231 Sixth Ave. S (in the Hermitage Hotel), 345-7116
Dinner served 5-10 p.m. nightly.
Reservations are recommended, and required for tasting menus
It has been years since I was last immersed in the intoxicating beauty of Martin Scorsese's film adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, yet there are scenes from this visual masterpiece that remain as vivid in my mind's eye as if they were unfolding in front of me at this very moment. The opening title sequence of one perfectly formed flower after another curling from tightly closed bud to full bloom; the overhead shots of meticulously turned-out couples gliding across the gleaming floor of a private ballroom; a camera lingering seductively over a formal dinner table, upon which is set the heady accoutrements of vast wealthhand-painted china, delicate crystal, heavy silver, lush floral arrangements, course after course of rarefied delicacies.
I thought of that film the other night as I sat at an impeccably dressed table in the handsomely appointed dining room of the historic Hermitage Hotel, while one course after another of astounding flavor and beauty was set before me. Wines specifically chosen for each course were poured into fresh crystal, a silver knife slightly smudged by brief contact with a lump of lobster was whisked away and replaced by a freshly polished piece, crumbs were scooped up nearly before they made contact with the thick linen cloth covering the table.
The occasion: members of the local media were being treated to the unveiling of the five-course dinner that Capitol Grille's executive chef Sean Brock will be preparing when he fulfills a long-held dream, cooking at the James Beard House in New York on March 26.
Cooking at the James Beard House is a rather common chef fantasy. From 1940 until his death in 1985, Beard revolutionized the way Americans looked at, approached, cooked and ate food, thanks to a tremendous catalog of cookbooks, a cooking school, television's first cooking program in 1946, his restaurant in Nantucket, and tireless travels around the country and the world to talk about food. For decades, James Beard was the focal point of the entire American food world. Upon his death in 1985, Julia Child had the notion to preserve his home in Manhattan as some type of culinary gathering place. The James Beard Foundation was formed, and the house was purchased in 1986. It serves not only as headquarters for the foundation (which provides scholarships, offers workshops and seminars throughout the country, and presents the annual James Beard Foundation Awards), but as the kitchen and dining room for an astounding roster of the world's most revered culinary talents.
At just 26 years old and in his first position as executive chef, Brock hasn't yet earned a seat at the grown-up table with tenured chef royalty like Daniel Boulud, Alice Waters, Charlie Trotter, Mario Batali and Nobu Matsuhisa. But his educational journeyfrom his grandmother's kitchen in Wise, Va., to Johnson & Wales Culinary School, to a four-star restaurant in Virginia, to the extraordinary creative team at El Bulli on Spain's Costa Brava, and currently the generously financed laboratory provided him by the Hermitage Hotelhas ratcheted his résumé well beyond his years. So much so that many local fans wonder just how long Brock will stay in Music City; his passion for pushing the limits of method and execution has caught the interest of observers outside of Nashville.
Brock is a nearly obsessive devotee of the school of culinary constructivismpioneered by El Bulli's chief genius and Brock's hero, Ferran Adriawhich breaks down foods to their molecular level, then reconstructs them to capture the flavor in a wholly different form, which might be frozen air, foam, a translucent sheath, or an illusory solid that breaks to liquid at the touch. He is as likely to utilize test tubes and liquid nitrogen in the kitchen as whisks and butter. Purists may shake their heads at the notion, but mango caviar, pork barbecue Dippin' Dot ice cream, and pop-rock-coated cured foie gras are nothing if not attention grabbers.
Brock's appearance at the James Beard House is the next step on his climb up the international culinary ladder. It can be a daunting journeythe path to greatness is littered with unpredictable catastrophes, enough to make a grown man or woman commit hari kari with a kitchen knife. And though he's a bit excited and anxious, Brock is feeling confident in his plan, his menu and his team, which includes four out-of-towners he has worked with before, as well as three people from his own kitchen who will be bringing ingredients as their carry-on luggage. Though the visiting chef doesn't normally gain possession of the kitchen until 9 a.m. the day of the dinner, a stroke of scheduling luck will get Brock in the afternoon before.
Seating is available for 100 at the James Beard House; cost for members of the Foundation is $90, $115 for nonmembers. Reservations can be made at (212) 627-2308 or online at www.jamesbeard.org.
Nashvillians unable to jet off to the Big Apple can instead reserve a seat at the Capitol Grille, where Brock's James Beard Dinner will be available throughout the month of March. The cost is $125 per person, which includes the five courses, wines and service charge; $25 of each dinner will be donated to the James Beard Foundation. If your pockets are deep enough, or you have a special occasion coming up, I urge you to treat yourselves to this gastronomic extravaganza.
The first courseMaine Lobster Sous Vide with Farmer Dave's parsnips, leeks and citrusis a swoon-inducer, thanks to its multisensory production of taste, smell and sight. Sous vide is French for "under vacuum," a food technique pioneered in Europe. In Brock's interpretation, after boiling the live lobster, the meat is removed and placed in Cryovac bags with salt, white pepper and whole butter, sealed, then cooked in a 118-degree hot-water bath for 10 minutes. Two large chunks of the lobster meat are set atop a puree of parsnip, butter and cream in a white porcelain bowl, which has been drizzled with an orange emulsion. That bowl is placed in a larger bowl, scattered with dried flowers and ribbons of orange peel, then set before the diner, who is asked to pause for a moment as a server pours hot water from a white teapot into the large bowl, thereby releasing an intoxicating floral-citrus steam that wafts up into the diner's face. So, I mused, as I closed my eyes and allowed the butter from a nugget of sweet, tender lobster to seep onto my tongue, this is the food the Gods enjoy in the gloriously scented air of heaven.
The next course swoops back to earth for a dish that is both rich and rustic, with an oblong white plate providing the minimalist stage. A chorus of caramelized Granny Smith apple slices circles a mound of chewy Irish steel-cut oats, the platform for the undisputed star of this acta square of seared foie gras pierced through with a long vanilla bean. My approachusing the bean as a utensil to lift the foie gras to my eager mouthmight have made Emily Post frown, but I'm sure Nigella would have done the same.
Surf and earthdiver scallops and black trufflesare the elements at the core of the third course, elegantly accessorized with a puddle of ruby-red tomato confit, delicate fettuccini-like ribbons of salsify, and the pure, clean flavor of brilliant fresh green fava beans.
The first three courses are daintily portioned, each consisting of a half-dozen or so bites, thoughtful planning given the meaty fourth actthree slices of rare, triple-seared Wagyu beef (the best money can buy), a block of intensely flavored braised short rib, wild mushroom puree and Vidalia onions. Well, not exactly onions, but sheer strips of the very essence of Vidalia onion goodness, achieved through a process that took Brock and his staff a year to perfect.
Dessert comes in a squat glass, looking for all the world like a black-and-tan (Guinness Irish Stout layered with a lighter beer), and indeed there is Guinness flavoring a layer of glacé, which sits among other layers of gelatin, ice cream and frozen air, with the sweetness of chocolate balancing the stout brew.
As he delivered each course, Brock painstakingly explained the preparation methods, and he is currently training the floor staff to do the same, word for word, so diners can expect an education with their meal. I nodded my head in polite attention, but I admit that some of the tutorial went right over my head. And that's fine. I don't have to understand how Martin Scorsese captures a gorgeous image in a strip of film, which then springs to breathtaking life on a flat screen, in order to enjoy it. And I don't need to know what happened to the beet on its circuitous routefrom the ground through Brock's kitchen and onto my plate as a sheer sheet of burgundy, wrapped around goat cheeseto purr with pleasure.
Quite frankly, I prefer to believe in magic.