The man in charge doesn't want me to mention his name, and he's beyond weary of the label "foodie." He bristles a bit when I ask if I can mention his line of work (investment management), and softens only slightly when we discuss his passion for the symphony (he goes twice a week). But when we talk about the wine dinners he's been organizing, in one form or another, since the late 1980s, the Epicure lights up.
Weighing down two simply set tables in the middle of his bachelor-esque living room, shimmering like an oasis, are the mezze we're about to dig into — colorful snacks and small plates that in the culinary tradition of the Middle East are meant to be enjoyed with wine and music. Derived from the Persian word maza, meaning "taste" or "relish," the mezze are the centerpiece of the multi-hour feast we're here to enjoy. They're also an apt metaphor for tonight's event — one of what our host calls "the wine dinners" that take place once or twice a month in his home.
The dinners began as wine tastings some twenty years ago, when the Epicure and a few friends were in graduate school at UC Berkeley. The original group disbanded when several of its members earned their degrees and moved away, and soon the Epicure was left as the only host. He quickly decided to expand the food portion of these gatherings, which had previously consisted of light snacks, into a full-fledged dinner, with the meal chosen to complement each month's varietal of choice.
Pairing wine with food quickly proved to be the Epicure's true love. "I have a knack for knowing how different tastes and textures will go together," he says, explaining that once the dinner component was added to the tastings, it was a short leap to abandon the idea of serving only one varietal. "It was more interesting to develop the menu, and then pair the wines," he explains.
Over the years, the dinners moved when the Epicure did, to different Berkeley dwellings. They have always drawn a crowd of friends, friends of friends, and so on. "Until a few years ago, he collected a contribution of $45 per person, based on a previously agreed-upon budget for the meal. He now collects $60 per person, which has allowed him to buy better wines and still break even."
Each month, the Epicure sends out an e-mail about the next month's dinner, suggesting two nights — usually consecutive Saturdays — on which the event will be held. Diners respond with their night of choice, and whichever works for the majority of respondents is the night the Epicure goes with. Themes vary: May's dinner features the flavors of Provence, December's dinner is always anchored by a cassoulet, and other themes have included everything from classic northern Italian to Texas barbecue. April's dinner, the Middle East Feast, is so popular that it's held two nights a month and twice a year (it repeats in September).
For the mezze course of our April meal, we enjoyed hummus and baba ghanoush, labne (the cream that results when yogurt is drained of its liquid), mohammara (a purée of dried peppers, pomegranate extract, walnuts, and bread crumbs), assorted pickles and peppers, marinated olives, a plate of fresh mint leaves for use as a palate cleanser, and fool, which is not the fruit-based British concoction that may come to mind, but rather a slow-cooked dried fava bean dish. All of the above was served with a generous helping of warmed pita bread, delivered briskly to the table every few minutes by a helper whom the Epicure had affectionately dubbed Captain Pita.
The labne, a dish I hadn't tried before, was a revelation. Served with salt, red pepper, and extra-virgin olive oil, it was the perfect antidote to a mouth on fire from too-eager consumption of a Serrano pepper. Picking at all those pickles and peppers and pickled peppers, I stumbled upon the unusual pickled turnip — stout and briny, it provided a nice balance to the creamy labne and the spiciness of the other dishes.
Still, these little nibbles had nothing on the fool, which the Epicure explains is a standard breakfast dish for laborers in port districts in the Middle East. Although it was technically part of the mezze, the fool came late to the table, but it was worth the wait: rich, textured, and meaty, it had a substance that made it seem more like a main course.
The mezze was followed by lamb kebabs, which had the shape and texture of falafel and were partially prepared for the Epicure by the good folks at Café Rouge, who ground the lamb upon request the day before. For the vegetarians in attendance, the Epicure offered a grilled pepper dish that shared the lamb's tomato-based sauce. The option of an alternate main course is customary with the dinners, as long as non-meat eaters give some advance notice, and an effort is made to have the vegetarian option share in the texture and flavor of the meat entrée — a portobello mushroom, for example, that's offered in lieu of a standing rib roast.
For dessert, the Epicure proudly presented a baklava-style dish called kunafa-bil-jibne, made of shredded filo dough and rose-water-flavored ricotta. "Not enough chocolate," grumbled one of my dinner dates of this dish, which bore a striking resemblance to Shredded Wheat. Still, I liked the dual nature of the kunafa — a mix of crispy and creamy along with the sweet-and-sour flavors of the ricotta and rose water combination.
I dutifully tried seven of the eight wines served with the Middle East Feast, missing only the 2005 Amphora Zinfandel that accompanied the kebab — which the Epicure had chosen out of his love for the mingling of tomato and Zin. We began with two whites: a 2007 Rueda Superiore from Spain and a 2007 Cheverny from the Loire Valley that is 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc. The Epicure found the Rueda at Oddlots in Albany, long his purveyor of choice for great bargain wines, and he's been drinking the Cheverny "forever," always getting it at Kermit Lynch.
Another wine he's long found reliable accompanied the mezze: the 2007 Domaine de Fontsainte Corbières, a delightfully dry rosé. Three pleasing reds preceded the Zin — I particularly liked the 2000 Mietz Merlot (see "Mateo's Merlots," Wineau, 4/30/08). We ended with a sparkler, the non-vintage Moscato d'Asti.
The Epicure is a man who can spot an aura like it's a perfectly ripe odoriko tomato at Monterey Market (his source for every last bit of produce for this meal), and toward the end of our evening he exclaimed at another of my dinner dates' general demeanor of hilarity. "Why are you so funny?? You're so funny! You don't even have to speak!" he cried, which of course rendered my companion speechless and left us all in a bubble of contentment that nicely capped the hours of grazing and sipping.
Recipe: Fool for Dummies
The fool and the labne were my favorite parts of the Middle East wine dinner, and I was pleased to learn that they are also the easiest elements of the meal to prepare. The Epicure bought the fool canned at the Indus Village market in Berkeley, where he also purchased the hot pickles and pita bread. To prepare it, simply dump the contents of the can into a bowl, fill the bowl with water, and strain it (do this two or three times to remove any grit). Then put the fava bean mush into a pot, cover with water, add salt, red pepper, cumin, minced garlic, and lemon juice to taste. (Make sure to add enough lemon juice to give an obvious tartness.) Bring the mixture to a boil and mash it with a spoon; then let simmer for ten minutes, or until it's achieved a stew-like texture.
As a side, the fool can be served alone, but for a main dish top it with chopped tomatoes and parsley. Drizzle with olive oil.
For the labne, place a colander inside a larger bowl and line it with paper towels. Dump a pint of plain yogurt into the colander, wrap the paper towels over the top of the yogurt, and refrigerate overnight. In the morning, dump the liquid that will have dripped into the bowl. You'll be left with the yogurt's essence, which should be spread onto a plate, salted, sprinkled with red pepper, and drizzled with olive oil.
Serve both the fool and the labne with warmed pita bread.