Thursday, December 13, 2007

Drinking (and eating) at the Beard House

When Bret Thorn sent an email to me asking me if I'd go in his stead to a Beard House dinner he would be unable to attend I agreed to go without hesitation. Well, there was a bit of hesitation. "Am I supposed to be dressed real nice? It kind of sounds like it..." I emailed back. Even after a little over two years working for NRN I still feel like a food industry newbie at times, and for me the Beard House is the stuff of fables. Thankfully, Bret assured me that I just had to dress "like a grown-up."

Wednesday night's dinner was themed "A New Hampshire Holiday Dinner" with food created by chefs from New Hampshire hotels and resorts. The dinner was presented by Daniel Dumont, executive chef at Wentworth By the Sea Hotel in New Castle, New Hampshire; Larry Johnson, executive chef at The Balsams in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire; Juho Lee, executive chef at Mountain View Grand Resort & Spa in Whitefield, N.H.; and Edward Swetz, executive chef at Mount Washington Resort, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.

However, you ask, "OK, that's cool and all, but where does the drinking come in?" At dinner of course.

During the course of conversation at my table at the Beard House, I explained that usually I was more of a beer and spirits type of person and wine was not my forte. It wasn't anything personal against wine; I had no qualms drinking it when paired with foods as it was at this particular dinner. I was just green when it came to ordering it on my own. So it was a bit of a fun coincidence when later in the evening I turned to my right and got to talking with Oral Kelly, food and beverage director for the Mountain View Grand Resort & Spa in Whitefield, N.H. While talking to him about what his job description entailed he began to explain about how he created a wine list for people who are not used to drinking wine.

Kelly said that while at a resort you get out-of-towners, it's also important to appeal to the locals since they were to be depended on for year-round business. And Kelly found out that the local crowd tended to define themselves more as beer drinkers so he'd been trying different ways to introduce and sell wine to programs non-wine drinkers.

One way was to promote wine dinners with pairings. He also worked with purveyors to schedule free wine tasting for more exposure.

Pricing also played an important role. Kelly said he tries to populate the wine list with affordable, but good quality wines. He also prices them attractively. While at a restaurants a certain wine may be marked up to $60, he choose to have it available at the resort for $50.

A balance between familiar and new also had to be struck. Kelly said that he likes to include American wines since it's less intimidating than something from outside of the country, but then he'll have something comparable from outside the United States that he can suggest.

Kelly pointed out that the availability of half bottles was part of the success of the wine program. "Someone's not going to buy a whole bottle if they aren't able to finish it."

And of course, he educated his staff to provide recommendations to guide customers towards new wines or just to try out wines.

Kelly said that the most important thing about his job as food and beverage director wasn't about just selling food or just selling beverages, but it was about selling an experience. It made sense to me when I thought about his approach to wines. For someone like me, I'd drink more wine if I knew what I was doing. I have some basic idea, but admit that the whole operation, when taking into account subtle notes and flavors and pairing them with food, was something a little intimidating to me. A strange thing considering how I'd take a sip of a cocktail, then ruminate over what kind of spirits or flavors were present in it. At an event like the dinner at the Beard House, where wine was made part of an experience, it was like a weight was taken off of my shoulders and I was relaxed more to actually sit and taste what I was drinking and contemplate it a bit. Not in a snooty way, but I mean to actually just take note of what was going on in my mouth.

I'm going to rip off Mr. Thorn's format here and provide a list of what I ate WITH what I drank at The Beard House. Just gonna switch the order a bit and highlight the wines up know, like subject headers:

Domaine Carneros by Tattinger Brut Cuvee 2004
New Hampshire trout brandade with anadama crostini
Espresso cumin-crusted New England farm-raised elk carpaccio roll
Pan seared salted cod cakes with roasted corn aioli
Smoked duck breast with celery root slaw
Foie gras and caramelized parsnip tart with roasted pear marmalade
Pickled beausoleil oysters with matsutakes, crystallized lady apple and apple syrup
Pheasant galantine on a bed of pumpkin butter and gooseberry conserve
Maple-cured gravlax of Arctic char and lightly smoked wild Char roe

Clos LaChance Unoaked Chardonnay Hummingbird Series, Monterey County 2005
Roasted pear parsnip bisque
Maine seafood spring roll

Merriam Vineyards Merlot, Windacre Vineyard, Russian River Valley 2003
Cider basted Vermont quail
Maple roasted root vegetable and potato terrine
Cranberry reduction

Four Vines Winery Heretic Petite Sirah, Paso Robles 2005
Variety of New Hampshire venison
Roasted loin en crepinette, sweet and sour quince
Braised fore shank ravioli with celeriac fondant
Hen of the woods ragout

Four Vines Winery Heretic Petite Sirah, Paso Robles 2005
Pierce Hill tomme
Winter truffles, pickled beets and melted onions

Renwood Port, Sierra Foothills, Calif.
Warm chocolate chestnut bread pudding
Eggnog ice cream, red currant sauce

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Nothing wrong with a little DIY

During an NRN-Online department outing last night at the Pegu Club, Susan Vincer, our publishing director, had a sip of the Pegu Club Cocktail and commented that it tasted a bit tart.

Our server came over to set down some utensils for food, but she also placed on the table a small wooden box that positively looked like a "My first alchemy set" with some small bottles and eyedroppers.

"I heard you say that the drink was a bit tart," she said. "So here's some sugar, lemon juice, lime juice and bitters so you can fix the drink a bit."

I don't know if I'm just naive, but I was pretty astounded by this. First, because it was pretty incredible that our server took note of what could've been a throwaway comment, and second, that a place known for crafting cocktails gave customers the leeway to "fix" drinks if it wasn't to their liking.

Writing for a restaurant trade, the topic of providing good service gets discussed a lot, but here was a case where just letting the customer take care of the problem on their own was a form of good service. Afterwards I wondered if this was something that's just for table-side service over at the Pegu Club. If it is, it's a pretty ingenious way to get around trucking a single cocktail between the customer and the bartender.

For my previous visit to The Pegu Club, I've sat at the bar to watch the bartender mix the drink. When stumped as to what to drink next, the bartender asked what spirit or flavors I usually enjoy and what flavors I didn't. With such close proximity to the bartender, it's much easier to leave your fate in their hands. However, when sitting at a table away from the bar, with no prior discourse with a bartender and relying mostly on your server it becomes a game of telephone pitted against one of cocktails enemies, time. Ingredients in cocktails can settle or flavors can change slightly once it sits for a bit.

I could see it being a double-edged sword, though. While instant gratification exacting to a customers' tastes can be had for the taking (not to mention a sort of novelty factor), across the horizon looms the specter of even further dissatisfaction. For around $12 a drink in a nice setting like the Pegu Club, with its reputation for bartenders who know what they are doing, some people might think it's ridiculous that they have to doctor their own drinks. And heaven forbid that their efforts should yield a horrifying concoction. I imagined the litany of horrors that could be unleashed simply by someone improperly wielding the eyedropper from the bottle marked "bitters."

When ordering another drink later in the evening I saw our server's face begin to scrunch up as a small look of dismay started crawling across her face. I had barely finished the last syllable of the first word in the name of a drink.

"That's no longer on our menu," she said apologetically after confirming the rest of the name of what I wanted to order.

"Do you have anything similar?" I asked.

Without missing a bit she answered, "Yes, we do have something like it. It also has applejack and is made with grenadine and lemon juice."

It was nice to see that the waist staff (or at least our particular server), also were trained to be familiar enough with the menu.