Carla Hall, the local caterer turned daytime-TV celeb, agreed to step back into the kitchen for last year's Sips & Suppers, the annual fundraiser for Martha's Table and D.C. Central Kitchen. The only issue was, Hall didn't contribute much to the meal, one of many intimate dinners organized each year to give donors a chance to rub elbows with celebrity chefs and authors.
"I worked with Najmieh," says "The Chew" co-host about her "collaboration" last year with Persian cuisine expert Najmieh Batmanglij. "It was a delicious dinner, but it was really Najmieh’s dinner. I was there to work.”
No hard feelings. Hall returns to Sips & Suppers on Sunday to collaborate with David Lawrence for another dinner, one of more than 30 private affairs scheduled with chefs ranging from Chez Panisse's iconic Alice Waters (a Sips & Suppers co-host, too, along with Jose Andres and Joan Nathan) to D.C.'s Mike Isabella to the once peripatetic Chinese master chef, Peter Chang. (The Hall-Lawrence dinner is sold out, but others still have seats available for $600 each. Check online listings for availability.)
This time around, Hall says she has a more active role in planning the dinner. She and Lawrence, the executive chef and owner of 1300 on Fillmore in San Francisco, have put together a menu focused on comfort foods, which echoes the theme of Hall's next cookbook, "Carla's Comfort Foods," set for release on April 1. No fooling.
Peeling off six Benjamins for a comfort-food dinner might sound like a shakedown to some, but Hall has a healthy perspective on the proposition. "I know it's hundreds of dollars for something that is kind of low brow and comforting," she says. "But, well, when you think about what the money goes for, I personally would spend just as much money for comfort food and to have an experience from a different culture as I would for a fine-dining experience.”
Besides, while the theme may be comfort, the food will be chef-driven, not grandmother-driven. Locals are already familiar with Hall through her Alchemy by Carla Hall cookie company, but Lawrence may be more of a question mark. Lawrence got his start under the tutelage of Albert and Michel Roux, the Michelin-starred chefs behind such restaurants as Le Gavroche and the Waterside Inn in England, before making a name for himself in California at 231 Ellsworth in San Mateo and the now-shuttered Carnelian Room atop the Bank of America building in San Francisco.
Hall and Lawrence have created a dinner that includes all sorts of comforts, both savory and sweet. Among the early bites, Lawrence will offer pimento cheese crostini and barbecued shrimp and grits on a spoon. Hall will serve up black-bean empanadas. The main course will feature maple-syrup braised beef short ribs, courtesy of Lawrence, who also has cornbread with jalapeno jelly and honey butter planned for the table. Hall will follow up the meaty course with some cardamom-tea granita and a deconstructed lemon meringue pie, with a lemon-ginger curd and a lemon-black pepper crust.
"I love savory with sweet," Hall says. "And even though I love desserts, I don’t really like sweet desserts."
But the star of Hall's side of the menu is her take on callaloo, the West Indian soup/stew that incorporates the large, fan-shaped leaf of the same name. Hall's version, found in her forthcoming cookbook, substitutes baby spinach for callaloo leaves and favors king crab over the more traditional dried saltfish. The stew also includes coconut milk and bacon, which can't hurt anything, right? The cooked ingredients, minus the crab legs and bacon, are pureed in a blender until bright green, then topped with the king crab and crumbled bacon.
“You know when you make something and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so good’" Hall asks. "That’s how I felt about this dish, and I really wanted to share it. . .So when David and I were going back and forth, I said, ‘I don’t care what I make, I just know I want to make this soup.’”
Should you not be among the fortunate souls at Hall and Lawrence's table on Sunday — and if you can't fork over the cash for another dinner — you can still contribute to the cause this weekend. Sips & Suppers also features the casual Sips reception with drinks and small plates by many of the District's best chefs and mixologists. The event starts at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Tickets are $95 per person and available online. VIP tickets, at $200 each, are also available; they include pre-party tastings, books and an opportunity to meet Waters and Eric Asimov, the New York Times wine critic, who will be signing books.