• Lessons from Helen Mirren (Well, Kinda) on Planning a Group Dinner

     
    POSTED August 5, 2014
     

I just came back from a screening of the delicious Hundred-Foot Journey, the Helen Mirren movie that opens later this month, about the rivalry between two restaurants in a small village in the South of France. Mirren is the icy proprietress of a decades-old, Michelin-starred classical French restaurant; across the road the boisterous Kadam family is opening a traditional Indian spot featuring the vivid cuisine—and lively music--of their native Mumbai.

If you go to see the movie—and if you’re a food lover, you’ll want to—I have one suggestion: don’t go hungry. I heard stomachs rumbling next to me—or was it my own? —as the camera lovingly lingered on footage of beef bourguignon, sea urchin curry, croissants and samosas.

As I drove home—visualizing what I had in my fridge—I thought about two of my favorite meals of the summer. One was at TART, the restaurant at the 66-room “country-style” boutique hotel Farmer's Daughter, which is right in the middle of LA. Chef Nick Erven describes the menu as “an American southerner meets a London pub and has an affair in Paris.”  Dine here, and you’ll get exactly what he means—the fare is comfort food with refinement and surprising twists. The summer menu features dishes like a pea tendril salad with burrata, peaches and truffle vinaigrette; Scotch egg tartare; crab and avocado toast, and pork belly with black-eyed peas. A couple dozen of us sat at a long communal table in the sprawling courtyard, under a rippled tin roof with twinkling lights all around. It felt like a gathering in someone’s backyard, if that someone had trained at Le Cordon Bleu.

The other dinner I thought about was at the newly opened Playa Provisions, the latest offering from Top Chef finalist Brooke Williamson. There are actually four “concepts” housed within the 7,000-square-foot beachside location—Small Batch, an ice cream shop with all the ice creams made in house; Grain, a whiskey bar; King Beach, a casual café, and Dockside, a high-end seafood restaurant. Again, seated at a communal table, some 20 food writers passed family-style platters of lobster rolls, crisp calamari, salt-cod clam chowders in sourdough bowls, Dungeness crab mac ‘n cheese, and, for dessert, freshly baked—and amazing—chocolate-chip cookies served with a glass of bourbon milk.

Both of these experiences captured everything a group dinner should be, and a reminder that these gatherings don’t need to be stuffy or tired and that they can be innovative without being intimidating. The vibe was casual but the service was spot-on; the fare was familiar yet innovative, and by the end of the meal people who had been strangers before were chatting like old friends. The evenings were as convivial and festive as something out of The Hundred-Foot Journey-- if only Helen Mirren had stopped by!

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