Thud! Thud! Thud! A rosy-cheeked gentleman dressed in fox hunt red tuxedo tails, wearing Grandmaster Flash-style bling around his neck pounds a wooden gavel and announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served!” This'following an hour of extraordinary finger food, good conversation, live music and Champagne cocktails'is how a Panache Catering “soirÃ©e” dinner kicks off. I feel as though I’ve become Bertie Wooster in a P.G. Wodehouse novel.
During the evening, I will come to learn that the fellow with the gavel is Master Butler Lord Boris Roberts of Buckingham, a certified member of The Guild of Professional English Butlers. He’s a fixture at the soirÃ©es hosted by Shauna Engen, the genial owner and CEO of Panache Catering, Restaurant Panache, the Fresh Air CafÃ© and the Panache Wine Bar at the Wells Fargo Center. The bling, by the way, turns out to be a gold medallion worn only by members of the prestigious butlers’ guild.
Once every couple of months, Shauna Engen and her celebrated Panache staff host a special wine dinner/party. These are intimate, exclusive (see note below) affairs designed both to entertain and to educate attendees in matters of food and wine. According to Engen, “It’s nice because I don’t really have to make money on the soirÃ©es. We earn enough from the Panache Catering business to be able to have these occasional wine dinners without worrying about profit.â€
Not that they are exactly cheap. The soirÃ©e I attended last week at Panache was priced at $100 per person, all-inclusive. But the same dinner and wine pairings in a typical high-end restaurant might have easily cost two or three times that. Not cheap, but a terrific bang for the buck.
The locations for Panache soirÃ©es vary, sort of like a high-class rave. Last week’s spring soirÃ©e was held at Restaurant Panache; some are hosted in private homes, others'like the upcoming summer soirÃ©e in June'at interesting outdoor venues like Park City’s Olympic Park. Each features a social hour of hors d’oeuvres accompanied by cocktails, live music and an art show. At the April 8 soirÃ©e, featured guest artists included painter Diane Cliff and the musical group Pungent Lilly.
But the evening’s real masterpieces were executive chef Garry Maxwell’s delightful multicourse menu and Jon Engen/Vicky Martinez’ brilliant wine pairings. Not a sour note did I detect throughout the five-course'plus cheese and dessert'dinner.
A passionate chef and larger-than-life foodie'his Panache business card reads “Food Production Lord & Masterâ€'Maxwell admits having once flung a 6-foot skewer at Jonathan Ruppert, assistant food and beverage director at the Homestead in Midway. Apparently, they’ve since patched things up: Ruppert teamed up with Maxwell at last week’s soirÃ©e to create a stupendous array of dishes worthy of even the snobbiest soirÃ©e-goer.
From the outset, the wine-and-food pairings were intriguing and often bold. Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine served as a bridge from a halibut croquette amuse bouche to a first-course balsamic marinated lamb T-bone served with rosemary Israeli couscous. Then the Blanc de Noirs continued to work its magic alongside a second-course salad of mixed greens, braised quail and pear confit, and luscious but light maple vinaigrette. As Jon Engen observed in one of his brief wine discourses, the Blanc de Noirs changed character as it was consumed with each different dish (for more, see Grapevine, p. 36), illustrating the much-ignored versatility of good sparkling wine.
Since Roberts'the Russian-descended British butler'helps to train the Panache staff, the service at a Panache SoirÃ©e is impeccable. That was a surprise to me, given that table service at Restaurant Panache can be hit and miss. During a recent lunch visit to Panache, there appeared to be two hostesses working the entrance of the restaurant but only one server in the dining room. So the carefully choreographed service staff at the spring soirÃ©e was an unexpected and happy bonus. As in the best Michelin-starred restaurants of Europe, dishes were served at each table to guests simultaneously by the well-timed team, and wine glasses were topped off regularly.
Thud! Thud! Thud! “Ladies and gentlemen: Cedar-planked salmon served with lemon risotto and caper-horseradish butter!” announced Roberts. By the time the fifth course'walnut and Roquefort-crusted beef tenderloin with morels, fresh English peas and grilled asparagus'was placed in front of me, I’d given up on my diet and any sense of culinary decorum. I was having too much fun to worry about whether I was implementing the correct fork or not, Lord Roberts be damned.
Thankfully, Chef Maxwell’s soirÃ©e dishes are portioned beautifully. They were petite enough'thanks for not supersizing us'to allow guests truly to enjoy, rather than endure, a dizzying array of hors d’oeuvres, an amuse bouche, five main courses, a Concord grape and Gewurztraminer sorbet intermezzo, cheese sampling and a ridiculously pleasing frozen banana-chocolate “rum-cake” dessert with banana brÃ»lÃ©e, not to mention all those wine pairings. By the time the service team placed a gift-wrapped box of petits fours in front of each of us, I was satiated, slightly sozzled and thankful for the interesting new soirÃ©e friends I’d made. Joining a group of post-soirÃ©e cigar puffers out on the deck, it occurred to me that for just one night my fantasy of being Bertie Wooster had been granted'and I’d lived it with panache.
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