This spring, I've had the pleasure of indulging in a pantheon of Madison firsts, among them a Bacchanalian bone luge, and, as of last Thursday night, Captain Bill's launch of "Dinner in White." The concept was inspired by Paris' annual Dner en Blanc, an annual by-invitation-only flash mob pop-up picnic feast, with an element of surprise and inherent theatrics.
It's as fantastical as a secret held in 10,000 mouths, hungry mouths. They all exchanged silence for their seat at last year's Paris Diner en Blanc.
Francois Pasqueir, who wanted to hold a dinner party for about 200 friends, started the tradition in Paris in 1988. To accommodate the crowd, he named a location and gave instructions for all to wear all white so they could find each other. The next year, each guest was allowed to bring one more guest, to whom the secret location of the event would be revealed.
The laws of mathematics and the persistence of demand make the scale of this event near-magical, I gather. Today, thousands try to stay hidden in plain sight, squirreling in from their respective corners of the city, until they cast a veil of white upon their location -- before they turn back into pumpkins at midnight.
Pasqueir's son spearheaded the launch of Dner en Blanc in a number of Canadian cities in 2009. In 2010, Berlin hopped on board, then New York, Chicago, and Toronto in 2011. In 2012, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, and a handful of other locations will follow.
In the same spirit, Robert Von Rutenberg and Kris Kalb launched Madison's first "Dinner in White" at Captain Bill's in Middleton on April 27. Von Rutenberg, co-owner of Von Rutenberg Ventures, and Kalb, owner of Spirit of Wisconsin and Kristopher Alan - Chocolatier, started the event among friends, and instructed them to dress in whites. Best costume wins. It was not, however, a bring-your-own picnic.
Von Rutenberg and Kalb brought showboat style and sophistication to the table -- feather boas and white linens, bubble blowers and first rate service.
The three course menu -- at $40 -- was a pleasant play on traditional flavors with a sense of whimsy deserving of this dinner. They get bonus points for the abundance of local ingredients that also accorded with the white theme. A similarly themed white wine flight listed one of my favorites -- Kim Crawford's Sauvignon Blanc.
The first course was a deconstructed clam chowder. It won more points with me because I love a well-prepared clam chowder, which it was, but the deconstruction (garnish in the bowl, then topped with the Sassy Cow cream base) had a delightful surprise: a side shot of cream sherry, which Von Rutenberg notes was served alongside all the soups he had when he was with the Peace Corps in Africa. For me, too, it resonated with all the sherry-pepper sauces I had with my soups in Bermuda. To eat is human, but to deglaze a cream soup with sherry is divine.
Next, a Rushing Waters trout filet -- crisped skin, just the way I like it -- stood boldly against seared endive and a gently heated sauce with chili oil.
The Strauss veal chop was good enough that the woman next to me -- a Leo -- admitted it brought the lion out in her. There was no getting around picking that tender medium-rare chop to the bone; it was a tough act to follow, although the accompanying white asparagus -- pruned of their armor into delicate bulb-tipped wands -- particularly caught my fancy. It pains me -- pains me -- how many vegetables I meet are overcooked. These were perfectly al dente, little arrows pointing me to the equally satisfying cauliflower mash, also kissed with Sassy Cow cream.
Dessert was a tower of carrot cake, garnished with single-origin white chocolate spires and hugged with a spiral of the same. The kicker? A swash of pineapple curd. I don't usually like white chocolate, but Kalb, who fashioned those components, managed to sell me on it. The cocoa butter melted -- yes melted -- with the smoothness of Barry White against pastry chef Lana Robotewskyj's equally seductive cake and pineapple curd.
Though when I walked into the room I was greeted by some familiar faces and some new, I left among friends. That was perhaps the greatest success of all, given the intentional intimacy planned into the event's structure.
On May 31, the next "Dinner in White" will still be a chef's menu for $40 at Captain Bill's, but summer editions in June, July and August will follow the Parisian tradition of pop-up picnics, with the location to be revealed shortly before the event. Interested parties are instructed to "Like" the Facebook pages for Captain Bill's and Madison's Dinner in White to stay in the loop.