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Dining Out on Thanksgiving

Festive menus from Grand Award-winning restaurants around the country

Matthew DeBord
Posted: November 20, 2001

  Above: chef Dean Fearing, Mansion on Turtle Creek  
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Thanksgiving is considered by many to be the truest American holiday. It's a time for family gatherings, for reflection on the nation's origins -- and an excuse to eat a really big meal. The celebration is traditionally held at home, but for plenty of Americans, Thanksgiving is also an opportunity to dine out. Many of the country's restaurateurs have served Thanksgiving dinner for decades.

Sirio Maccioni, owner of Le Cirque 2000, described his restaurant's $60 prix-fixe Thanksgiving menu, which will be offered from 12:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., as an "interpretation" of the traditional spread. "It's a special dinner for people who like turkey," he commented.

The menu is cosmopolitan without being snooty. A choice of starters is offered, including pumpkin and celery soup with jumbo lump crabmeat, served in a baby pumpkin. Continuing the theme, there's pumpkin ravioli garnished with crispy bacon, baby zucchini and black truffle sauce. Entrées consist of sautéed fillet of snapper with braised celeriac, salsify, chanterelles and tomato confit. More traditionally minded diners can order roasted boneless turkey stuffed with chestnuts, bread and everyone's favorite luxury ingredient, foie gras. A gratin of sweet potatoes and green beans, with good old-fashioned cranberry relish, rounds things out.

Desserts are positively flag-waving: pecan, pumpkin or apple pie, all topped off with Bourbon-vanilla ice cream.

Le Cirque 2000's suggested wine pairings with the Thanksgiving menu will, with appropriate patriotism, comprise only California wines. Highlights include Newton Chardonnay Napa Valley Unfiltered 1999, Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 1998, Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1998 and Ridge Geyserville Sonoma 1998.

In Monterey, Calif., at the Sardine Factory, a Grand Award winner since 1982, co-owner Bert Cutino explained that he had not quite set his Thanksgiving menu yet, but that the meal itself would be important this year for more than the usual reasons.

"For us, Thanksgiving has traditionally been an annual event for the locals," he said. "I think they'll look at the holiday as a patriotic event this year. That's how I look at it already." He added that he hopes diners might take particular solace this year from reflecting on the nation's heritage.

The Sardine Factory typically serves an affordable five-course prix fixe: $20 for adults ($19 for seniors, $10 for kids, and free for children under 5). The menu sticks close to the classics, from crab corn chowder to Caesar or bibb lettuce salad with shredded celery root and sliced, roasted artichoke crowns. The main course is roasted turkey with traditional side dishes. Dessert is fresh pumpkin pie.

Suggested wine matches range from $18 to $28 per bottle and mostly hail from Monterey. Boyer Chardonnay, Fogarty Gewürztraminer, and Jekel Pinot Noir give diners ample opportunity to toast that first meal between the settlers and the Native Americans, as well as to give thanks for their own good fortune.

At Restaurant 301 at the Hotel Carter in Eureka, Calif., executive chef Robert Szolnoki offers an elaborate Thanksgiving feast, in two parts: vegetarian and carnivorous. "It's a longtime tradition here," he said, launching into his five-course prix fixe ($45), which features a full complement of vegetarian options, from corn fritters in a nasturtium-leaf aioli to squash stuffed with grains and seasoned with a citrus reduction. Carnivores can go for polenta hearts in a shredded duck confit, house-cured salmon and, of course, roasted turkey, here stuffed with homemade sausage.

The restaurant has been a Grand Award winner since 1998, and the strength of the American aspect of its wine list shows in this year's Thanksgiving pairings. Vegetarian appetizers will be paired with a Mumm Cuvée Napa sparkler and a Rochioli Chardonnay 1998. Next up, Coates Sangiovese 1998 with the pesto polenta, and with the squash, Joseph Phelps Le Mistral 1998. On the meat-eating side, an exotic Heidrun sparkling dry mead (a honey wine) will start things off, followed by Novi Syrah Rosé 1999, Caymus Sauvignon Blanc 2000, and with the turkey, WillaKenzie Pinot Noir 1999. Desserts on both sides will be matched with Graham Port Six Grapes.

There's no doubt that Texas will pull its patriotic weight in the tough times ahead. At Dallas' Mansion on Turtle Creek, which earned its Grand Award in 1995, chef Dean Fearing will be offering a Texas-sized Thanksgiving menu. "Gathering around the table in thanks this year will be something special," said Fearing. "A celebration of what we stand for."

One of things we clearly stand for, if Fearing and beverage director George Howald have anything to say about it, is a menu laden with choices, paired up with exciting American wines. Howald has matched an appetizer of country-fried shrimp over mashed sweet potatoes with the elegant Chalk Hill Chardonnay 1998; grilled quail smothered with Worcestershire-molasses smoked bacon with Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir 1999, and an entrée of roasted turkey with Niebaum-Coppola Blancaneaux 1999, this last a blend of Chardonnay and white Rhône varietals. The menu is set at a reasonable $70.

In New England, the stronghold of American colonial spirit and the cradle of the American Revolution, tradition runs deep. Levent Bozkurt, general manager and proprietor of Tyngsboro, Mass.'s, Silks at the Stonehedge Inn, a Grand Award winner since 1996, said that tradition is everything in his part of the country. And so is patriotism, which he expects to be particularly important this year.

Bozkurt added that he would continue his 15-year custom of seeking out affordable wines to feature with the Thanksgiving dinner, but that this year, he would place special emphasis on keeping the price down, so that every diner will be able to enjoy wine with the meal.

At Silks, the Thanksgiving menu stresses family. The whole dinner is served on one plate: turkey, fish or lamb along with the side dishes. The meal concludes with a grand dessert buffet, upon which an assortment of pies, cakes and other indulgences are laid out. Featured wines may include a Cline Zinfandel or a Hugel Gewürztraminer from Alsace. Bozkurt wasn't sure, conceding that Silks was running late finalizing its Thanksgiving menu, due mainly to difficulties posed by the business slowdown in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Around the nation, restaurateurs, chefs and wine professionals expressed their desire to see Thanksgiving aid the country's healing process. "Customers have come up to me feeling guilty about dining out," said Michael Cammarano, wine director at The Manor in West Orange, N.J., a Grand Award winner since 1988. "But they have a need to be together. Especially now."

This article appears in the Nov. 30, 2001, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 71.

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