Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Toasting the masters of French cuisine

June 16
The honest-to-goodness truth is I did not have even an inkling that Crème de la Crème was taking place until Don Lee called me at 10:48 am. Sleep-deprived, in the throes of wrestling with HTML coding and just not being much of a morning person in general, it took me a while to process what was going on.

Don said he was calling because he misplaced my email address. I thought for a second through the fog and asked, "Oh, so, like...do you want me to give it to you?"

"No, I just wanted to tell you about the cocktail that we're making for the Citymeals-on-Wheels charity event."

"...Oh, when is that?" I asked groggily.



So I got myself on the list at the last minute to attend the event. I was also feeling mighty self-conscious about how I was dressed since I wasn't expecting to go to some fancy event up until a mere six hours ago.

The event was held to benefit Citymeals-on-Wheels, an organization that provides meals for homebound elderly New Yorkers on the weekend since government programs cover meals on weekdays. And they also provide meals for holidays.

It was fitting that an organization that provides meals with such deep ties to the restaurant community (Gael Greene and James Beard co-founded the organization) would raise funds through an event that honors culinary legends.

The forecast threatened rain and the organizers of Crème de la Crème were giving attendees warnings about said storm. I thought it was supposed to be one of those "We forecast rain later in the day, but we totally mean, like 9 or 10 pm" type of forecasts, but dark clouds rolled over the sky ominously as I entered 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

Heading down to the garden area (the part that you skate in when it's winter), I was assaulted by the smell of food. Everywhere. I was bewildered and not sure where to go and what to do until I bumped into the Plymouth Gin booth that was located conveniently in my meandering path. I was offered a gin and tonic made with Plymouth gin and Q Tonic Water. I took one and downed it quickly to help me get my wits about me.

While I was there I asked Jamie Gordon with the Absolut Spirits Company (Plymouth is owned by Swedish company V&S Group that also makes Absolut) how things were going with the sloe gin. "Oh, dear," he answered.

Unfortunately, there seems to be some hiccups with distribution, but response and demand have been great stateside. All 2000 cases allocated for the United States have been spoken for and Plymouth is gearing up to try and brew up some more for the U.S. for next year.

I wove my way between people to the bar station where I grabbed the Le Croissmo from Don and John who were representing PDT. It tasted exactly like I thought it would. The fruity berry center of a berry-filled croissant...with alcohol.

I did a double-take because I was pretty sure Kathleen Turner brushed past me to grab a Sidecar from Chad Solomon and Christy Pope from Cuffs and Buttons, a cocktail catering outfit.

Pegu Club showcased the French Pearl, which is also on their menu. Eben Klemm of B.R. Guest served up a TGV, a super light floral cocktail made with Plymouth gin, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, Sauternes and some lavender foam. Little Branch served up Fine and Dandies (Plymouth Gin, Cointreau, angostura bitters). And Mr. Eben Freeman from Tailor came up with a Cointreau Creme Orange for the occasion.

Right after trying out the Le Croissmo, I wandered over to the other end of the bar to say hi to Mr. Eben Freeman. Just then the skies decided to open up and the rain began to pelt the plastic and tarp protecting us.

Over the sound of rain violently hitting protective covers and the house band, Eben said that he at first wanted to serve the Creme Orange out of a keg, but that idea didn't work out too well and he instead was pouring topping the drink off with soda.

I asked what a cubeb was and Eben said it was type of pepper. You learn something new everyday. He had steeped the cubeb in hot water with vanilla and licorice and the result was a spicy, bite-y cream soda cocktail. It was like a very adult soda shop drink.

But then Eben asked me with great concern if I had had any of the food. I admitted I went straight to the drinks. He pressed upon me that I really, REALLY needed to eat the food at this event.

This was serious business. I gave my liver a breather and dove back into the crowds to sample some of the cuisine. From now on its stream-of-consciousnesses and what stood out from the things I sampled. At the Charleston Grill station I grabbed a "Crepinette de Pigeon, Sauce au Truffe de Bourgogne" (squab sausage with truffle sauce) that melted in my mouth. Bob Waggoner also served seared veal sweetbreads over Granny Smith Vidalia Compote in Xeres Reduction. I won't lie. I love sweetbreads.

City Hall had Alsatian onion tart, which I thought was intriguing. I haven't really eaten a lot of vegetable tarts and I found myself enjoying it. They also had a brandade made of salted cod served with 24-hour tomato. I kind of thought the "24-hour" bit was just a name for some fancy-pants technique, but I was assured the tomato was really simmered for 24 hours to create a paste.

The seared American Piedmontese beef loin with wild leek potatoes and morels served by chef Larry Forgione of An American Place made me with I could have like a big old plate of the stuff.

I didn't even get to try whatever it was that Jean-Georges Vongerichten had going on because his table was mobbed and by the time I came back to see if the crowd had dissipated a bit, it was all gone.

I chowed down with gusto at Tom Colicchio's Craft Restaurant station on duck pastrami with pickled red cabbage and sweet mustard and braised pork butt with smoked onions and tomato molasses.

As I stuffed my face with pork butt two or three feet away from the station I overheard to young ladies debating whether or not to get an autograph. I turned back to the station and noticed Tom Colicchio had materialized while my back was turned and was doing an interview (he wasn't there when I was there). I'm going to admit in this space that whenever I see Tom Colicchio in person, I always find him intimidating. And again I found myself washed over with nervousness. He just has this really intense aura, man. Also, I've only talked to him once, very briefly in an introductory sense a long time ago, and a small part of me swears up and down that he found me annoying at that encounter and to this day my neurotic brain thinks that somehow he still remembers me and remembers me as annoying.

Other famous faces I recognized all on my own were Gael Green, Todd English, Charlie Palmer and Drew Nieporent. I felt proud of myself. I was getting better at this.

Both Don Lee and Eben Freeman told me to stop by Rogue Ale and Spirits' table to try the Spruce Gin and Hazelnut Spice Rum when I had a chance. Chris from Rogue informed me that the two spirits were released in the New York market just three weeks ago.

The spruce gin had cucumber in it too. It had that slow gin burn as it rolled down my neck, but was intensely floral even with the Christmas tree-esque spruce scent, which I wasn't expecting. The hazelnut rum almost tasted like chocolate.

Chris then poured me a mixture of Rogue's Chipotle Ale and Chocolate Stout.

"It's like some kind of Mayan/Mexican chocolate beer!" I exclaimed.

I went back to the bar station to hang out a bit. Finished drinking some more of the cocktails, and stuck around when the chefs and everyone were called up to the stage.

I asked NRN's national reports editor Milford Prewitt, who I bumped into through out the evening along with our executive food editor Pam Parseghian, how long the event was going. When he answered that the dancing probably would be until midnight, I thought now would be a good time to throw in my hat.

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