Auctioned Chef's Table Dinners: Deal or No Deal?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

One of the more popular items at charity auctions I've attended lately is the chef's table. It sounds great, doesn't it? A delicious dinner for you and 7 of your closest friends at one of your favorite restaurants. There's something about the notion that seems to whip bidders into a frenzy. Maybe it's the idea of hosting your friends and spending time together, or just the general idea that everyone likes to eat out at a great restaurant. I've seen these go for several thousand dollars.

This past June, a group of friends and I went in on an 8-person Chef's Table at The Capital Grille's Newbury Street location as part of a WGBH Auction. I remember reading about it on The Passionate Foodie at the time and thought there'd be no way we'd win it at a reasonable price. However, we were pleased to win the item with a $1,000 bid. $125 a person seemed like a good price, depending on what exactly was included. I figured the restaurant would treat us well given that it was an auction item, but you never know.

The Capital Grille has long been one of my favorite restaurant groups, and their Newbury Street location is the best I've been to. It's got this great old-world Boston feel while still managing to offer refined upscale dining ambiance. The crowd is always lively and well-heeled, and we frequently manage a celebrity citing or two. A few years back, I asked my friend Michael if he'd ever seen a World Series ring up close. He said "no". I told him to turn to his right because seated next to us Charlie Steiner and his massive ring was quite a site. Derek Jeter was there that night too. More on celebrity citings in a bit...

Since it was Halloween by the time we were able to find a night we could all make it, we decided to declare it our holiday group dinner. We had an 8:15 PM dinner reservation, and our table was ready and waiting for us when we arrived. Something I've always been impressed with from the Capital Grill is how professionally they handle their reservations. There's never that awkward "hmm- I can't seem to find your reservation might it be under another name?" moment. As soon as you walk in they're expecting you and your table is waiting for you complete with any special pre-arrangements like anniversary hearts sprinkled on the table or a birthday acknowledgment. Very intuitive service a la the Four Seasons Hotel group. Love it.

When we were seated I noticed they had a couple bottles of Champagne and some white wine chilling along with 4 bottles of ZD Cabernet Sauvignon open and ready to go. I was curious heading into this how it would work. Was everything included? Or was there going to be a supplemental charge if we drank more than a certain amount of wine, or if we ordered dessert or coffee? What choices would we be able to make? As I'd soon discover, everything was included and then some.


We started off with some Roederer Champagne and our choice of Fiji or Pellegrino. Managing Partner Christopher Scott came by the table and graciously introduced himself, and said that Champagne was a good way to celebrate and that we had reason to celebrate because we were all there that night. He'd be our host for the evening, visiting the table at just the right times to describe the food and wines we were enjoying. He mentioned that he received an E-mail from George Miliotes, The Capital Grille's Master Sommelier. I pinged George on Twitter earlier in the week and asked if he could send some VIP love our way. I didn't hear back from George directly, so it was great to hear he took the time to send a note to Christopher on our behalf. The invisible hand of excellent guest service at work again.

The only choices we needed to make for the night were the salad and the entrée. Fortunately, two of my favorite items were on the list: The "Wedge" Salad with Bleu Cheese and Crumbled Bacon -and- the Kona Crusted Dry Aged Sirloin. Easy choice!

The appetizer course was presented with a 2008 Mason Cellars Pomelo Lake County Sauvignon Blanc and included:

  • Shrimp Cocktail
  • Wagyu Beef Carpaccio
  • Pan-Fried Calimari with Hot Cherry Peppers
  • Prosciutto Wrapped Mozzarella with Vine Ripe Tomatoes
I enjoyed the Sauvignon Blanc as a first-course alternative to Chardonnay, and I thought it was a nice clean start to the evening. The appetizers were all great (indeed, I find The Capital Grille to be strong across the whole meal rather than merely cooking up a good steak). I especially enjoyed the shrimp and the carpaccio. Others at the table thought highly of the calamari.

The pace of service was very comfortable, and multiple pours were offered of each course of wine. There was absolutely no skimping going on at any point in the night. Chris offered to cut the white wine offering short and move on to the reds if we wanted, but most everyone was enjoying the white. We ordered up an additional plate of shrimp and carpaccio which were promptly and cheerfully delivered with no extra charge.

The salads came out, and after devouring the lion's share of my Wedge I was stuffed. That's got to be the best salad in America. Delicious dressing, stunningly ripe tomatoes, and these awesome crouton-sized "nuggets" of bacon. My goodness. I could have (should have?) quit while I was ahead but we were only half way through the meal!

The featured wine of the evening was a 2006 ZD Cabernet Sauvignon. They picked a winner with this one. For a group like ours, the last thing I'd like to see is an obscure, austere, bitter French wine. The ZD was pitch-perfect with it's savory mocha and black currant aromas that everyone enjoyed. On the palate it was a very smooth low-tannin wine. Perhaps a bit one-dimensional and short on the finish, but again, for a wine that needs to appeal to a broad audience I thought it was an outstanding selection. More info on where the name "ZD" originates from here...

The ZD continued to flow and evolve as our steaks and side dishes arrived at the table. It seemed like half the wait staff concurrently descended upon our table so everyone's food arrived at exactly the same time, at the perfect temperature, and prepared to everyone's liking.

I've had the Kona Crusted Sirloin on few times, and this bone-in rendition didn't disappoint. I order steak "medium" and to be honest I'm not too picky about how well-done my steak is. It's important to me that the steak and sides be served hot however, and these indeed were. I especially appreciate the carmelized shallots that accompany the not-too-sweet coffee rub in this preparation. Quite a treat.

Other entrée choices included:
  • 10 oz Filet Mignon
  • Porcini Rubbed Delmonico with 12-Year Aged Balsamic
  • Seared Citrus Glazed Salmon
In addition to the steakhouse-favorite Mashed Potatoes and Fresh Creamed Spinach, Lobster Mac 'n Cheese and a seasonal vegetable (Green Beans) were offered up. Each were spot-on, and I especially enjoyed the Lobster Mac 'n Cheese which I'd never had before.

As the table was cleared and prepared for dessert, we'd gone through more than a few bottles of red wine and although none of the glasses were completely empty they readily cracked open another bottle and topped off everyone's glasses. Little things like this reinforced how they were looking to give us the best treatment possible and impressed me quite a bit.

Two oversized trays of desserts were presented along with a 2007 Selbach Kabinett Riesling Mosel as a dessert wine. Interesting call on the Riesling. I thought it was a delcious wine, but I could have gone a little sweeter for a true dessert situation. This Riesling could have been served with the appetizers and salads. Some debate ensued at the table as to whether the wine was too sweet or not- I don't think there was a consensus. I can say for sure that I preferred it to a Sauternes or a Port (not a fan of either of those) so I say it was a safe choice that most people enjoyed.

Complimentary coffee, espresso and cappuccino was included, which I thought was a nice touch. It seems petty to me when you drop $100 on a price fixe dinner and then get soaked for $6 for a cup of drip coffee.

Remember that celebrity-citing aspect I mentioned earlier? About two-thirds of the way through the meal, Chris was describing the ZD Cab to us and Ben Watson from the New England Patriots was leaving the restaurant and walking past our table. Chris pardoned himself from our conversation momentarily, shook Ben Watson's hand and thanked him for coming in, and effortlessly picked up where he left off. I can imagine there being an instinct to fawn over/chase after the celebrity at the expense of the auction-winning set, but Chris handled it perfectly.

The chef himself made a brief appearance, but he wasn't a talkative type. That was fine, but it reminded me just a little bit that a Chef's Table experience conjures up images of sitting near the kitchen and hearing from the chef personally what went in to each course. That didn't happen, but I wasn't expecting it to given the nature of a the restaurant. The Capital Grille, for me, is about consistency across the restaurants in the group rather than shining a spotlight on the chefs at any one of their locations.

At the conclusion of the meal, no check was presented. Our valet tickets were taken so they could get our cars, and we were on our way. Gratuity was not included, so we left cash on the table for the excellent service. Our server and everyone we came into contact with were fantastic.

Conclusion:

I thought this was one of the most enjoyable dining experiences I've ever had. Not only was the food and service fantastic, but we were treated like VIPs. Most importantly, the generous all-inclusive nature of the event gave the evening a celebratory and relaxed feeling. Kind of like a cruise- when you don't have to think about the incremental cost of each decision you make it frees up your mind to focus on conversing with your friends and enjoying the occasion. I'd absolutely do this again, especially as a way of arranging a holiday dinner for a group this size.

Check 'em out:
The Capital Grille
359 Newbury Street
Boston, MA 02115
(617)262-8900
Other locations...

Question of the Day: Have you ever done a Chef's Table you won at an auction? If so, I hope your experience was as good as ours. Either way, I'd love to hear about it or your experience with The Capital Grille.

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