Chow Town

Raising money, sating appetites at Friends of James Beard Benefit Dinner

The mission of the James Beard Foundation is to “celebrate, nurture and honor America’s diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire.”

I was just in it for the food and wine. That’s not exactly true. I am keenly aware of the good work the James Beard Foundation does, and I was excited to be a part of those efforts at the Foundation’s Friends of James Beard Benefit Dinner at The American Restaurant Sunday.

I learned some interesting things at the dinner. For example, the event at The American is the longest running fundraising effort for the foundation in the country. Sunday’s gathering was the 16th annual. Also, more money was raised at this dinner than at any other James Beard Foundation dinner in the last 10 years. The foundation has awarded $5 million worth of scholarships.

Admittedly, though, I had other numbers on my mind. Numbers like eight world-class chefs serving up seven menu courses paired with six different wines. The two desserts shared the same wine. More on the dinner in just a second. But, first, let’s start at the beginning — the reception.

Walking into the restaurant, diners were handed a glass of sparkling wine — a lovely Chenin Blanc from France’s Loire Valley. Then the appetizers began appearing. From vintage beef tartar to cauliflower panna cotta to Idaho sturgeon caviar, the apps were delicious and a marvelous precursor to the multicourse affair that lay ahead.

The tastiness of the starters came as no surprise as they were carefully crafted by The American’s Executive Chef Michael Corvino and Kansas City’s James Beard award-winning chef Colby Garrelts of Bluestem and Rye.

Corvino was back to kick off the dinner with his first course of hamachi (yellowtail) with grapefruit, smoke and seaweed. The dish was paired with a Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noir — a white sparkling wine from Napa Valley made with the red grape, Pinot Noir. The pairing was seamless — the dash of sea salt sprinkled on the hamachi matched perfectly with the effervescence of the bubbly, while the tartness of the grapefruit was naturally lifted by the sparkler’s hint of natural sweetness. This was going to be a memorable night.

Course Two was served up by Matt McCallister from FT33 in Dallas. It was a soup with an oyster, sunchoke, kale and nasturtium. McCallister had me at oyster as I’ve never met one I didn’t like. But this creation went above and beyond, providing amazing texture and depth of flavor.

The dish, which was both tart and creamy, was complemented by a Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend from the Margaret River in Western Australia. This is a wine I have loved in the past but haven’t seen for many years. The result was another winner. The weight of the wine matched the lightness of the dish, and the wine’s acidity gracefully refreshed your palette after every taste.

A Parmesan custard served in tomato water with charred leaks from Castagna’s Justin Woodward in Portand, Ore., was next. I really enjoyed the dish, if not the wine pairing. The Newton, Napa Valley, Chardonnay was way too oaky, in my opinion. Not to fear, always resourceful, I summoned another glass of the Cape Mentelle, and viola, we were three for three.

Michael Tusk from Quince and Cotogna in San Francisco took the stage next. Tusk crafted a charred octopus dish that was out of this world and provided the best food and wine pairing of the night. The course danced from tart to sweet and featured earthy and smoky flavors that lingered long after each bite.

In the meantime, the wine — a Domaine Chandon Pinot Meunier, a red grape used almost exclusively in the production of Champagne — was the perfect partner, matching the notes in the dish with an eerie precision. I would be pleased to drink the Chandon Pinot Meunier on its own anytime, but having it with this creation was truly special.

A confit of goat (a first for me) was next in line. Also on the plate: blue cheese, walnuts and blueberry sauce. In the wine glass, a Terrazas Altos del Plata Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina. This pairing was a close second for me in terms of the overall match. A Malbec is often a pretty big wine, sometimes difficult to pair. But, the Terrazas’ was terrific, not just good fodder for the goat, but especially lovely when the blueberry sauce was added to the mix. Anthony Sasso from Casa Mono in New York City was the chef behind this course, and it was a noble effort indeed.

Two desserts ended the festivities, one from The American’s Nick Wesemann, and one from Brooks Headley of Del Posto in New York City. The wine for both was stunning — a late harvest Riesling from New Zealand’s famed Cloudy Bay winery in Marlborough.

The desserts were good, a pine nut, honey and cucumber creation from Wesemann and an apple, cinnamon and yogurt dish by Headley. But, the wine was off the charts. Rarely have I smelled and tasted a dessert wine with this much depth and complexity, let alone one from someplace other than France or Germany. What a wine. What a night. What a terrific way to raise money for a great cause.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.

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