Chefs John B. Shields and Karen Urie of Town House in Chilhowie, VA will join Chef Sean Brock in preparing a special dinner. Town House Sommelier Charlie Berg will join McCrady’s Sommelier Clint Sloan in pairing a variety of exclusive sparkling wines for each course.I was asked by my friend Ann (the same person who helped us with Dining With Friends) to join her at this special event. Her husband doesn't drink and is allergic to shellfish so he wouldn't have enjoyed it much. A recent experience at McCrady’s dimmed my enthusiasm for the restaurant, but I was willing to give it another shot with some guest chefs. Both guests have impressive backgrounds. John worked at Alinea and Charlie Trotter’s, and Karen worked at Tru before spending five years as the lead pastry chef at Charlie Trotter’s. Those are all highly rated restaurants so I went into this with very high expectations.
Dinner was to start at 7:00, with a chef meet and greet at 6:30. Ann’s husband, Dennis, volunteered to be our designated driver since we were anticipating a Bacchanalian event. We arrived at McCrady’s at about 6:15 and sat at the bar and had a pre-dinner drink. McCrady’s makes the best Manhattan on Earth and Ann had her first Pimm’s Cup, which she thoroughly enjoyed.
At about 6:40 we were told we could go upstairs. As far as we can tell the chef meeting never happened, but the tables were about half full so I don't know for certain. It was open seating, so we approached a table with two couples already seated and they invited us to join them. One couple was Curt and Marti, the other was Eric and Debra, and they were all absolutely delightful. There was a bit of awkwardness as Anne and I explained that we were just friends, how we knew each other, and why we were there together.
While we were waiting for the dinner to start someone came around and asked if there were any food allergies or other issues the kitchen needed to know about. This led to a discussion at our table about foods we didn’t like. Eric and Curt had traveled together in South Korea, and agreed that neither liked kim chee. Their wives agreed, but both Ann and I said we liked it. Ann, being the delicate person she is, asked Curt if he had served in the Korean Conflict. Everyone laughed and I don’t think he was offended, and it kept coming up throughout the night.
I won’t do a blow-by-blow of every course since there were eight of them and this post would be even more obnoxiously long. Five courses were prepared by Chefs John and Karen, the remainder by Sean Brock. The overall consensus from our table was we preferred the flavors of Sean’s dishes. The others were interesting and very intellectual, but they failed the first rule of food: it has to taste good.
From the raw scallop with banana mousse to the sour milk with crispy milk bubbles, it was a challenging menu, to say the least. The highlights were Sean Brock’s chicken liver and hazelnuts, his blackened short ribs, and his truffle. The wine pairings were similarly difficult. I don’t have a list of the wines that were served and don’t remember them off the top of my head, but from what I recall the standout was a sparkling shiraz that we all thought was very good with the blackened short ribs.
We were all disappointed that this was supposed to be a celebration of sparkling wines but three courses were served with something else. One course was served with a white sherry that had the wonderful heady bouquet of sherry but the finish of retsina (which smells like turpentine). I don’t think any of us enjoyed that one. another course was served with Sapporo. Yes, Japanese beer. I could kinda buy that it was sparkling, but it didn’t pair well with the dish. And the final drink debacle was a concoction made of Meyers’s dark rum infused with sarsaparilla and vanilla, then topped with Mug root beer. It was served warm, which only enhanced the sweetness and cloying flavor. I saw another table ask for a second round, but only two at our table finished it.
Overall it was a delightful evening because of the company and I truly hope to spend more time with my table mates. When I’m paying $100 for dinner I expect to be wowed, and I simply wasn’t. I enjoyed every dish Sean Brock prepared and the service was stellar. The drink pairings were a rollercoaster, as was the food from the guest chefs. I won't be making a pilgrimage to Town House any time soon, and I'm not so sure I want to bother with Alinea, Tru or Charlie Trotter's, either.
But it did rekindle my hope that perhaps McCrady's can return to its former glory in my eyes.