Food & Drink: Food Forward
Seattle chefs feed us the scoop on revamped reception-menu classics
The morning after your wedding, your cousins, college roommates, childhood besties, and parents’ business partners will briefly awake, rub their partied-out eyes, flop over, and settle back into another blissful 30 minutes of sleep with one of any number of sweet, cozy memories. “Those flowers were intoxicating,” one might sigh. “I could have danced all night,” another might think.
If you like the idea of your food-blogging coworker and your Uncle Ed alighting on something like, “Holy cow, the food last night was off the chain,” keep reading. We asked our favorite chefs and catering managers to dig deep into their recipe and inspiration files to tell us about appetizers, salads, soups, sides, and mains that riff on traditional favorites but satisfy in a much more exciting, game-changing manner. The future of reception menus starts with your celebration. Dig in.
So much depends on first impressions, but don’t mistake quality for quantity—or size. Appetizers are meant to whet the palate, not fill the belly. Unless you’re doing an all–hors d’oeuvres affair, canapes should be culinary moments that allow guests to anticipate what’s to come. To wit: roasted crudités by the Pantry at Delancey, the catering arm of Ballard’s beloved artisan pizza spot, featuring deeply caramelized fennel and carrots dipped in homemade lemon or herbed aioli. It’s a new classic.
Crab Cakes Ubiquitous? Yes. Delicious? Quite often. Especially when area chefs put innovation in the mix. Tuxedos and Tennis Shoes adds lemongrass, butternut squash, nectarine chutney, and other seasonal spikes to fresh Dungeness to keep theirs interesting. And at the Rainier Club, kimchis made with fennel, cucumber, radish, and cabbage give these crowd-pleasers just the right kick, balance, and global appeal.
Sliders Baby burgers are good football-game fare, but for chic celebrations, let’s talk about Chihuly Garden and Glass’s open-faced ahi tuna sliders. They’re served with olive tapenade, watercress, radish, and lemon vinaigrette. Gourmondo’s newest slider includes slow-braised pork, caramelized onion, cilantro, and jalapeño aioli—just a few food steps away from the popular Vietnamese bahn mi sandwich. Consider working with your caterer to offer meat and tofu-based versions of this worldly favorite.
The easiest way to twist this course: think outside the bowl—like, maybe, on a stick. Chefs are skewering Greek, Caprese, and other traditional salad ingredients to great effect; Foodz Catering offers mozzarella and tomato on sticks with three pesto varieties as well as a Caprese buffet with a choice of house-made vinegars and choose-your-own specialty sea salts. Novel presentation methods work best in stations or in a tray-passed environment, which could allow your caterer to combine the appetizer and greenery course.
Fruit If the summer of 2012 had an official salad it would’ve included melon, feta, and mint. Those three ingredients conspired on beautiful restaurant plates at Le Pichet, Oddfellows, and beyond, and they’re sure to show up on reception menus when the sunshine comes back. See also: Foodz Catering’s quinoa, grilled green bean, and blueberry toss. Dotted with roasted pistachios and goat cheese, it’s colorful, substantial, and full of flavor.
Grains What fruit and salty cheese are to summer and fall, grains and hearty leaves are to winter; salads like FareStart Catering’s warm farro and kale typify the latest in chilly weather mélanges.
Dressing Seen the words “raspberry balsamic vinaigrette” together too many times? Try Herban Feast’s blueberry-rosemary balsamic vinaigrette, which they use to top grilled stone fruit, halloumi cheese, and almonds. Or the strawberry-basil version: light, softly sweet, and wonderfully pink. Delancey’s top toppers include coriander vinaigrette (the whole coriander seeds are like polka dots on the plate) and customized pestos.
There may be no better way to warm guests’ hearts than with warm purées, consommés, and stocks, but room-temperature and cold versions are not only easier on the catering crew (thus freeing them up to channel efforts toward something more complicated in the entrée lineup, perhaps), they’re unexpected and on-trend.
Chilled As with salads, fruit is a favorite here. The Ruins, Ravishing Radish, Tuxedos and Tennis Shoes, and the Rainier Club all report that cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, and even grapes deserve starring roles, and classic gazpacho (don’t make us remind you that tomatoes aren’t vegetables) gets a rich update with avocado. As far as veggies go, fans of Herban Feast’s roasted and cooled beet soup rave about the fuschia color and earthy notes, and chilled classics like vichyssoise—usually made with puréed leeks, onions, potatoes, cream, and chicken or vegetable stock—are popular at FareStart.
Hot Have your caterers take this course around the world, and you can’t lose: The Rainier Club’s Senegalese peanut soup, say, or the Pan Pacific’s hot-and-sour shrimp soup with lemongrass, lime leaves, and dried chiles.
On this all caterers agree: side dishes shouldn’t just play second fiddle. The depth, complexity, and color of vegetables in particular offer an opportunity to present well-composed and exciting meals. If you’ve ever found yourself ordering an entrée in a restaurant based on its accompaniments, you’ve already proved it to yourself.
Vegetables Oh, what Portlandia hath wrought, huh? The return to pickling and canning is no joke, though; all the way up here in Seattle we’re game to “put a pickle on it,” too. Not that any ordinary old cucumber will do. At the Rainier Club, they craft and nurture house-made vinegars, fruits, conserves, and preserves so that eating local happens all year long. A presentation of many-hued pickled veggies on a large platter is an especially inviting element of a passed, family-style meal. Because of logistics, most caterers recommend room-temperature dishes and those without sauces when serving family-style, so it’s a side that really works.
Tubers and Grains Local caterers like updated comfort favorites, such as Gourmondo’s roasted new potato filled with bacon, manchego cheese, and caramelized onion; the masala-spiced fries with Indian mayo from Foodz; and Pan Pacific’s citrus rice with smoked broccoli. They’re also fond of classic sides with a rich spike—as with the gorgonzola mashed potatoes served with tenderloin in red wine sauce at the Ruins.
A lot of emphasis gets placed on the main dish, and with good reason. As guests are hunkering down with dinner, the mood in the room will reach a gorgeous crescendo. The reception is about to become a party, and this is the plate that’ll fuel it.
Meat Steep prices for standard protein like chicken breast, steak, and salmon give event chefs the opportunity to bring new options and overlooked cuts to the fore. The foodies at Ravishing Radish like braised boneless short ribs—key word: boneless. Non-messy and affordable, it’s a welcome variation that can be served with classic American sides or given ethnic spices and treatments. At Tuxedos and Tennis Shoes, lean buffalo offers a similar change of pace. For FareStart it’s braised oxtail, and at Foodz wild boar short ribs get an espresso cardamom rub. Yum!
Vegetarian Human life forms have evolved to such a degree that we no longer require a big piece of animal protein as our main dish, right? For autumn weddings—there are more and more every year—Scout Provisions’ Alan Davis likes to serve delicata squash as a rich gratin. He cuts the late-autumn gourd into inch-thick rings (reserving the seeds to toast and add later as a garnish), roasts it with its garden neighbor kale, and broils gruyère cheese on top. Added bonus: squash rounds are perfectly sized for individual servings.
Want to update classic wine pairings? Go with beer—that’s what they’re doing at Canlis, where incredibly elegant craft brews sing alongside lightly smoked sturgeon or suckling pig.