benefit dinner at heritage

My wife Valerie and I were fortunate enough to attend the benefit dinner at Heritage for the Steven Stiller Foundation; this foundation distributes funds to families in need of aid in New York and New Jersey in the wake of Sandy hitting the Tri-state Area. Combine assistance to my region of origin with the best food and drink Richmond has to offer and I'm all too happy to participate. Every reasonable news/food website in town has already mentioned who would be involved, but I'm going to name everybody along with their courses as a reminder. Oh yeah, and be forewarned - this write-up is chock full of obsequious, fan-boyish hyperbole and excitement, not just because I care about the folks and cause involved, but because this is yet another in a line of very special meals I've experienced in the fair River City. Also also, this is a long and detailed summary of the food and drink. If you'd rather TL;DR the whole thing, skip to the gallery of photos at the end.

The meal started with a wonderful appetizer from a latecomer to the event, Lee Gregory of The Roosevelt. He prepared a smoked hamachi crudo with puree of red cabbage, pork rind crumbs, radish, salmon roe, and chive. It was a nice, lighter start to the meal at room temperature, and not too rich.

Sidebar. What I find most interesting, in retrospect, is how much of a departure this was from the menu at The Roosevelt. But it exemplified something we're increasingly fortunate to find in Richmond; when you have an excellent and creative chef, the cuisine matters a little less. Truly skilled cooks can make excellent dishes of all types and styles. And whether the courses that followed Gregory's matched their respective chef's typical fare or not, they all possessed those two qualities: excellent and creative. Impressive execution paired with inventive preparations and presentations.

So the meal continued with a course that actually typified the style of its creator - a fresh pasta dish from Secco's Tim Bereika. Spaghetti with a pecorino cream sauce, scallions, black pepper, and crispy speck from Olli Salumeria - this was almost a variation of spaghetti carbonara, but it was better than any carbonara I can remember. Mattias told me at the bar that Tim's dish was a celebration of his Kickstarter success (to which you can and should still contribute!), and it sure tasted celebratory. Valerie and I both picked greedily for every last bit of speck or pasta in the bowl.

Heritage's own Joe Sparatta supplied the next course which included supremely tender and buttery rockfish served over minced Brussels' sprouts and popcorn polenta. As if that wasn't delicious enough, the fish was topped with some salty and crusty goodness and crispy lardo - prepared by Sparatta's hands from a VA Mangalitsa hog.

The final savory course was prepared by The Magpie's Owen Lane, and it was a knock-out. Braised pork cheeks with cinnamon baby carrots, rosemary shortbread, and a "pecan pie" gelee. I'd never have expected rosemary and cinnamon to work so well together, but it's one of the best flavor surprises I've had in ages.

There was dessert to finish, of course, and this came from the hands of Winburn Carmack. She's a Richmond prodigal who has returned to bake bread after working as pastry chef at no less than McCrady's in Charleston. Her dessert was "ants on a log", which included compressed slices of celery, a celery sorbet, peanut dust, peanut butter (or some other form of peanut-like sauce), and a peanut butter pound cake. Not only did it taste intriguing (and better than you'd think as a dessert), but it was simply gorgeous on the plate. I've seen gorgeous dessert presentation at Acacia or Can Can, but not like this. It looked like a course out of Alinea, right here in RVA. No exaggeration.

AND THAT WAS JUST THE FOOD.

Remember - Heritage is home to one of Richmond's finest bartenders: Mattias Hägglund. And he teamed up with another one of Richmond's finest bartenders - T. Leggett from The Roosevelt - to create a killer list of drinks especially for this fund raiser event. They each came up with three libations with a collaborative 7th entry, and let me tell you they were all excellent. The "Sandyhook Stormy" was a milder and more nuanced take on the Dark and Stormy. The "Mexican't" made layers of complex magic with both tequila, Campari, and mescal. "The Spaniard" married rye whiskey with Amontillado Sherry for surprisingly delicious results. The "Don Lee Down South" was really special - Cheerwine soda, rum, and somehow the flavor of popcorn on the finish! A delight that's difficult to explain and even harder to understand, but terrific just the same. The "Smoked Up and Fancy Free" tasted like a glass of campfire, balanced by the Luxardo maraschino liqueur, while "The Williamsburg Stunner" was a tasty and rich combination of Jameson's, gin, Ramazzoti, and Cynar. The last drink on the list was called "There's No 'I' in Team" and was served in a glorious antique Tiki (antiki?) cup. It was light and tasty.

Phew, now I can exhale after that breathless love-fest! But only just - because I have to point out something else that really hit me hard about tonight's event. We all know it was a fund raiser. We know that any money after covering costs goes to charity. But each and every course looked and tasted as if these cooks were working in restaurants with their names on the doors. Firing on all cylinders. Many (or all?) of them working on their night off. Everybody involved worked just as hard for charity as they would for their paychecks and, consequently, made one of the most memorable dinners I've eaten, here or anywhere.

Now that I'm done fawning over the RVA food all-stars, how about you check out some pictures of the whole shindig: