NEWPORT BEACH — When the sixth annual the Art of Dining fund-raiser for the Newport Harbor Art Museum took place Sunday evening, new life was breathed into the idea with the introduction of an Italian theme.
The coordinating chef, Joachim Splichal of Patina restaurant in Los Angeles, is a master of organization. Indeed, these glittery dinners held every spring in the main ballroom of the Four Seasons Newport Beach are just about the most painstakingly successful event dinners anywhere. This year's attracted more than 300 people and, as always, went off without any major glitches.
Still, Splichal felt that "after five years, we needed something different, something to give the dinner a new edge."
That it had. Splichal used his considerable influence to pull in top Italian chefs from around the country: Marta Pulini from Le Madri in New York, Paul Bartolotta from Spiaggia in Chicago, Angelo Auriana from Valentino in L.A., just to name a few.
Pulini was the only woman with a dish on the evening's long menu (although Christine Hillmer from South Coast Plaza's Piccola Cucina and Suzanne Tracht, sous chef at Campanile in Los Angeles, ably assisted in the Four Seasons' kitchen). Italy is one country where women are welcome in restaurant kitchens, so it is probably no coincidence that Pulini's dish--\o7 lasagna con verdure, \f7 a light, ethereal vegetable lasagna with a crusty top, chewy layers of pasta and a filling of such exotica as artichoke, morels and peas--turned out to be nearly everyone's favorite.
I also was quite mad for Mark Peel's cedar smoked salmon with artichoke and mushroom salad, even if it is a stretch to call the dish Italian. Peel, also from Campanile, smoked his fish delicately over a plank of cedar wood, releasing lush textures and myriad flavors.
The dinner began with an artful antipasto from Michel Pieton, the hotel's executive chef, and continued with light, delicious baby clams and leeks in a white wine garlic broth with parsley from chef Bartolotta. That was followed by the Peel and Pulini courses, and a short break for the auction.
Most everyone would have been more than content to have stopped then and there, but three more courses followed. First after the break was a risotto with porcini mushrooms and zucchini flowers from Valentino's Auriana (Valentino's owner, Piero Selvaggio, also came along, to inform the audience about Italian wines).
Next was a wonderful pan roasted Napa Valley squab laid out on a pale green puree of potatoes and mascarpone cheese by Michael Chiarello of St. Helena's Tra Vigne, and a merciless dessert called Valrhona tiramisu tower with hazelnut ice cream and pistachio biscotti, the creation of Bruno Feldheisen, Splichal's pastry chef.
\o7 Mama mia! \f7 That says it all.
As ever, the good accompanying wines were provided by the Robert Mondavi Winery. Michael Mondavi served as master of ceremonies.
Next year, who knows? "Maybe," said Splichal, "we'll do Asia." Sign up for those aerobics classes well in advance.