For a high-end tasting menu in New York, restaurants routinely request around $300, from Thomas Keller's food temple Per Se, which starts out at $275 (sans wine), to Le Bernadin, where the chef's tasting menu will run you $325 with wine pairings. Two hundred dollars for a seven-course tasting menu with wine pairings, preceded by an hors d'oeuvres period with freely-flowing prosecco? No one would argue it's cheap, but by relative standards, it's not a bad deal.
Such is the offering made by the James Beard House. A non-profit founded by friends of James Beard in 1986, the group's mission is to "to provide a center for the culinary arts," continuing the work of chef James Beard, a pioneer in the American culinary scene named the "dean of American cooking" by the New York Times in 1954.
The foundation, in addition to awarding the annual James Beard Foundation Awards (often called the Oscars of the food world) holds frequent dinners at Beard's re-purposed brownstone in the West Village. Nestled among his cookbook library and tucked into his former bedroom (mirrored ceilings and all) diners are treated to menus from up-and-coming chefs from across the country. Cooking one of these dinners is considered an honor, so much so that the chefs not only pay for their own ingredients and wine but also make a donation to the Beard Foundation.
I visited recently for a dinner by Chicago-based chef Todd Stein of Cibo Matto, (a 2010 Beard Foundation semi-finalist). The dinner began with prosecco and anti primi in the rear garden of the house. To reach the garden, guests passed through the kitchen, where Chef Stein and part of his Chicago team put the final touches on sweetbreads, cauliflower soup with crab meat. Guests mingled outside while the Foundation's waitstaff, who proved extremely knowledgeable about the food and the Foundation, brought wave after wave of crostini with liver pate.
Moving inside, guests sat and large, round tables. (Individual parties are grouped together, but more than one party usually shares a table, giving the event a slight wedding-feel.) Guests are spread across the different rooms of the house, from the balcony to the boudoir, but the close quarters give the dining space an intimate feeling. Chef Stein's courses uniformly used beautiful, seasonal ingredients, and while some dishes seemed to have suffered from a different location and serving style (70 simultaneous orders is a different animal from a steady drip of restaurant orders), there were plenty of superlative dishes. Lobster with Buffalo mozzarella and osetra caviar made me rethink my ideas on cheese and shellfish, while the perfectly cooked grilled octopus won over more than one octopus skeptic at my table. To finish the meal, Chef Stein and his team explained their food and answered questions while a creamy marscarpone panna cotta with new rhubarb was served. (Full menu below.)
I did notice that the diners skewed noticeably older. While I would partly put this on the meal's hefty price tag, I would also assume that the the generation that thinks of Alice Waters as more matron than revolutionary hasn't yet rehabilitated the name of James Beard the way recent pop culture phenomena has brought back Beard contemporary Julia Child. While the food, the space, the open kitchen and the question and answer period all said "contemporary supper club," there was none of the underground cache of, say, A Razor, A Shiny Knife. As a recent attendee, I am a convert, but it's hard to say if the Beard House can remain central to the current culinary conversation, or if it will become a relic of a former era.