Crowds: the New Black

Do you remember when Spain was the new Italy, and brown was the new black? On the current Westchester restaurant scene, the ultimate must-have is not gigantic light fixtures, improbable bar materials, or even elite cocktails. The hottest restaurant trend right now is other diners.

Why? Because it’s depressing to sacrifice your dwindling dining dollar to find an empty dining room with speakers turned to eleven to disguise a critical lack of hubbub. While you could be comforted in the knowledge that your delicious meal is a charitable gesture toward the restaurant, in fact, diners don’t go out for charity. We go to feel good, to see other people, to have fun, to take part in a scene. In restaurants (just as in dating), there’s no room for pity. Desperation kills.

So what to do? When we want a crowd, we hit the growing number of themed dinners currently being offered around Westchester. These fun, boisterous evenings are a good-value way to meet other diners, and maybe even learn something. Booze (often unlimited) is included in the price of the meal, and these nights have us forgetting the economic crisis to simply party down with like-minded folks. And isn’t that what we all need right now?

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Here are some recent hits, though get on your favorite restaurant’s e-mail list (or check its website) to find many more upcoming events. They’re happening all around the county, and at every price point:

BLT Steak/Ridge Winery (Tuesday, March 24) 
One of the strangest things about BLT is that it apparently is unfazed by the economy. Case in point: a briskly served, scrumptious dinner with Ridge Winery staffer Eric Baugher. The joint was packed (on a Tuesday!), with Baugher dropping by tables to offer the sort of nuts and bolts insight into winemaking that makes the result so much more enjoyable. Droughts, floods, bugs—honestly, winemaking is like a bible flick—but the folks at Ridge are doing the right thing with ethical, non-chemical winemaking techniques. They sacrifice volume (and profit) to produce something that makes them proud, and you can absolutely taste that in the glass.

The evening cost $125 per person, and was a bargain, given usual tabs at BLT. Four courses, with additional amuse bouche and madeleines, overseen by LT (Laurent Tourandel) himself, were accompanied by generous refills of not-so-cheap wines. One vintage was the crisply mineral (yet still complex) 2006 Ridge “Estate” Chardonnay from Santa Cruz Mountains (which retails locally for about $60 per bottle—I know ‘cause I wanted to buy some myself), while another was the Ridge 2004 “Montebello,” which currently is sold out, but the 2003 and 2005 vintages retail over $100 per bottle. And, folks, they were just throwing the stuff around. 

Of course, there also were tons of great BLT food, including the crack-like popovers, a memorable seven-spice Maple Leaf duck breast with mango mustarda, lobes of foie gras and celery purée, and a yummy prime sirloin with an absolutely stellar grilled radicchio that left me rooting around my plate, perfectly content that spring has not quite sprung. Best of all, the joint was packed and happy, which is the finest accompaniment to dinner nowadays.

Half Moon/Captain Lawrence Dinner (Friday, Feb 27) Scott Vaccaro, infant-aged master brewer and owner of Pleasantville’s Captain Lawrence Brewery, was on hand for a hearty mid-winter party at Half Moon, where dishes like a soulful New York cheddar soup with smoked kielbasa in a pumpernickel boule were served with Captain Lawrence smoked porter. Big hits in the five-course, beer-backed hoe-down were a crisp and succulent fish and chips—best I’ve had in a long while—with a bright, sophisticated fennel slaw and jalapeño tartar sauce (served with Captain Lawrence Liquid Gold), and a fabulous braised short ribs served with horseradish mashed potatoes and cider-glazed carrrots (served with Captain Lawrence stout). The food was on-season, on-target, and the Pleasantville-made beer was great—plus, the joint was packed. In fact, we ended up in some kind of Outer Hebrides lobe of the parking lot, so jammed was it with customers.

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Congenial Executive Chef Vincent Barcelona was on hand to re-arrange every outgoing plate and visually intimidate his crack staff, while Vaccaro visited every table to discuss his carefully crafted brews. The kicker here is that the whole evening cost $42 plus tax and tip, and would have been a bargain at twice the price.

Sausage and Beer Dinner, Blue Hill at Stone Barns (Sunday, January 25)  As I wrote in this space in February, BHSB debuted its jaw-dropping party space with a raucous beer-and-sausage dinner that also welcomed back the prodigious charcuterie gifts of Chef Adam Kaye. I covered the great room because it was newsy, but here’s the thing: the meal was just as good. Plus, here we were all the food world glitterati, dressed up and in the tres elegant room, and people got really drunk! On beer! Gracious host David Barber had to stand and tactfully suggest that we take advantage of car service when he heard communal tables of diners (previously strangers) get louder and louder, happier and happier. I spoke with child-brewer Scott Vaccaro (of Captain Lawrence) after the night, and he mused,  “It started out so normal, but then it just got wild…” In fact, he admits to being less-than-chipper himself when Monday morning came.

Yes, the beer flowed—but so did the food. $190 (plus tax and tip—a bargain, given BHSB’s usual pricing) bought gallons of locally made boutique beer and an endless parade of hors d’oeuvres, followed by a six-course royal, beer-based banquet. Freebies like the wonderful whipped, salted lard that accompanied pork-fat-glossed foccacia, or sparkling Mason jars of gorgeous pickled, homegrown baby vegetables, felt like icing on the sausage. Meanwhile, the main menu was simply stellar, with a Blue Hill charcuterie plate of coppa, toscano, fennel salami, bologna and jambon royale, yielding to choucroute garni (with moreau, boudin blanc and braised belly with sauerkraut), both as good as you’d expect from this culinary superstar. In fact, the last dish practically made my German dining neighbor, Thor, cry—though I admit, the speck, farm egg, brioche with charcuterie sauce even made me a little misty. Best of all, the three brewers were peppered throughout the crowd—and we learned a huge amount just chatting with our tablemates.

So: three different nights, three great parties—and all over-the-top celebrations of wine, beer, and food.  Best of all, each party offered way more for your money than you could reasonable expect from the usual night out at a restaurant. Check your favorite restaurants for upcoming events.
 

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