On November 1, I was fortunate enough to attend the Día de los Muertos Fiesta at the James Beard House. Día los Muertos means Day of the Dead, and it is a holiday that originated in Mexico to honor loved ones who have died. It is connected to the Catholic holidays of All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day, and is most characterized by the use of “sugar skulls”—beautifully decorated edible skulls. This has become a tradition of Día de los Muertos artwork, which is often stunning in its use of color and geometric patterns. Food is a big part of the holiday, as it is offered to the dead, as well as the living in a lavish feast.
There were 6 passed hors d’oeuvres at the cocktail reception. At dinner, there were 5 entrees, and a few desserts. So, the good thing is that they give you your money’s worth and even if you don’t like everything on the menu, you will surely find at least a few things that would satisfy your palate. Plus, they usually serve a different wine, beer, or other beverage with each course.
By the same token, it’s not a cheap dinner, and it behooves one to try and enjoy as much of it as possible. At the risk of sounding judgmental, from the couple of times I had dinner there, I can say that the clientele is usually well heeled. But there are those, like me, who would not be able to pull together, or justify, the money needed for a meal at James Beard regularly, but who, once in a while, want and need to indulge themselves with a fabulous culinary experience in a place that is legendary in the food world.
The cost for dinners vary, but usually they are well over $100 for both members and non-members. I was able to eat there the first time because I was there as a journalist (and, therefore, it was free) and this time because I have a student membership, which gains me entry at a still-steep $55.
I found myself eating things that I would not have normally eaten. Aside from the fact that I was a vegetarian for so many years, there are certain meats that I never liked so never ate in the first place. But I was going to get my money’s worth. And, on a non-monetary level, I don’t get many opportunities to experience haute cuisine, so when I do, I try everything—just because. So here’s my assessment of this great meal.
Slow-Roasted Goat Tlacoyos with Watercress and Goat Cheese Crema. I didn’t even know this was goat. It wasn’t goaty. It was tender and coated in a delicious sauce and was made beautiful by a fluff of microgreens, giving it freshness and lightening up the richness of the meat.
Blue Corn Sopes with Refried Black Beans, Corn–Tomatillo Salsa, and Cotija Cheese. There’s such an earthy quality about blue corn that really makes you feel like you’re partaking of something ancient and revered. It’s always a nice counterbalance to black beans and spicy salsa. This was a vegetarian’s Mexican dream.
Red Chile Sopes with Coconut–Habanero Shrimp and Cured Red Onions. I’m not crazy about seafood, but I gave this one a go. It had a spicy-sweet flavor that was complex and covered any sea flavors that don’t usually appeal to me. The coconut-chile sauce was mildly reminiscent of Southeast Asian dishes, but it had its own Latin twist.
Octopus Alambres with Poblano Peppers, Pearl Onions, and Lemon Vinaigrette. I couldn’t bring myself to try this one.
Oaxacan Cheese Albóndigas with Anchoberry Barbecue Sauce. These were meatballs skewers, and I thought they were beef at first. I found out they were lamb. I don’t eat lamb because a) they’re too cute and b) it’s too gamey. I was stunned to find that I actually liked them. They were tender and the barbecue sauce was so sweet and delicious that I was tempted to eat more. But I refrained. I just couldn’t do it.
Calabasa Soup with Toasted Chile Pepitas, Piloncillo, and Canella. This soup was FABULOUS. They served this in tall shot glasses with the pepitas sitting on top. The calabasa was sweet and smooth and had just the right amount of seasoning. Then that little crunch at the end as you toss it back is so satisfying. I had 3 of those.
Hiramasa Ceviche with Kiwi, Lime Sorbet, and Melon Vinaigrette. I’m not crazy about fish and anyone who knows me knows that sushi/shashimi and I are not bosom buddies. But I tried a piece and I must say, it was quite good. Light and not fishy at all. The kiwi, lime, and melon all gave it such a light, fresh taste, the fish almost seemed like a slice of fruit. This was accompanied by a cucumber margarita, which was also refreshing while having a definite margarita flavor.
Chicken Tostada with Avocado, Sea Urchin Crema, and Salsa Borracha. This was an interesting interpretation of a tostada. The chicken was tender and flavorful but made almost buttery by the slices of avocado that were wrapped around it. The “tostada” was a crispy ribbon holding up the other elements. It was playful and creative.
Chile Meco Relleno: Pork, Black Currant, Pine Nut, Almond, and Green
Olive–Stuffed Meco Chile. As expected, this dish was somewhat spicy, but not unbearably so. Meco chiles were stuffed with shredded pork, which was extremely tender. The almonds had a sweet coating and were a least crisp contrast to the almost creamy stuffing.
Seared Striped Bass with Smoked Bacon–Black Bean Broth, Poblano Peppers, and Güero Chilies. I hate to say it, but the sea bass, as beautiful as it looked, was a bit dry and bland. This is not just me saying this; several of my table mates said it as well. This was probably the only dish that disappointed, but only by a little.
Braised Pork Belly with Calabaza Tamale, Nopales–Pomegranate Salad, Fried
Cheese, and Mole Negro. The tamale was so incredibly delicious. They made it easy to eat by bundling the corn husks into candy shapes (tied at the ends) with an opening on the top. The calabaza was perfectly seasoned and had a sweet-spicy profile. The Nopales–Pomegranate Salad on top was an interesting use of nopales, and the fried cheese came in the surprising form of little croutons. Pork belly is another thing I would never have eaten (just the name alone turns me off), but, going with the flow, I tried it. It practically melted in my mouth. What can I say?
Dessert Duo: Dulce de Leche Budino and Plantain–Cinnamon Napoleon. The budino. Wow. This dessert, a parfait of cream and dulce de leche, was outrageous. It was creamy, smooth, and sweet without being cloying. There were little crunchy things on top and when they brought all the chefs out at the end, someone asked about what the little crunchy things were. The chef who made them said that they were duck cracklings, baked with sugar and vinegar and sweetened with Stevia. I was floored. The crunchies were sweet and almost maple-y. The Napolean was delicious, too, but next to the budino, it paled.
Chefs’ Collaborative Dessert:
Plantain-Crusted Chocolate–Mulato Chile Truffles
Pecan Shortbread Cookies with Powdered Sugar
Miniature Pan de Muerto with Tangerine Marmalade
Of all these, my favorite was the pecan shortbread cookies. It was just these little one-bit morsels that was crumbly, nutty, and tender. The other desserts held their own, though. The pan de muerto was a little dry but the flavor of rosewater was delicate rather than overpowering.
Coffee service included a selection of teas, which were brought to the table in this beautiful wood box, and the selection made me feel like a kid trying to choose a toy. I finally settled on Organic African Nectar, fruity and floral.
And, so, with a round of applause for the chefs, a few nice-to-meet-yous to my table mates, I left the James Beard House and headed home, full, sated, and inspired.
For information on the James Beard House and to check out their schedule of events, click HERE.