By Andrea Toochin
I am by no means a foodie. If you asked me to define the many cheeses and sauces found on the pages of French and fusion menus, I’d likely fail the test. However, I do know that as in a field as competitive as the restaurant business where chefs are now brands, there is more to success than technique and creativity.
Many restaurants try to wow us with creative dishes that leave me dumbfounded. Just the other day while conducting phone interviews at a prominent guidebook company I had to feign awe when the manager of a restaurant told me that one of their signature dishes is peanut butter, raspberry jelly, and foie gras.
Well, the dinner I attended at The James Beard House on March 31 was quite different. The visiting chef, Douglas Ramler of The Cape Sea Grille, devised a menu with his business and life partner, Jennifer Ramler, to please a crowd ranging from discerning travel writers to loyal family members. If his presentation said anything, it was that complicated dishes are not necessarily superior to modern takes on the classics.
Now you may wonder, is dining at The James Beard House worth $110 of my hard earned money? Well, if you splurged on a tasting menu at a popular Gotham spot you’d pay the same amount but you’d likely be greeted by an aloof hostess and you’d miss the charming garden in the rear of this West Village brownstone.
Naturally, the meal began in the garden with wine and appetizers: slow roasted pork shoulder on a sweet potato biscuit with crème fraà®che and a house BBQ sauce; seared cilantro-lime scallop with potato crisp and sweet chili sauce; and my favorite, the crispy oysters with avocado and pickled banana peppers. I don’t even eat oysters and yet I found myself ignoring conversations in preparation of the war that’d we’d wage to snag a precious oyster puff, whose avocado sauce is good enough to bottle.
Once seated inside, the waiters promptly poured the first glass of wine, a smooth Pine Ridge chardonnay to accompany the salad. Dressed in a light sherry vinaigrette the salad of mesclun, goat cheese, hazelnuts, beets, and orange bits proved a satisfying starter. Everyone’s favorite dish came next, the crispy duck confit with Swiss chard, roasted beets and Crimson creek glace. It really doesn’t matter whether you’ve had the dish ten times this year or never before because the tasty tender meat Ramler delivered earned praise from all, even the cautious ladies who wasted willpower avoiding French bread and mouth watering desserts. How did he create such a moist savory dish? Well, a Q & A session revealed the involved three-day process, which led me to a decision – I’m definitely not trying this one at home.
Knowing he couldn’t top the duck, he followed it with a dish that would help cleanse the palette and prepare for another signature dish. The second dish comprised of one sautéed jumbo shrimp a top butternut squash puree accompanied by bits of smoked bacon, apples and almonds. To match this savory dish, Archery Summit offered a potent Pinot Noir from Oregon.
Next came a best seller in his Harwich Port restaurant, the Pan Seared Lobster prepared with a hearty mix of potatoes, pancetta, and grilled asparagus with Calvados saffron reduction. Despite the delicious mix of seafood, greens, and meat it’s really the user-friendly presentation that makes this one a winner. Though Ramler keeps the lobster tail in the shell during the entire cooking process they are prepared in such a way that the meat falls easily from the shell with a quick pull at the rear of the tail.
No dinner is complete without dessert. Though the poached pear and fig tart was a flaky delight perfectly paired with creamy caramel ice cream, the dessert wine, R. L. Buller’s Australian Muscat, had everyone pining for more. Once I garnered the strength to walk around after five glasses of wine, I noticed nearly every bottle of Muscat was running on empty. Not that the dessert wasn’t a light scrumptious alternative to the predictable choices like crème brulee and warm chocolate cake, but who can refuse a nightcap, or two, or three!
Well, weeks later we’ve all survived, so much so that as I write this I’m recovering from a few too many tastes of a certain Argentinean blend. Despite a night of decent wine and delicious appetizers I’m now plagued with the memory of the festive evening I spent at the James Beard House. Not only was I treated to a delicious six-course meal, but I also discovered that I could eat for a cause.
When the organization plans dinners, they provide each cook with a few interns who are thrilled to assist recognized chefs. The organization also offers aspiring chefs scholarships to culinary school. You don’t have to be a member to attend events, but it does offer a few perks and they have a great program for young foodies called Greens, for local ages 21 to 40. If you’re looking for another place to meet like-minded New Yorkers or maybe even your soul mate, this could be the place. After all, a night of speed dating usually ends poorly, but even if you strike out at a Greens event, gourmet appetizers and a few glasses of wine will be readily available to ease the pain.