My Dinner at The James Beard House

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Two weeks ago, I was invited to dinner at the James Beard House. My date was The Wednesday Chef, Luisa Weiss, and the meal was a Chilean feast prepared by Chilean chef Pilar Rodriguez.

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(That’s the chef in the black apron.)

As wonderful as the food looked, I was mostly excited to be in the home of a gastronomical legend. For those who don’t know anything about him, James Beard is often credited, along with Julia Child and Craig Claiborne, for elevating and refining the taste of the American public, teaching an uninformed populace how to feed itself with sophistication and flair.

Of course, almost all of the information I know about Beard comes from David Kamp’s wonderful United States of Arugula. The book, which I reviewed here, is responsible for both my reverence for Beard and also the salacious, gossipy details that kept popping into my head as we toured around the house. Specifically, Kamp renders an image of an obese Beard at the end of his life, in a half-open bathrobe with a mirror over his bed and young minions helping him on with his slippers. That’s the Beard I had in mind as Luisa and I toasted champagne and mingled with the other guests.

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Every man in the room was wearing a suit and tie except, of course, for me–and I wasn’t even trying to make a point! (See manifesto). The invitation didn’t inform me that dress was formal, so Luisa offered to lend me her jacket but I didn’t accept. I figured that James Beard was, at heart, a bohemian–he’d appreciate my sticking out like a sore thumb.

Actually, looking around that room of well-dressed men and women I wondered how James Beard himself would fit in. Hanging on the wall was a giant framed kimono that Beard apparently wore; other pictures on the walls suggest that he dressed eccentrically. Here, in this room of suits and ties, I wondered if Beard would roll his eyes and jog out the door several blocks towards the Village to chat with a drag queen at Pieces.

But, no, he’d probably stay for the food. All of it was excellent, as was the Chilean wine. But first, a gothic picture of Beard:

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And now for the food. Here’s our menu (you can see Beard dressed in his Kimono on the pamphlet next to it):

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First course–Seared Scallops and Pebre Verde served with Montes, Limited Selection Sauvignon Blanc, 2007 Leyda Valley and Cono Sur, 20 Barrels, Sauvignon Blanc 2006, Casablanca Valley.

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Corn and Purple Basil Soup, King Crab Croquettes served with Aquitania Chardonnay 2005 and Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay 2006:

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I wasn’t planning to editorialize about each dish, but this soup was fantastic: surprisingly sweet and rich; the color was like a beautiful paint. Still memorable after two weeks.

Next up: Caramelized Baby Pork Ribs with Ulmo Honey, Pan Seared Eggplant in Garlic Olive Oil, Cherry Tomatoes and Fresh Oregano Dressing served with De Martino Carmenere 2006 and Casa Silva Micro Terroir 2005:

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Pan Seared Lamb Chops, Yam Puree Perfumed with Garlic Confit Oil, Blackberries and Red Wine Sauce servd with Matetic, EQ Syrah 2004 and Kingston Fmaily Vineyards Bayo Oscuro Syrah 2006:

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[Yes, in case you’re wondering, there were TWO glasses of wine with each course. I just sipped as I went along so I didn’t end up in a bathrobe on Beard’s bed with minions at my feet.]

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Ah, cheese: Camembert, Caramelized Shallots, Micro Cress Salad with Viu Manent, Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 and Haras De Pirque Elegance 2003.

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And finally, dessert: Carica Creme Brulee, Fresh Mint and Berry Salad with Undurraga Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, Casablanca Valley.

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All in all, it was a lovely meal, though slightly reminiscent of Calvin Trillin’s “Maison de La Casa House” in the sense that the Chilean food I’d want to eat, if I had a choice, is the rustic, homestyle food real people eat in Chile. This seemed to have authentic components–pebre verde, for example–but overall, it felt a bit like continental cuisine: the kind of food you might get at the United Nations or a four-star hotel restaurant, instead of the food you’d get on the street.

I quibble. It was a nice meal and I was honored to be a guest of The James Beard House. Next time I go, though, I’m wearing a Kimono and bringing a drag queen–that crowd could use a little shaking up, James Beard style.

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