Looking to impress attendees with über-refined palates? A restaurant's credentials don't get much better than being presided over by a chef who has been cited as one of the James Beard Foundation's Best Chefs in America -- often referred to as the Oscars of the food world.
This year's winners highlight a robust cross-section of American culinary talent, from Sonoma wine country in Northern California to the lowlands of South Carolina to coastal Maine. Here are some of these gustatory grand masters, in a region-by-region guide to a few special places where they work their magic.
Chef Douglas Keane
Chef Keane describes his cuisine as "contemporary luxury." As he puts it, "I'll take a tomato and do five things with it. That's where the luxury comes in. You experience something in the restaurant that you can't do at home."
Upscale items such as foie gras, truffles and wagyu beef are traditional entries on the eatery's roster, but this year, Keane and wife Lael have introduced an eight-course vegetarian menu. In response to requests, there are more protein-based dishes here, such as tofu made from homemade soy milk, prepared tableside. "The soy milk is heated and mixed in containers with nigari, a coagulant," explains Keane. The result, after five minutes, is a plate of silken, savory tofu, a splendid way to begin a healthful feast.
Cyrus is open to the public for dinner only, but private lunches and afternoon wine tastings are possible. If evening is preferred, a private dining room seats 12, or a buyout for 64 can be arranged.
Another option is Cyrus Private, which brings the restaurant experience to the guests, perhaps to a large villa or exclusive private winery in Sonoma or Napa. "We transport our staff, our china and linens, and offer the same menu that is served in the restaurant," says Barbara Gordon, party and events planner for Cyrus.
Chef Maria Hines
At Tilth, guests are served certified organic, New American cuisine, within the coziest of settings: a real house (green with white trim, with a porch to boot), in a residential neighborhood.
The restaurant offers 17 varieties of organic wines, plus other selections from the Northwest region as well as some Old World classics. Mini duck burgers are a favorite dinner choice here, served with arugula, onion jam, house-made mustard and ketchup, and fingerling potato chips. Another recent summer entrée: balsamic-glazed Skagit River ranch poussin with corn cream, summer pepper and spoon bread cake. For dessert, Hines recommends her chocolate ganache cake, made with sea salt and cocoa cream.
For private dinners, Hines recommends a buyout on weekday evenings for up to 50 guests.
Chef Paul Bartolotta
Wynn Las Vegas
Chef Paul Bartolotta's namesake restaurant at Wynn Las Vegas serves coastal Italian cuisine, with an emphasis on fresh: More than a ton of seafood, representing 40 different species, is imported each week from Mediterranean waters, including all sorts of shellfish and species indigenous to the Italian Mediterranean Sea, such as rombo (turbot), branzino (sea bass) and pagello (pink snapper). Bartolotta's signature dish is the lasagnette con ragu di crostacei, or "rags" of pasta, with lobster, shrimp, crab, white wine, tomato and Mediterranean fish roasted in a Sicilian sea salt crust.
Events here include private dinners, full buyouts and even outdoor parties, with use of the restaurant's poolside cabanas. Family-style meals are the popular choice, though individually plated four-course dinners also can be arranged. The restaurant accommodates up to 250 people. Smaller spaces include a boardroom table for 20 and a private dining room for 42.
Chef Tim McKee
La Belle Vie
Upscale French Mediterranean cuisine is the specialty of executive chef Tim McKee at La Belle Vie. Five- and eight-course tasting menus, an à la carte menu and an extensive wine list are offered in the main dining area. As a signature, McKee recommends the roasted poussin, a "young chicken" raised on a local farm called Wild Acres. Another favorite is seared foie gras with buttercup squash and pistachios. For dessert, the yogurt parfait with hazelnut cake and rhubarb is a crowd pleaser. More casual fare, such as grilled lamb burgers with mint yogurt and hot pepper, is served in the lounge area, where signature drinks like "Cortez the Killer" (an extra strong sparkling sangria cocktail made with Brugal rum) are concocted by "cocktail scientist" Johnny Michaels.
La Belle Vie frequently books meetings, receptions and awards dinners in a variety of spaces. The entire restaurant seats 75 for dinner and 200 for cocktail parties. A private room can be booked for up to 34.
Chef Michael Symon
A frequent contestant on the Food Network's Iron Chef America and, most recently, the host of Dinner: Impossible, chef Michael Symon is known for keeping things simple: If more than two pans are needed to make a dish, he often notes, it's just not his dish. The cuisine here is Mediterranean, inspired by recipes from Symon's Greek, Italian and Eastern European background. Dishes include beef cheek pierogies with wild mushrooms and crème fraiche, and smoked Berkshire pork chops with chiles, cheesy polenta and barbecued onions. A private room seats 30.
A newer Symon creation is Lolita, an American bistro just a few miles away with a private area that seats up to 40. The chef's latest venture, Bar Symon, opened in July in Avon Lake, Ohio, where casual bistro fare such as feta and oregano-laced popcorn and bacon creamed corn dominate the menu; a party room holds up to 150.
Chef John Currence
For the past 16 years, New Orleans-born chef John Currence has fused classical French methods with traditional American cuisine of the deep South in this former 19th-century livery stable with wood floors, exposed brick and a rotating selection of local artwork. Case in point: Currence's shrimp and grits entrée, featuring "Delta Grind" (local stone-ground grains), spicy cheese grits, sautéed gulf shrimp, button mushrooms, scallions, garlic, Texas-smoked bacon, lemon juice and white wine. As with most top chefs, local, fresh product is key for Currence, so the dinner menu changes every six weeks, and lunch every eight. The wine list is refreshed on a weekly basis.
Due to the restaurant's smallish size (with a maximum capacity of 94 seated and 120 overall), group dining exceeding 20 guests requires a buyout of either the main dining room or the bar area and is limited to Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Menus are designed to planners' specifications.
Chef Rob Evans
At Hugo's, Rob Evans uses as much Maine product as possible, and from there casts a wider net across New England. "In that sense we are regionalized," he says, "but I always try to do something playful and different that represents the American palette." For example, Evans' buffalo wings are made with quail meat, while his lobster trap risotto is served with welks (a type of snail found on lobster traps) and pickled herring, whose live, uncured version is used to bait the lobster.
Hugo's seats a maximum of about 50, so any party of more than 12 likely will require a buyout on a Sunday or Monday, when the restaurant is closed to the general public. The restaurant is more flexible during the off-season (winter). Cocktails and passed hors d'oeuvres are an option, as well as a three-course meal with a few choices.
Chef Gabriel Kreuther
The Modern (in the Museum of Modern Art)
New York City
In 2006, Alsatian-born chef Gabriel Kreuther helped The Modern, a venture of noted New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer, to win the James Beard Foundation Award for Best New Restaurant as well as Outstanding Restaurant Design. This time around, the honor is all Kreuther's. His artisinal French cooking style, perfected during early apprenticeships throughout France and Switzerland, is showcased in dishes such as tartare of yellowfin tuna and diver scallops, and the chorizo-crusted codfish with white cocoa bean purée and harissa oil. Ingredients are native, and many are organically grown on the premises.
The most distinctive feature of The Modern's private dining room, which seats 64 for dinner or 80 for a reception, is a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Modern Art. Furniture and tableware are works of art themselves, designed primarily by Danish modernists, many of whom are featured in MoMA's permanent collection. Guests can choose from a preselected menu of three or six courses.
Chef Jose Garces
Chef Jose Garces has made Philadelphia into his own culinary backyard with a total of four eateries in the city. Amada, the flagship, opened in 2005 in the heart of Old City and serves authentic Spanish tapas. Signature dishes include octopus tapas and lobster paella. A private dining area, seating 24, is set with smaller tables, "which keeps it more like a typical tapas restaurant," notes special events and marketing manager Laura Vernola. Also available for groups is the Matador Lounge, which seats 30 to 40 and includes a private bar.
Each of Garces' other establishments similarly specializes in Latin cuisine: Tinto is a wine bar with food inspired by the Basque Country; Distrito serves Mexico City-style dishes; and the newest, Chifa, features a ceviche bar with ingredients from South America.
Chef Mike Lata
When he opened Fig six years ago, chef Mike Lata wanted the food to be as local as possible. "It was challenging, given the hot Charleston summers," he says. "But every plate has something local in it, and it's all in season. We know the farmers personally, so you are guaranteed a local experience."
Fig has much in common with an upscale bistro in terms of professional, well-executed service, but it lacks pretension, says Lata. Signature dishes include a pate of local chicken livers, fresh vegetables (such as roasted beets dressed with cherry vinegar) for the table and a fish selection that Lata boasts is the freshest in town.
Groups are booked on a case-by-case basis. Since the restaurant is open to the public for dinner only, receptions and luncheons for up to 75 people will work after-hours. Otherwise, intimate groups of 10 to 12 can be accommodated in the main dining area.