The warming glow of the corner fireplace, the plush seats on the banquets, and the damask covered table set with Haviland china, formal place settings of Rogers silverware and Eisch stemware seemed so completely incongruous to Doctor Pinot, who days before was sitting in considerably more humble circumstances finishing his assessment of the situation on the ground. Having turned in his report, he hopped on the first transport headed stateside for the required debriefing, his letter of resignation in hand. He was going to let the House and Senate staffers fight this one out with the K Street boys over Cabernet and steaks at the Pennsylvania Avenue Capital Grille. He was exhausted but relieved to have put this thing behind him. The debriefing sessions, while never easy in the past, had taken their toll this time. Knowing that he had made the right choice, he walked out of the building without going back to clear out his desk, eyes forward all the way across the parking lot. Displaying a hard to suppress grin, he jumped into his Audi and drove without hesitation or regret to southwestern suburban Baltimore, now ready to enjoy an early Thanksgiving meal at his cousin’s restaurant.
Mondays were usually dark at the restaurant, except for the annual post Thanksgiving holiday party season, and this year was no different. The K Street consultants’ entertainment budgets were bigger than ever, and even being out of the Washington Post’s constant gaze, Doctor Pinot’s cousin’s culinary star had risen in these circles. The Chef had been smart enough to plan his space so that it was broken up into several small dinning rooms, allowing for the needed and frequently requested privacy for the ensuing policy discussions among Washington’s decision makers. But, Doctor Pinot and his cousin were the only dinners this mid-November Monday evening, in addition to his cousin acting as the lone chef. He put his elbows on the table, something he would only do now that his Mother was no longer here, having recently died close to her 101st birthday. Leaning forward the good Doctor pinched his eyes closed before reopening them to see that he was going to enjoy the most memorable Thanksgiving meal of his life.
The Chef ladled the butternut squash soup from the terrine into his bowl, topping it with a dash of nutmeg and Kendall Farms Crème Fraîche. As his mouth closed around the soup spoon, Doctor Pinot could taste the winter squash soups of his youth cooked in his Grandmother’s Indiana farm kitchen. One taste of the 2008 Navarro Dry Muscat quickly brought him back to the present with flavors that took him to his old backyard in California with tastes of Valencia oranges, Gold Nugget mandarins and Meyer lemons. The bright acidity was the perfect foil for the richness of the soup. There was no talking as both Doctor Pinot and the Chef were lost in the moment. The Chef cleared the bowls and headed back to the kitchen and soon reappeared with the next course.
Maryland Crab cakes cooked in the way that had made them the restaurant’s most popular dish. Fresh Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Cakes, produced from hand picked lump meat, lightly spiced and bound together with egg whites and dusted with a panko coating. Crisp, light, even etherial. One could taste the bay in this dish. The 2008 Mahoney Las Brisas Carneros Vermentino, with the flavors of white peaches and ripe Bearss lemons and aromas of dried wild flowers and bay breezes all worked in concert with the crab cakes, each complementing the other. Doctor Pinot looked up at the Chef with pride. His cousin understood the simplicity of it all. That balance mattered more than volume. It was the quiet, simple things that were evocative, and holiday meals weren’t so much about the present but about the sum of our pasts.
The side dishes came out of the kitchen next, caramelized brussels spouts with pancetta, just like the dish at Rose Pistola, then a fan of multi-colored yams, and of course the dressing – dressing started with dried sourdough, thrown in a deep saute pan on top of the mirepoix that had been cooked with a Pinot Noir reduction, mixed with Minnesota wild rice and craisins: oh, and enough butter to bring a smile to the face of the late Julia Child. Next came the turkey, and what a turkey. The Chef, a leader in the slow foods movement and a locavore of note, found a Maryland breeder of heritage turkeys and secured a Bourbon Red for the dinner, split open and slow roasted on a bed of carrots, celery and sweet onions. The smells were the smells of childhood, and the tastes were from the days of jumping into Dad’s wood paneled station wagon and driving to Langmeyer’s Farm out along the old creek road, and picking out the bird before quickly dispatching it. Old Mrs Langmeyer would wrap the turkey in newspaper, and within the hour Doctor Pinot and his brother were plucking the bird while their Mom warmed the oven. With the first bite, Doctor Pinot couldn’t help but think that those birds had flavor, but perhaps not as much as this turkey which continued to deepen with each full fork. The Chef had picked two wines to go with the Bourbon Red, both from Doctor Pinot’s friend Eric Sussman. First up was the 2007 Radio-Coteau Savoy Chardonnay. A wine grown for Eric by Paul Ardzrooni on Savoy’s south facing slopes in the North end of Mendocino’s Anderson Valley. Doctor Pinot grimaced. Eric was a good friend, but it had been years since he had a California Chardonnay that he enjoyed. The Chef had been flawless in his wine choices so far, so the worst case being that he would just drink the Pinot. Wow, was this Chardonnay? Couldn’t be. The balance was impeccable, and the flavors of Gravenstein apples and Ponderosa lemons melded into a seamless finish. No, his cousin wasn’t going to enjoy this gem all by himself. The Chef put down his glass and flashed a wry look at his cousin, a non verbal ‘I told you so.’ Pouring the Radio-Coteau 2005 Terra Neuma Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, Doctor Pinot’s face lit-up like a Broadway theater marquee. He knew his Pinots and this was one of his all time favorites. Biodynamically farmed by Mike Benziger, on the bleeding edge of where you can ripen grapes between Freestone and Bodega, this wine tasted of both earth and ocean. Flavors of dried Cape Cod cranberries, Burgundian Cassis, with back notes of French train station espresso reconfirmed his prior taste memories of this wine, and transported him to the middle of the vineyard, feeling the wind from the nearby Pacific on his face as he lifted his glass to the fog. Doctor Pinot’s thoughts retuned to the table as he tipped his fingers to salute the Chef for a masterful job.
As he loosened his belt a notch or two, Doctor Pinot looked up to see the Chef deliver a slice of gingered Bartlett pear cake that could have graced the cover of Gourmet Magazine’s annual holiday issue. The Chef pulled the short cork out of a brandy bottle, a single vineyard Russian River Pinot Noir alembic brandy, and poured two-fingers in each of the small, round snifters. Lifting and clinking the glasses, both men got out of their chairs for a long overdue hug. As he patted his cousin on his back, Doctor Pinot knew that ‘God, it was good to be home!’
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