Recently, a friend called me asking for advice about some friends who had come into town from New York hoping to have a meal at Crook's Corner. The night they had wanted to go, the restaurant was hosting a wine dinner to promote and celebrate the chef's new cookbook. My friend worried that the wine dinner would be too expensive, that it would be a platform for the restaurant and its wine distributors to sell wine, and that the evening would be a bad representation of the restaurant in general.
While I wasn't at the Crook's dinner on the night in question, I can bet it was a great night. But I fully understand my friend's worries. A few years ago in the Triangle, a wine dinner was a true event; rare, expensive, and suggesting the need for some kind of social pedigree, the kind most of us don't have. This is changing rapidly. It seems that every week, my Indy events listings fill up with wine dinners ranging from the elaborate to the simple, the very expensive to the very reasonable. Some dinners are for charity, some—like the Crook's dinner—are to promote a cookbook, but most are just for fun.
But are they fun? Are you going to be surrounded by a bunch of wine snobs, talking knowingly about grape varietals and turning up their fine-tuned noses at those who just want to eat, drink and be merry? Are they a value for the money? And are you going to be subject to the hard sell from the wine purveyor, pushing you to purchase more of the wine they're rambling on about?
The answers to these questions vary widely based on the dinner, but my experience is that these events are surprisingly inclusive and geared toward the casual diner and wine drinker. At some wine dinners, the real draw is the intimacy, the atmosphere being more like a dinner party than a restaurant experience. This is especially nice if you are a fan of a chef and would like to have the opportunity to hear them talk a little about their food. Additionally, seating is communal at many wine dinners, so you end up sitting at a large table with other diners.
Elaine's on Franklin, which hosts wine dinners throughout the year, is really good at achieving this intimacy. Elaine's sometimes hosts wine makers, who get up and briefly describe their wines during the dinner, but no attempt is ever made to sell wine to diners (in fact at a recent dinner, a lot of the wine was not available anymore, Elaine's having saved it especially for the dinner). The most recent dinner at Elaine's was a wild game dinner, where the wines were specially paired with courses of wild. By the end of the dinner, diners were laughing and rowdy, and when chef and owner Bret Jennings brought out his kitchen staff—from sous-chef to dishwasher—to introduce them, the diners applauded happily. Wine dinners at Elaine's usually cost around $75 per person for five courses and five wines. You can sign up for their wine dinner e-mail updates at www.elainesonfranklin.com.
If communal seating is a problem for you, there are options that are more like a regular dining experience. Recently, Enoteca Vin in Raleigh held a California wine dinner where they had regular seating. This dinner was in every way like eating at the restaurant on a regular night, except the menu and wines were fixed, as was the price. At $80 for five courses and seven glasses of wine, Vin offers pretty good deal if you can swing it. I missed the camaraderie of the communal table though, which will be returning for their next dinner with Bill Niman on May 4 (this is a special dinner, the third annual dinner Vin has done showcasing Niman Ranch pork, and will be considerably more expensive). You can look for information about this and other wine dinners at Vin at www.enotecavin.com.
Another restaurant that does wine dinners without the communal seating is Xios Authentic Greek Cuisine in Apex. The dinners, which happen four times a year, offer five courses paired with five Greek wines, and the effect is like having your own personal wine tasting at your table. At $50 per person, these dinners offer a less expensive option for folks who could do without the dinner-party feel and the chef and wine rep speeches. Xios just held one of these dinners, so the next one won't be for a few months, but you can find out about this and other events (they have a ton of reasonably priced events going on all the time) at www.xioscafe.com.
Capri Restaurantin Raleigh also offers a less expensive option, with five course wine dinners on the third Wednesday of every month for $40 per person. I haven't made it out to one of these yet, but the price alone makes it worth checking out. For dates and more info, check www.caprirestaurant.net.
As far as wine-speak goes, you will find a difference between dinners that are centered around a certain kind of wine and dinners that are centered around a certain food item. But even at wine-centered dinners, someone will usually get up and speak about the wine for only a minute or two, focusing on the maker and special conditions that went into its making, and then you will be left alone to enjoy it.
If you are interested in getting a little education with your meal, a good bet is the wine dinners held by the Chapel Hill Wine Company, who do dinners in conjunction with a number of restaurants in the area. At these dinners, tasting notes are passed out along with some information about the wine regions and history of the wines, and each wine is discussed as the courses are served. These dinners are more likely to appeal to the wine geeks among us, like the recent all-Vouvray dinner held at Acme in Carrboro. But the folks at the Chapel Hill Wine Company stress that the dinners are very laid back, and should be just as fun for someone with a casual interest as for the serious wine drinker. The easiest way to find out about these dinners is to get on their e-mail list, which you can do by dropping by the store at the corner of Airport and Homestead roads or calling 968-1884 and requesting to be put on the list.
If you've got some money to throw around and are looking for a little high society, the "Diamonds are a Diner's Best Friend" series that the Triangle's AAA Four Diamond restaurants are putting on right now look promising. It's an interesting idea—at each dinner, the four chefs from the Triangle's Four Diamond restaurants get together and cook a meal. I don't know many chefs who like to share their kitchen, let alone have the input of three other chefs about what they should be cooking! But these guys are doing it in the spirit of community, and more power to them. The first dinner was held on April 21 at Il Palio; the next will be on May 19 at the Carolina Crossroads, with dinners to follow in September at Washington Duke's Fairview and in October at Four Square. The cost for each is $85 per person, and reservations are made directly through the restaurants.
Wine dinners in our area are accessible, fun, and often a value for the money. It is doubtful that you would go to one of these things and feel unwelcome, ignorant or uncomfortable. For the restaurant, the point is to provide a showcase for their food and their wine, and it is also often a way to get to know their customers better, to have a more intimate experience with them, and in some cases, to introduce them to their dishwashers.
Mother's Day treats
Acme in Carrboro will be serving their regular brunch and dinner menus, but will offer the option of buying mom flowers or discounted Bliss products to be waiting on the table when you arrive. There will also be a drawing at dinner for an all-day spa treatment. Call 929-2263 for information and reservations.
Aurora in Chapel Hill will be serving a prix fixe brunch. For $21, the brunch will include three courses, homemade muffins and scones, and fresh squeezed orange juice. The menu is available at www.aurorarestaurant.com. For reservations, call 942-2400.
The Fearrington House in Pittsboro will host a gourmet three-course lunch from noon-4 p.m. The price is $38.00 per person. Call 542-2121 or e-mail email@example.com for reservations.
Four Square in Durham will host a special dinner from 5-9 p.m. For reservations, call 401-9877.
Il Palio at the Siena Hotel in Chapel Hill will host a special brunch from 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. The cost is $39 per person plus tax and gratuity, or $20 plus tax and gratuity for ages 7-12. For reservations, call 918-2545.
Michael Dean's in Raleigh will be hosting a special buffet brunch from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. The all you can eat buffet will cost $15.95 per person. For reservations, call 790-9992.
Second Empire in Raleigh will host a special brunch from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. The $29.95 price includes first course, entrée, dessert, coffee and tea. For reservations, call 829-3663.
A Southern Season in Chapel Hill will host a special cooking class: "Cookie Decorating for Mother and Daughter" with Ann Everitt, pastry chef at Elaine's on Franklin. The class starts at 2 p.m. and costs $60 per mother and daughter couple. Learn to achieve a professional, bejeweled look with smooth, hard-drying Royal icing. The cookies you decorate are yours to take home and share with your family. Mothers and daughters age 13 and over are welcome. Call 929-7133.
Xios Authentic Greek Cuisine in Apex is offering mom a free dinner. Bring your mother to Xios, and she will receive a free appetizer, entrée and dessert. For information and reservations, call 363-5288.