Dinner (And Decaf!) At Bon Appetit’s Feast PDX
Welcome to the second edition of Sprudge Confidential, a new series of long-form essays from the very best writers in coffee. Jordan Michelman is the co-founder and content editor of Sprudge.com; his work has appeared in the New York Times, Eater Seattle, Eater Portland, Serious Eats, and Bon Appetit. In September 2012, he attended a series of dinners and lectures as part of Bon Appetit’s Feast Portland event.
At the end of last September, I was invited to attend and cover a couple of difference facets of Bon Appetit’s “Feast PDX” event. I contributed to Bon Appetite’s coverage of Feast, handling a coffee demo led by Andrew Knowlton, Oliver Strand, and Stumptown Coffee Roaster‘s own Liam Kenna and Jeremy Robillard. I also had a chance to attend one of Feast’s many event dinners, a private event at the Allison Inn & Spa whose menu was anchored by noted California cuisine pioneer Nancy Silverton. This dinner featured a Stumptown Coffee Roasters pour-over bar; they brewed their Costa Rica Montes de Oro and Decaf House Blend, and did a really nice job of it. Strictly speaking, this is all I was supposed to cover.
After a day spent covering Feast’s coffee presentation for Bon Appetit, I was spirited away to the Allison Inn to attend the Bon Appetit sanctioned wine dinner. My traveling partner for the evening is an acquaintance of mine who works for a reputable espresso machine company. He’s a father, a long-time husband, and something of a role model to me, though he might scoff at the description. Machine Company Acquaintance has rented a car, and plans on attending the same dinner as I to support his friends (and clients) at Stumptown. I accepted his gracious offer of transport out to the event, and thus did not need to worry about maintaining enough sobriety to drive myself home. I would be free to behave as though I’m actually staying at the Allison Hotel.
The Allison, I should mention, is one hell of a gleaming monster of an eco-friendly LEED Gold certified wine hotel. It looks like where they’d film the Oregon scene in a Bond film, should such a need exist. The hotel has spiral staircases, gracious verandas, and brick inlay to make Peter Brady blink. Their spa was named the best of any hotel in the United States by Travel and Leisure, perhaps because they will literally scrub you with pinot noir.
It’s in the shadow of all this luxury that I’m first greeted by passed hors d’oeuvres, as the dinner attendees mingle in the Great Hall. The appetizer menu is like a window upon the evening’s soul: smoked lamb carpaccio crisps on lavache with harissa aioli; grilled spot prawns with tomato & basil seed consomme, consumed in a single slurp; and duck taco lettuce wraps that were purposefully, bluntly playful. Nobody puts baby in a corner, but at least during the appetizer hour, that’s where they’ve placed Stumptown.
The average age here is 53 years old, even factoring in myself and the Stumptown staff. There’s an aging older Richard Dreyfuss caricature mingling about, resplendent in his black slacks, white New Balance sneakers, and outdoor multi-wear jacket by Patagucci. The design mandate of the evening declares, “Let no designer jean go uncuffed.” First wives mingle with second and even third editions. Everywhere I turn: bleached-blonde numbers with hair the color of a dry chardonnay, in slinky black numbers, cashmere shawls, polka dot quirk, and tights, tights everywhere, like reverse lycra electrolysis. A tiny older gray-haired man in a black corduroy jacket and gray slacks wins the day with bleached white Reebok sneakers that scream “Fresh Out of the Box” in a way that defies language. They are indescribably, unspeakably white.
The hors d’oeuvres passed and the opening wines quaffed, it’s time to sit down to dinner. What follows is a word-for-word transcription of the menu that night:
Featured chefs include Nancy Silverton, Matt Molina, Sunny Jin, Hiro Stone, and Lissa Doumani.
First course: Presented by Nancy Silverton and Matt Molina, is Buffalo Mozzarella, La Bagna Caude, and Bottarga, served with a 2010 Domaine Serene “Clos Du Lune” Chardonnay.
Second course: Presented by Nancy Silverton and Matt Molina, is Orecchiette, sausage, and Swiss chard, served with a 2008 Domaine Serene “Evenstad Reserve” Pinot Noir
Third Course: Presented by Sunny Jin, is Pan-seared wild Pacific Salmon, black rice risotto, broccolini, lotus root, pine nuts, scallion salad, and Jory wildflower honey-miso emulsion, served with a 2010 Domaine Serene Couer Blanc.
Fourth Course: Presented by Hiro Stone, is a Pithivier of Quail, foie gras, blood sausage, and forest mushroom sauce, served with a 2009 Domaine Serene “Winery Hill Vineyard” Pinot Noir.
Dessert: Presented by Lissa Doumain, is a Maccha Panna Cotta, with Strawberries.
My table is comprised of three couples, all of whom are very, very wealthy foodies. They were mostly very kind to me, seated as I was by myself, dateless, increasingly wine-drunk, and clearly besotted with my notebook.
The first couple are an affable pair of lifelong Oregonians, who we’ll call Ducky and Becky — I’ll be using pseudonyms throughout this article, so as to protect the drunk and innocent. Ducky is a retired Weyerhouser analyst, and we become fast friends. He knows everything about Oregon wines, and goes into great detail as to why he’s a bit uninspired about the prevalence of Domaine Serene wines at this dinner (they are, in his opinion, representative of hated tide of nouveau riche that have, in his opinion, grievously invaded the Oregon wine world).
Becky is obviously Ducky’s first wife, which I mean as a high compliment. These two are bonded for life, like a real-life duck couple, that same little pair of speckled water fowl you might see year after year at your neighborhood pond. Becky is so cute and so super nice to me, and she looks like a real-life 65-year-old person, which I also mean as a compliment. Becky sits on the board at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, or so she tells me, which I’m guessing is just the tip of the participatory iceberg when it comes to Becky & Ducky’s various charitable board memberships. They are childless, they reveal to me over the course of our dinner together. Both of them are exceedingly kind to me, taking a keen interest into what details I’ll allow about my journalism “career” and squealing with a kind of adoptive parental delight when I reveal my recent wedding engagement. If I sound biased towards Ducky and Becky, it’s because I am.
Hanging out with Ducky and Becky (with a full awareness of the 40-some years between us) got me thinking about things. All things considered, I guess it would be nice to have both – to be able to have children, but also to ahave the expendable time and income required to be a globe-trotting well-read foodie millionaire. These are the sort of people who make events like Feast possible, and they’re lovely, but what if I could only choose one? Childless foodie millionaire or brood-besotted workadaddy plebeian? Prix fixe or Bloomin’ Onion?
The next couple at our table are two very successful middle-age ladies: Beth is a Hollywood agent who splits her residence between West Hollywood and SE Portland; Marcie raises French Bulldogs, practices Kabbalah, looks like KD Lang’s little sister, and has an adopted son from her previous marriage. Beth has real-life frothy gossip about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and she’s not afraid to dish. She’s also clearly a workaholic, and she’s forced to skip the Swiss chard and orecchiette course to take a phone call from some distressed starlette, even though she’s promised Marcie that tonight is a “vacation night.”
The last couple, Pat and Marianne, are a bit less kind towards my cause, and become downright suspicious of my constant note taking throughout the course of the night. Marianne has that hard-fought thinness that clings to women of a certain age, first forged in the heat of a thousand discotheques, then cemented by countless Jane Fonda health regiments, and now worn sub specie aeternitatis. She’s 110 pounds, max, and tonight most of that is couer-blanc. Her husband, Pat, is the spitting image of the assistant head coach from “Coach”, who also played Tom Cullen in the ABC miniseries adaptation of “The Stand”, which was major epochal event viewing for me as a Stephen King obsessed 12-year-old. M-O-O-N, that spells Pat.
Overheard at the table:
“My friends in LA are Chinese Medicine doctors.”
“Is this the same wine we had for lunch?”
“You know, Weyerhauser is just a real estate trust these days.”
“Fortunately we can enjoy foie gras here – we’re not allowed at home.”
“You know, I’ve grown to really love some Cabernet Francs.”
“Such beautiful acidity! This Chardonnay simply turns to butter with these anchovies.” — “They aren’t anchovies, dear; it’s bottarga.”
Our table finds a communal touch point for dinner discussion, and it’s snooty as all get out: Why wasn’t the salmon listed by species? Why so little information about the fish, at a dinner of such great distinction? “Columbia River” is an unacceptably loose designation for fish at this price point, and anyway, it’s is a tad overdone, don’t you think? The Domaine Serene Couer Blanc we’re served with the salmon course is particularly nice, made from 100% Pinot Noir grapes and “gently pressed” to produce a white wine with a red wine profile, and oh man, the miso-honey emulsion that accompanies the salmon is out of control good, but still, the fish is a little flaky. Ducky tells me, “I can make a better salmon at home, and I wait until the Taku River King is in season.” Ducky and Becky can invite me over for dinner whenever they want.
The aforementioned “Pithivier of Quail with Foie Gras, Blood Sausage, and Forest Mushroom Sauce” absolutely steals the show, and is the best thing on the menu. Essentially a fancy name for a pot pie, Wikipedia describes a “Pithivier” as “a round, enclosed pie usually made by baking two disks of puff pastry” – so feel free, next time you’re going through the KFC drive-thu, to demand for yourself a Chicken Pithivier Dinner Special at the $3.99 prix fixe price point.
The wine keeps flowing, and poor Pat, he seems to have overdone it. He’s downright oak aged Domaine Le Drunk by 9pm, with his head in his hands and his Nebraska millionaire farm boy cheeks glowing red with over-consumption. To her credit Marianne is bizarrely fine, all 110 pounds (or whatever) of her somehow chug-chug-chugging along on refills of the Clos Du Bois, seemingly unaffected, now hailing our garcon for a naughty, not-entirely-allowed, but evidently necessary additional tipple of the “heavenly” Evenstad Reserve. They’re snipping at each other something awful by this point, the beleaguered union of Pat and Marianne, and the table begins to sort of collectively groans under its breath until eventually, finally they excuse themselves from the table. Pat eyes me and my notation one last wary time as he stumbles from his seat, then toddles his way past the other diners towards their well-appointed Allison suite.
It gets me thinking again: Children or no children, I’d rather be a happy, wealthy replica of Ducky and Becky than trapped in the agony and ecstasy of Pat and Marianne.
Some of us are thinking about coffee with their dessert, especially me, because I’m honestly struggling to keep pace with my intergenerational droogy-woogies on the wine consumption front, and coffee sounds great right about now. In my current state, the paradox of dessert seems almost profound: decaf coffee reigns supreme, but it’s being paired with a matcha panna cotta. Matcha is one of the more caffeinated foodstuffs known to man. Will the dinner guests go home damning Stumptown for duping them on the decaf, unaware of matcha’s rocket-fuel properties? Should they have simply opted for the Montes de Oro pour over, since they’re already ingesting X amount of caffeine with dessert? Probably. That coffee was really good.
Ducky and I have become like a long-lost college roommate at this point, and he eloquently opines on the dessert service: “Strawberries? At this time of year? Perhaps the chef is confused.” Ducky my friend, you’re the most! The seasonality snob, in full flower of his curatorial glory! But Ducky and I finish our dessert just fine, and then it’s over, all over except for the exchanging of business cards, which I don’t have because “my business just gets in contact with everyone digitally.” Ducky is taken aback by this statement, the prominence of our age gap bopping him right on his fatherly nose. I see a flash of disappointment, but also acceptance in his eyes; he knows this is a generational shibboleth he’s not supposed to understand. We shake hands fiercely.
The dinner ends and Machine Company Acquaintance drives me back into the city. We go for a long walk around Downtown Portland, past the Feast schedule banners that adorn Director Park, and I start picking his brain about his wife, his daughters, and my own impending marriage. He tells me: “You don’t need a million dollars to have kids. You don’t need any money at all. Just do your best to make sure you’re with the right person. That’s all that matters.” The air seems especially fresh and clean, and we take one more spin around the block together before he returns to his hotel and I begin my journey home.
I think I want to grow up to become one of these foodies. But more than that, I know I want to try and write about what it means to be one of them, to document their ranks with gleeful abandon. And tonight, trekking home on the Portland light rail back to the apartment I share with my future wife, I let myself hope: I’m going to get what I want.