SOUTHERN hospitality might be said to have gotten a little out of hand last Sunday in Richmond.
When a famous chef comes to town, a true Virginian would certainly throw a dinner party to introduce him to the locals. And that is just what the Historic Richmond Foundation did, admittedly on an unprecedented scale.
Jacques Pepin was the chef, down from New York to give a day's worth of cooking classes as a fund-raiser for the foundation. And his welcome party the night before the classes was another fund-raiser, catered by the chefs of 10 influential and innovative restaurants from all over the state.
"We didn't think we could come up with 10," said Page Bond, co-chairman of the gala. But not only did the planners find a surprising number of exciting Virginia restaurants, they found that all but two agreed to volunteer their services. "Of course I bullied them," explained Bond.
They were also surprised at the public's response to the gala. Not only did 500 people fork over $15 for the event, but a waiting list stretched several hundred longer.
But most of all, they were surprised how hungry the guests were to sample the chefs' talents. At 6:30 p.m. the doors of Richmond's Science Museum opened to the 10 buffet tables and 10 wine tables woven in between the outsize crystals and walk-through exhibits of the museum. At 6:45 the oysters were gone from the Iron Gate House of Virginia Beach. By 7 o'clock the Embassy Restaurant of Norfolk's Hotel Madison had only ravaged bits of salmon coulibiac left, and the chef was off having a drink.
"It was a mass dinner party," said publicity chairman Linda Dalch, for the first time considering that the guests might prefer to make a meal of these show items from Virginia's top chefs rather than just nibble and then go home or to the White Tower for dinner. The organizers had asked each restaurant to bring only enough food for 50 people, not anticipating that all of the guests might try to taste all of the food.
"We had intended it as a tasting; unfortunately it was vulturism," moaned Tricia Pearsall, the chairman.
But the party went on. And on.
"I don't think you want this, Rose."
A woman warned her companion away from a dish unfamiliar and therefore suspicious.
It was a pate', from L'Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, the Virginia attendee closest to Washington. L'Auberge Chez Francois is the grandfather of Virginia's French restaurants, and had been a training ground for several of the other chefs at the gala. For dessert, the staff was serving kugelhoff en neige au kirsch and patiently explaining again and again that it was really just a floating island made in a large mold.
"Crawfish? I've never had that before."
A curious man from India, and his wife in a sari, willingly took a sample.
The crawfish were in salad, in a pie, stuffed for a bisque. Along with country ham strudel and pork-and-oyster pie, they were displayed on a woodland setting of moss and tree trunks. This was the work of Bridget Meagher, who three years ago opened Alexander's in Roanoke and sneaks in her native Louisiana cuisine among its classical European dishes. Meagher was waiting for her food to run out so that she could circulate around the room and meet the other chefs. When she moved to Roanoke from New Orleans, her apprenticeship had become "almost independent study," and she hadn't yet come across another woman chef in her adopted state.
"The wines! The wines were fantastic!"
Jacques Pepin exuded his delight over some of the Virginia wines, singling out Meredyth Vineyards' seyval blanc and Ingleside Plantation Vineyards' riesling for praise.
Pepin has been finding changes in food and wine all over the country. He has been encountering young chefs "eager and honest. Some don't have that much knowledge, but eating in that kind of restaurant is better than in some old kind of restaurant where it is not as good as it should be," he explained, his French accent a standout among the southern ones surrounding him. "The lowest of the restaurants we had today at the tasting is better than the best we had 20 years ago," insisted Pepin, using as an illustration Le Pavillon, the legendary New York restaurant where he once worked with owner Henri Soule'. "If he came back today, it would be just one of the good restaurants in New York, nothing special."
"Some of the pa te's were very good, some not so good."
Pepin evaluated his evening's tastings.
One of the good ones, from Fifth Avenue in Richmond, was studded with truffles, pistachios and plenty of pepper, decorated with a creamy chaud froid and tiny carved vegetables. Chef Mark Condon has only been at Fifth Avenue since September, having come from Nicolai's Roof in Atlanta, but he has enhanced the reputation of this three-year-old restaurant, and was so much a trouper that he showed up despite having broken his toe doing ice sculpture the day before. Enough of the guests headed straight for his buffet table that his pirozkhi had run out in less than 15 minutes.
"Beaten biscuits! I haven't seen beaten biscuits in years!"
A woman joined the line snaking towards the Lansdale Farm table.
It was probably going to be the first time she ever ate beaten biscuits with gouda cheese, especially a Virginia-made gouda cheese.
"Tell them you're eating for two."
A pregnant woman was advised by her obviously hungry companion as she finally edged towards the front of a crowded table.
La Maisonette was the newest Virginia restaurant to be represented, it having opened in Richmond only five weeks before. Chef Alain Vincey was dishing out Mousse du Fishing Bay au Coulis de Crevettes as his wife Sandra told people about their restaurant. Vincey had worked in such famous kitchens as L'Oasis and Paul Bocuse in France, Princess Hotel in Bermuda, Lutece in New York, but none drawing such interest as did his stint as Jacques Cousteau's chef on the "Calypso." What made him think Richmond could support a restaurant of such quality as he proposed? "The area could use some of any type of restaurant," answered Sandra. "If how well we've done so far is any indication, they obviously needed a restaurant."
"The three ambitions of middle-aged men who want to change their jobs are a rerun movie theater, a bookstore and a French restaurant."
Sandy McAdams has realized the latter two ambitions, one of them the C & O restaurant in Charlottesville. He was dishing up gravlax, terrine de champignon, asparagus and brioche, and admitting that he was doing so at this gala because "It's good for business."
The C & O was a pioneer among the new, adventurous Virginia restaurants, and wouldn't have survived, said McAdams, without publicity in national magazines. Even now, six years later, there is little communication and camaraderie among these ambitious newcomers, according to McAdams and several of the other restaurateurs. His staff keeps in contact with the Inn at Little Washington, which couldn't join the gala because the restaurant is open on Sunday; but like the other restaurateurs, McAdams knew few of the others.
"Only La Petite France is older."
McAdams gave a nod to the senior restaurant among his nearby competitors.
La Petite France, the first French restaurant around those parts, was said to have paved the way for the others. In fact, Vincey had worked with chef Paul Elbling before opening La Maisonette. Certainly La Petite France's buffet table looked the most traditional of the bunch, with pastry swans and stuffed tomatoes decorating its trays.
"Next to a plate, a fork is most cherished."
A man with a full plate of Le Ya Ca's chicken liver mousse with truffle sauce saw no such utensil in sight.
The popularity meter registered off the scale at Le Ya Ca, a Williamsburg restaurant whose table was constantly hidden by a sea of people. Canapes of foie gras, of smoked salmon, of asparagus, of scallops. Disappeared. Tiny cream puffs and large fruit-topped cheesecakes. Gone. Three hundred canapes, 500 petits fours, five large mousses, eight cheesecakes, 20 pounds of cornish game hens. Pouf! This restaurant opened only a year and a half ago, when French restaurateur Daniele Bourderau decided that France's economy was going downhill, visited 30 states of the U.S. and fell in love with Williamsburg because it seemed so European. The name is French slang for "Let's", which was exactly how she and her staff decided to make the move. Thus they found themselves serving nine-course fixed-priced French dinners to a reluctant few locals and plenty of enthusiastic travelers. And last Sunday they found themselves dishing up a few stray peaches and blueberries for a winemaker who had pined, "It was awful to see so much beautiful food and not get any."
"We're just drinking because we can't find a plate."
The party was warming up.
While the food trays were picked nearly bare, and makeshift utensils were pressed into use, a beautiful glazed country ham sat untouched on the buffet table of the Surrey House from Surry, Va. The staff had forgotten to bring a knife to cut the ham. But this 27-year-old restaurant, the only traditional Virginia restaurant among them, had brought plenty else: ham salad, yeast rolls studded with ham, shad roe pate' from "the end of the shad roe" season and Virginia peanuts.
By 7:30 the food was little but a memory, yet the rivers of wine were still running. All the seats in front of the Science Museum's video screens were occupied, a replenished supply of glasses had run out, but there was no apparent exodus to the White Tower. Virginia's food had drawn the guests, and its chefs were holding them, answering questions and talking about how they had started their restaurants.
Page Bond attributes Virginia's restaurant upsurge to its wine industry. As in California, she said, wonderful restaurants had sprung up because wineries were springing up. And all of that, she supposed, was because people were moving out of the city and flowing south. The Frenchmen, she added, apparently settled in Virginia because they found the environment easygoing.
Whatever the reasons, concluded Bond, "You don't have to go to Washington to eat good food."
And in case you don't get to Virginia, here are some of the chefs' recipes.
C & O CREVETTES ESMONTESE (4 servings as an appetizer) 1/3 cup clarified butter 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced 16 jumbo shrimp, shelled and deveined (about 1 1/4 pounds) 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 tablespoon tomato paste 1/2 cup heavy cream 1/3 cup snipped chives
In a skillet over moderate heat, heat clarified butter until hot, but not bubbling. Add garlic and saute' for about 1 minute, but do not brown. Add shrimp and cook, turning once, just until they are still moist and slightly raw in center, 25 to 30 seconds on each side. Place 4 shrimp in each of 4 heat-proof seafood shells or individual casserole dishes. Place in 275-degree oven to keep warm.
Discard butter and garlic from skillet. Place skillet over moderate heat. Add lemon juice, tomato paste and cream. Stirring occasionaly, cook for 1 minute. Stir in chives.
Remove shrimp from oven and top each portion with equal amount of sauce. Serve immediately.
IRON GATE HOUSE OYSTERS CHESAPEAKE (6 to 8 appetizer servings) 2 dozen freshly shucked oysters on the half shell 1 pound bacon, diced 2 green peppers, diced 1 large onion, diced 2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and finely chopped 2 pinches oregano 1 pinch seafood seasoning 1 dash hot pepper sauce 2 dashes worcestershire sauce 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 1 pound backfin crab meat
Arrange oysters on a baking sheet or on a pan of rock salt. Saute' bacon, green peppers, onion and garlic until most of the fat is rendered out of the bacon. Add spices and lemon juice. Add crab meat, mixing well but being careful not to break up the lumps of crab. Top oysters with this mixture and bake in a 450-degree oven for 10 minutes or until oysters are done.
SURREY HOUSE SHAD ROE PATE
This is a typical southern cook's recipe -- the flavor can vary with the extent of one's wine cellar. The onions and liqueurs, if available, are whims of the cook. 8 or 9 slices sugar-cured bacon 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped Pinch of brown sugar 1 pound shad roe 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter 1/2 cup red wine 4 whole peppercorns Bouquet of herbs: basil, thyme, bay leaves 1 whole onion 1/2 pound unsalted butter 2 tablespoons brandy, Grand Marnier, curacao or port (taste as you add, you may want more or less) 2 egg yolks and/or a little cream (optional) Toast and sieved egg yolks for serving Cut bacon in small bits with floured scissors. Fry until crisp and crackly with a finely chopped clove of garlic or two, and a small amount of brown sugar. Set aside and drain well.
In a covered pan, stew about a pound of shad roe in butter and red wine, with a few peppercorns, the bouquet of herbs and the whole onion. Cook, covered until the roe is well done, about 10 minutes.
Remove the herbs and the whole onion. Sieve the roe or put in food processer if desired, or simply mash it.
Add about 1/2 pound unsalted butter to arrive at the desired consistency, remembering that the butter will help keep the pa te' firm.
Add the bacon bits and the liquor. If a richer pa te' is desired, beaten egg yolks and/or a bit of cream will do it.
Serve on toast. Can be garnished with sieved egg yolks.
LA PETITE FRANCE TERRINE MAISON (6 servings 10 ounces chicken meat, diced 10 ounces lean veal, diced 6 ounces fresh pork fat, diced 4 ounces chicken liver, diced 4 chopped shallots 2 chopped garlic cloves Pinch of thyme Pinch of nutmeg 1 bay leaf 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 10 tablespoons port wine 10 tablespoons white wine 2 tablespoons brandy 3 eggs, beaten Aspic for garnish, if desired
Saute' meats until browned but barely cooked. Combine all ingredients (except eggs) and marinate for 8 hours.
Finely grind the mixture (a food processor can be used if you are careful not to puree the meats) and combine with the eggs. Pour into terrine, cover and allow to rest for 2 hours.
Bake terrine in pan of boiling water for 1 1/2 hours at 375 degrees. Let cool and cover with aspic. Chill and serve.
ALEXANDER'S CRAWFISH SALAD 1 pound cooked crawfish tails 1 cup sliced celery 1 bunch scallions, chopped 2 chopped hard-cooked eggs 2 tablespoons capers Salt and cayenne to taste Dressing: 1 cup peanut or olive oil 1/4 cup red wine 3 tablespoons dijon mustard
Mix all above salad ingredients by tossing together. Combine all ingredients for dressing and toss with salad.
Refrigerate, and when ready to serve, spoon into small puff shells or onto puff pastry rectangles.
FIFTH AVENUE PATE MAISON DE CHEF (8 servings) 1/2 pound pork fatback, divided 1/2 pound cooked ham, divided 1 pound lean veal 1 pound lean pork 2 eggs 1 egg yolk 1/2 cup heavy cream 1/4 cup cognac 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon white pepper 1 tablespoon Knorr-Swiss aromatic seasoning 4 ounces chopped pistachios 2 ounces whole black truffles (optional)
Dice 1/3 of fatback and thinly slice 2/3. Dice half of ham. Set all aside.
Grind together remaining half of ham with veal and lean pork. By hand, knead in diced fatback, diced ham, eggs, egg yolk, cream, cognac, salt, white pepper, seasoning and pistachios. Cover and refrigerate 24 hours.
Line a pa te' mold or loaf pan with sliced fatback. Pack in half of chilled pa te' mixture. If using truffles, slice into 1/4-inch strips and place end to end over pa te' to form 2 or 3 long bars. Pack remaining meat mixture over.
In a 350-degree oven, place pa te' mold in a pan with enough boiling water to come about 2 inches up sides. Bake 1 1/2 hours. Remove from water bath, place a weight on top and refrigerate 24 hours. To serve, slice very thinly.