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END’S GAME

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Brooklyn Heights’ own Henry’s End, that bastion of wild game and fine wine, took center stage this month at the prestigious James Beard House in Manhattan.

The occasion was the James Beard Foundation’s monthly "First Friday Luncheon," held on Feb. 1 for dining critics, chefs and other food lovers of all persuasions. The star was Henry’s End chef Mark Lahm.

Founded by "French Chef" Julia Child and Peter Kump (founder of Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, now The Institute of Culinary Education) shortly after Beard’s death in 1985, the Beard foundation is dedicated to furthering the practice and appreciation of the culinary arts. Beard was considered "the dean of American cooking," having written 22 cookbooks and an autobiography titled "Delights and Prejudices," published in 1964. He was an early champion of American cuisine, referring to regional fare as "honest, real food."

Continuing Beard’s good work, the foundation provides scholarships for aspiring young chefs and hosts events like the First Friday luncheons which give exposure to talented chefs.

As I walked through the small open kitchen of the James Beard House that Friday, Lahm and his crew were making last-minute preparations. There were no pots boiling over, no glasses broken or burnt fingers - just calm. Of course Lahm is a pro. He has owned Henry’s End since 1986 and for him, feeding a crowd of sophisticated diners is all part of a long day’s work. But on that afternoon, the stakes were higher. Taking a brief break to greet us, Lahm commented, "Yeah, I think everything turned out alright."

"The invitation brings a lot of self-satisfaction," he added. "It reinforces everything I’ve been doing. It’s the ice cream on the cake."

Lahm’s restaurant is known for producing seasonal menus like the increasingly popular fall game festival. He has a loyal following of adventurous diners who come in for the elk chops, ostrich steaks and Lahm’s signature crispy duck.

His cooking has not been ignored by the press. Gourmet magazine’s readers have requested Lahm’s recipes for corn-crab cakes, veal lemonese and shrimp with garlic butter to be included in the "You Asked For It" column. The Henry’s End wine list, exclusively American bottles, has received the "award of excellence" from The Wine Spectator each year since 1987.

To be asked to cook for one of the foundation’s luncheons or dinners, a chef must be recommended by several Beard foundation members and then a vote is taken.

"When they called me, I didn’t think twice," said Lahm. Still, it took six months of testing recipes with chef de cuisine Joseph George, and several sleepless nights before he was ready for showtime.

Hors d’oeuvres were passed in a glass-enclosed back room that overlooked a beautifully restored garden. I was wedged into a corner with a man in a navy blazer and polka dot ascot. After downing several glasses of sparkling wine, he lunged at the waiter, who carried tiny cups of New Orleans turtle soup. I agreed that the soup was heavenly, with a smoky taste that lingered.

The routine continued: sparkling wine, tackle the waiter, eat the hors d’oeuvres. We tried this with crisp, spicy tortilla-crusted shrimp (huge prawns with a crunchy tortilla flour crust, dabbed with chipotle cream and an avocado puree); buttery tarts with rabbit or slices of game sausage atop a goat cheese filling; and country game pate on toast points that neither of us raved over.

The party then stampeded up a short flight of stairs into a cozy, salmon-colored dining room lined with bookcases. Round tables were placed closely together. I bid navy blazer goodbye and joined my table. The people seated closest to me were an eclectic mix: a food critic for another Brooklyn paper, an opinionated soap opera star turned food show diva and a wine merchant. Lahm’s wife, Dorothy, sat opposite us taking photos of each course.

The entrees began with mustard seed-crusted tuna served with bok choy, soy syrup and mustard oil. Soap opera diva said "cliche," but I loved it. Tuna has become the sun-dried tomato of the 21st century, but the quality of the fish and the slight crunch of the mustard seed crust set this dish apart. Pairing it with bok choy and adding a mustard oil sauce laced with hot wasabi root, gave the dish a sharp bite that complemented the richness of the tuna.

Crispy duckling with winter mushrooms and lingonberries was the highlight of the meal. The skin of the duck was a deep mahogany brown, and so crisp that it shattered when I touched it with my knife; the meat proved to be succulent and greaseless. A wine sauce, laden with trumpet and chanterelle mushrooms went perfectly well with the duck meat. Soap diva said, "Cheers," and we clinked glasses of Robert Sinsky Pinot Noir 1999, a full-bodied red with just an edge of tartness.

By the time the herb-crusted elk chop with Madeira sauce was served, we had discussed widowhood, dating, home decor, George W. and smoked salmon, with ’Dubya’ trailing well behind the smoked salmon. The elk chop surprised us. Not at all gamy, it was leaner then expected, and was described accurately by the critic as "a cross between filet mignon and lamb." The creamy sweet potato puree and the unctuous Madeira sauce surrounding the chop made an attractive collage on the plate.

For dessert, a piece of cheese and a ripe slice of fruit was a classic combination, and one that rarely fails. The pear and pistachio strudel with blue cheese and balsamic glaze, was a great idea that just didn’t work. The balsamic glaze gave the dessert an unpleasant acidic edge. The critic and diva loved the Cline Cellars Late Harvest Mourvedre 1997, a light, raisin-like red that we were content to call dessert.

We each downed a much-needed espresso. I said goodbye to the gang at my table and caught the diva running out the door. She was meeting her boyfriend at Hogs and Heifers and didn’t want to be late.

 

Henry’s End, 44 Henry St. between Cranberry and Middagh streets, accepts American Express, MasterCard, Visa and Discover. Entrees: $16-$23. For hours, call (718) 834-1776.

For more information about The James Beard Foundation, 167 W. 12th St., Manhattan, call (212) 675-4984.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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