Chef/owner Julie Francis of Mount Lookout Square's Nectar restaurant has found a unique way to connect with her customers. Nectar's Dinner Club is a monthly affair with a special five-course menu priced at $51 per person, and based, generally, on one delicious ingredient.
I loved the "Everything Goat Cheese" dinner I attended in November, and when I went back for "The True Flavor of Garlic," Julie remembered that I'd been there before. I watched the chef roam the dining room and greet most of the people there. That recognition of her guests makes the evening not just delicious but personal, too. I think it's one of the key elements that have made Dinner Club a huge success.
Nearly every dinner club event is sold out — the garlic dinner was no exception. When someone fell down their stairs and had to cancel at the last minute, it opened up a space for my guest and me. "You have no idea how difficult it was for me to arrange to have them pushed," I quipped to Julie when she called. But that evening when I tasted the first course, I realized a push might have been warranted.
The dinner opened with an incredible, artistic, delicious soup: carmelized garlic and onion bisque, garnished with a flower fashioned from flash-fried garlic chips arranged like flower petals atop a chive oil stem and leaf.
The bisque was mellow and rich, and the chive oil was a perfect high note.
All around us, the dining room was filled with equally enthusiastic people, appreciating the art of the meal. Julie introduced each course by clinking a wine glass to quiet the room; briefly explaining the dish and how she'd developed it. Dinner club attendees get more than a meal — there's an insight into the creative process, as well as the relationship Julie has with ingredients and the vendors who supply them.
She talked about how she'd driven to Blue Moon Farm in Richmond, Ky., to meet with Leo and Jean Keene. Although most growers attend "their" dinner, the Keenes weren't able to come to Cincinnati right now because it is the busiest time in the garlic-growing season.
Julie told her hungry audience about garlic scapes, which are sprouts of young garlic bulbs that shoot up and curl in a corkscrew. She explained that she'd planned to use more scapes in the menu, but because this spring has been colder than usual, there weren't a lot of them available, and she'd had to use just one as a garnish on each plate of the second course, garlic shrimp with mint and pea puree with green garlic vinaigrette. That's an intimate relationship with ingredients — no substitution, no compromise. And I'd seen a grower leaving just as we arrived, with dusty gardener's knees, having dropped off just-picked watercress.
Dinner club is quite different than a typical restaurant meal. The shared nature of the experience is unique. Everyone seems tuned to the same channel. Although there was plenty of chatter, you didn't get the private dramas at each table — no breakups, no true confessions or worries about whether to roll over the 401K. Instead, it's all about food. The people at the table to our left, Gary and Mary, talked with us about their appreciation of unique small eateries, including a recent sampling of pig intestines after wrangling an opportunity to order off the authentic, non-Westernized menu at a Chinese restaurant in Blue Ash. Hard-core foodies, I'd say.
The dinner club menu suggests wine pairings, and all three selections we tried were excellent. My favorite was a 2007 Artazuri Rose from Spain at $6.50 a glass. It was dry, full-bodied and stood up to the garlic power head-on, which surprised me coming from a rose.
The next course was fun and lighthearted, Amish chicken wings atop a relish of fresh black-eyed peas — another new ingredient experience for me — with smoked garlic and chile butter. I was lucky enough to try smoked whole garlic from a vendor in the farmer's market at Findlay Market last summer, and this dish reminded me of how much I loved it.
We moved on to Kroeger and Son's Vidalia Onion sausage, always a local favorite, and a brown rice pilaf with tiny asparagus tips and peas. The green garlic soy vinaigrette took a little getting used to — at first I found the soy sauce too sharp. Not my favorite dish of the night, but the biggest challenge was yet to come.
A garlic dessert! My guest and I had saved our little glass of bubbly Gruet Blanc de Noir to go with it, and there was a genuine air of excitement as everyone was waiting to see what the grand finale would be. Julie's idea, a fresh, moist gingerbread topped with yogurt and new strawberries, came with beet and green garlic granita, a ruby ice slush that got mixed reactions from the crowd.
"Now that dessert works!" Gary said to our left with enthusiasm, while the gentleman to our right said, "I'm afraid not," and picked at his cake hesitantly. I thought it was brilliant — but then beets are one of my favorite things.
Each of the guests left with a small container of Blue Moon Farm's garlic scape pesto, helpful in spreading the garlic aroma to hubby back home. We also left feeling as though we'd been more party guests than restaurant patrons, and I think that's an excellent insight into what makes dinner club work. Thanks for having us over, Julie. I look forward to being invited back again.
The next dinner club event will be "Basil — It's Not Just for Pesto" on June 19, with Nancy Ogg of Shady Grove Farm. Seats are limited, and reservations are required. To sign up for dinner club announcements, contact Nectar (1000 Delta Ave., Mount Lookout) at 513-929-0525. For more on sustainable, fresh garlic, visit www.bluemoongarlic.com.