Inside the James Beard House

February 27, 2011 | By | COMMENTS

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OK, I’ll admit it: when a friend emailed and asked if I wanted to have dinner at the James Beard House, I had never actually heard of the James Beard House. Now, before you revoke all my credentials, let me add this: of course I had heard of James Beard and the eponymous Foundation, with its heralded awards. And, I would have assumed that when he was alive, James Beard lived in a house. But did I know the Foundation now owns his fabulous mansion in Greenwich Village, and that it holds events most nights a week where rising and already-celebrity chefs cook prix fixe meals for foodies in the know? No! But when given the offer, I brushed up on the facts, and jumped at the chance.

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The night in question was a duel, of sorts, between two of Maine’s most acclaimed chefs. In one corner, there was the celebrated veteran, Michael Salmon of the Hartstone Inn in Camden, and in the other corner, the upstart and recent nominee for Food & Wine’s Best New Chef award, Geoffroy Deconinck of Natalie’s, also in Camden. Now, trucking down to Manhattan from Maine to cook for spoiled New York City palates must be intimidating, but these not-so-country mice were determined to upstage the local talent. How? By lugging down with them a cornucopia of local Maine produce. And I don’t mean frozen vegetables; I’m talking shrimp, scallops, oysters, salmon, duck, lamb, crab, and yes, lobster. I wouldn’t mind being a locavore in Maine.
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After cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the downstairs sitting room, we were seated upstairs for the five-course meal. After a welcome by the referee, Chef Salmon busted out first with a killer starter, a peekytoe crab “cheesecake” with a mouth-melting, buttery lemon-walnut crust. Reeling, Deconinck rebounded with his own starter, a perfect Maine scallop on top of braised endive.

Unlike at a restaurant where the kitchen is off-limits, at the James Beard House the kitchen doors are open to you – if you have a camera and know when to dodge out of the way. I watched Chef Salmon as he tested his individual lobster and butternut squash charlottes. These became the centerpiece of his lobster entrée, topped with rosemary-vermouth cream. Deconinck followed it up with a delicious lamb two ways: braised belly and roast loin.
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For dessert, the chefs combined forces, each constructing one side of the same plate. Chef Deconinck submitted a chocolate-hazelnut mini-cake, while Chef Salmon closed with a poached Maine pear with maple ice cream. Worn out from the battle, both chefs returned to their corners, awaiting the verdict.

Luckily for Chefs Salmon and Deconinck, the audience was not there to witness a knock-down fight. They were there to eat well and get sloshed. After cocktails upon arrival and liberally minded wine pairings with each and every course, it seemed most people had a hard time remembering whether they were in New York or Maine. It was at this point that one of the diners, badgered by her friends, stood up, announced herself, and began to sing (the terrible photo below is from my phone).
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Yes, it is true: dinner at the James Beard House sometimes comes with live entertainment. Word is that she is a jazz singer at a club on the Upper East Side. I’m no expert, but she was darn good. Plus she winked at me.

For a cold winter’s night, Maine certainly warmed us up. If you can’t make it up to Camden, I’m betting both chefs will be back in New York soon, and you too can snag a table.

Categories: Restaurant Reviews

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