A couple of years ago I interviewed Chef Micah Wexler, who was then working at Craft in Century City, the West Coast Tom Colicchio outpost. It was Oscar weekend, and Wexler was tasked with making the hors d’oeuvres for Craft’s Oscar night party. He shared them with me, and I, in turn, made them at home.
And they’re good.
These days Wexler is about to launch Mezze, a contemporary California-Middle Eastern restaurant on La Cienega in the old Sona space. I’m convinced from speaking to him breifly about the menu that Mezze will do for za’atar and sumac what Angeli’s did once upon a time for sundried tomatoes and balsamic.
At this time last year, Matt Accarrino was gearing up to throw the most talked-about Oscar party in town.
Vanity Fair magazine had tapped Craft Los Angeles, the restaurant where Accarrino is head chef, to host its annual post-Academy Awards bash. A year earlier, the magazine had held the party at Morton’s, and 800 people, from Oprah to Al Gore to that evening’s winners, had shown up to dance, dine and be photographed until the wee hours.
Now it was Craft’s turn to shine, and expectations were high.
Craft is the West Coast outpost of celebrity chef Tom Colicchio’s burgeoning empire. Patrons can’t help but judge its kitchen with the same stink-eye stare that Colicchio levels at the sweating, panting contestants on his hit show, “Top Chef.” Craft also holds down a corner of the Creative Artists Agency’s glassy, Apple Store-like headquarters in Century City — it’s an Industry commissary that should know how to wow A-listers.
The key to it all, Accarrino told me, is staying true to your cooking philosophy, no matter who’s coming to dinner, no matter how fancy the party.
“Dresses make parties fancy,” he said. “We have not ever really dramatically had to change what we do here at Craft to make it more or less fancy. We believe in serving the best ingredients we can find at their best. I may add a bit of personal style, but the quality of the food is the star.”
The menu he designed for the Vanity Fair party reflected that style: appetizers of fried brandade (dried cod purée) with caper aioli, piquillo pepper marmalade and spiced almond; trays of wagyu beef tartare with chimmichurri sauce, compressed cucumber and garlic toast, and pass-arounds of roasted baby beets, pistachio puree, goat cheese and blood orange.
But Accarrino hadn’t sliced into his first blood orange when Craft got word: the party was off. In the midst of the writer’s strike, Hollywood wasn’t in a partying mood.
“After much consideration, and in support of the writers and everyone else affected by this strike, we have decided that this is not the appropriate year to hold our annual Oscar party,” said a statement posted on VanityFair.com.
The cancellation came early enough so there wasn’t any food lost, and Accarrino took it in stride: the restaurant filled that night anyway with a private Oscar party for another client.
Craft isn’t kosher, but when I asked Accarrino to come up with recipes for a kosher Oscar party, he didn’t blink. The man has been around.
The New Jersey native took to the idea of cooking seasonal, locally farmed food while he worked at the Michelin guide-rated Antonello Colonna restaurant in Labico, Italy.
Back in the States he worked as an opening sous chef at chef Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York, also putting in time at the restaurants of Rick Moonen, Charlie Palmer and Todd English.
He joined Colicchio’s team in 2005, after writing the chef something of a fan letter (judging from many e-mails, Accarrino’s a fine writer, too).
In coming up with a kosher menu, Accarrino said his sous chef Micah Wexler would help him with the assignment.
The 26-year-old Wexler was in charge of all special events and private parties at Craft for 2008. Not only did the San Fernando Valley native work for Wolfgang Puck, Gino Angelini and, in New York, for Atelier Roubchon, he’s a graduate of Adat Ari El Day School and Milken Community High School. He’d better know kosher.
For an Oscar night menu, Accarrino and Wexler chose three dairy dishes that draw on bold fresh flavors and preparations that highlight the ingredients. When food is competing for attention with Vera Wang’s dresses and Bruce Vilanch’s punch lines, Accarrino’s advice is to “go for broke. Even when food is not the event, it’s no reason to make it anything less than special.”
In this case, special means smoked whitefish or salmon formed into a rillette, or French-style country paté, then rolled in traditional Moroccan brik pastry and fried. A second dish involves fresh goat cheese melted on a crisp homemade flatbread together with onions that have been sautéed slowly until sweet and caramelized. The most complicated dish is a ravioli of earthy yams stuffed into a seasonal chestnut pasta. The finished ravioli are sautéed in brown butter and fresh sage, then served on spoons with chestnut slices, more sage and pomegranate seeds.
OK, not so simple. But Accarrino also has sound advice for a foolproof (and kosher) menu that would work for any party, at any season:
“Serve great cheeses, marinated farm-fresh vegetables, cucumber and tomato in the summer, cippolini onions and wild mushrooms in the winter. Serve great charcuterie. Although traditionally made with pork, there are great kosher examples, such as bresola [Italian air-dried beef] and prosciutto made from lamb or duck instead of pork. Serve things that can stay at room temperature and serve them family-style. It makes a great and generous presentation and keeps people together and social.”
“Simple things can be transcendent,” Accarrino reminded me. “The important thing is that the food is a quality product and it tastes good. There is no substitute for flavor.”
Goat Cheese & Onion Flatbreads
1 package dry yeast
2 1/2 tablespoons water, warm
1 cup and 3 tablespoons water, room temperature
1 ounce olive oil
2 cups and 2 tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup caramelized onions
1 cup goat cheese
1/2 cup pitted Nicoise olives, sliced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
Mix yeast with warm water in mixing bowl; let stand till bloomed, five to 10 minutes. While you are waiting, mix dry ingredients. With the paddle attachment and machine on low speed, stir in water and oil till incorporated.
Gradually add dry ingredients, still on low speed. Mix two minutes. Change to the dough hook. Mix for two minutes more on low speed. Now on medium speed mix for three minutes more. Place in a well-oiled container and cover. Place in refrigerator and proof overnight.
The following morning, take dough out of refrigerator and let it come to room temperature for one hour. Remove dough gently and place on lightly floured table.
While dough is rising, prepare caramelized onions (recipe follows).
Divide dough into equal portions and shape into balls. Store in container that has been floured. Allow to rest for 20 minutes in a warm place. Punch down and roll out to a round shape.
Place on a pizza peel; top with caramelized onions, black olives and goat cheese. Slide onto preheated pizza stone in a 400 F oven. Bake eight to 10 minutes or till golden. Sprinkle thyme leaves over top and cut into wedges. Serve hot.
Caramelized Onions Ingredients:
1/2 cup olive oil
salt and pepper
Slice two onions in half lengthwise, then cut into 1/4 inch slices crosswise.
Heat 1/2 cup olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, stir to coat with the oil, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook, stirring occasionally until the onions are soft and have just begun to color, about 30 minutes.
Remove the cover, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, increase the heat to medium and cook uncovered, stirring frequently, until the onion is deep golden and caramelized, about 25 minutes.
Warm Smoked Fish Cigars and Salsa Verde
1 pound flaked smoked whitefish or king salmon
1/4 cup diced steamed potato
1/4 cup diced sautéed carrot
1/4 cup diced sautéed celery
1/4 cup minced shallot, marinated with a few drops of red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon crème fraiche
1 tablespoon fines herbs (chervil, parsley, tarragon, chives), chopped
1 package brik dough
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Oil to fry (canola or vegetable)
3/4 cup chopped fines herbs (chervil, parsley, tarragon, chives)
1 tablespoon toasted pine nuts
1 tablespoon capers
1/3 cup bread crumbs
1 clove roasted garlic
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, grated
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Combine flaked fish with warm potato and vegetables in a stand-up mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Mix to combine. Add in mustard, crème fraiche and herbs to combine. Season and chill.
Cut brik dough into 4-inch-by-4-inch squares. Form about one tablespoon of fish mixture into a log and roll brik dough around filling. Take care to fold in the sides. Seal the edge of the dough with egg wash. Reserve cigars for later.
In a blender, combine herbs, pine nuts, capers, bread crumbs, roasted garlic, Parmesan cheese and extra-virgin olive oil. Blend on low speed until a chunky but even paste forms. Season and reserve.
When ready to serve, fry cigars in 350 F oil until golden. Make sure you use a pot that is at least four times the volume of oil you plan to fill it with — you do not want it to overflow. Cut each cigar in half on a bias and serve with salsa verde.
Yam-Filled Chestnut Ravioli
Yam Filling Ingredients:
1 2/3 cups roasted, peeled yam 1 1/2 teaspoons brown butter
1 tablespoon mascarpone
1/2 teaspoon acacia honey
1 pinch kosher salt
5 turns black pepper
Combine all in food processor. This may take several batches. Cool.
Chestnut Pasta Dough Ingredients:
1/2 cup Italian 00 flour
2 1/2 tablespoons chestnut flour
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon whole milk
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
Combine all dry ingredients. Combine all wet ingredients. Mix wet to dry in stand-up mixer on medium for seven minutes.
Yam Filling from above
Chestnut Pasta Dough from above
Fresh peeled chestnuts, sliced thinly
Roll out chestnut dough using a pasta roller to the next-to-thinnest setting. Pipe teaspoon-size mounds of yam filling from a piping bag onto half the dough.
Fold the dough over and seal to form ravioli. Punch out with a round cutter (keep in mind these need to be small enough to fit on a spoon) and thin the edges all around to both seal the ravioli and ensure they will cook evenly. Cook the ravioli in simmering salted water till tender.
Meanwhile brown the butter in a sauté pan with the chestnuts, cooking them to a crisp and golden brown. Add the sage and fry to release the flavor. Add the ravioli and toss gently to coat in the browned sage butter.
Season and finish with grated Parmesan cheese. Place ravioli on spoons with chestnut slices, sage and garnish with pomegranate seeds.