December 6, 2011
My Dinner with Mariani
Esquire magazine’s “Four New Chefs to Watch” Cook a Feast at Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead. John Mariani plays host
By Nancy Staab
It’s hard to say what was the biggest delight of the evening, chef Todd Richard’s bourbon maple panna cotta, or sharing the table with two debonair and award-winning Esquire writers, restaurant critic John Mariani and feature writer Tom Junod, in the now-private Dining Room.
When I was invited to attend the Esquire magazine chef’s dinner at The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead recently, I knew I was in for a culinary treat. But I had no idea I would be sitting at a table of four with legendary food critic John Mariani to my right (just call him the silver fox of the gourmand set with his authoritative take on food culture and his trademark snowy mane) and the equally engaging writer Tom Junod opposite me, who regaled crowds at Restaurant Eugene this summer with his Eat Like a Man compilation-- particularly an amusing essay about his glamorous but culinary-challenged mother, who had a way with her wardrobe but liked to pass off frozen Banquet drumsticks as a home-cooked dinner. Though NYC-born, Junod happens to reside in Marietta, Georgia.
When you have two such talents at the table, you just sip your sommelier-approved wine selections and quietly listen to the literary lions banter—about the early days of Esquire magazine when the magazine flew Hugh Hefner to Rome to cover la dolce vita with his bunnies (he must have missed his Playboy mansion because he hopped a plane home the next day)--to William Buckley’s son Christopher’s brief stint as Editor-in-Chief of the men’s magazine.
It seems that Editor Buckley was fond of borrowing Henry Kissinger’s line: “Put it in the typewriter again”—refusing to even read a submitted author’s draft until a rewrite. The quietly subversive Mariani added a comma or too, re-submitted his review, and it was then deemed “perfect.”
The two veteran New York writers also exchanged tales of old Italian steak houses; the restaurant they would most miss if it ever closed (Le Bernadin for Mariani); and the salad days when Esquire regularly employed novelists like John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos. I sipped my Greuner Veltliner (which seems to be an emerging new wine trend) from the oldest Austrian vineyard, dating back to the Roman times, and nodded with full attention! I would add some tasting notes but Mariani and Junod had fun deflating the pretensions of wine writers during the course of the dinner, so I will refrain. At one point Mariani quoted a passage of purple wine prose in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, in which a glass of grape is likened to “little gazelles prancing through the meadows…” I didn’t detect any prancing gazelles, but the Veltliner was bright and citrusy!
Did I mention that this dinner took place in the sumptuous Ritz-Carlton Dining Room upstairs, now only available for private events-- appointed like a tasteful robber-baron’s living room with rich damasks, bronzes and oil paintings? It was nostalgic to be back in this beloved room—home to so many amazing chefs and meals. And tonight the four toques named “New Chefs to Watch” in the nation by Mariani in his Esquire Best Restaurants in America feature of 2011, had this famed open-kitchen at their command. Each of the accolade chefs cooked a fall-inspired dish, drawing straws to determine the courses.
Our own Chef Todd Richards of Café Ritz-Carlton, whom Mariani extolled in a review earlier this year as creating “some of the city’s finest modern cuisine with a distinctive Southern slant,” may have been dejected to draw the dessert course. However, he acquitted himself supremely with his fall confection.
More on desert later. First up was Chef Sachin Chopra’s roasted mini pumpkin with truffled wild mushrooms, fingerling potatoes and spicy pumpkin spread. Chef Chopra dreams up his modern, Indian-inflected dishes in his one-year-old restaurant All Spice, housed in a Victorian mansion in San Mateo, CA. Tonight’s dish consisted of a stuffed mini sugar pie pumpkin from local markets with three fillings that revealed themselves in layers: a spicy pumpkin spread flavored with ginger, mango and black salt, to name a few ingredients; a classic mushroom duxelle in the middle; and cardamom cream on top. Gorgeous purple fingerling potatoes and flowers acted as garnish on the plate, forming a wreath around the pumpkin. Ritz sommelier Linda Torres Alcaron created the parings for the meal, pouring a 2009 Loire Valley Chenin Blanc to complement the spicy dish.
The second course was “Dirty” Anson Mills faro with Capers Glade clams by Chef Tyler Brown of The Capital Grille at The Hermitage in Nashville, TN. Mariani introduced Brown and recalled the days when a decent steak was as good as it got in terms of Southern fine cuisine. But now, Mariani said, “restaurants like Tyler’s are making a difference. There’s still a perception out there that Southern cooking is all about Paula Deen and The Neely’s, which is authentic but not that good—whereas Tyler is a true locavore. He makes Southern cuisine not into something it shouldn’t be, but something it’s always been.” To wit, Tyler’s dish referenced his Charleston, SC, background and incorporated field peas from The Hermitage’s 66-acre farm in its savory mix.
Explaining the criteria for his Best Restaurants feature, Mariani said, “These chefs and restaurants don’t just have to be as good as everyone else--the Jean-Georges Vongerichtens and Daniel Bouluds of the world--but distinctive.” Mariani also had high praise for Atlanta’s cuisine. “I visit 20 cities for the feature and Atlanta is always on my list. It’s always in the top ten of best food cities.”
The main entrée for the night was a gourmand take on “pork and beans” by Chef Scott Anderson of Elements restaurant in Princeton, N.J. The hearty dish featured a Hungarian, Mangalitsa pork neck with braised radish, chickpeas and a bit of barbecue sweet-and-sour sauce, which Anderson billed as a “reinterpreting of the South up in New Jersey.” Mariani elaborated: “Elements produces food that is edgy without being too gimmicky. Every element is superb. It’s the definition of a chef who has refined and refined, rather than just going crazy and experimenting on the diners.” Alcaron paired this unusual protein with what she termed “the showstopper” of the night, a 2009 Cru Beaujolais from Domain De La Chappel.
Last, but not least, The Ritz Carlton Café’s own Chef Todd Richards brought out the piece-de- resistance, an autumnal and ravishingly delicious bourbon maple panna cotta with toasted gingerbread, apple crisp and persimmon.Richards said the dessert was intended as an edible play on a Moscow Mule. The confection was a fitting cap to Richard’s one-year-anniversary at the Café and was paired with an equally divine Cocchi made with Barolo grapes from Peidmont, Italy. The fragrant aperitif was served with ice cubes infused with 21 different spices, including wormwood, ginger, rhubarb, etc. After that last flavor-infused pairing, we must have rolled out of the Ritz as redolent as a Christmas tree!
And what did the chef’s do after putting the culminating touches on the four-course Esquire feast? They were gathered in the back of the kitchen tucking into a communal bowl of Chef Brown’s faro.
You can sample chef Todd Richard’s culinary skills daily at The Ritz-Carlton Café, at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, 3434 Peachtree Road N.E., 404.237.2700 or www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/Buckhead/Dining/TheCafe/Default.htm
Mariani on the Four New Chefs to Watch:
The Capitol Grille, Nashville
Using a 66-acre farm for most of his provender, Brown shows how far southern cooking has come without losing what made it great in the first place.
All Spice, San Mateo, California
Out of a charming western Victorian house in San Mateo, Chopra marries a northern-Cal sensibility to Indian food culture with dazzling, novel results.
Elements, Princeton, N.J.
If Anderson had merely given Princeton its one great eatery, he'd be a hero, but he is in fact in the vanguard of modern global-American cuisine.
Café at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, Atlanta
Following European masters at the Ritz, Richards, an American, shows his own sumptuous style in dishes like foie gras with huckleberry gastrique.
Read more about Marinia's Best Restaurants in America 2011 feature at: www.esquire.com/features/food-drink/best-restaurants-2011/best-new-chefs-2011-1111#ixzz1fRIGOFFz
Read Mariani’s original review of Todd Richards cooking at The Café at The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, here:
Chef illustrations on menu by Joe McKendry