"That tattoo has texture," I said to Brett McKee, chef of Oak Steakhouse in Charleston, S.C., who was the evening's featured chef at the James Beard House. The image of a writhing snake working its way down his left arm looked like it had real scales.
It turns out the tattoo was just a couple of days old and hadn't healed yet. I guess I don't know enough about scheduling tattoos to know if it's so hard to get appointments that you need to do it whenever they can squeeze you in, even if it's right before cooking at the Beard House.
At any rate, it fit in with his crew of young, lean, earring-wearing tattooed cooks. And it contrasted nicely with the diners, an unusually stylish and good-looking crowd. It seemed to be mostly comprised of two groups: the type of Charlestonians who would fly to New York to have dinner prepared by their favorite chef, and a group of Brett's New York drinking buddies, most of whom seemed to work on Wall Street and were tall, sharply dressed and had elegant spouses. I felt a little bit like I was at a cotillion.
Brett had brought cases of beer for his drinking buddies while the rest of us drank Prosecco.
The kitchen crew was stylish and good-looking, too, by the way, but in the tattooed-earringed way that's really more appropriate for cooks.
Brett sounded kind of Cajun to me when I met him, but it turns out he's from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I think he had picked up a bit of that South Carolina accent, which when blended with some Bay Ridge came out as Cajun. At any rate, as the evening wore on the Brooklynite came out. So when he was introduced at the end of the meal, as is the custom at the house, he told the guests that he'd brought a "shit-pile" of crew members with him, by which he meant "a lot." That was a first for me at the James Beard House. I'd never heard anyone use the F-word when speaking into the Beard House's mic before, either.
The wine distributor of the evening also owns some restaurants in Tampa and describes their cuisine, a fusion of the area's different communities, as Tampesca. He said it differed from the Floribbean cuisine of farther south in the state in that it was a more gentle melding of flavors, with fewer fruit salsas.
After dinner the chef announced that he and his gang were going drinking at a place called The Hideaway, but I already had plans to go to a party at Tia Pol featuring sherry. Beverage consultant Steve Olson throws the party every year, with sponsorship, obviously, from the sherry folks and Wines from Spain. It's a party for wine buyers and sommeliers and some press. Usually it's a good place for gossip, but this year, I think because I was overly full from dinner, I mostly lay low and sampled a little Dry Sack as a digestive, as well as some sherry cocktails that were featured in a contest earlier in the day. The winner contained both sherry and tequila.
What I ate and drank:
Mini Caprese Napoleon
Clams Casino & Oreganato
Eggplant Caponata Bruschetta with shaved Parmigiano-Reggianno
Prosecco di Valdobbiaden, Villa Castalba
Foie Gras & Duck Confit Ravioli with Shaved Black Truffles
Torre Fornello Malvasia Dolce
Roasted Beet & Baby Bibb Salad with Candied Pecans, Golden Raisins and Goat Cheese
Grilled Marinated Quail with Asiago Polenta and Bing Cherry Sauce
Barbera D’Asti, Agliano Pavia and Figli,
Pancetta wrapped Rack of Lamb & Tuscan Rubbed Filet Mignon with Roasted Butternut Squash Gnocchi, Braised Cabbage and Saia-scented Demi-Glace
Saia Nero D’Avola, Sicily
Warm Apple Tart with Honey-Vanilla Gelato and a Winter Berry Compote
Michele Chiarlo, Nivole
The sherry cocktails:
Created by Jacques Bezuidenhout, Tres Agaves, San Francisco and
winner of the 2005 sherry cocktail competition
1 1/4oz Domecq Manzanilla sherry
1 1/2oz Gran Centenario Reposado Tequila
1oz Pear Liqueur
Stirred, chilled, up.
Le Jardin Verde
Created by Brian van Flandern, Per Se, New York
1 1/2 oz. Sandeman Rare Fino Sherry
1/2 oz. Hangar One Kaffir Lime Vodka
1/2 oz. Cucumber Puree
Splash of Fresh Lime Juice
Splash of Simple Syrup
1 oz. Muscato D’Asti (Perrone)
Shaken, chilled, up, with micro green flowers.
Created by Jason Erwin, Picasso, Las Vegas
1 1/2 oz. Lustau Rare Cream Solera "Superior" Sherry
1 oz. Level Vodka
1 oz. Nocello
1/2 oz. Tuaca
Shake & strain, chilled up, orange twist.
El Cid (Campeador)
Created by Mike Mraz, Hearth, New York
2 1/2 oz. Tio Pepe Fino Sherry
3/4 oz. Orange Juice
1/4 oz. Simple Syrup
1 1/2 oz. Tonic Water
Powdered Roasted Almonds on glass rim
Shake & strain, up, garnish with orange wheel
Junior Merino, The Modern, New York
2 1/2 oz. Lustau Solera Reserva – Manzanilla Papirusa
1/2 oz. Barenjager Honey Liqueur
1 oz. Charbay Green Tea Vodka
Stirred, chilled, up.
Garnish with an orchid or a wheel of blood orange.