Starker’s Reserve Third Annual Heirloom Dinner
August 6, 2007
I first called Starker’s about reservations for this dinner almost three weeks ahead of time, and was heartbroken to find out that it was already sold out (those who wish to partake of next year’s feast, take note!). I’ll never know if it was pure luck, or the divine hand of Chef John taking pity on my tardy self, but two days later we got an email saying we were in. The anticipation rose high… I’d read about others’ adventures at this dinner, but this was going to be my first time.
We were among the first dozen folks there, and were ushered into the regular dining room, now cleared of all furniture except for the bar at one end. Here we found several staff members serving champagne (listed as Lucien Albrecht, Cremant d’Alsace, or Brut Rosé) and watermelon martinis. Never having indulged in such before, I had to go for the martini. It was reddish pink, maybe with some berries mixed in? and not too sweet. It was a pleasant enough novelty, though the melony taste started overpowering your head after you were halfway through the glass. Right about now, I realized I’d forgotten my camera, so you folks are going to have to suffer with my crappy phone camera shots. Apologies!
Waitstaff started to circulate with trays of nibbles (noted on the menu as “Small Summer Bites”) consisting of crostini with eggplant puree and a bit of basil atop, fried green tomato wedges, and a little tied bamboo toothpick spearing chunks of spicy salami and sweet ripe cantaloupe. Good thing those came along, ‘cos that drink was strong and we had very empty stomachs!
Chef John McClure wandered into the room, glowing with excitement and pride. Later I found he was also suffering from laryngitis and fever, which probably accounted for at least some of the glow. I knew he wouldn’t miss this event for anything, but hoped he wasn’t pushing himself too far…
We met up with Mr. & Mrs. Moosnsqrl, and when I heard that we were to be seated at the same table, wondered if there was going to be an eGullet corner. They introduced us to Mr. & Mrs. Crum (parents of Dave Crum of bluestem, but I missed their first names in the loud crowd noises), who own Crum Family Farms and provided much of the produce we were about to eat. We chatted for a while, and I followed my bites with a glass of bubbly.
Soon we were ushered to our tables, where we were met with a dazzling array of cutlery and glassware: four wineglasses and a water goblet, with four knives, four forks and a spoon. The printed menu was also at our places, and I skimmed ahead to see what was coming… oooh! But Judy decided to be surprised, and even stuck her fingers in her ears and la-la-la’ed through the manager’s menu reading and comments.
The first treat to appear was a shotglass full of a thick clear fluid that smelled like your summer garden on a hot day right after you finished watering… Tomato Water. Judy explained that this takes quite a bit of work to process, and that it was salty because the desiccant properties of salt helps draw the fluid of the ripe tomatoes without the color. It was pure essence of tomato, incredibly good.
We were also being poured the pairing wine for this course: Chateau Marjosee, Entre-Deau-Mers 2006 (described as “lively, balanced, exotic citrus fruit and white flowers”). I got the citrus right away, very light and sweet (though this might have been emphasized because of drinking it so close to drinking the tomato water).
Our first course was a Cherry Tomato Tart with Sweet Basil Pesto, Goatsbeard Farms Cheese, and Golden Tomato Vinaigrette. The puff pastry was melt-in-your-mouth light and buttery, the sweet halves of tomatoes dotting the filling, and the beautiful vinaigrette was the perfect foil for the basil and cheese. The garnish of radish sprouts added a lovely little spark of heat as well as color. Out of the gate at a dead run!
I want to note that the service throughout the evening was spectacular. As soon as your wineglass was emptied, an arm would snake through between you and the dining companion to your right and refill it (or fill the next one for the following course). The food arrived at a smart pace, which is remarkable considering they were serving 84 people simultaneously. Empty glasses and dinnerware were whisked away efficiently and unobtrusively. Starker’s is the first restaurant I’d ever been to where service was taken to such a high level, and it had boggled me: I wasn’t paying so much for the food itself (though of course it was the star) but for the attentions of a professional waitperson who anticipated your needs and was otherwise invisible. I have no idea how Chef John attracts and trains these pros, but I hope he keeps doing it because they set the stage for his work to truly shine.
The next pour was Regaleali Blanco, Sicilia 2006 (“Delicate, apple, peach, pink grapefruit, crisp, velvety”), accompanying Crum’s Heirloom Tomato Salad with Watermelon, Fresh Mozzarella, Pasilla Chile Sauce and Fresh Herbs. The watermelon cubes were gossamer bits of melon hearts, sweet and intense, playing beautifully with the dressing and tomatoes. The herbs were (I think) opal basil and parsley. The cheese was fresh and milky and mild, and the tomatoes just were outstanding specimens of the species.
Around this point, I heard the woman seated across from Judy mention her son’s name, and I asked aloud, “Is that Chicagowench?”It was, indeed, and she was accompanied by the lovely Mr. Chicagowench. I was right, we did have an eGullet table! Well, halfway… it was also the gay hairdresser table. You can bet the conversation was sparkling all evening… we really felt like we had spectacularly good company, and that only heightened the enjoyment of our dinner.
Next up: Chablis la Chanfleure, Latour, 2005 (“Fresh citrus aroma and mineral notes”). Out came what was for me the highlight so far of the entire evening: Seared Sea Scallops with Sweet Corn, Baby Squashes, Sun Gold Tomatoes, and Chard in a Sweet Corn Broth. The fresh cut corn was so crisp and sweet and bright, the tiny tomatoes just warmed and bursting with flavor, the wilted chard not bitter at all… but the scallops! Oh, the scallops! A bit of browned salty crust on the outside, surrounding a smooth, creamy, sweet interior… the balance was absolutely perfect, and it all came together like a trapeze performance… swooping and breath taking. We ate every molecule on that plate, using the bread to chase down every drop of the savory broth.
We could smell something almost beefy wafting from the kitchen. We were poured a glass of Razor’s Edge Syrah, Australia 2006 (“Smooth, round ripe plum, blackberry, dusky spice,” although it tasted of toast to me). Then we were served Braised Leg of Lamb with Crum’s Potatoes, Baby Carrots, Braised Beans and Mint Gremolata. The two slices of lamb were hugely generous, probably half an inch thick and four inches across, and it fell apart at the touch of a fork… but it just wasn’t quite up to the par of the other dishes we’d been served this evening. The flavor was almost muddy, and I saw many folks reaching for the salt (myself included). The bright bits of the mint gremolata (I couldn’t taste any garlic or lemon, if they were there) helped, but the sheer mass of lamb was overwhelming. My date wound up with four slices to take home for lamb sandwiches. The beans seemed soggy (though they tasted wonderful, along with the carrots), and the potatoes were on their own, with no extra herb or flavoring added that I could discern. It was a bit of a letdown; I thought that a simple single lamb chop would have been perfect instead. Several people said they could have stopped altogether with the scallops (which were, admittedly, a terrifically difficult act to follow).
But then, our little energy dip was immediately reinvigorated. We were given glasses of Les Clos de Paulilles, Banyuls Rimage (quite accurately described as “caramel, spice, figs, chocolate and berry”), and plates with rose-folded napkins and a ramekin of humble-looking Wild Blackberry Bread Pudding with Vanilla Whipped Cream. As soon as each person took a sip or a bite, the moans began. Up and down the table, no intelligible words could be made out between the sighs and gasps of pleasure. I shudder to think what folks on the sidewalk thought was going on upstairs because I’m certain we were loud enough to be heard quite clearly over the tinkling of the Nichols Fountain. Judy, who admits to a general dessert aversion, announced her enormous foodgasm and began plotting to snag whatever was left in the cups of those who were eating slower than she was.
The rich chewy bread topped with light sweet cream covered a layer of custardy goodness and swirls of chocolate. One fellow said he tasted figs, though I didn’t… and below it all, round ripe sweet berries to be fished out one by one. The wine pairing was possibly the best of the evening, a comment echoed on all sides of the table. Chef John whispered that the secret to the pudding was to soak brioche in butter… a heady concept, considering brioche is about half butter to begin with.
The sound of our arteries collectively hardening was thoroughly drowned out by the songs of praise sung to our host and his able team. Coffee and refills of wine were distributed as requested, but we needed to get home to spell the sitter. Our last sight of the evening was Chef John walking home… we offered him a lift but he politely whispered a decline and marched off. The tall figure in a tee shirt walking over Brush Creek in the dark gave little clue to the incredible amount of talent and skill within… but we know. Oh, yes, we know!