After biking my third Century, I cleared my calendar the following week and stayed out of the gym and off my bike. I wanted a whole week where I can just veg and chill. I was on my way to the new extension of the High Line when Nate emailed me about a last-minute invitation to Sud de Franceâ€™s Wine Loverâ€™s Dinner at the James Beard House. How do you say no to that? I had 15 minutes to run to the west Village so I moved my sore legs as fast as I can and just recomposed myself as soon as I stepped in the townhouse.
It was a warm summer night in New York Cityâ€”one of those nights that make you fall in love with the city again even after 18 years of a steady love-hate relationship. A chilled glass of Antech Blanquette de Limoux Brut in my hand helped, of course. I sat in the garden and watched the other guests until we all had to move indoors and take our seats. I was seated under the glassed roof with eleven other people. I used to not do well eating alone, but I’ve since learned to enjoy the moment and languish on being on my own, especially if it means meeting new people with the same interest; in this case, a love for food and wine. The gamble is being seated with guests who have no qualms about picking up their ringing cell phones and actually carrying on with their one-sided conversations. One guest at our table had to finally ask the quatro to my right to remain quiet while someone was introducing the chefs to the rest of the house.
Sud de France invited Chef Charles Fontès of Montpellier, France, to cook for the guests with the help of Daniel Bouludâ€™s Feast & Fetes Catering chef, Cédric Tovar. (Some of the best wedding h’ordeuvres I’ve had were from them, and boy, I’ve been to a lot of weddings.) The chefs met for the first time the day before and they found out they actually grew up in the same neighborhood! Funny that; this city always brings people together–the second reason why I canâ€™t stay away from this place. Everyone seemed like they were in a good mood; the townhouse was abuzz and it even got too loud that I struggled to listen to the wine descriptions. There was a separate table in the entry hall plus a few more upstairs that were not viewable from where I sat next to the kitchen. They were awkwardly set, but how else do you accommodate all the paying guests in a townhouse-cum-restaurant? I was a bit taken aback that the servers stacked up plates every time they removed them from our table. I expect that from a Chinese restaurant, and perhaps from a smaller establishment, but not from the James Beard House.
An oyster appetizer in seawater gelée was fun to eat and looked so pretty on the plate with a small piece of zucchini stuffed with braised lamb, mint and almonds. The two small items were completed by a shot of tomato-basil velouté with small chunks of roasted eggplant–“eggplant royale” on the menu, natch. The zucchini ravioli for the second course fared much better for me, served with asparagus and beautiful morels in, gasp, tarragon-oil foam! Just when I thought Iâ€™ve seen the end of foams on dinner plates! A very memorable 2010 Domaine La Bastide Viognier perfectly complemented the asparagus. If I took home anything from the nightâ€™s event, it’s the fact that Viognier is now my favorite warm weather white wine.
A seared scallop was the third course with a slice of avocado in grapefruit vinaigrette. I felt like the dressing didnâ€™t match the soft avocado. The glass of 2008 Toques et Clochers Haute Vallée Limoux Blanc familiarly tasted like a California Chardonnay which was later confirmed because the grapes grow in a similar terroir as the Napa Valley. The striped bass, an already mild fish, could have used a heavier salt hand, though the bouillabaisse jus reminded me of those meals Iâ€™ve had by the Mediterranean. (Too fishy, the lady to my left said, as she pushed her plate away from her.) The duo of braised beef cheek–described as brisket by the same lady–and roasted tenderloin was delicious with the glass of the 2008 Château D’Aupilhac Montpeyroux and all its black cherry-ness. A nice panisse was warm and crisp and complemented the different textures of the dish. A bowl of (sautéed) cherries–ha!–with verbana ice cream and a delicate pistachio-orange tuile ended the evening’s event.
Chef Charles Fontès, as you can imagine, cooks in Montpellier using the freshest ingredients from the farms surrounding the La Reserve Rimbaud restaurant. Unfortunately, being far away from his original setting didnâ€™t translate quite well, so I was glad the wines paired with each dish more than made up for the food’s shortcomings. It was a wine lover’s dinner after all, not a food lover’s dinner.