Decadence For Dinner

By Sean McCusker Photography by Rylan Perry

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Decadence For Dinner:

For better or worse, food knowledge has become a form of conversational currency. Whether you pickle your own ramps or seek out the top taco trucks in sketchy neighborhoods, you’ll find no shortage of self-proclaimed experts on all things gustatory. We all know an annoying foodie—the person who babbles endlessly about his last meal of sea urchin with bone marrow or his latest post on Yelp. Don’t be that guy. Instead, be the man who throws down in the kitchen and pours a perfect glass of champagne, all while making each guest feel as though he or she is the only person in the room. Actually knowing how to cook and how to throw a proper dinner party is what separates the talker from the doer. Everyone eats. Not everyone dines. The difference? Knowing how to stage a meal the right way.

Few things are more impressive or rewarding than throwing a great dinner party, but there’s a rhythm to it, a vibe. The dinner should be both personal and communal. It’s your party and you’ll cook what you want to, but if your offerings don’t please the crowd, what’s the point? Vinny Dotolo, Ludo Lefebvre and Jon Shook know better than anyone how to feed a group. That’s why their restaurant Trois Mec in Los Angeles is the hottest ticket (you have to buy one online to grab one of the 24 seats) on the American dining scene. This culinary supergroup has deep roots in dinner parties. Dotolo and Shook parlayed their caterers-to-the-stars status into two of America’s best restaurants, Animal and Son of a Gun, and Lefebvre’s legendary LudoBites pop-up events cemented his reputation as one of the world’s top chefs.

To learn how to apply the highest level of culinary prowess to a house party, we talked the chefs into throwing one for us. The location: the Hollywood Hills home of their good friend, producer and director R.J. Cutler (his credits include The September Issue, Nashville and the upcoming feature film Fabulous Nobodies). We secured nearly $10,000 worth of caviar from topflight brand Petrossian and poured oceans of Cristal, Roederer and Moët. While the chefs cooked dinner with effortless ease, we talked them into spilling their secrets. And it turns out they have remarkably basic rules for throwing amazing events.

“When I do a party in my house, the most important thing is to really organize myself, because I’m working alone,” Lefebvre says in his thick French accent. “I also want to spend time with the guests, so being smart enough to do good food with less prepping is very important.”

Choosing your guests is where it begins. Bringing new and different people together works for Shook. “I like parties that come together organically with friends,” he says. “I’m not a big planner. Sometimes too much anticipation can kill the spontaneity.” Lefebvre also likes variety but is cautious. “I want to do a party that’s based on putting people together,” he says, “but I’m not going to put Italians and French people in my house, because they’ll fight about soccer.” Having a group of people who all know one another creates a dynamic much different from mixing and matching. We prefer the latter. Showing your skills to a new group sets a more exclusive tone and provides an opportunity to impress a potential business associate—or, even better, that gorgeous girl you keep bumping into in the elevator. For our dinner we invited a motley crew of writers, producers, party promoters, actresses and family friends. The only thing they had in common was their friendship with the chefs themselves.

One of the most effective ways to organize yourself and the menu is to choose an ingredient and use it throughout the dinner. Since decadence is what Playboy is about, caviar took center stage. “I usually try to think of a theme for the menu,” Shook says. “Then I move on to the guest list and budget.” Coursing your meal might seem obvious, but it’s more than just spacing out dishes. Like songs on an album, each dish gets a chance to shine and the host gets to be the star. Greet your guests with a glass of champagne and have a starter already laid out.

Going for decadence is easier than it sounds as many of the most indulgent dishes contain ingredients that can be eaten without cooking. Caviar works especially well. “Caviar eaten off the back of the hand is definitely decadent,” Shook says. “But you can’t buy cheap caviar. It’s similar to wine in that there are many levels. The cool thing is that you can buy everything online.” Although caviar is inherently expensive, he warns not to immediately associate price with luxury. Being creative with everyday ingredients such as fruits and vegetables is a great way to impress. “A really awesome vine-ripened tomato presented on the vine can be just as pretty and decadent as caviar.”

If you want to make the evening special, keep the sourcing at the highest level. When heading out to purchase the meats that will be the anchor of your dinner, bypass the shrink-wrapped, prepackaged aisle and get your product from the people who know. “Start with a local butcher or fishmonger,” says Shook. “Go to the store with two or three different ideas and really talk to the person to get his or her take. For fish it’s smell, and for meat it’s color.” Although this plan of attack may go against your initial menu ideas, the quality of the product you’ll bring home will be well worth the effort. Lefebvre agrees. “Don’t plan your main dish until you go to the store and see what is the best,” he stresses. “I always tell my cooks, ‘You go hunting first and then plan the menu.’”

A decadent dinner party can seem daunting even for someone who knows his or her way around a kitchen. Try to remember it’s not work; it’s a party. If that mantra doesn’t ease your anxiety, Lefebvre half jokingly suggests more champagne not only for your guests but for you as well. “Make sure your guests have more than enough to drink, and order some cabs to take them home,” he says. “That way, if the food doesn’t turn out, they’re not going to remember.” Shook agrees. “Don’t make the food too difficult and out of your reach,” he says. “Enjoy the party.” Just as Shook finishes his thought, Dotolo walks by with a tray of transmontanus caviar, baby strawberries and perfectly fried homemade potato chips. With just a hint of sarcasm he adds, “Or you can make the food way too difficult and just hide from everybody.”

Originally eaten by the Phoenicians, Romans and Persians to improve endurance and strength, caviar quickly became the preferred food of Russian czars before spreading worldwide as a delicacy of royalty. Today, Petrossian caviar is the Rolls-Royce of fish eggs, and with the brand’s guidance, we put together this rundown of the types of caviar you can choose to throw your own over-the-top dinner party with confidence.

HACKLEBACK Briny, dry and strong, American hackleback fish roe adds a unique punch to dishes with other distinct ingredients and flavors. This is why Dotolo chose it for a pizza topped with red onion, nori, chili oil and other ingredients.

ALVERTA AND TRANS-MONTANUS These top-of-the-line caviars are profoundly smooth and rich—so much so that our chefs serve them in desserts (going so far as to swap them for the salt on a salted caramel) and straight off the backs of guests’ hands. They come at a price, but it’s worth it to taste the ultimate in briny-sweet decadence.

OSETRA Fresh and juicy with fruit and nut tones, osetra caviar is extremely versatile and stands up perfectly in dishes whose base contains mild ingredients such as scrambled eggs or sushi rice.

SEVRUGA This caviar is for those who want a real smack in the palate from the sea. Small, intensely flavored beads greatly enhance mild seafood dishes.

SIBERIAN Silky smooth Siberian caviar’s melt-in-your-mouth texture is the perfect partner for meat, champagne and Shook’s favorite, vodka.

For these caviars and more, go to petrossian.com.

When chefs Vinny Dotolo, Ludo Lefebvre and Jon Shook cooked their caviar feast up in the Hollywood Hills, they matched specific caviar types with each dish, but you can use any caviar you like. The point is to use the freshest caviar possible. Buy it from a reputable source (such as Petrossian.com), keep it refrigerated, and by all means stay away from the jarred stuff sitting on a warm shelf in the supermarket. You want the sweet essence of ocean brine, not the salinity of shelf stability.

THERE’S MORE TO CHAMPAGNE THAN SIMPLY POPPING A CORK

NV, OR NONVINTAGE This applies to the vast majority of champagnes, meaning producers can rely on them year after year. They require significant skill and years of reserves to pull off consistently.

VINTAGE Produced only a few times each decade, these can stand on their own without blending. Expect to pay top dollar, but vintage bubbles are well worth the price. Be sure not to drink them too cold (they should be served at 52 to 55 degrees, as opposed to 45 for nonvintage), otherwise their distinctive complexity will be masked.

ROSÉ With elegant salmon-pink tones and sublime richness and finesse, rosés are great for stand-alone enjoyment and pair well with any food.

BRUT ZERO OR BRUT NATURE Very fashionable, especially among growers, these champagnes are produced without the usual dosage of sugar, resulting in bone-dry, razor-sharp wines tailor-made for raw, briny oysters or hackleback caviar.

POTATO CHIPS WITH SMOKED CRÈME FRAÎCHE AND CAVIAR (Makes six appetizer portions)

This is a high-low recipe of the highest order, pairing luxurious caviar with the lowly (yet perfect) potato chip. It’s a variation on a recipe Ludo Lefebvre sometimes prepares with home-cured salmon roe and bing cherries. At our dinner party he topped the dish with baby strawberries, but it’s fantastic without them as well. 1 large Kennebec potato 1 gallon canola oil Salt 2 cups crème fraîche 1½ cups heavy cream 3 tablespoons smoked oil (see recipe below) 2 ounces caviar

Peel potato. Using a meat slicer or mandoline, slice potato on the thinnest setting. Put slices in cold water and place on towel to dry. Heat canola oil to 275 degrees in a large heavy pot. Fry chips in oil until crispy but still light in color. Dry on paper towels and season with salt to taste.

Combine crème fraîche and heavy cream in mixer. Whip with whip attachment on medium until light and airy. Add smoked oil and season with salt to taste. Place one teaspoon crème fraîche in center of potato chip and top with one teaspoon caviar.

SMOKED OIL: 1 cup cooled hardwood charcoal embers 2 cups grapeseed oil

Twenty-four hours before dinner, place cooled embers and grapeseed oil in a metal container. Cover with aluminum foil and let sit overnight. Strain oil through a fine-mesh sieve and reserve.

HACKLEBACK CAVIAR PIZZA WITH EGG, NORI AND GARLIC CHILI OIL (Makes two medium pizzas)

The guys at Animal make their own, but we’ve substituted store-bought garlic chili oil, which you can find online or in gourmet food shops. They also make an exquisite pizza dough that requires 48 hours of fermentation. Use your favorite pizza dough recipe, or purchase fresh dough from Whole Foods or your local pizza joint. And if you have a pizza stone, by all means use it.

1 large ball fresh pizza dough 8 ounces fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced and patted dry 1 red onion, diced 20 garlic flowers 6 tablespoons garlic chili oil 2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped 2 nori sheets, ground to a powder in spice grinder 2 ounces hackleback caviar

Stretch pizza dough out on oiled baking sheets. Bake in a 500-degree oven until top is cooked and dough is a light brown, about eight minutes. Top with mozzarella and cook until dough is a deep golden brown and lightly charred on the edges, at least five minutes more, until cheese is properly melted. Divide topping ingredients in half and scatter on pizzas so you get a bit of everything in each bite.

CORN CAKES WITH SMOKED STURGEON, CAVIAR AND MAPLE CREAM (Serves six)

This recipe combines Jon Shook’s and Vinny Dotolo’s love of Southern cooking (corn cakes) with one of their great culinary obsessions: seafood. The result is a salty-sweet, almost dessert-like dish.

¾ cup flour 1 ounce cornmeal 1 teaspoon salt ½ tablespoon sugar 1 tablespoon baking powder 1½ teaspoons baking soda 1½ cups cottage cheese 3 cups milk or buttermilk 3 whole eggs, lightly beaten ½ cup cooked corn 1½ ounces butter, melted Vegetable oil, as needed 2 cups maple cream (see recipe below) 4 ounces smoked sturgeon 2 ounces caviar 2 ounces maple syrup 1 tablespoon fresh chives, chopped

Sift dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Whisk wet ingredients and corn together in a large bowl with half the butter. Gradually add dry ingredients to wet ingredients, stirring with a wooden spoon, then add remaining butter (batter may be lumpy). Pour a quarter cup of batter onto preheated griddle prepped with vegetable oil; cook until corn cakes are lightly golden on each side.

Place enough maple cream to cover the center of an appetizer plate and add smoked sturgeon on top. Place cooked corn cake on top of sturgeon, add a dollop of caviar and drizzle with maple syrup. Garnish with chives.

MAPLE CREAM: 1/3 cup maple syrup 2 cups heavy cream ¼ cup buttermilk

Combine ingredients in a large bowl and whisk until stiff peaks form. Leftover maple cream can be served with pancakes the next day.

SCRAMBLED EGGS WITH OSETRA CAVIAR AND BRIOCHE (Makes four appetizer portions)

Lefebvre combines the humble chicken egg with the luxurious fish egg in an incredibly satisfying dish that can be prepared in minutes.

4 large brown eggs 1 tablespoon unsalted butter 2 tablespoons onion, finely diced 1 tablespoon fresh chives, chopped Fleur de sel Pepper 4 teaspoons osetra caviar

Whisk eggs until yolks and whites are thoroughly combined. Melt butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent, about three minutes. Add eggs and cook until they become creamy and thicken slightly (they should not be lumpy), whisking constantly and briskly, about two minutes. Remove from heat. Whisk in chives. Season eggs to taste with fleur de sel and pepper. Spoon into serving bowls and top with caviar, about one teaspoon for each. Serve with toasted brioche.

PANNA COTTA, CRÈME FRAÎCHE, CARAMEL AND CAVIAR (Serves 16)

This dessert from Lefebvre is an expert-level project and a fascinating look at the labor that goes into a restaurant-quality dessert. The results are surprising and profoundly complex in flavor: The salty caviar against the caramel sauce is savory-sweet and satisfying.

CARAMEL SAUCE: 1 cup sugar ¼ cup water 1 cup heavy cream

Fill a small bowl or glass with ice water, and have a pastry brush at the ready. Combine sugar and water in a two-quart saucepan and heat over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves.

Dip pastry brush into ice water and brush down inner sides of saucepan so no sugar builds up on them.

Turn heat to high and continue to cook water and sugar mixture until it turns a dark amber. (It will appear darker in the saucepan, so test color by dipping a spoon into mixture and dotting some of it onto a white plate.) Do not stir mixture except for gently swirling the pan. As sugar builds on sides of pan, brush down with ice water.

As soon as mixture reaches the correct color, slowly and carefully add heavy cream. Be sure to use a long whisk, and do not put hands directly over pan. Pour cream by the side of the pan, and stir with whisk handle outside the edge. The caramel will foam up, so it is imperative to add cream slowly to prevent caramel from spilling over.

Once all the cream is added, if there are lumps, heat caramel sauce until it smooths out.

Cool sauce completely. Reserve.

PANNA COTTA: 12½ grams gelatin, sheet or powdered 1 cup Bellwether Farms crème fraîche 1 cup heavy cream 1 cup whole milk ½ cup sugar 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise with seeds scraped out (or 1 teaspoon vanilla paste)

Lightly coat an eight-by-eight-inch cake pan with spray or liquid oil. Press a layer of plastic wrap into pan, being careful to keep it as smooth as possible. Make sure plastic is pressed into the corners, but be careful not to tear it. Use a hard plastic spatula to remove any large wrinkles by running the flat edge from the center of pan out to the edges.

Bloom the gelatin by placing it sheet by sheet into a large container of very cold water. You may add a few ice cubes, but the water should be no colder than 36 degrees. Note: Powdered gelatin may be substituted gram for gram for sheet gelatin; however, you must then bloom the gelatin in precisely three ounces of cold water.

In a pan with at least a two-quart capacity, mix crème fraîche and heavy cream. Reserve.

In a small (at least one-quart) saucepan, heat milk, sugar and vanilla bean pod with its scraped-out seeds over medium-high heat until mixture begins to simmer. Remove from heat. Immediately add prepared gelatin. If using sheet gelatin, squeeze as much water as possible from the sheets by squeezing firmly between your hands. If using powdered gelatin, simply add the gelatin, which will have fully absorbed the water in which it was bloomed. Stir mixture until gelatin is fully dissolved.

Stir hot mixture into reserved crème fraîche mixture. Allow to cool at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until mixture feels cool to the touch. This will ensure vanilla seeds are suspended throughout panna cotta. Remove vanilla bean pod.

Pour cooled mixture into the prepared pan and refrigerate for at least six hours to allow gelatin to set. Once it has set, turn pan upside down onto a cutting board. Gently pull on plastic to unmold panna cotta. Using a sharp knife dipped in warm water, cut panna cotta into one-inch strips, then cut these strips in half. This will yield 16 four-by-one-inch strips.

PLATING: 2 teaspoons caramel sauce 1 panna cotta strip 2 teaspoons American sturgeon caviar Fleur de sel, to garnish

Pour caramel sauce onto center of an appetizer plate. Using an angled palette knife or spatula, spread sauce to form a six-by-two-inch strip that will be visible when panna cotta is placed on it. Carefully pick up panna cotta strip and center it on caramel.

Gather caviar in a line along the edge of a knife. Drop caviar onto panna cotta strip in a line centered down long side of strip. Sprinkle a few grains of fleur de sel over top of panna cotta.


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