Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Friends of James Beard Dinner

Magic and challenge are key ingredients that elevate wine dinners beyond merely good food and drink. Last night's Friends of James Beard Dinner at Spencer's Restaurant had plenty of magic to go around. Mother Nature provided a majestic natural setting up against the mountain and perfect weather. A talented team led by owner Harold Matzner and Executive Chef Eric Wadlund dished out a stellar event, down to impeccable stemware and service.

As a second ingredient, challenge can be dicey. Chefs and sommeliers want to create something innovative and provocative, beyond the fine dining mold. But how far can they go without losing diners waylaid by unfamiliar flavors, textures or combinations?

Our table of hospitality and food and beverage professionals were swayed by the setting and each of the savory courses. With five talented chefs at the helm, each course brought surprise and intrigue, followed by delight and satisfaction. This tough crowd was moved by one or another component of each course, whether it was the added delicacy of chanterelles in Chef Mitchum's sea scallop dish or Vidalia's Jeffrey Buben's espelette pepper coulis and arugula pesto with Shenandoah lamb loin. Another couple savored Andrew Copley's choice of braised hearts of palm with Hawaiian onaga while Eric's braised rib cap shuttered a few eyes in culinary heaven. Spencer's pastry chef Michael Weeks won all of us over with his inventive chocolate-crowned creme brulee - and taught a few that sable is not just fur.

On par with the cuisine were B Cellars wine pairings by guest sommelier George Riffle, who learned a thing or two about great food and wine at New York's Picholine. Our crowd knew about the winery's penchant for blends and seemed curious about the choices listed on the menu. Riffle silenced the skeptics with inspiring selections that coupled seamlessly with each course. Blend 23's Viognier highlighted lobster nugget sweetness while Sangiovese in Blend 24's lighter-weight Super Tuscan was a perfect foil for onaga's tomato-tarragon coulis. The pairings had the entire table abuzz and in agreement: They were totally spot-on.

We left with new appreciation for our chefs' talents, and the magic each member of the team brought to this first-of-its-kind desert event. We're looking forward to our Winewomenpsp event at Spencer's later this year. Encore!

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