Mystery Dinner With The Four Coursemen Nov07

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Mystery Dinner With The Four Coursemen

Patrick and Damien discuss which potential ingredients to buy. (photo linked from the Four Coursemen website)

Even after nearly 30 years, the Classic City (Athens, Georgia) almost never ceases to amaze me in terms of how much it continues to offer, how it manages to remain fresh, how it continuously spawns new and different.  Somehow, for a small town, it possesses the right formula to incubate a highly combustable spontaneous explosion of creativity.

One of the latest iterations of this creativity can be found in a specially rented 3-room shotgun house up a hill near downtown outfitted with a modest kitchen, sparsely decorated reception foyer and a cozy dining room where the Four Coursemen twice monthly hold nearly secret meetings of inspired and experimental food creation.

There’s a certain appeal for the adventurous in the idea of not knowing where you’re going, not knowing what you’re eating, and not knowing with whom you’re eating.  Such is the nature of a night with the Four Coursemen. (Warning: Don’t read further if you wish this to remain unknown) 

If you’ve heard of the “4CSMen” – as seen carved into a pumpkin in a picture on their website – and most certainly if you have ever tried to secure a reservation, you may know how difficult obtaining one can be.  In fact, it’s beginning to become the stuff of legend.  The 28-spots often disappear within 15-20 seconds after the web-only reservations open –usually with only a few days notice – a fact that is both humbling and frustrating for the group.

“We try to keep it as fair as possible, but there is often a little frustration,” says Noah Brendel, who manages the online reservation system.  Brendel says one of the more implausible stories was of a UGA professor who would entreat many of his own students to all log-on and register in hopes of helping him secure one of the coveted and elusive reservations.  Needless to say, they’re hard to come by.  And for good reason.

Brut Riesling sparkles and the guests socialize while they anticipate the next course.

The concept, arrived upon rather serendipitously, was not exactly intended to be what it has become – a secret society, off-the-radar exclusive to be the chosen tasters of a group of talented, creative, and ambitious food creators sourcing sustainable ingredients from around the country.  It was simply to be a place where a group of mostly self-taught food gourmets could try out some interesting food combinations and (later) wine pairings on friends and guests in a social setting away from their other jobs at Athens finer restaurants. While I’d say the spirit at its core remains that, the enthusiasm of those trying to enter the secret ingress has certainly taken on a life of its own.

It’s been 5 years since their first dinner (see the history in their own words on their About page on the Four Coursemen website), but now after write-ups in Food and Wine and Guns and Garden magazines, and a feature on television’s Cooking Channel (another one coming in January) – demand isn’t just word of mouth anymore.  People are traveling from far and wide to experience a 4CSMen event on the inside.

One like I experienced last night. 

Arrival time was “around 7:30″ according to the reservation for an aperitif and pre-dinner socializing with the other guests.  We parked on a dark and always ominous feeling neighborhood street near downtown and followed others walking the street up the hill to the house only apparent as our destination by the lights and vibrancy emanating from within.

Upon entering, my wife wife Rhonda and I were greeted by a young woman named Abby who welcomed us in and encouraged us to explore all the way back to the kitchen and to feel free to socialize with the chefs or the other guests.  As we looked around the mixed group of mainly thirty-somethings casually and cooly dressed – about what you’d expect from an Athens crowd, not too pretentious but leaning to the culturally hip – we saw familiar faces but only one person each that we actually knew by name.

Before we could get too engaged, dinner time had arrived and the guests were scrambling to find a spot at two beautiful, long, darkly lacquered, custom-made communal dining tables with long bench seats on either side in front of twenty eight place settings. Shortly after saying hello to our new dining mates – Anna and her husband Ryan and their friend Jill, and Jenn and her husband Wade – the conversation was interrupted by the clanging of the dinner bell mounted on the wall at the entrance of the kitchen. On either side of the threshold, were Patrick Stubbers and Damien Schaefer, the night’s 4CSMen dinner presenters.

Patrick and Damien explain the thinking behind the upcoming delight!

The atmosphere was already established as Patrick and Damien welcomed the gathering and set out to explain with giddy enthusiasm, the origin of their purpose, and the official revealing of the evening’s menu.  Each menu, is roughly the result of a discussion (usually over cocktails) of ideas and available ingredients by the group at a casual gathering a few days before and revealed only at dinner time.

From the first course to the last, each dish description and wine pairing was greeted by enthusiastic applause. As we waited for the plates to arrive and the pouring to occur, the conversation would peak at an almost ear numbing decibel-level as the guests warmly got to know each other.  After each course, the noise level of the conversation would slowly build until the next ringing of the bell which signaled the introduction of the next course.  The menu consisted of first an oyster appetizer, then an autumn inspired parsnip soup, then a shrimp salad with a butternut squash purée, followed by a main course of Berkshire pork ribs.  Dessert was a  maple spice cake with goat cheese cream and braised celery paired with hot-buttered rum.

The element that makes the food experience a treat, was hearing Patrick and Damien explain the origin of the ingredients as well as the thinking and purpose behind each dish.  Each of the 5-courses were specially paired with a wine (or in the case of dessert – Rum) ranging from a sparkling white Riesling to a spicy California Syrah.  That thinking too was explained.

I think no matter how sophisticated we consider our own palette, hearing a candid explanation of what the group had in mind with each course is uniquely refreshing.  Also inspiriting, the way the information is presented – certainly not narcissistic or self-serving… here is what we’ve done and why you should find it brilliant.  It’s a much less pretentious and more palatable… this is what we were thinking and why it could be interesting and we’re excited about it, so tell us what you think!

The night was a success, if nothing else because the mysteries going in to the evening – where you were going, what you were eating and with whom you were eating – all turned out to be pleasantly delightful and created a plausible energy of its own.  And truthfully, whether the dishes appealed or even missed their mark, one might argue wasn’t relevant (you’ll never get me too excited about a dessert that features celery – although it was good).  But overall, the food was terrific, well-made and presented, and the tastes were intended to make you think a little about the fatty, sweet and bitter as well as spicy, bold or fruity.

And they did.

The Menu (November 5, 2011)

  • Blue Point Oysters w/ Carrot Vermouth Mignonette, Saltines, Fresh Horseradish
    w/ Von Buhl, Brut Riesling, DE ’09
  • Parsnip Soup w/ Fresh Peaer and Orange, Charred Cinnamon Brown Butter
    w/Gustave Lorentz, Gewürztraminer, FR ’09
  • Butter Poached Shrimp Salad w/ Mustard Greens, Crab, Butternut Squash Purée, Smoked Sunchokes, Pickled Red Pepper
    w/Auratus, Alvarinho, PT ’10
  • Slow Roasted Eden Farms Ribs w/ Molasses Glaze, Parsley, Onion, Bacon-Lemon Vinaigrette
    w/ Bell, Syrah, CA ’06
  • Steamed Maple Spice Cake w/ Smoked Goat Cheese Cream, Sweet Braised Celery
    w/ Hot Buttered Rum

    The Butter Poached Shrimp Salad with Butternut Squash Purée.