Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Dining Alternative & Chef Peter Ungár: Part 1

I recently dined in someone's home and the five-course dinner was as exceptional as any fine dining restaurant in Boston. You can duplicate my experience and I strongly believe you will be thoroughly satisfied. Rather than making reservations at some high-end restaurant, you can eat at home and have the same high quality cuisine and still not have to cook or clean up after yourself.

How is that possible? Over the course of several posts during the next four days, I will explain all, as well as describing some incredible food and wine.

I was recently invited to attend a special Chef's Table dinner at the home of Chef Peter Ungár. Peter operates The Dining Alternative, a private dining service, and holds Chef''s Table events approximately once a month to showcase his culinary skills. I found Peter to be very pleasant, accomodating, down-to-earth, and mostly importantly, passionate. To me, it seems he cooks because he must, because he has a special drive within to excel in the culinary arts. His passion is quite evident and it is reflected in the food he prepares.

The Chef's Table dinner cost $75 per person for a five-course meal with wine pairings ($60 without wine), not an unreasonable price for such. Before making my reservation, I did not know what the menu would be. It was to be a secret, partially as Peter selects only the freshest ingredients so his menu is partially determined by what is available near the time of the dinner. I certainly had no problem with that, and I was able to peruse some sample menus from prior dinners so I had a basic idea of what I might find. The mystery of it all excited me and I very much looked forward what I would find.

Accompanied by my wife, we joined ten other strangers at the table above in Peter's living room/dining room/kitchen, a very spacious and homey room. This almost could have been anyone's home, with some children's toys in one spot, books shelves on another, a comfy couch, etc. Initially, we mingled with the other guests, learning who they were and why they had come. It was a diverse and fun crowd, obviously all people who savored good food and drink but also people from many different backgrounds such as a holistic health doctor and a financial advisor.

I did learn that a number of other food bloggers had been invited but none of them had decided to come. I don't know their reasons but I would have thought at least a few would have been intrigued by this culinary adventure. They did miss an excellent dinner and next time, if they are invited, they should make reservations for this event.

Above, you can see the kitchen staff. From left to right, you will find Quynh Dang, Antonio Lettieri, Chef Peter Ungár, and Scott Ryan. All of them were very pleasant and based on the food, quite skilled as well.

The kitchen was open and near the dining table so we had a close-up view of all of the work going during the entire evening. A true insider's view of a working kitchen. The kitchen staff had obviously worked together for some time as they operated as a well-oiled machine and I did not notice any misteps any of the times I watched them.

While we stood around mingling, we sipped some Ruinart Blanc de Blanc Champagne. Founded in 1729, Ruinart is the oldest Champagne house in France. This wine is a blend of 100% Chardonnay from different vintages. It had a pale yellow color and very few and tiny bubbles. It had a nose of citrus and spring flowers and much of that came through on the palate as well. A dry champagne with a touch of yeastiness and a dominant taste of nectarine.

All of the wines for the evening were specially selected to match the food by sommelier Scott Weinstein of the Martignetti Companies. He was accompanied by his colleague, Garret Vandermolen, who also talked about the wines during dinner. Both were very knowledgeable about wine and good conversationalists.

To accompany the champagne, we were served some Gruyere Cheese Gougères, pictured above. These cheese puffs were so addictive! Warm, light, crispy and with that delicious taste of Gruyere I so love. These are probably so simple to make yet they hooked me, placing me in a good mood and very hopeful that the rest of the dinner would be delicious. It is like a restaurant that serves warm bread before your meal, it sets the mood so well and makes you anticipate what is to come.

I think a number of restaurants miss out on the opportunity to hook their customers from the start, before their meals arrive. Drinks alone don't always set a sufficient mood. It may not seem like much, but warm bread, cheese puffs, or some similar little item can mean so much. They can be a stepping stone for the food that is to come, a welcome mat that entices the guest to enter. The same can work in reverse as well. A guest who receives ordinary, unwarmed bread may not begin the meal with a fully positive attitude. Remember, the little things can sometimes mean so much.

We eventually sat down at our assigned places at the table, strangely enough with all of the women at one end of the table and the men at the other. Coincidence? Peter told me that though the seating was intentional, he had not intended to separate the men and women as it worked out.

As I sipped more of the Ruinart, I pondered over what dishes I would soon be eating.

To Be Continued Tomorrow....

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JacquelineC said...

Wow. I can't wait to read the second installment. I think the wine pairing price difference is so small! Why wouldn't you do it?

You had me at bubbles, but then gougeres?

I think this is a great way to go for chefs. I so enjoy a meal like last night's ONCE or in someone's home. It's just so much more relaxing.

Richard A. said...

Yes, this is such a fantastic way for a chef to showcase their culinary talents. I hope you read my recent post on my second Chef's Table dinner too. Another great experience!