Virginia Fall Dinner at the James Beard Foundation
The first time I walked through the door of the James Beard Foundation located in the former home of the late culinary deity James Beard, a tingle went down my spine. How many amazing meals had been served in its dining room? How many incredibly talented chefs had cooked in its kitchen? Fortunately, with a little bit of careful planning, a reservation, and payment, anyone can enjoy a wonderful multi-course dinner, lunch or brunch here. This past Saturday, I attended the much-anticipated (well, for me, anyway) Virginia Fall Dinner featuring the dishes and flavors of my home state with chefs from my former stomping grounds of Williamsburg, Virginia.
After leaving my coat in the cloakroom and checking in to get my table assignment, I walked through the open-plan kitchen to the reception area. I really enjoy seeing the hustle and bustle of the preparation for the evening meal. It reminds me of hanging out by the stove when I was little, watching my mom fix dinner for all of us kids. I was briefly introduced to Rhys Lewis, the executive chef at the Williamsburg Lodge, who was coordinating getting the evening’s culinary creations to our tables. The aromas coming from the prep area were making my mouth water in anticipation of all the Old Dominion delicacies that I’d soon be sampling.
Spying plates of delicious-looking small bites artfully arranged on serving trays, I passed by the staff and lingered just long enough to scope out the appetizers. Everything looked amazing. At the bar table, I picked up a glass of the Kluge Estate Sparkling Rosé from 2007. The deep pink color gave a festive air to the evening while the bubbles and light summertime fruit flavors of ripe red berries went along perfectly with the saltiness and fried, crunchy texture of the appetizers. I decided that I might need to put a bottle of this on my list for next summer’s rooftop drinks events and parties.
As I mingled with some of the other guests, I had to remind myself not to get too full on just this course. The succulent oysters in a crispy cornmeal outer jacket just melted in my mouth. The mini Cuban-style sandwiches had hearty, smokey pulled pork, a hint of cheese, and a slab of salty Virginia Ham all bundled together in a buttery roll. I have to figure out how they made the little nests of phyllo dough for the brie and where they found the floral and earthy truffle honey that was drizzled on top of it. The combination of sweet, creamy, and crunchy made this an ideal cocktail nibble. Unfortunately, I missed the bruschette, but I more than made up for that with additional helpings of each of the other selections. Then, we were called to go to the second floor dining room and take our places for the main meal.
One of the things that I enjoy the most about going to a meal at the James Beard House is that it doesn’t matter if you show up alone, with a date, or with friends. Everyone is there to enjoy the meal, basking in the carefully executed fare and each others’ company. At my table were the PR folks for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and John Shideler, the Director of Food and Beverage Hospitality for Colonial Williamsburg, so I was able to catch up on all the latest updates from the historic area.
We were greeted by Mitchell Davis, Vice President of the James Beard Foundation, who mentioned that Saturday was, in fact, the date twenty-five years earlier when the foundation had been established, so the evening was indeed a celebration. James Beard was an ardent supporter of American cooking and the foundation brings chefs from all over the country to cook there as well as sponsoring scholarships for the next wave of culinary talent. When I spoke to one of the chefs afterwards, he said that it had been about eight years since the folks from Williamsburg had made a dinner there, so this was also a special return visit for them, too.
After the introduction, it was time to explore the bounty that awaited. Each dish had been orchestrated by a chef from a different dining establishment within Colonial Williamsburg and was paired with a separate beverage, also of Virginia origin. The wine industry in the Old Dominion has really come a long way from when I lived there, and I was quite impressed by the vintages that we were served with dinner. For the beers, I hadn’t realized that that industry had really taken root in my home state, and some of these need to find a place at my parents’ holiday table this year. As far as the food goes, I’m going to let the photos below tell the story.
Paired with Barboursville Vineyards Pinot Grigio 2010 (no photo)
Paired with Williamsburg Ale Werks Wheat Ale
Paired with Rockbridge Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay 2009
Paired with Williamsburg Winery Trianon 2007
Williamsburg Ale Werks Coffee House Stout ice cream float for pre-dessert
Paired with Rockbridge Vineyards V’dor 2007
As the photos show, this was a culinary trip that showcased some of the best features of Southern cuisine. My favorites would have to be the soup and the dessert, with a special nod to the Stout float. Our first course, the risotto, had a nice flavor, but the real star on that plate was the velvety duck confit that had been cooked in apples (another Virginia staple). She-crab soup, with a creamy buttery base that brings out the sweetness of the shellfish, is one of those dishes that I’ve tried time and again to explain to people up here, as it is one of the few things I have yet to find on a New York menu. The dusting of crisp, salty Virginia ham gave an extra dash of personality to the delicate and tender rockfish. The beef was pull-apart tender and just melted in your mouth with collard greens that had a backnote of smokey porkiness which could only mean that they were cooked correctly in bacon fat. Although I know that coarse-ground grits are in style right now, I was less than enamored of them, as I prefer mine to be less rough in consistency than these were here. The creamy, smooth cheesecake had a slight note of tang from the goat’s cheese. Sweet tomato conserve on top of the cake was a reminder that this red orb is actually a fruit and can stand up as a dessert item.
Rhys Lewis Executive Chef of the Williamsburg Lodge
It would be difficult for me to pick a favorite of the beverages if not for the Stout float that we had. This Williamsburg Ale Werks brew had notes of coffee and semi-sweet chocolate chips which the Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream accentuated with its creamy texture. One of the people at our table found it a little too weird to handle. I should have distracted her so that I could have had a second glass. Of the wines, I found that they mostly worked with the dishes with the Chardonnay very lightly oaked and the Pinot Grigio, of which I’m normally not a fan, to be crisp and refreshing and not too steely. The red wine from the Williamsburg Winery was a real surprise with its vibrant berry flavors and round, full mouthfeel. I haven’t tired their products in years, since I lived down there, and this makes me think that I need to make a roadtrip to their vineyards for a tasting.
Colonial Williamsburg Culinary Team
After all the wonderful food and drink, the closing part of the evening was to introduce the talented chefs behind our amazing meal. I had found out during dinner that not only did they get themselves up to the city for this event but they also drove a refrigerated truck all the way from Williamsburg to New York filled with the ingredients for the evening’s dinner. So, this really was an almost entirely Virginia product-sourced venture. Of course, the whole thing would not have been complete without one more taste of Colonial America. Heralded by traditional fife and drum music, a final dessert creation was presented at each of the tables, which you can see in the photo below. As Chef Lewis said about the evening’s meal, he “wanted to bring the taste of Virginia to you here.” I think he succeeded not only in bring the flavors of my fair home state to the big city, he also brought a bit of its spirit and warm hospitality as well.