Sunday, April 16, 2006


On Friday my extraordinary friend Matt, who is a member of the James Beard Foundation, treated me to dinner at The Beard House. Both the Foundation and the House, which is on W. 12th Street, exist for this reason:

"To celebrate, preserve, and nurture America's culinary heritage and diversity in order to elevate the appreciation of our culinary excellence."

I can get on board for that! This celebration, preservation, and nurturing is accomplished by over 20 amazing dinners, workshops, luncheons, and wine events each month at the House. Famous chefs from all over the country and around the world are invited to cook, and members and their guests sign up and feast.

As Matt's guest, I got to experience an Italian Passover prepared by Italian chef Walter Potenza of Walter's in Providence, RI. This wasn't a religious dinner, although if you worship at the altar of amazing food then yeah, it was. Talk about a high-class affair! Matt greeted me outside, introduced me to his lovely wife, Susan, and led us through the Beard House's OPEN KITCHEN WHERE THE CHEF AND HIS HELPERS WERE COOKING RIGHT IN FRONT OF US! I LOVE AN OPEN KITCHEN! It's exciting and dynamic and I can confirm that nobody is hocking spiteful loogies into my food. I don't know if you worry about that kind of thing, but I sometimes do! We passed the kitchen and entered the glass-enclosed patio. There, I got to drink as much champagne as I wanted (which was two glasses), and eat delicious passed hors d'oeuvres. These were Radicchio filled with Venetian Haroset and Chestnut Honey, Asparagus Tarts with Eggs, Leeks, and Saffron, Duck Proscuitto with Radish Aioli and Matzoh, and Chicken Liver Pate with Sweet Onion and Roasted Pear on Matzoh. WOWZERS, right?!

The Radicchio rolls were RADICCULOUS! That's a bad pun and I apologize for it! Anyway, I didn't know a bitter lettuce could taste so awesome with honey, but I do now. Haroset is a Passover dish made of fruit and nuts and sometimes wine. It's always sweet, and its consistency is often a paste to evoke the "mortar" used by the Jews when they were slaves in Egypt. Haroset is generally delicious, and Walter's Vanetian Haroset was MIND-BLOWING. He wouldn't give details on the recipe, but it seemed to include mildly pickled figs, maybe apples (?) and some sort of water-chestnut type thinger. I wish I knew, because I would love to copy this dish. I think I ate about five of these. Outrageously yummy.

I didn't love the Asparagus Tart as much, so I only had one. It was like a little pancake. Cute. I wish it had been hotter? I sound like a jerk saying that.

I LOVED the Chicken Liver Pate on Matzoh. That's because I love fatty food over crispety-crunchety textures. This was that. I had three of these, and my heart did not thank me. Sorry, arteries!

The Duck Prosciutto was presented beautifully; its red color over the yellow aioli and white matzoh was very pretty, but I thought it was too salty. Again I feel like a jerk not totally loving it! And I know prosciutto is inherently salty, but I guess I'm just not into salty food. ACK! SORRY! IT WAS GOOD!

During the passed hors d'oeuvres phase Matt introduced me to Veteran Italian Chef Extraordinaire, Author, Teacher, and Hilariously Charming Genius Anna Teresa Callen. I want to live with this woman! A native of Abruzzo, a region of Italy that she was repeatedly forced throughout the night to geographically locate because NO ONE knew where it was, Anna Teresa referred to herself as "The intel-LECT-ual Julia Child." When she said this I literally melted. Without any shame she gave a rundown of her many accomplishments, spoke proudly of Abruzzo and its food, and declared numerous times that she wanted to, and deserved to be, on television. Which was a 100% correct thing to say. I've never been seduced by a native Italian, or a woman, or a senior citizen, but I was by all three on Friday. Luck was really on my side, because Anna Teresa and her American husband, writer Harold Callen, were seated at our table, #5. Which is where we ate dinner. Which is what I will describe for you, in glowing prose, right now.

The Menu

Passover Soup with Roasted Chicken, Eggs, and Matzoh Dumplings
Braised Fried Artichokes with Lemon, Mint and Sauteed Spinach
Lamb Stew with Mushrooms and Hard-Cooked Egg, Topped with a Roasted Eggplant-Matzoh Crust
Roasted Haddock with Braised Fennel, Pine Nuts, Raisins, and Citrus Olive Oil
Lemon Ricotta Cheese Tart with Macaroon Crust and Citrus Coulis
Matzoh, Honey, Almond Chocolate Truffles and Ocean State Chocolates

The Wine

Pieropan Soave Classico 2004 (White)
Rainoldi Valtellina Superior Sassella Riserva 2001 (Red)
Domain Chandon Charonnay 2002 (White. Duh)
Delas la Pastourelle Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 2002 (DELICIOUS!)

The Review

Soup: Awesome. The vegetable broth was subtle, mild, and not the least bit salty. The dumplings were firm in the broth and on my spoon but then softened upon contact with my mouth. Their texture was like that of a meatball, but in a really good way. Hearty. A really high-brow rendition of Matzoh Ball soup...NOT BETTER than MY mother's, but probably better than YOURS.

Artichokes: Anna Teresa referred to these as Artichokes a la Judea, meaning "Jewish Style." It's true. When I was in Rome in 1999 I visited the Jewish Quarter and found, with my two friends, one of Rome's oldest and most famous Jewish restaurants. Its most prized dish was fried artichokes, and we ordered huge plates of the delicious stuff. Cut to seven years later, and not only was I eating fried artichoke again, but I was getting a lesson on how to from Anna Teresa. Now, I was raised eating whole, steamed artichokes, and I already knew to pick the individual leaves with my hands and scrape the meat off with my bottom teeth, but I certainly wasn't going to tell Anna Teresa that. So I went along with her, and she said I was "very good." And the dish, too, was Very Good. When Anna Teresa's husband left half his artichoke undone, she refused to let it go to waste and finished his for him. A woman after my own heart!

Lamb Stew: Wow. Delicious. Chunky meaty mushroomy mmmmmmm. I love lamb, and I eat a lot of it, but never in stew form. This was great, but I couldn't finish it because I was starting to feel way too full. There was also a Bonus Round accompanying the lamb: Tsimmis, a carrot, sweet potato, and prune stew. Anna Teresa called it "too sweet. It should be dessert!" while her husband Harold cracked jokes about the word's Yiddish meaning, which is "trouble," or "big deal worry." So he kept saying "Don't make a big tsimmis!" and Anna Teresa kept saying "It's too sweet!" and I just couldn't get enough of either of them. Oh, and the dish itself was delicious. And not too sweet! I DISAGREED with Anna Teresa!

Haddock: My favorite dish. I love fish, and I adore fennel, and this was just so mild and fresh and the citrus olive oil was like a bolt of flavor lightening across my tongue. The meat of the fish was tender and the texture of the pine nuts and raisins with it made for a perfect mouth-feel. I was REALLY sad that I could not finish it. Did I mention that the portions were kind of humongous? Well, they were.

By the time dessert rolled around I was just completely stuffed. I tasted everything because I had to, but I don't even remember if it was any good or not because I had food up to my trachea. It LOOKED really pretty!

Oh, and the wine. The WINE! Ahhhhh! It was AMAZING! The Sassella Riserva was one of the best reds I have ever tasted. I'm not going to pretend to be a wine expert here, but believe me this was some seriously good stuff. And I don't generally like white wine, let alone Chardonnay, but the Domain Chandon was really exceptional. I compared it to buttered popcorn, and I'm not sure that's an entirely inaccurate description although I AM sure that it is embarassingly unsophisticated. Just trust me: it was good. And the Muscat, the dessert wine, tasted, in the words of Matt's wife Susan, "the way you WISH perfume would taste but it never does." I totally agreed.

And then I could eat no more, and Chef Walter came out to talk to all of us about why he was interested in historical cooking. "Though I am not Jewish," he said, his father and other local townspeople in Italy during WWII had hid Jews. And when Walter discovered this fact about his father after his father's death, he began to resurrect the culinary traditions of Italian Jewish cooking. Wowzers again, right?! People are interesting and awesome; they really are.

I loved the James Beard House and I loved this dinner and I LOVED LOVED Anna Teresa and her husband Harold and I really LOVE my friend Matt and his wife Susan! You don't have to die to go to Foodie Heaven but it helps to know a few angels here on Earth.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Welcome back, appetite. Really missed you.

10:36 AM  
Blogger crabbydad said...

Holy crap, that sounded amazing. Maybe if my Passovers had been more like that, I might have stuck with it a little longer. (Although no offense, but my mom's matzoh balls are at least as good as your mom's, if not better. SNAP! No I dinh-unh?!)

Great to see that your appetite has re-awakened! Now keep feeding it, or it'll run away again!

12:14 PM  

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