Thursday, November 4, 2010

My Dinner With Joan (and Company)

My adventures with Joan Nathan on Monday will take far more time to tell than should be permitted in one post, so I'm going to split things up a bit. Today I'll focus simply on the truly extraordinary and exceptional dinner at eve, the restaurant Joan had specifically told me during our interview that she wanted to eat at, which is owned and inspired by the one chef -- Eve Aronoff, of "Top Chef" fame -- she wanted to meet during her short visit to town.

Now, let me tell you a little secret: eve isn't usually open on Mondays. And yet, we ate there on Monday evening -- Tom, me, several (but unfortunately not all) of the chairs of the Jewish Book Festival, the Rabbi of the synagogue which was sponsoring Joan's appearance, the caterer for the Festival's dessert reception who had made cakes and petits fours and cookies from recipes in Joan's new cookbook, and the star of the day herself. The restaurant was opened just for this private party of 11, because a stellar representative of the culinary world had shown such an interest in it.

So, of course, right there I felt special to be included for such a rare event! Although I'd never eaten at eve before, I have heard nothing but raves for everything from the ambiance to the service to the food to the wine .... Truly, this is one of the most precious jewels in the proverbial crown of Ann Arbor dining, and we've got a pretty sparkly tiara ornamented with hundreds of restaurants representing cuisines from around the world, from fast food to the most pretentious dining establishments.

I had been asked by Mimi Weisberg, my beloved friend and Jewish Cultural Arts and Education Director at the Jewish Community Center, to be Joan's afternoon escort while Mimi checked on last-minute preparations "at the J," to make sure everything was ready for Opening Night. So I kept Joan company during her meet 'n' greet at Zingerman's Next Door, a small cafe next to the world-famous Zingerman's Deli, as she answered email, took phone calls, met with book buyers (including a woman who had driven an hour from Toledo just for this event!), and shopped for goodies to send to her grown children around the country. I was caught up in a happy whirlwind, before Tom and I walked her the block-and-a-half to the restaurant for dinner.

We walked in the door to find a small, intimate space of clean lines and minimal decor -- one where food was the focus, rather than decorations and frivolity. Our table, a long rectangular one, was situated in the front window; and we handled introductions and seating arrangements (Joan next to the Rabbi, Tom and me at the opposite end but next to another beloved friend, Festival co-chair Fran Martin, who had specifically requested our presence at her end of the table).

Now, I have to warn you that although the food was gorgeous and colorful and there were more photo ops than I can count, I have not one picture for you -- I behaved myself, rather than being the boor whose flash disrupted conversations throughout the evening. I paid attention to my friends and to my palate, rather than expecting people to wait for me as I posed my food enticingly.

And so, here's hoping that my words can paint an adequate, if not tantalizing, picture for you ....

Our primary server was Ari Sussman, who was named Ann Arbor's "Best Bartender" (and was a leading contender for "Hottest Bartender!") in the latest issue of Current Magazine. He's a good Jewish boy who's engaged to be married this spring, and he just happens to be the son of one of my co-workers as well.

After offering wine and other beverages, he brought out plates containing fresh and fragrant baguettes -- crisp and crackly crusts surrounding the perfect soft and fluffy interior -- accompanied by 3 discs of butter, each the size of a 50-cent piece; one was orange (flavored with harissa, a fiery North African chili sauce), another was a very pale and faintly colored coral tone (flavored with guava), and the last was flecked with an assortment of greens (with garlic and herbs mixed in). The first was tremendously rich and flavorful but not spicy hot, indicative of the talent of a chef who's noted for her spice blends; the second was sweet and almost perfumed; and the third was strong but not overpowering, with a variety of flavors coming through, each complementing the others. I asked Ari which of the three was his personal favorite, and he told us that he likes to use the garlic-herb butter for cooking eggs.

Next was a salad of beautifully deep, dark baby greens accompanied by lovely little red and yellow pear and cherry tomatoes. This was topped not only with a pesto vinaigrette, but also with a triangle of Halloumi cheese that had been grilled, making its exterior crisp and golden brown while its center remained soft and chewy (not melted). Even Jeremy, who is not a salad-eater, would have relished this.

The next course was a Moroccan-inspired red lentil soup served with a dollop of creme fraiche and a pair of beautiful fresh mint leaves. While I thought the soup was divine (possibly my favorite part of the meal, though there would truly be an hours-long debate over that notion) -- rich with the nuance of spices, rather than heat -- Fran, who is not a devotee of spicy food, felt that her lips were on fire. Thankfully, Tom loves lentil soup; this is one I will absolutely have to replicate. I make a variety of lentil soups, but will have to put the ol' Moroccan spin on one myself now.

Next was the entree. Eve had selected duck breasts, though Ari had told us at the beginning of the meal that a fish option -- sable -- was available. Tom was the only one who chose it, so I had thought it would be perfect that we could each share with the other.

The plates were absolutely delightful visually, with gorgeous slightly roasted red and yellow peppers accompanying red onions being served alongside the duck or fish. And in addition to all of this, there were latkes (one of my favorite foods on Earth!) the width of a grapefruit, which were offered with a luscious chunky spiked applesauce that contained tender pieces of green apple. The duck was a bit rare for my personal tastes, but rich and delicious nonetheless; the sable was cooked to tender, flaky perfection the likes of which I will never be able to duplicate -- it was absolutely outstanding. The vegetables were the perfect crisp-tender, and I could have devoured plates full of latkes and gallons of the spicy-sweet applesauce. Truly, I was in Nirvana!

Because there was going to be a dessert reception at the Book Festival, I hadn't expected any sweets to finish the meal; but Ari brought out long white serving trays filled with colorful presentations. One contained very thin slices of green apple and pineapple, accompanied by fabulously fragrant fried wonton crisps that had been coated in cinnamon sugar. The other had equally thin slices of mango, served alongside slightly still-frozen filled macaroons (a newly discovered perfect way to eat them -- the center turns into a semi-freddo!); there were three flavors of confection -- jasmine, lemon and coconut -- each a pastel vision in barely green, faint yellow and creamy white. Nothing could have completed this lovely, flavorful, exquisite meal more perfectly.

At one point, Eve herself came out for a quick "Hello," beaming with a radiant smile under her Zabar's baseball cap. She was clearly thrilled to have been "the chosen one," and also to have -- as she does every day -- the opportunity to provide joy and sustenance and beauty to others, rather than just merely food.

I'm sorry to say that I didn't get to hear much of what Joan had to say during dinner, though I had a fabulous and lovely time with my sweetie, my dear friend, and new friends as well. At one point, though, she did ask me whether we were eating at eve because of her interest in it. Truly, Joan Nathan is the most gracious woman, not exhibiting any egotistical notions of being entitled to such a treat as the restaurant opening just for her! She made a point of going back to the kitchen to offer her gratitude and appreciation, which was so remarkably warm and generous of her. This is a woman who spent part of her weekend at a book party thrown for her by the French ambassador! And yet, she was humbled by a chef opening her doors on a usual day off. I cannot rave enough about how impressed I am!

I hope you have enjoyed your vicarious trip to eve. It was a meal to tell the kids and hoped-for grandchildren about ....


Nicole said...

As always - yum and fun! You love quite an interesting life!

Kelly said...

I am salivating reading this - everything sounds so delicious!

Debbie V. said...

What a great meal and experience, Mary!

Sheila said...

I can feel your excitement, Mary! And, I'm excited for you!

Cranberry Morning said...

First of all, I haven't been to a good restaurant since I can't remember when. But to go to a great restaurant that's only open for a select few was unbelievable! The food sounded amazing. I am counting on you to post a red lentil soup recipe soon. I would love to make it! What a memorable evening!

Leanne said...

HOLY MACARONI!!!! I am just getting caught up on some of my favorite blogs and this one BLEW ME AWAY!!! I'm sitting here with a grin stretching from ear to ear. What a cool experience and dream come true. Wow! How cool are YOU?!?!

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