Celebrating May Birthdays Galore (Including James Beard’s and Karen’s!) — and More
“I would just like to say, as blessed as we are, I think life’s a circle. We have given a lot, and we give it right back out, and it comes back to us. I hope all of you experience that, because I think that’s the richness of our industry.”
—Deann Bayless, in accepting with husband and co-owner Rick Bayless Topolobampo’s 2017 Outstanding Restaurant Award at the James Beard Foundation Awards
The course of a year has its own ebbs and flows (and especially during those years when we have a new book out and we’re swamped with book-tour-related activities). However, the two busiest weeks of our year over most of the past decade have been in 1) November, the week before Thanksgiving, which coincides with the release of Beaujolais Nouveau and a not-to-be-missed party hosted by Georges Duboeuf celebrating its arrival in New York City — plus Citymeals’ Annual Power Lunch for Women, on whose Steering Committee Karen has the pleasure of serving, and especially 2) MAY, the week of the James Beard Foundation Awards, which features many parties and less-formal get-togethers of industry colleagues and friends, and which happens to coincide with Karen’s and her best friend’s own birthday week and private celebrations.
Our May 2017 was particularly busy because not only did we make the trip to Chicago for the 2017 James Beard Foundation Awards, but Karen’s bi-annual meeting of Northwestern’s Council of 100 coincided, necessitating our being in Chicago for an entire week.
This weekend is the first chance we’ve had to catch our breath during the whirl of the past two weeks….
We’ve already nominated our all-time favorite host Jesse Tyler Ferguson — star of TV’s “Modern Family” and Broadway’s “Fully Committed” — to become the James Beard Awards’ Bob Hope / Billy Crystal and to return to host the Awards year after year. We had a great time catching up with restaurant industry friends and colleagues, and celebrating their nominations and wins.
One of the two restaurant highlights of our trip was our annual tradition of lunch at Topolobampo the day after the Awards — which was made all the more special this year by the restaurant’s 2017 Outstanding Restaurant win. After being so touched by how touched Rick and Deann Bayless were to win this award during sister restaurant Frontera Grill‘s 30th anniversary weekend (as evidenced by their moving acceptance speeches and Rick’s dancing the night away at the after-party at Lena Brava!), it was very special to be able to congratulate them one-on-one the very next day. We also love running into out-of-town colleagues there who are inevitably as amazed by chef-owner Rick Bayless and Chef de Cuisine Andres Padilla‘s dishes as we were when we first tasted them decades before.
Thanks to James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Wine Service Belinda Chang, we were able to join her and Richard Geoffroy, chef de cave of Dom Perignon who had just flown into Chicago from France a few hours beforehand, to taste through a number of his Champagnes at Chicago’s Waldorf-Astoria. From wine glasses (versus Champagne flutes), we sipped (but tried not to swirl, lest we bruise any precious bubbles) the 2006 Vintage, the 2000 P2, and (from Burgundy glasses) a very rare Rosé [which the house first created in 1959] from the great vintage of 2005. All Dom P Champagnes are made from blends of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The 2006 Dom Perignon Vintage boasts Dom P’s characteristic minerality in spades, but displaying a somewhat fruitier side of its personality compared to other vintages. The 2000 P2 (“second plentitude”) Champagne is the result of allowing the 2000 Vintage to mature over 16 years. Expect the unexpected: the faintest hints of salt and the sea, along with notes of chalky minerality and an elegant, creamy mousse. Belinda and the two of us were told we were the first Americans to taste the 2005 Dom Perignon Rosé Champagne. We count ourselves as fortunate to be among the few who will get to taste the last, given its extreme rarity — not to mention its great deliciousness — so if you, too, are lucky enough to come across some, we hope you won’t miss the experience.
The second of the two restaurant highlights of our trip was dinner at Monteverde, whose kitchen is headed by Chef Sarah Grueneberg, who surprised some of us by taking home the medal for the 2017 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest on her very first nomination. However, after our first-ever dinner at Monteverde, we were no longer surprised: It was one of the best Italian dinners we’ve had in recent memory. Our appetizers, pastas, and desserts were all perfectly cooked, reflecting extraordinary attention to technique. One dish — Grueneberg’s Tortelli Verde ($17), comprising sweet winter spinach, Parmesan cheese, roasted white miso, Piedmontese hazelnuts, ramps, and lemon — spurred wild enthusiasm reminiscent of a level we’d last experienced for Mario Batali‘s perfect, creative pastas upon the opening of Babbo many years previously. The Caccio Whey Pepe ($14) — Mancini bucatini, Pecorino Romano, Ricotta Whey, and a four-peppercorn blend — proved just as delicious for breakfast in our hotel room the next morning. And the minute we’d spied the rhubarb crostata ($10) on display, we knew we had to order it — and its rustic yet flaky texture more than lived up to its visual promise. With Grueneberg’s charming fiancé managing partner Jaime Canete (to whom she gave a lovely shout-out during her JBF acceptance speech the night before) overseeing the dining room, the packed house last Tuesday night was assured of warm service as well as an extraordinary dinner.
Completely by chance, we bumped into Belinda again the next day while she was tasting with multitalented Maria Sinskey (a one-time Food & Wine Top 10 chef!) of Napa’s Robert Sinskey Vineyards at the Chicago restaurant Bad Hunter. Before we’d even managed to order lunch, we were delighted to be sent over wines to sample from among the multiple bottles and magnums open on their table. Our favorites included the 2007 Robert Sinskey Vineyards Los Carneros Pinot Blanc, the 1999 Robert Sinskey Vineyards Los Carneros Pinot Noir, and the 1992 Robert Sinskey Vineyards Stags Leap District Claret (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc).
In 1993, Karen was appointed by Northwestern University’s then-President Arnold Weber as a founding member of the Council of 100 — comprising 100 of the University’s most distinguished alumnae who return to Chicago twice a year to advise undergraduate women and recent alumnae on their career planning. It’s a wonderful opportunity to meet current students and younger alumnae, and to catch up on Northwestern’s many developments on campus — not to mention with fellow C100 members, who include a dizzying array of bestselling authors, college deans, Shakespeare Festival organizers, globetrotting TV writer-producers, and triathlon-competing Supreme Court lawyers. With partner Erica Kane, Karen co-hosted Friday night’s dinner at Evanston’s new Alpana Singh restaurant Terra & Vine for 17 C100 members and their guests that capped off the Spring 2017 conference.
One of our dearest friends of the past two decades, two-time Jonathan Larson Award winner Val Vigoda just opened her wonderful new musical “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” at the Second Stage Theatre on May 7th. After dinner with friends at Steve Olsen‘s West Bank Cafe, one of our favorite Theater District restaurants right around the corner, we caught the 7 pm performance. Thereafter, we were happy to join other guests including Matthew Broderick (whose awesome performance we’d just enjoyed in Wallace Shawn‘s “Evening at the Talk House”), Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue (who were seated just a few seats away from us — close enough so Marlo could explain her connection to writer Joe DiPietro, with whom she worked on her 2016 off-Broadway show “Clever Little Lies”) at the opening night party at The Palm. Congratulations to Val and her co-star Wade McCollum, director Lisa Peterson, and DiPietro — not to mention our producer friend Aaron Morrill, whom we were delighted to discover on the first night of previews (via our Playbill!) was involved with the show, too — and to the entire team on their inventive and inspiring show that’s been earning praise from The New York Times (in a huge review with wonderful photos!), NJ.com, and more.
Andrew surprised Karen with her birthday lunch (and the always-wonderful company of our dear friend actress Susan Dey!) at Le Bernardin, where Chef Eric Ripert, 2017 JBF Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Professional nominee Aldo Sohm (also of Aldo Sohm Wine Bar), and Directeur de Salle Ben Chekroun ensured that the food, wine, and service were as world-class as one would expect of a restaurant that had just been named the 17th best in the world at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards in Melbourne.
As Karen’s dear friend Rikki Klieman, legal analyst of “CBS This Morning,” share the same birthday week (May 13th), we enjoy an annual tradition of having dinner with Rikki and her husband former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton — in recent years, at Gramercy Tavern, where 2015 James Beard Outstanding Chef Mike Anthony, Chef de Cuisine Howard Kalachnikoff, and Pastry Chef Miro Uskokovic‘s cuisine gives us no reason to dream of considering anywhere else. Our joint dinner on Wednesday night was no exception.
Shaking things up, Karen also helped to surprise Rikki on Friday at a birthday lunch in her honor at Union Square Cafe 2.0, our first visit since the restaurant received its three-star rave from Pete Wells in The New York Times. Husbands were allowed for dessert, so Andrew and Bill were also able to taste gifted pastry sous chef Christine Lisa‘s magnificent (cajeta + chocolate + fudge) layer cake, whose flavor we’ll not soon forget. Special thanks to USC Director of Operations Sam Lipp for personally and so graciously presenting it to our table!
Capping off our Friday night with our wine world “frolleagues” (professional colleagues with whom we have traveled abroad, prompting an evolution into friendship) Baroness Sheri de Borchgrave and Julie Besonen — by tasting our way through several sparkling and still wines together, both before and during dinner — was the “cajeta icing on the chocolate-fudge layer cake” of our week.
And we’re likely going to have our heads down for the next few weeks meeting some key deadlines related to our next book KITCHEN CREATIVITY (Little, Brown; October 2017), so you’re more likely to find additional updates via Twitter and Instagram and Facebook versus here in the interim!
“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me,” co-starring Val Vigoda and Wade McCollum, is playing at Second Stage Theater (305 West 43rd Street) through June 11th. ernestshackletonlovesme.com
Gramercy Tavern is at 42 East 20th Street in Manhattan. gramercytavern.com
For a complete list of winners of 2017 James Beard Foundation Awards, visit jamesbeard.org/awards.
Le Bernardin is at 155 West 51st Street in Manhattan. le-bernardin.com
Union Square Cafe is at 101 East 19th Street in Manhattan. unionsquarecafe.com
If you’re going to see “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” or another show nearby in the Theater District, we definitely recommend West Bank Cafe around the corner at 407 West 42nd Street for pre- or post-theater dining: westbankcafe.com