The final act was playing out, the house lights were brought up. The star of the evening, Chef Lorenzo Polegri, stepped out from the kitchen and into the dining room, receiving a round of applause. Chefs are getting their due, finally. Diners here in New Hampshire are as appreciative of good food — well executed — as anywhere else, including Europe.
The Bedford Village Inn has been bringing in well-known chefs from near and far for its Celebrity Chefs Series since 2000. This night was the coup de grâce. Jack Carnevale, owner, arranged for Polegri and a few of his staff members to fly from Orvieto, Italy, expressly for the opportunity to share his skill and knowledge of Umbrian food with kitchen staff and a roomful of appreciative diners.
The menu ranged from a chick pea flan to a zucchini velvet cream to a leg of lamb seasoned with wild fennel. All were served with Italian DOC wines from distributor Winebow, with matches like the bittersweet mousse, which was served with a 2001 Allegrini, Recioto Giovanni Allegrini DOC — dessert wine of the year in 2002.
The room was alive with good cheer that had been building with each course. Polegri happily posed for photos and enthusiastically greeted diners who had questions or simply wished to convey their appreciation. At the finale, Carnevale encouraged patrons to ask questions of the chef in an after-dinner question and answer session with his staff. The chef was not shy, giving hugs and handshakes all around. Back home in Orvieto he runs a culinary institute, Marchesa Adele Viti, researching the roots of the local cuisine and sharing it with students and diners at his restaurant, Zeppelin. A few former students had come this night to renew their acquaintance.
The visiting chef concept is a win-win situation for all involved. Local patrons are exposed to the culinary sensations of out-of-state chefs, the chefs themselves find a new audience, and the host staff, who work the line aside their guest chefs, learn new techniques first-hand.
Last November, Bedford Village Inn Executive Chef Jodi Geiser claimed that she learned “eight new things tonight,” while working with Chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street in Portland, Maine. Hayward works with local farmers, fishers and artisanal cheesemakers. He brought Matsutake mushrooms, monkfish, lamb and an array of cheeses, all produced, grown or harvested in his state. The monkfish had been caught at 6 a.m. that morning. For Hayward it is all about a menu that is “market driven” — fresh and local rules the day.
At the Celebrity Chef Dinners, a specially chosen wine is served with each course — one that will hopefully meet its match in the food pairing. At the Hayward dinner, a 2002 Kendall Jackson “Grand Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon was perfectly matched with the Monroe Cheese Studio Lake Blue, for a fourth course pairing. Usually, a different wine distributor is given the opportunity to showcase its portfolio or a specific winemaker in pairing matches.
For people with a passion for good food and wine these dinners are a treat. One aficionado, Lazarus Guisso, when probed for his most memorable dinner of the series past, paused and then praised the meal provided by “Ciao Italia” host Mary Ann Esposito, booked again for this fall. Also scheduled is Paul Delios of Meze, the premier Greek restaurant in Boston. When food appeals to all the senses its memory can linger on the mind’s palate for a long time.
If you want to make some memories, let Celebrity Chefs, or any other carefully paired wine and food dinner, make an impression on your rods and cones, your taste buds and your nasal receptor neurons. The mass stimulus will be good for your soul, and will be something to remember, just like a trip to Italy. NH
They know best. By Barbara Radcliffe Rogers
Tasting dinners, chef’s menus, prix-fixe — they go by a number of names, but the idea is the same: The chef sets the menu for an entire meal at a fixed price. Some are designed so that you can sample more dishes than you would in a conventional dinner, while others offer a more economical way to order three basic courses. Some showcase the chef’s latest experiments, and for those of us who always order the daily special just to see what the chef’s up to, these menus can be a lot of fun.
The concept can work in a number of ways. In the traditional European daily menu, there are no choices. You get the soup of the day, the entrée of the day, the dessert of the day, period. But few restaurants in the United States offer this daily option. Here it is more likely to be an occasional scheduled wine pairing dinner or a weekly tasting dinner, such as the Sunday menu at The French Bistro. In most cases there will be a choice between two or three entrées, and often a couple of choices in other courses as well. Wine pairing dinners usually offer no choices (but you know what the menu will be before you reserve).
Two New Hampshire restaurants have made their (considerable) reputations by serving only fixed menu dinners. Chef/owner Harold Huckaby of The Crystal Quail (269-4151, www.crystalquail.com) in Center Barnstead has served fixed menu dinners since he opened the restaurant in1976. He offers three choices of entrée, frequently including game birds, such as quail or pheasant. It is essential to book ahead and to bring your own wine; dinners are $65 (no credit cards).
Chef Brian Mackenzie of the Inn at Pleasant Lake (526-6271, 800-626-4907, www.innatpleasantlake.com) in New London has also built a strong reputation by serving only five-course prix-fixe dinners. He offers a choice between two entrées — usually fish and meat — after discussing the menu and describing the two selections in the parlor where guests assemble before the single sitting. Along with the entrée, dinners include soup, salad and dessert, with a sorbet intermezzo. Dinner is $55 and reservations are essential. The wine list is extensive, with descriptive notes, and a number available by the glass. Chef Mackenzie resumes the summer schedule of dinners Wednesday through Sunday in early May; in winter he serves only on Friday and Saturday evenings.
The five-course dinner at The Notchland (374-6131, www.Notchland.com) in Hart’s Location (Bartlett) is also served in a single sitting, and Chef Sandy Reinschmidt balances her menu gracefully between traditional and international elements. Among this spring’s entrées (each dinner includes three choices) are Truffled Chicken baked in crisp Filo pastry and Hazelnut Duck Breast. Salad and a choice of three desserts complete the dinner, which is priced at $40 on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and $45 Friday, Saturday and holidays.
Other restaurants in the state offer special chef’s tasting menus, weekly prix-fixe or wine pairing occasions. Nathan Baldwin, chef/owner of Baldwin’s On Elm in Manchester (622-5975, www.baldwinsonelm.com) gives us a reason to look forward to Mondays with “Baldwin’s on Mondays.” The $40 prix-fixe three-course dinner menu offers a choice between two appetizers and three entrée choices, plus dessert. Included is a glass of dinner wine (or half glasses of two) and a desert wine. Or, at anytime, the chefs will present a tasting menu of six or more courses.
At The French Bistro in Milford (249-9605, www.thefrenchbistro.com), French-born owner Thierry Navette schedules a tasting dinner every Sunday that would satisfy any Frenchman. Navette is still out of the country with visa problems, but standards remain high.
Perhaps the most novel approach to the tasting menu concept is offered by Chef Jodi Geiser at the Bedford Village Inn (800-852-1166, www.bedfordvillageinn.com). Chef Geiser offers a tasting menu of 15 choices from which diners can choose, paying according to how many courses they select. A five-course meal is $65, or $80 with wine pairings, and a 10-course dinner is $100, $140 with wines. The courses are mouthwatering, and include such dishes as beef tartare three ways and Maine diver scallops with sea urchin Savarin.
Chef Christian Pasternak of Colby Hill Inn in Henniker (428-3281, www.colbyhillinn.com) schedules occasional five-course wine dinners, with a menu chosen to compliment the wines and a commentary by a wine expert. The $85 price tag includes dinner, wines, tax and gratuity. Chef/owner Luca Paris of Luca’s Mediterranean Café in Keene (358-3335, www.lucascafe.com) also offers occasional wine-pairing dinners.
Perhaps the best value in set-menu dining is the nightly dinner served at long tables, but with a quality menu, in the convivial atmosphere of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center (466-2727, www.outdoors.org) in Gorham. Each evening, Chef Harry Cavanaugh serves reasonably priced ($16.75) multi-course dinners that feature entrées, such as pork loin roasted with rosemary and garlic and vegetarian options that might include Risotto Primavera. It’s a good idea to have reservations on weekends.
We can look forward to NH Growers Dinners (nhfarmtorestaurant.com) with harvest menus in late summer to fall. Look online for the 2006 schedule. NH
Cheap Eats: Down ‘n Dirty Bar-B-Q
By Rachel Forrest
There are a few intriguing small eateries on the west side of Manchester, but Down ‘n Dirty Bar-B-Q is a gem among them. Former owner Rick Brickman has passed on the fine art of creating authentic southern pit BBQ to two young men, Craig Leduc and Matthew Crist, both Atlantic Culinary Academy grads who’ve cooked in some notable Boston and Portsmouth highbrow spots. Now they’ve gone “down home” in the culinary world to the roots of an original great American cuisine, stoking a huge smoker in the open kitchen with hickory and oak, and pulling out traditional BBQ fare like huge meaty spare ribs, tender beef brisket and juicy chicken infused with genuine smoky flavor.
This spot is mostly kitchen, with a few wooden tables in a dark dining area, so most come in for take-out for home or picnics. Meals like the pulled pork plate come with a half-pound of moist pulled pork and house-made sides like a crisp and tangy coleslaw, sweet corn bread and smoky BBQ beans for $11.95. Sauces are “add your own” and range from mild to a version with a warning label. A quarter slab of ribs is only $6.95, and there are plenty of dishes previously found only “Down South,” like batter-fried catfish, hush puppies and an incredible side dish of dirty rice, with white rice and crumbles of hot sausage with touches of celery.
There is also a great vegetarian dish of Cuban black beans and rice for $6.95 and decadent pecan-topped sweet potato pie. All the dishes here are homemade using traditional methods in a simple setting, with friendly chefs who care about the authenticity and quality of their food, the essence of true southern BBQ at its best.
Down ‘n Dirty Bar-B-Q, 168 Amory St., Manchester, (603) 624-2224. www.downdirtybbq.com
Simon Rached has moved his popular Mezza restaurant from Hampton Falls to Nashua. Lucky Nashuans. Rached is proud of his heritage and his interpretation of Lebanese cuisine. He makes all his dishes, including baba ganoush and hummus, fresh every day with fresh ingredients. Grilling the eggplant for the baba ganoush gives it a smoky flavor that lingers on the tongue.
"Mezza" is Arabic for appetizer and the menu consists of a variety of authentic Lebanese preparations, all meant to share, much like Spanish tapas. The best bet would be to go with six people and let Chef Rached lay out a feast of 30 dishes, one after the other, with many not on the regular menu. You would quickly become familiar with the subtleties of Lebanese cuisine.
For my first trip we just sampled the basics and each preparation was distinctive and delightful, like the traditional tabbouleh — more vegetable than grain and brightly flavored with fresh lemon juice. The dolmas or stuffed grape leaves are different than the Greek preparation. No lemon sauce, but spices and lots of lemon flavor throughout, served with or without ground lamb.
The menu may look a little intimidating, but with a variety of small dishes there is something for everyone, including fresh and oven toasted pita breads for dipping. For dessert, do not overlook the “white coffee”, a rose water flavored drink to sip along with Chef Rached’s signature cigar-style baklava or delicate milk pudding.
The wine list is a bit limited. The Lebanese wine is good, but at $49 a bottle a bit rich for a lunchtime meal.
Mezza, 6 Elm St., Nashua (former location of Pearl City), (603) 883-4224
This article appears in the March 2006 issue of New Hampshire Magazine