It was a night of big names and big-flavor dishes under a full Maryland moon. A collection of noted American chefs gathered Monday under a big tent set up behind the National Aquarium, to cook up a storm and raise money for the Chesapeake Bay.
Berkeley, Calif.'s Alice Waters, the mother of the natural food movement, made the crab cocktail with Maryland crab meat.
New Orleans' Paul Prudhomme made the pancakes, sweet critters filled with crayfish. (In a bizarre twist Prudhomme was arrested yesterday, the day after the dinner, at BWI airport after security officers found a pistol in his carry-on luggage. He was released on bond.)
Boston's Jasper White whipped up warm cod fritters stuffed with potatoes. Dallas' Stephen Pyles griddled corn cakes adding a black bean salsa, and had the crowd buzzing.
New York's Larry Forgione planked a salmon -- that is food lingo for cooking the fish on a heated cedar shingle. The dish made a lot of smoke and a lot of friends.
San Francisco's Jan Birnbaum mashed potatoes, adding a few exotic ingredients, cilantro oil and a sauce made of Habanero peppers. He served the potatoes with smoked saddles of lamb to an unending line of eaters. Jimmy Sneed, from Windows on Urbanna Creek, in Urbanna, Va., fried a sugar toad, or blowfish, in peanut oil. It looked unusual. It tasted wonderful.
Two chefs came from the town down the road, Washington. Roberto Donna, owner of Galileo and I Matti restaurants, stuffed some crab meat in cannelloni, throwing in a little lobster and orange sauce, creating a dish both flaky and flavorful. Mark Miller of Washington's Red Sage restaurant seared a beef tenderloin that had been coated in spicy mixture, so hot that the meat almost didn't need to be put over a fire.
Louisiana's Marty Cosgrove made a bread pudding with praline pecan sauce, that was a fitting dessert for a night when no one worried about fat and fiber.
An estimated 400 people, many bejeweled or be-wearing tuxedos, paid $200 a ticket to sample the cuisine, sip fine wine, and enjoy the balmy and delicious evening.
Dubbed "A Dinner for the Chesapeake" and pulled together by Nancy Longo, chef of Baltimore's Pierpoint restaurant, this was a shindig with a purpose. That purpose was to show that chefs are serious about the need to clean up America's fisheries.
Before the eating began, I walked around and talked with the chefs, about the issue of water quality. They said for them, cleaning up fishieries is more than an aesthetic nicety. To them it is a business issue.
"The variety of seafood that is available is much smaller than it used to be," said Birnbaum, chef at Campton Place.
"The yellowfin tuna is virtually gone," said Miller, who also owns Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe. The sea bass and "true cod" are also hard to find, he said.
White, proprietor of Jaspers in Boston, said clams have either been in short supply or tainted in dirty waters. And Snead said that while the fin fish and crabs from the Chesapeake Bay have been excellent, the quality of the oysters has been uneven.
Most chefs didn't offer specific recommendations for how to clean up fisheries. Instead they thought it wiser to raise money for groups like the Chesapeake Bay Trust, a non-profit, state-managed organization that awards grants for environmental cleanup, research and educational programs in Maryland. And the chefs said loyalty to Longo was another reason they came. A native of Baltimore, Longo has a long-time interest in Chesapeake Bay seafood.
While there was mission to the meal, there much bonhomie as well. The out-of-town chefs, as well as 10 local chefs, laughed and patted each other on the back.
As eaters queued up waiting for food from the famous, they exchanged ideas on strategy. Sometimes they had to wait for clean plates and glasses.
One man was overhead telling his female companions: "First, I'm going to eat. Then, I'm going to network."
Another man, barely containing his glee over the glass of wine he carried, remarked "My, my. I found some 1990 Chateau Montelena."
A tuxedoed type urged a woman he didn't know to "have some Schramsberg [Cuvee de Pinot 1988] . . . it is the best American champagne you will ever taste." She declined, drinking a local beer, Wild Goose, instead.
Eaters touted their favorites. Pyles' griddle cakes, Birnbaums' seared lamb with cilantro mashed potatoes and Forgionne's salmon with Virginia style sherry sauce, Virginia ham and sunflower roots seemed to be contenders for title of crowd favorite.
As for myself, I liked those three dishes, and was pleasantly surprised by the fried sugar toads. They tasted like fish.
I was also disappointed. Somehow in the fray, I missed the sunflower roots.