We are young and old, black and white, reed-thin and rotund, all of us seated around three long, white-clothed tables pushed into a U configuration in the atrium of the restaurant. Our sole unifying characteristic? Each of us happens to be of the male persuasion.
Having convened in this way, and at such an hour — 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning — we must look like we’re here for a “Godfather”-style sit-down, a meeting of the Five Families. Our true purpose is much more nefarious.
We’re here to learn to cook.
That’s right. The trait we all share, in addition to being guys, is a romantic impulse to wow the missus with an unbeatable Valentine’s Day spread. Forget Domino’s. Forget Chinese. For at least one night this year, we’re going to please our better halves, gastronomically speaking, even if it kills us.
Ah, but there’s the rub. Even for those of us with a sense, however unrefined, of the food-love connection — those of us who’ve fed grapes to our girlfriends or sprung for a heart-shaped box of truffles — even for us, coming up with a high-end four-course meal presents something of a challenge. We’re not the Iron Chef, after all.
Which is why we’re here today at the über-elegant DC Coast. For four years the K Street fixture has been offering its Cupid’s Cooking School to would-be dining-room Don Juans, enlisting its top chefs and sommeliers to demonstrate everything from what wine works best with braised short ribs to how to blanch asparagus.
Think of it as a cram session for the kitchen-impaired. We’ve got the ambition, just not the know-how. Class fills in the nitty-gritty details.
And so the morning begins with a glass of rosé — a stimulant for socializing with the other participants, many of whom are veterans who give the class their ringing endorsement. Their wives, they say, eat this stuff up — no pun intended.
Our palates sufficiently lubricated, we get down to business. Beverage Director Scott Clime offers a crash course in wine pairings, flexing his knowledge of both the tipples themselves and (slightly more scientifically) how they interact with different parts of the human tongue. Clime will pop in periodically to bookend Chef de Cuisine Travis Timberlake’s lessons with ideas on, and samples of, complementary vinos — a good idea, given the oenophilic crowd on hand.
But make no mistake: This is Timberlake’s show. Looking every bit the master chef (the intense, dark-circled, sleep-deprived eyes, that no-nonsense air), he’s able, through a mix of natural charisma and obvious skill, to do the impossible: focus the attention of half-drunk dudes who are here as much to enjoy his creations as to learn how to create them.
That’s especially impressive given the quality of his cooking. Timberlake, keeping his lessons on preparation short and to the point, backs up his words with pre-fab examples of the courses in question: “aphrodisiacal foods,” he explains, that “keep us potent.” His tuna tartare in citrus-chili sauce, served in an avocado bowl with a side of mangos julienne, accomplishes just what a starter course should. Light and slightly tangy, it’s enough to reignite the appetite of a reviewer who, foolishly enough, ate a hearty breakfast before arriving at the restaurant.
All male bonding aside, though, I’m wondering how this will translate in an admittedly meager kitchen setup. I have no blender, for one, and so, sadly, there will be no parsnip puree tonight. Lacking for time, I will also be forced to forgo several of the “Cupid’s Hints” that come, helpfully, in the packet provided by DC Coast. For example: Instead of dabbing on a bit of cologne, I’m going to reek of onions. And rather than the soothing, romantic playlist I’d planned on devising, my iPod will shuffle its way to Nirvana’s abrasive and somewhat inappropriate “Scentless Apprentice.”
No matter. The idea here is that the food ought to be enough to overcome our tendency, as men, to screw everything else up — and it is.
Though daunting at first blush, the courses are more labor-intensive than they are difficult; this meal calls for much chopping, dicing and paring. Still, Timberlake and Co. have kept things pretty easy, and it’s the combination of many simple (though pricey) ingredients that presents the illusion of complexity and confers onto the dishes a robust mélange of flavorings.
The high quality of the yellowfin tuna I was able to procure notwithstanding, the tartare is easily the night’s biggest disappointment. Perhaps owing to a faulty recipe, it’s dominated by the strong acidic zip of the lime juice in which it denatured, and the avocados I’ve selected aren’t ripe enough to yield to the touch of a fork. Still, it’s a worthy effort, and besides, you can’t go wrong with fresh mango on the side.
Plus, from here on out, I’m golden. The prosciutto-wrapped spears of blanched asparagus, lightly grilled and served alongside a salad of wonderfully fresh arugula with toasted pine nuts, a light vinaigrette and sliced pear, are nearly as good as their professionally prepared counterparts from earlier in the day. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but at this point my date’s eyes seem to be misting over a bit.
The high point of the meal comes with the main course: 24 ounces of beef short ribs tossed in sea salt and pepper, pan-fried lightly in olive oil and then doused in veal stock and left to roast for three hours at 325 degrees. These emerge from the oven fork-tender and ready to give up their juices at the lightest prodding; they are the easiest to make, the easiest to pair with wine (a medium-priced Pinot Noir, in our case), and probably the best thing I’ve ever cooked. Shortly after they’re gone, I find myself offering a silent thank-you to Timberlake and the folks at DC Coast.
My one suggestion? For next year’s Cupid’s Cooking School, it might be a good idea to teach a nice breakfast for the morning after.