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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Dinner Party "Season"

This is the first in a series of posts directed to a holiday dinner party that I recently held at my home, for which I put together a six-course menu comprised of dishes inspired by the Bay Area's four-star chefs.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Intro | Menu Planning, Pt. 1 | Menu Planning, Pt. 2 | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Closing

Each year around this time, I get the urge to plan and host dinner parties for several of my closest friends.   The basic reason will certainly come as no surprise:   I, like most people, look forward to catching up with good friends during the holiday season, and I also enjoy putting together and preparing an interesting menu to share with all of them.   But there's another reason that the November-December time period, more than any other, has become associated with dinner parties at my house:   it's the one time of year that my commitments at work usually - and I stress the word usually - can be predicted to slow down a bit.   This not only gives me some flexibility to divert time and energy toward planning the dinners, it minimizes the chance that something unexpected will come along and derail the events completely.

My dining table seats a maximum of twelve, which means that I unfortunately cannot have all of my good friends over at once.   So, for the past few years, I have hosted two separate dinners - one for friends that I have known since my earliest days here in the Bay Area, and another for my friends from work.   To keep things interesting, I typically plan distinct menus for the two dinners.   Last year, for example, one group joined me on New Year's Eve for a six-course celebratory meal featuring Osetra caviar, Maine lobster, fresh white truffles, and American "Kobe" beef;   three weeks earlier, the other group sampled an eight-course White Truffle Dinner - in which every dish, other than desserts, featured the flavor of white truffle in one way or another.

When I started to think about the dinner parties for this year, I came to the conclusion that it was time to shake things up.   I collapsed my two prior guest lists into a single document, added several new friends to the mix, and then divided the resulting list into two halves.   One group was invited to come over to my place on Saturday, December 10, for a new incarnation of the White Truffle Dinner.   Those in the other group all attended the white truffle event last year, so I wanted to do something different for them.   I asked this group to join me for dinner on the evening of Saturday, November 12.

In the hectic weeks leading up to this dinner, I thought long and hard about what I might serve.   I briefly entertained the idea of doing a simple three-course meal - appetizer, entree, dessert - consisting entirely of personal favorites.   But because I've always strived to make this particular event something beyond a regular dinner party, I wanted a menu with a bit more pizzazz.   I then considered doing a meal centered around bistro food;   I'm a big fan of both the tomato soup and the coq au vin served at Bistro Jeanty, for example, and I have great recipes for both.   But as soon as I started considering a menu with two dishes from a local restaurant, it brought to mind another idea that I had been toying with for almost a full year.   Specifically, what if I could somehow put together a single menu comprised of dishes that come directly from, or are inspired by, each of the Bay Area's four-star chefs?   It's no secret how much I enjoy dining out at the best restaurants here in Northern California;   what better way to acknowledge the wonderful experiences that these chefs have given me than to share some of their dishes and ideas with my close friends?

Now, between the time that I first thought of doing such a dinner and my party last week, the task had grown considerably more challenging.   Back in late 2004, there were only four chefs who had earned a four-star rating from The San Francisco Chronicle:   Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, Hubert Keller at Fleur de Lys, Roland Passot at La Folie, and Alice Waters at Chez Panisse.   By September 2005, however, three more chefs had joined the elite club:   Ron Siegel at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, David Kinch at Manresa, and Daniel Humm at Campton Place.   So, having settled on the abstract concept of paying tribute to the Bay Area's best restaurants, I faced an important practical question:   how in the world was I going to come up with seven dishes and integrate them into a single cohesive meal?!

In my next two posts, I'll describe the process by which I ultimately arrived at the menu that I ended up serving at the dinner.   A series of subsequent posts will then describe each course in detail, and I'll provide some recipes, observations and thoughts along the way.   And who knows, I may even be able to persuade some of my friends who attended this dinner to post comments here - anonymously if they prefer - relating their impressions!


Anonymous Catherine said...

Holy Guacamole! It's official. You're insane! But I can't wait to read more! (And hey, how much is a ticket to one of your dinners? Maybe I can scalp my way in next year ;)

November 22, 2005 2:52 PM  
Blogger NS said...

Catherine: I think you're absolutely correct - I must be clinically insane for taking on these dinners! And who knows, maybe one day I'll go completely over the edge and invite a table full of esteemed food bloggers over for one of these meals. I can just see it now - my cooking analyzed, deconstructed, and critiqued in parallel across several of the Bay Area's most widely-read blogs! ;-)

November 23, 2005 2:40 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

I concur - what a great idea. Please sign me up for the bloggers dinner. I hope we don't have to wait a whole year ;)

Can't wait to read on - you've got me gripped!

November 26, 2005 4:26 PM  
Anonymous Catherine said...

Oooh, you can't just put a faux invite out there and not follow through. I don't think you were at the picnic -- least I don't recall seeing anyone with a newspaper in front of their face all afternoon -- but you have nothing to fear. We're all a forgiving lot. And, a hungry one, so consider my calendar cleared (and my mother horrified, since I've just done what amounts to etiquette suicide by all but inviting myself over). Oh, the shame...!

November 26, 2005 4:44 PM  

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