By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Now here's a first: Just about anything I can complain about my most recent dining experience is most likely my fault.
For instance, I didn't appreciate the lack of ambient dining music during this meal. While I'm never overly fond of, say, loud house beats vibrating my plate -- and my teeth -- as I try to eat, I do appreciate the right music set at a moderate tone. If location is significant for real estate, music can be just as meaningful to a dining atmosphere. And the only bright hum at this place was from an unceasing fountain spilling into the pool located just a few steps from the outdoor patio, a situation more inclined to make me want to visit the restroom than the restaurant.
I also didn't care for the proprietors' lack of concern for the mosquito population. Obviously the owners can't control the forces of nature and the demands of the food chain, but let's just say that it looks like the birds and frogs will be getting fat this year. So restaurateurs need to take some steps to ensure comfortable outdoor dining conditions for those with sweet-enough blood to attract the little vampires. Yes, I know, I'm not sugary enough to be in this category, but my dining companions are frequently a lot nicer than I. So I suggest that proprietors in general take some steps this year: bug zappers, citronella candles, a collection of spiders with strong web-making skills, what have you.
And finally I was not entirely pleased with the child situation. While I'm always a big proponent of bringing kids out to eat, I do maintain that some places should be verboten to munchkins. Anywhere where I'm paying, say, 200 bucks per person, which is what this meal turned out to cost me, I shouldn't have to deal with little ones who are so distracting that I miss the dessert course entirely.
But as I said, all of these things are my own damn fault. After all, it was my pool that made me want to pee. They are my mosquitoes, God help me and the backs of my legs. (Even critics tend to get a bite here or there.) And they are my children, for better or for worse, who stayed out with their nanny as long as she could handle -- which to her credit turned out be a 14-hour day.
You see, this dinner took place at my house, under the mango trees that were dropping unripe fruit into our soup all evening. The scenario was as if a restaurant had been imported into my home: flower arrangements, candles, linens, the proper wineglasses, china, utensils. Plus an executive chef, kitchen personnel who called themselves "refrigerator coordinators," even a waiter who offered us sparkling or still -- not tap -- water. And I didn't have to do a thing except the usual: eat a five-course New World repast, drink too much wine, and pay the admittedly exorbitant bill.
In other words, thanks to Chef Du Jour and its executive chef, Joey Ramos, I got to host a dinner party but didn't have to cook, set the table, or even clean up.
Chef Du Jour is a fledgling "personal chef" company that caters dinner parties or events of any size in your own home. Joey Ramos started the venture last year when he left his executive chef post at Ricky Martin's now-defunct Casa Salsa in South Beach. He and his girlfriend, Heather, a.k.a. the "refrigerator coordinator," move into your kitchen for the evening, bringing with them everything you'll need for a five-star dining experience, from hotel pans to San Pellegrino to homemade chili butter to spread on the assortment of breads.
Indeed the toughest thing you'll have to do is OK the menu, which is not as easy as it sounds. The options are virtually limitless. Ramos can and will cook anything and easily tailors menus to accommodate diets and food restrictions. I wanted to see what he'd come up with, so I asked for a menu that had no dairy in it, since some of my guests, like me, are lactose intolerant. The result, which he faxed me a day after I arranged a date with him, was so mouthwatering with Caribbean and local influences you never realized the dishes had no cheese or cream in them. That's because he doesn't use substitutions but instead looks for recipes that don't contain those ingredients in the first place. For instance the main course, a stuffed pork loin medallion en croute was served over a crisp yuca hash brown and partnered with a prawn wrapped in pancetta and glazed with sugar cane. The pork was also moistened with a port wine-mushroom jus -- delicious and naturally dairy-free.
By catering a dinner party instead of attending one in a restaurant, you don't have to sacrifice presentation. Ramos served a vibrant Caribbean conch chowder, rife with nuggets of tender conch and garnished with roasted coconut. For bowls he used the coconuts themselves. He produced the first course, an island-style ceviche martini, as a gazpacho in martini glasses, topping the just-chilled tomato soup with citrus-poached oysters, shrimp, squid, and octopus. Don't have martini glasses? Don't worry. Ramos supplies those, too.