ease. The walls are papered with maps of the world, and old copper pots. Gleaming, they hang waiting to be used. There are grills and stoves and ovens and warming ovens. There is a meat slicer that has to be brought up from the basement below. The little countertop mixer has seen better days, and Caleb and crew have to whip all the cream by hand for the dessert. There is a very efficient dish-washing station. It is not the exact set-up as in the days of Mr. Beard’s tenancy, but it is enough to feel that he is a kindred spirit very present in the space.

Mr. Beard’s house, which hosts a countless number of visiting chefs from all over the world with an event taking place almost every day of the year within its walls, is quirky and intimate. A classic lower west village townhouse, it boasts a terraced garden for the warm weather, a solarium to take sun in the cool, a gracious reception room where Mr; Beard’s close companion Clay holds reign and greets you when you enter. Upstairs, there is a mezzanine that over looks the solarium space down below which still features his shower. Mr. Beard bathed in the open space overlooking his garden, and his neighbors overlooking him. The dining room is an elegantly proportioned space which is where he did his living. This main room boasts a fireplace, high ceilings, and 40’s Murano glass fixtures and long French windows on the streetside. The walls are a deep olive and terracotta. Near the French windows is a small nook with dias which houses a table for six. This is where Mr. Beard used to sleep.

In his time, Mr. Beard rented out the two upper floors as apartments. Now, they are office space and conference room for the busy staff of the foundation. The energy is lively in this house, and it spills down from those upper floors and buoys those in the kitchen. Components of the dishes we will present are in process all afternoon long. Seating charts are arranged, and serviceware for each course chosen. Wines are tasted, bottles opened. The uber-professional waitstaff and maitre d’ begin their own magic of setting tables and pumping up the energy.

I steal a moment of solitude at a visitor’s desk in one of the offices. I take a moment to collect my thoughts about the wines and the dishes we’ve chosen for tonight, how to try and accompany with words the story that will be narrarated between the food and the wine.

Downstairs, Caleb prepares staff dinner, and after we have a staff meeting. The kitchen is ready and waiting. The photographer wants to know why we are so relaxed. He tells us our calm makes him nervous. The candles in the solarium have been lighted for the hors d’oeuvres hour, and the music starts. Guests arrive.

The solarium is packed with well-wishers and old friends meeting again, and new friends being made. Trays of crostini float through the room: the warm toast with shrimp, bread crumbs, parsley and garlic, littles slices of bread with smoky speck and an apple-horseradish sauce, and another topped with pine nuts, raisins, capers, and prosciutto. They are accompanied by a lightly sparkling wine from the region of Campania in Italy, greeny-gold in the candle light, made from Fiano and Aglianico, two native grapes from that area. The wine-maker is a jazz aficionado and the name of the sparkler is Selim, Miles as in Miles Davis backwards. All his wines have some kind of jazz reference. The pineapple, tangerine, and pear flavors play off the crostini, and everybody wants more.

When we run out of food and run out of wine, the house lights are dimmed up and down as if we were at a theatre. Diners are ushered upstairs to their tables, and the solarium is broken down from hors d’oeuvres service, and built back up with a large round table set for more dinner guests who can’t all fit upstairs.

The wine flows, the dishes are served. While Caleb is down in the kitchen expediting, I go from table to table in the dining room to talk about the wines and our choices for pairings. There is a plate of bresaola, paper thin slices of air-cured beef rich with flavor served with wild arugula and a shaved cheese called Grana Padano, similar to the aged nuttiness of Parmigiano. We serve an organic Gew├╝rztraminer from Kofererhof (who hopes to soon be certified) that is floral, and herby with a lime-like finish. Everyone is surprised that Gew├╝rztraminer is originally from Italy, not Germany, Austria, or Alsace.

A full-flavored cabbage soup made with a chicken and veal stock, served with a pyramid of rice in the center, and garnished with the nutty and slightly sharp Tarentaise, a local cow’ milk alpine cheese made by Thistle Hill Farm. The waiters pour a certified organic wine by Pratello in Lombardia, a Manzoni Bianco that is well supported by oak with notes of honey, wild rose, and nutmeg.

To follow is a moist filet of trout roasted in red wine with rosemary and juniper. Many diners are surprised that we are serving the trout with a red wine. But I explain. The red is also by Pratello and is the very light varietal called Groppello that is particular to that area of Lombardia on Lago di Garda. The fish is cooked in the same red wine, and the wine has a taste of almost ripe plum and cherry pit, and the nose reminds me of standing on the shore of a large lake and a breeze blowing a slightly saline scent across the water.

Caleb sends out the roasted pheasant next, seasoned with nutmeg, allspice, clove, cinnamon, a touch of cacao, and fatty rind from the speck. The notes in this dish hark back to the nutmeg of the Manzoni Bianco and the smokiness of the speck and apple-horseradish cream crostino. The wine paired with this is the Cantina Rotaliana’s Teroldego Rotaliano. It is medium bodied with fresh fruit on the nose, and a spicy finish redolent of wild iris. This is the first US pouring of the ’06 vintage.

To finish, there are Bartlett pears poached in vanilla and served with chantilly cream and sprinkled with crumbled amaretti. The Marzemino, also from the Trentino, is all candied violet, vanilla and almond, and smells of a pastry shop.

The evening has run smoothly, and the guests are full and happy. As diners leave, there are handshakes and hugs, good wishes and cheer, and hearty congratulations. Exhausted we and our crew pack up what’s left. We somehow fold the huge flower arrangements into the car. We wend our way farther downtown to a little gastropub that stays open late called Ditch Plains. We eat simply and ravenously. Hamburgers, fish tacos, and hot dogs and fries, all with glasses of beer.



pam castelli said...

This whole thing sounds ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS!!! I am so jealous that you were in the flower market; I used to work up the street and wander during lunch - it's the best... Hope you made it back okay and you are getting packed to head east - again so jealous:)

pam castelli said...
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pam castelli said...
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