Feast of the Senses at the James Beard House

Nobody forgets their first. Maybe it’s a cheeseburger, a lover, a car, a shitty job, or a dinner at the James Beard House. Maybe it’s beautiful or terrible or it lasts into the dregs of the night, but you don’t forget it, not easily, not in a lifetime. It’s an endless evening of piqued courses amidst weeks that turn up the same surroundings, over and over again. It’s a commercial break from a loop of Groundhog Day. We may be the same idiots we were when we walked into the James Beard House, but we were bracketed by strange and wonderful things.20160210_182306Our invitation came via The Rogers Collection, a group I’ve worked with and encountered through the Fancy Food Show. Rogers is based out of Portland, Maine, but travels all over the world to source spices, olive oil, vinegar, and sauces direct from the makers and growers themselves. Their products are opulent, refined, and minimal to the point of making Robert Rauschenberg look bad. Thanks to the syzygy and infamy that this blog had from its infamous reference from Kanye in ‘Made in America’, which never, ever happened, we were able to crash the party and get in on this dinner, pairing Rogers products with dishes by Shane Lyons of Distilled NY, professional chef and boisterous party-thrower.20160210_222058As is the case with traveling from one state to the next, we arrived impossibly early and loitered around the upper floors of the house, hoping to discover some secrets about the man himself, Mr. Beard, or at least a charming guest bedroom to take a nap on, before we were asked to go back downstairs. We left with a terrified selfie instead and retreated into the windy February night for a brief repose, returning for exceptional passed appetizers and an enclosed garden party, starring the best sous-vide deviled eggs we have ever had. In warmer weather and a brighter sky, the back patio area would be absolutely sublime, and the open space and lighting proved for a gorgeous evening before the main event.20160210_194825Ask CS Lewis, nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of evil magic food, and that includes the devilishly bizarre popcorn we gorged on before the main courses began, mysteriously full and buoyant at the bottom of the bag, spilling out onto the tablecloths. The recipe is lively and beloved to Distilled, a piquant snap of nutritional yeast, paprika, caramel, and more.20160210_200357The feast of the senses began with sour, though it presented itself more as pickled, as its more delicate flavors were subsumed by their boozy brines. Oysters in three cocktails, a benign whiskey sour jelly, delightful champagne air (arguably the best of the trio) with a gimlet sorbet, and a brisk, all too overwhelming shooter of sea bean-infused vodka buoyed with an oyster. An intrepid appetizer, it was a lot to take in after the champagne aperitif and before the five glasses of wine.20160210_202801Our spicy course was indeed true to its name, crackling with salt crystals, small slices of Sichuan pepper, and pickled mustard seeds surrounding a delicate monolith of fried salt cod. An herby gremolata brought the dish together with a splash of acidity and a pleasant levity imparted throughout the plate.20160210_205840The Rogers Collection’s French olive oil importer, CastelineS, was featured heavily in the next dish, a chicory coffee-rubbed bison tenderloin with mustard seeds, anchovy mustard, whipped parsnip, and mole. While the temperature of pieces drastically differed, we found that the most perfectly cooked slices were tender and succulent, romantic in their pictorial resemblance to hearts and oozing beauty and boasted a bold, eclectic flavor supplemented by the fruitiness of the olive oil.20160210_212013Our final savory dish carefully bridged the gap between dinner and dessert and called back Jacques Genin from his grave with quivering, tender gougere-choux dough centered around a creamy Parmesan mousse reminiscent of, in the most exquisite possible way, a gigantic cheese-filled cracker. That is, if your school lunch was topped with ribbons and curls of proscuitto and a snowfall of Halen Mon sea salt. It was a dessert for the eyes and a savory treat on the palate, and the balsamic reduction on the bottom added a honeyed touch of sweetness.20160210_213807I take creative liberties in denoting the previous dish as the final savory dish because the chicken and waffles can only be described as a dessert on the merits of sheer indulgence alone. This is abundantly apparent in the creative design of the toppings, fully involved: burnt honey, charred marshmallow, crispy chicken skins, liver mousse with herbed fat, a spiced maple syrup, and whipped butter, which would have been plenty were it not for the healthy portion of Southern fried chicken and cornmeal waffle naked and ready for adornment, a full meal unto itself.20160210_221857The bonafide dessert was simplistic and beautiful in itself, wrapping up the theme of the evening in a playful ice cream cone, stuffed with spiced chocolate, a sour cherry gastrique, and a rich, buttery chocolate soft serve topped with Halen Mon sea salt, light and airy enough to double fist, demonstrated above. The cherry jam had an aggressive tint of spice, just enough to wake up the senses one more time before midnight. Although the weather wasn’t quite at the level of an outdoor Mister Softee, it was the perfect ending to a sumptuous and flavorful evening.20160210_224735Though we were not able to bunk at Chez Beard amidst his floor-to-ceiling collection of cookbooks and copper, we dreamed of cones and oysters throughout the week. It was a delightful degustation, and we could not have asked for a finer inaugural dinner, thanks in part both to the Rogers Collection, their collaborators, and Distilled NY.

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