“Straight from a fairy-tale” was my first thought as I entered the Capital Caring Gala set in the National Building Museum‘s Great Hall with giant columns wider than my car, blue LED-lit bar and silver/blue themed tables that belong in Wonderland. Capital Caring’s 750 employees help 1200 patients every day, providing mainly hospice and palliative care, though they’re starting to do tele-care which allows doctors to see more patients.
Throwing a gala for 500 is a challenge. Feeding everyone gets interesting, so hiring a serious caterer that can handle an event three times the size of a typical wedding is in order! Enter Occasions Caterers, a 25 year veteran familiar with catering weddings and large events. How serious are they? Check out their wedding menus and extensive corporate catering menu responsibly annotated with vegetarian and gluten-free items.
I spoke with Matt Sipala, an Account Executive at Occasions who was responsible for the main seating area in the Great Hall; everything from table settings and flowers to the food and the service. He made a point to mention the local salad made with cheeses and lettuces from less than a hundred miles away. He said it took fifty-five waiters and eight bartenders to staff this event. When I thanked Matt for his time, I spied waiters serving appetizers and wine in the piano/bar area.
Two wines helped guests banish their inhibitions before the auction. A 2010 Hogue chardonnay (stats from the 2009 vintage) and a Sacred Stone Master’s Red Blend were in abundance. The white had an ever-so-slightly sweet start with some floral notes, and a very dry finish. Red tasted like a Merlot, only a smidge less tanniny. I got an aftertaste of blue cheese, so I’m thinking it would pair well with similar cheeses. Both wines are affordable, at around $8-10/bottle.
Biggest hors d’oeuvre hits of the night were the Lobster noisettes with a tangerine buerre blanc and the spinach soufflé fritters. One guest raved, “gooey mix of spinach and cheese? How can you go wrong!” Grilled shrimp wrapped in soppressata with mustard aioli were tasty and had a good bite, both in texture and a mild spiciness. The salami’s flavor dominated the shrimp, which I didn’t mind. Worst performer of the night was the shitake mushroom chopstick. One guest said the flavor was off and thought they were overcooked.
When we sat, our first course was an
uncomplicated salad, though it felt more like a salad surrounded by appetizers. Fresh, bitter greens with a sprinkle of dressing lay on a bed of endives. That part was perfect. And salad-like. Candied pear and two cheeses paired well together, and the orange cubes of franken-squash (it looked like butternut but was stringy like spaghetti squash!) added color and not much else. Candied walnuts were delicious and went well with the walnut bread.
Beef short ribs served Ossobuco style layered on parsnip purée with a cider reduction joined a roasted red snapper (topped with toasted almonds) on a bed of lentil pilaf, surrounded by seasonal vegetables. The cider reduction was a nice touch, but I wish the beef didn’t need it. Both proteins were overcooked. The beef was especially dry, though tender. Of the vegetables, the whole pearled onions, flattened and caramelized were tasty. Gourd was okay—flavorful but bland. Brussel sprouts were also bland except for a hint of butter, but wouldn’t hold a candle to the sprouts Annie Sidley cooks. Lentil pilaf was well made and I enjoyed the herbs used to flavor it. There was a hint of cinnamon either in the pilaf or the fish which worked well. Whoever picked the menu made some ballsy choices: parsnip purée? I love parsnips, and they were light and delicious in the main course, but they’re too sweet for my taste. I’d rather nibble something more savory.
Dessert was the highlight of the evening. The kid in me rejoiced at seeing doughnuts with a twist: cinnamon sugar with dark chocolate filling, ginger with pistachio filling, and vanilla with raspberry filling. I didn’t know what to make of the push-up pops until I tried one. All three flavors were fantastic! Since they were light and not too sweet or dense, guests could try all three. My favorite was the blueberry vanilla parfait layered with lemon verbena. An unexpected Froot-Loops-like aftertaste made me smile. Dulce de leche didn’t disappoint, but I loved the white chocolate peppermint push-pops. Just like that perfect thin-mint to end a meal, the unexpected mint chocolate flavor had me sighing blissfully.
Codial glasses full of champagne-splashed fruit was a simple and refreshing dessert with just the right sweetness. Composed of mostly strawberry and melon cubed the size of dry peas, relative to those small glasses and spoons they made for a cute, colorful presentation. Up until this point, I was pleasantly surprised that nothing was oversweet or too dense, because small portions let people try different desserts.
And then, there were the chocolate pots de crème. Too dense and far too sweet. They were the most calorie-rich dessert there, and even the tiny amount (about 2oz?) in those white ceramic cups filled me up completely. Dark chocolate flavor was good, but I’d liken them to a very stiff chocolate Jello pudding. One other dessert had me scratching my head. The cherry cordial crème brûlée was “interesting.” Good interesting, or bad? You tell me. The booze-soaked cherry was good, but the crème brûlée was not the silken heavenly desert that melts my heart. It was very eggy with a sweet/boozy sauce on top (from the cherry) instead of the familiar hard caramelized sugar. Imagine very smoothly textured scrambled eggs. Sweet scrambled eggs. That’s what it was, and although I thought the fruit preserve at the bottom of the cup was a nice touch, I kept imagining real salty creamy savory unsweetened buttery—did I mention salty?—scrambled eggs and felt somehow violated. All teasing aside, it tasted okay, but isn’t something I’d seek out.
What an evening. Elvis (or his alien clone) entertained us as things wound down. For a large event, the food was very well done. Service was prompt and the wait-staff was pleasant and accommodating, working hard to take care of special requests. Enough dishes were spot-on that I’d place the food quality at “better-than-most weddings.” In absolute terms, though, the food was only a little better than average. Recipes were creative and visually appealing and ingredients were probably fresh. But execution was off. For example, dry overcooked meat when serving 500 people isn’t a sin, but would be in an intimate setting. Whatever sins were committed in the kitchen, the catering staff executed the service well.
Congratulations Occasions for the successful catering, and to Capital Caring for a delightful gala!
–Mark Feghali (MFF)