Another Kind of Tasting Menu

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I love having company and I have recently enjoyed several days of hosting friends. I was entertaining houseguests from the West and East Coasts who arrived within hours of each other, everyone a bit exhausted upon arrival, including me. I had hosted a wedding for 150 guests the day before. It is no easy task to get from the West Coast to the Deep South. Audrey and Melodee made the trek all the way from Santa Cruz to celebrate Melodee's birthday. Harriet and Charlie came from New York City. Getting to New Orleans from New York is often easy, especially with JetBlue's direct flight from JFK, but they were tired from taking in all the live music at the New Orleans Jazz Fest as well as many of the great restaurants the Big Easy has to offer. We were all ready to slow down to a Southern pace.

I prepared a dinner of a bit of this and a bit of that ... a few goodies from my freezer and a few dishes I had made extra of when preparing for the wedding: savory grits, beef brisket, crawfish Creole, pork grillades, some cast iron vegetables and eggplant with lump crabmeat, and of course some butter biscuits with orange marmalade butter. All items went directly from the oven to the kitchen counter—so casual that I felt compelled to serve dessert in a more elegant room to make them feel more like guests than family.

This is the time of year that the Louisiana strawberries are peaking, and they are just perfect to top a slice of buttermilk pound cake. To jazz it up I offer a choice of lavender liqueur or limoncello to pour over the cake and berries, which adds another dimension to this simple dessert. Fresh whipped cream would have been nice, but I talked myself out of it, purely out of lack of energy. With whipped cream, the lavender and lemon liqueur on white add a visual element as well. We had great conversation and a relaxed visit and plans for the next day were being planned as we sipped some vintage rum.

I have to say I do not have as many friends who visit Natchez as I had visitors when I lived in San Francisco and New York. When you live in a city as lovely as San Francisco and a city as exciting and electric as New York, every one wants to come visit. I guess now it is friends from those places who visit me here. When I lived in San Francisco I started out touring with all of my visitors and enjoying it as much as them. Then there comes a time that you have seen Lombard Street, Alcatraz, and Sausalito enough and you start writing tour ideas on cocktail napkins at dinner to send your guests on their way. I gradually turned those notes into a written sheet on my Web site. As I started writing down the two- and three-day tour and restaurant schedule I quickly realized that San Francisco, like New York, has so many great restaurants that there was no way I could have my friends or family get the whole culinary experience in a few days time. I began creating "progressive dinners" of appetizers at the bars of several popular restaurants. This was a great way to get a taste of several restaurants in one meal period. I used this same plan in New York and even today in Natchez.

My typical progressive dinner in Natchez is starting at Fat Mama's Tamales for tamales, fire and ice pickles, and a "Knock You Naked" margarita, then the pub at the Castle restaurant for fried green tomatoes topped with lump crab meat in a lemon-laced beurre blanc, on to Monmouth for a salad while sitting in the courtyard, and then finishing up at Biscuits and Blues for a plate full of smoked ribs—and the finale, sharing chocolate bread pudding and a praline beignet.

Natchez is more predictable, whereas San Francisco and New York change with the popularity of chefs and new restaurants, which is quite a chore to keep up with. My husband is better at keeping up with restaurant openings and closings because he continues to read the San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal on a daily basis. For almost 30 years he has cut out pertinent articles for me on food and other restaurants, which is one of his most endearing and appreciated gestures as a good husband.

Here are a few guidelines and advantages for planning a progressive dinner. I would love to hear your ideas of where you would take guests in your city if they could only go to three restaurants to capture the real feel of the food of your city or town.

Guidelines
    • Try to figure out what price level and dress code you are in the mood for.
    • Coordinate three locations - walking distance is always good, and never drink and drive.
    • You can pre-plan a theme or type of cuisine you want to experience.
    • Diversity is good. Try to make sure each restaurant has a completely different choice of menu items.
    • I find it is even nice to order for my friends, to make them feel they are not having to make choices.

Advantages
    • The hot new restaurants that are nearly impossible to get into usually offer food at the bar.
    • Most bars of restaurants are available without reservations, so you can be more spontaneous.
    • Bars also offer small plates so you can do a sampling of their cuisine.
    • This is a great way to squeeze in several restaurant experience into one meal period.
    • You can give your guests a culinary view of your town or city in one fun evening.

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Regina Charboneau is the owner of Twin Oaks Bed & Breakfast in Natchez, Mississippi. She is the author of Regina's Table at Twin Oaks. More

Regina Charboneau is the owner of Twin Oaks Bed & Breakfast in Natchez, Mississippi. She is the author of two cookbooks: A Collection of Seasonal Menus & Recipes from Regina's Kitchen and Regina's Table at Twin Oaks.
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