Contributed by Hairee Lee For our fifth dinner, Didriks joined up with European Country Antiques and Season to Taste Catering for an eight-person dinner party in the antique-filled showroom of European Country Antiques. See photos from the event on our Flickr.
The main players: Robert Harris, a Boston chef and owner of Season to Taste Catering, recently awarded Best of Boston 2010, who catered the meal; Ed Stuart, owner of European Country Antiques and host of the dinner in his sumptuous store; Jonathan Henke, owner of Didriks, who provided the tableware; Hi-Rise that provided the bread and the wine; and Renée McLeod from Petsi Pies, who baked the dessert.
All local businesses located in Cambridge, they came together to create a memorable dining experience, and by dining I mean the wine, the cuisine, the conversation and laughter, the ambiance, the service all combined to create a wonderful affair that was more than the sum of its parts.
European Country Antiques owner, Ed Stuart, is the first person I meet when I walk into the store for the dinner. He stands behind a small bar with an enormous shelf towering behind him. ((Which is saying a lot because Ed is a very tall, very well built man with a perfectly shaved head that makes you think of Professor Xavier from the X-Men. That’s right: X-Men.)) He is mixing cosmopolitans. Yes, I would love one, I say. I don’t say, as if you needed to ask. He serves the cocktail in an Orrefors Balans martini glass, a traditional-looking martini glass with a crystal node just below its conical cup to provide stability and tactile satisfaction. The martinis are accompanied by caviar on toast with crème fraiche served on a Revol Basalt plate, a porcelain tray that looks like slate. Visually, the black delicacy is set off beautifully by the charcoal color of the platter, and taste-wise the appetizer is absolutely delicious.
(I feel a bit tentative about using that word, delicious, too early in the evening, because looking ahead I fear wearing out the word out of all meaning by the end of the night. Nevertheless, delicious is the right word.)
I meet the other dinner guests: Gary ((Gary was one of my favorite new people that night with his bright, open, modest personality that puts people immediately at ease.)), Ed’s partner of over twenty years, with salt-and-pepper hair and wonderful color on his skin that’s attractively set off by the pale azure shirt and wide, white smile; Angela, Gary’s assistant working a Breakfast-at-Tiffany’s dress paired with a sassy attitude; Jonathan ((Who, earlier that evening, without a hint of annoyance and fretfulness, rescued me from Belmont when I bussed myself all the way to the wrong end of Concord avenue. Thank you!)) and his wife, Rachel ((Who is nearly eight months pregnant and making pregnancy seem like an alternative to a facelift.)), and their son, Oliver; Jonathan’s employees, Kristina ((Who, amazingly, is single. She makes me think of True Blood, the television show about the trials and tribulations of gorgeous vampires and gorgeous human beings trying to live together. Kristina, we should go out for girls’ night out together.)) and Melissa ((Melissa is the spitting image of Katie Melua, the sultry British pop-jazz singer-songwriter, with a face that could probably launch a cosmetics line if her voice wasn’t enough. She just started working for Didriks and holds a degree in interior design. Like the songs of Katie, Melissa is a romantic—she moved to Boston to be with her boyfriend.)), who, standing side by side pale blond and brunette respectively, seem to personify naughty and nice, sugar and spice.
Outside, in the makeshift kitchen set up just behind the store beneath a tent, is Robert Harris. Robert has been a chef for nineteen years. I ask him where he’s from originally because after only a few minutes with him, I detect a sense of timing, slower and richer, a way of holding eye contact that’s longer and yet unobtrusive, characteristic traits I've noticed before in my friends who are from the South. Robert ((Robert is not only Southern, but has got a seriously thriving career as a chef in Boston. As you’ll soon read and perhaps taste for yourself, his food is dynamite. He’s got these half closed eyes that seem to be perpetually smiling and the gray hair at the temples only serve to make his baby face look even younger. Sure he’s married with two daughters. It doesn’t mean I won’t notice that he’s charming as hell.)) is from Alabama. With him is his new sous-chef, Sam, and his waiter, Ethan ((Ethan with his curly brown hair and youthful scruff. And his wedding band wrapped sadly (for me, et. al.) around his twenty-five year old finger. While having an after dinner cigarette together, he tells me that he still has a crush on his wife.)) ((It’s hard to say at this point if it has escaped the others’ notice except mine that everyone there that evening is inordinately attractive. I think perhaps the two cosmos are working their fiery liquid engines on my libido so I pretend not to notice and act cool, but Angela comments on the cutie-liciousness of Ethan once dinner begins. I enthusiastically agree with her, and Ed later verbalizes the unusual concentration of beautiful people at the dinner overall.))
If the company was beautiful, they were no less delightful as dinner partners. We sit down to a beautifully set table in the middle of the store, which has been cleared of its usual inventory for the occasion. The Libeco Home Brisbane linen tablecloth in red earth, Vence tablerunner in gold, and Madder brown Libeco Home Tribeca linen napkins add to the fall feel. Two giant, globular Simon Pearce Hartland Hurricanes mark the ends of the table and white porcelain Revol wine pitchers each hold a single flower (from Hanaya Floral) with an enormous bulls-blood colored bloom. The table has a country estate feel. It doesn’t hurt that it feels as if the estate is somewhere in some rural hideaway in France.
First on the menu by Robert is seafood dish. It is a sophisticated adaptation of eggs in a basket where white toast is replaced with brioche and chicken eggs with quail eggs, beneath a New England lobster, chanterelle mushroom, and frisée salad, and topped with a gorgeous hollandaise sauce. All this deliciousness is plated white Match Pewter Convivio dinnerware whose pewter rims match the oval napkin rings. Gary, sitting beside me, veritably sighs with pleasure at the first bite of the dish. It is delicious. The pairing of the lobster dish with the white wine is perfect. Ethan makes sure that the clear goblets are constantly filled.
Earlier that evening while I was out back meeting Robert and his team, I learned Season to Taste Catering's food philosophy: to use the best local, seasonal ingredients. Robert’s primary concern is to use the best he can get his hands on and if that means local, which it often is, then great. But he’s not dogmatic about this guideline. If he can get better stuff elsewhere then he will. Case in point: the caviar used in the appetizer, European origin.
The second course, served on white Match Pewter Convivio dinner plates, is fennel crusted lamb sliced over a chunky parsnip mash, a side of stacked ratatouille made of grilled vegetables, and ribbons of parsnip chips as garnish. Robert explains to us that the sauce, which is a bordelaise reduction, takes two days to make. The attention and expertise put into the dish is not lost on the palette. It is rich and sweet, and the slight acidity of the sauce cuts the gamey flavor of the lamb perfectly. And I have to say it again: it is delicious.
By this time, the red wine flows freely, in and out of our Simon Pearce Cavendish wine glasses, and everyone is both swooning over the food, slightly buzzed with the drinks, and over each others’ company to great effect. It’s that point in a good dinner when it becomes hard to distinguish between what is better: the food or the people, and sometimes I forget to eat and other time I can hardly hear the conversation around me. It seems that this pleasant tension in the fight for your attention is the mark of a wonderful meal. Everywhere you turn, to the right and left and down on the table, something lovely awaits you.
During the main course, I learn that Ed has been the owner of his store for over fifteen years. He travels all over Europe to find the beautiful pieces of furniture that take up nearly every inch of his shop. If a piece he finds needs retouching, they are sent directly to England to be rendered sale-worthy and only then shipped to his store in Cambridge. Every piece is hand-selected by him. And his taste shows as you look around the store. There’s a consistency in quality and aesthetic point-of-view that is clearly achieved by a single and singular sensibility. I think, no, I know, if I had the means, I would go to town in this place.
Dessert follows: Pecan and Taza Chocolate Pie from Petsi Pies, chosen and sent over by its owner, Renée. The pie is topped with whipped cream and served on translucent Kosta Boda Limelight dessert plates, decorated with tiny, close-set knobs on the underside that forms a swirl design shining through the smooth upper surface. The port that Hi-Rise paired with the pie is poured into small old-fashioned glasses. The pie is full of rich, chocolaty, nutty flavor, but not too sweet, and so is able to pair well with sweeter wine without the whole effect becoming cloying. It’s decadent and sumptuous, much like the earlier courses. It is—I have to say it again—delicious.
After the meal is done and nearly a whole case of wine consumed, a handful of the more hearty revelers stick around to enjoy further conversation. It amazes me still, even after the countless number of dinner parties I’ve attended in my lifetime, and the two for Didriks I’ve participated in, that people, some who have never met each other till that evening, can come together and enjoy such a lovely evening together. It’s the equal measure of great food and wine, wonderful ambiance, impeccable service, and engaging dinner partners that make events like this a success. Not to forget the appreciation and support that these local business owner afford each other giving the dinner a community feeling that goes beyond the evening.
I can’t resist extending a personal thanks to all the participants for the memorable night, particularly to Jonathan who organized the event. This one’s for the books. Jonathan, it’s hard to imagine how you’ll top this one but I’m looking forward to it!