Last night, my buddy Lou treated me to my first dinner at the James Beard House. It was an amazing experience, one I highly recommend to queer New Yorkers and out-of-town visitors.
Lou has been to many of these dinners over the years. He loves the meals but sometimes finds his fellow diners to be "pretentious, overdressed, and unfriendly."
I felt a little underdressed when I entered the home where James Beard lived until his death in 1985. Almost all of the men were wearing ties and jackets, and I had on my usual workday uniform of casual pants and a gaily patterned button-front shirt.
I signed in and passed through the kitchen, where that night's guest chef, Adam Savage of the Delray Beach Marriott in Delray Beach, Florida, was presiding. That's him on the right in the photo above.
I walked past the adjacent dishwashing area and into a crowded little room that opened onto the backyard, where, Lou tells me, the let-it-all-hang-out Beard would shower. Lou arrived within minutes, and we drank some nonvintage Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Rosé Champagne and sampled the hors d'oeuvres as we caught up with each other.
Lou and I met online a few months ago, and we bonded quickly over our shared New Jersey heritage and our love of fine food, theater, and dogs, especially basset hounds. We've become regular dinner companions. Early next month, I'm taking Lou to one of my favorite restaurants in my neighborhood, Park Slope, called Rose Water. I neglected to take my digital camera with me last night, and I couldn't snap a good shot of Lou with my non-flash-having iPhone camera in the dimly lit house. So this photo of Lou is from our last dinner out, at August last month.
I like most edible things, with a few exceptions: I'm leery of stinky cheeses, I don't do organ meats, I could do without mushrooms, and I'm not fond of most shellfish. But I was in the home of the person who was perhaps more responsible than anyone else for turning Americans on to fine cuisine. So I decided to let my food prejudices go and try everything I could regardless of the ingredients. I really enjoyed the Yellowfin Tuna Tartare with Avocado, Serrano Chilies, and Cucumber and the Venison Carpaccio Crostini with Toasted Chestnuts, Kumquat Marmalade, and Micro-Arugula. The cheese in the Pizzette with Point Reyes Blue Cheese, Roasted Red Flame Grapes, and Black Muscat Syrup was a little too pungent for me, but I'm glad I gave it a shot.
Lou and I went to the upstairs dining room and to our designated table, where an elderly couple, Beverly and Al, was already seated. B&A are regulars at these dinners; they said they come about once a month when they're in the city. They also both have homes in Florida. Al's is pretty close to Delray Beach, so they were eager to try Savage's cooking to see whether it'd be worth a trip to the hotel to dine there.
We were soon joined by Sean and Suzanne, a probably 40-something couple visiting the city for business (they're both in insurance—but have nothing to do with AIG, they assured us without being asked) and pleasure (they were hitting a lot of great restaurants during their stay) from Orange County, California. I immediately pegged S&S as Republicans—because it's practically a requirement to be in that party if you want to live in that very conservative county—but it was Beverly, whom I'd enjoyed chatting with up to that point, who dropped an antigay conversational bomb not too far into the evening. Lou brought up the dysfunctional New York legislature, and Beverly dismissively said they couldn't pass a budget because "they were too busy voting on gay marriage." Sigh.
It's outrageous to me that a New Yorker would diss gay marriage in front of two men, one of whom was dressed in a floral-print shirt—hello!—in the home of a celebrated gay man. And if it weren't for that gay man and the foundation established in his honor, she wouldn't have been enjoying the delicious meal in front of her homophobic face. (I took the self-portrait in the hall-of-mirrors unisex bathroom a short distance from our table. Lou says the ceiling of Beard's bedroom, which I didn't get to take a peek at, is also mirrored.)
I was completely taken aback by the comment, and the conversation between BAS&S moved on before I could rally and ask Beverly why marriage equality was a waste of lawmakers' time.
The dinner consisted of four courses, and each was accompanied by wine. I had intended to take it easy so I wouldn't be sloshed by the end of the night, but I enjoyed the first offering, a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand's Marlborough region, so much that I drank it pretty quickly—and then started sipping the second pour. That's when I came to my senses and pushed the glass away.
Lou usually avoids red wine, but he enjoyed his tastes of the pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, both from California, that accompanied the Duck Confit Ravioli and Cocoa Rubbed Colorado Lamb Rack, respectively. I don't often drink Chardonnay, but I liked the Clos du Bois Calcaire, from the Russian River Valley, that was paired with the Butter Poached Maine Lobster. It was oaky, a tad spicy—and buttery. I ate a bite of the lobster but gave most of it to Lou; I devoured the Puree of Autumn Cup Squash and lobster claw–shaped Pumpkin Chip.
Lou said the lobster was the highlight for him. My favorite was the lamb and its rich yet not too powerfully flavored Kona Coffee Sauce. The Fromage Blanc Goat Cheese Panna Cotta—the star of the first course—was a close second.
The dessert was a showstopper. The very familiar molten chocolate cake was punched up by the addition of hazelnuts and accompanied by Tangerine Ice Cream and Rhubarb Sauce. Yum.
Given the cost—$125 per person for the general public or $100 for foundation members—I couldn't see making these dinners more than a rare splurge. But considering the quality and quantity of the food and drink, you certainly get your money's worth. Or your friend's money's worth. :-)
At the end of the night, the chef and his helpers came into the dining room to receive our applause. I applaud Savage for his amazing meal and also the life and legacy of James Beard, who said, among other great quotes, "Food is our common ground, our universal experience."