How meaningful is an invitation to cook at the James Beard House? The question has come up more than once since news broke that Parallel 38 had been invited to do so just months after opening. Given the prestige of the James Beard Foundation, the New York-based nonprofit that hands out the culinary equivalent of the Academy Awards, the fanfare that greeted Parallel 38’s invitation was understandable. Yet, some people can’t help but wonder whether a restaurant’s appearance at the James Beard House says more about how it presents on paper than how it does on the tongue.
So, is Parallel 38 up to the hype?
Enter Tom Sietsema. One of the nation’s most powerful food critics, Sietsema has written The Washington Post’s weekly restaurant reviews for 14 years. Eating more than 600 restaurant meals a year, he devotes his life to his job, preserving the anonymity he considers key to it by any means possible, like using credit cards under 10 different names or using a pseudonym everywhere he goes, even the drugstore. His reviews can make or break a restaurant.
And, it just so happens, he is on the judges committee for the annual James Beard awards for the nation’s best chefs and restaurants. He seemed an ideal guest, then, to help assess the food that Parallel 38 plans for its James Beard House dinner.
Opened in January at the Shops at Stonefield, Parallel 38 is Charlottesville’s first restaurant featuring mezze, small plates of food rooted in cuisines of Mediterranean countries like Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon. Justin Ross, who co-owns the restaurant with Steve Pritchard, once managed perhaps the nation’s most renowned mezze restaurant, Washington D.C.’s Zaytinya. The food and wine of Parallel 38 celebrate regions that hover along the 38th parallel, like Greece, Spain, Portugal, the Napa Valley, and Charlottesville. Hence the name. Ross’s strong background in wine is evident in the carefully selected list, with more than 100 available by the glass, thanks to a technology that enables removing wine from a bottle without opening it.
Parallel 38’s James Beard House dinner, August 18 in New York, will be a multi-course affair paired with wines and cocktails. For those that can’t make it, a reprise will be held at the restaurant on September 9. I recently had the good fortune of sampling a dry run, and Sietsema, using a pseudonym, joined me.
He was not disappointed.
“I was really impressed with the cooking,” he said after the meal. As was I.
A trio of hors d’oeuvres showed chef Alfredo Malinis’ deft aptitude for combining textures and flavors. Crisp pork belly was offset by a tomato jam spiked with an Arabian spice blend called Bahárát. A bright and acidic puttanesca sauce and lemon verbena joined forces to cut the richness of tender meatballs of goat and lamb. And a spoonful of creamy, walnut hummus cushioned tiny crunches of carrots. The cocktail pairing, a so-called Persian Collins, was a showstopper with gin, cucumber, citrus, and a tart Iranian vinegar syrup called Sekanjabin.
One tweak for our meal was the use of rock shrimp in our ceviche of squid and avocado, instead of the blowfish planned for the James Beard meal. No matter, as Sietsema deemed it the standout dish of the night, in part because of the nuggets of fried squid that dotted the delicate ceviche.
“I loved the delicate crunch of the fried squid followed by the tender marinated seafood,” he said. “The composition managed to be simultaneously light and rich.”
And, if the number of photos we both took was any indication, the food looked as good as it tasted.
“The plating was beautiful, most everything served as a garland of color and contrasting textures,” said Sietsema.
Case in point was the presentation of succulent pork belly medallions that resembled an autumn wreath with “sweet figs alternating with eggplant chips and dabs of whipped goat cheese,” as Sietsema put it.
So, among the thousands of restaurant meals Sietsema has assessed over the years, how does Parallel 38 rate? Pretty darned well.
“This style of cooking,” said Sietsema, “would be very much at home in a three-star restaurant in Washington, San Francisco or New York.”
For context, consider that Sietsema, a famously conservative grader, awards the vast majority of restaurants he reviews either one or two stars, for being “satisfactory” or “good” respectively. Only a select few “excellent” restaurants receive three stars or more.
Sietsema’s one quibble was that several dishes on the James Beard menu are not available on Parallel 38’s regular menu. Still, Sietsema said “the quality of the cooking ranked up there with such standard-bearers as…Vidalia in Washington.” That’s the same Vidalia whose chef-owner once won the James Beard award for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic.
Not too shabby, Chef Malinis.