Guilty Pleasures, Sweet and Savory


Photo by snowpea&bokchoi/FlickrCC

Guilt. It comes naturally to me as a Jew and a liberal. This time my guilt was sparked by the pleasure of having a renowned chef take over the kitchen and prepare a fabulous meal. The guilt was assuaged slightly—ever so slightly—because the meal was a charity fundraiser.

That is the premise of the Sunday Night Suppers. Prominent local and national chefs come into local homes and cook for 20 or so guests; the dinners benefit DC Central Kitchen and Martha's Table—two very worthy charities in Washington, D.C., that provide training for restaurant employment, children's programs, and meals for the homeless and poor in the nation's capital. These dinners began during the festivities around Obama's inauguration and they continued this year.

The foie gras was creamy and custardy without a hint of livery flavor, and it was topped with the hard, caramelized sugar of crème brûlée.

I was lucky enough to land a dinner by Brian McBride of Blue Duck Tavern (located in Washington's Park Hyatt) who was working with Ariane Daguin, the owner of D'Artagnan, the purveyors of most of the high-quality meats—duck, foie gras, lamb, venison, and others—for more than 4,000 East Coast restaurants.

The theme of the evening was sweet-savory combinations—the balance of rich, meaty tastes with different sweet accents and flavors. One amuse-bouche was duck bacon wrapped around candied hibiscus blossoms—spicy meaty flavor with sugary sweet crunch. But the real treat of the evening was the first two courses.

I am a sucker for anything with foie gras. While I cannot tolerate chopped liver, fried liver, or almost any other kind of liver, I love the smooth, silky taste of foie gras and was terribly upset by the ban in Chicago. But when I saw the menu I was sure there was a mistake. It read: "Foie Gras Crème Brulee." Sounded like a child playing with a word masher. Liver and a sweet dessert combination? Who would think?

This may well be the best foie gras course I have ever had. The foie gras was creamy and custardy without a hint of livery flavor, and it was topped with the hard, caramelized sugar of crème brûlée. Then sprinkled across the glistening surface were small cubes of bourbon peaches, crushed pecans, poppy seeds, and fried sage. The richness of the foie gras was balanced with the tartness and crunchiness of the fruit and nuts. I have no idea how to make this, but it was fantastic. And that evening it was paired with a 1997 Haut-Brion white Bordeaux by the host of the party—one of those secret wine experts.

The second fabulous dish was pheasant raviolis, which were huge, stuffed with big pieces of sautéed pheasant breast. These were soaked in pheasant butter and served with a sweet fruit accompaniment: a teaspoonful of date-cumin puree and dried cranberries. The balance of this dish was precise and perfect—the tanginess of the cranberries, the sweetness of the date with the clear overtone of the cumin and the rich pheasant. This may be one of the best dishes I have ever had. Ironically, McBride said he has not had it on his menu for over five years. It should be back pronto. The raviolis were accompanied by a 2002 Puligny-Montrachet from J. Boillot.

The rest of the meal was excellent as well: venison with black trumpet mushrooms, chestnut puree, and baby white turnips, ending with individual apple pies that one can get at Blue Duck Tavern.

The only way to expiate such a guilty pleasure is to remember it can occur only very rarely, is done in the name of charity, and is properly cherished for being so wonderful. Even this may not be enough—but I nevertheless look forward to my guilty pleasure at next year's Sunday Night Suppers for DC Central Kitchen and Martha's Table.