Occasionally, a seemingly small happenstance can lead to something quite special. In this case, a chance meeting over a jar of jam helped inspire a fine dining experience many might expect to more often find in New Orleans or Memphis than in the Golden Triangle.
“I met Melvin Ellis with Mayhew Tomato Farm at Catfish in the Alley during the Columbus Pilgrimage and bought some of their delicious jam,” said Duston Price. He’s assistant manager with the Eat With Us Group at Central Station Grill in Starkville. That encounter led to a collaboration between the farm and restaurant for a Farm-to-Table Wine Pairing Dinner in June that proved so popular, it sold out within two days and had a second night added.
A five-course menu designed by Chef Leon Jefferson around Ellis’ summer harvest featured wine pairings by Price, formerly assistant general manager and event coordinator with Atlanta’s Murphy’s Restaurant and Wine Shop, known for its weekly wine tastings and selections.
“Every summer, we did a Farm-to-Table Dinner Series,” explained Price. “They were always my favorite events; I definitely wanted to bring some of that back to Mississippi with me. … And all of us at Central Station Grill realize the importance of supporting our local farmers.”
Chef Jefferson’s custom menu incorporated the Ellis family’s tomatoes, watermelon, squash, zucchini, eggplant, potatoes and peppers, among other produce, as well as salsa and chow chow, said Melvin Ellis, co-owner of Mayhew Tomato Farm.
“The tomatoes themselves were the stand-out, but everything was equally delicious,” said Jefferson who has been with the Eat With Us Group for 16 years. He drew on his extensive knowledge of flavor profiles to create a dinner that included heirloom tomato and watermelon gazpacho shooters, pan seared scallop salad, pasta pomodoro, sweet tea brined chicken, Manhattan filet and, for dessert, watermelon sorbet. Each dish was a medley. The sweet tea brined chicken, as example, was married with purple hull peas, creamed potatoes and green tomato chow chow. Manhattan filets were presented with charred okra, blistered cherry tomatoes and pan sauce bordelaise.
“Every time I create something, there’s serious thought that goes into it,” Jefferson said. “You’ve got to think about what kind of experience you want the public to have. People are more foodie-minded; they want something they can’t get somewhere else.”
Wine with that
Price’s wine pairings were carefully selected.
“I chose a beautiful wine to complement each dish, but I also selected wines that really spoke about the land in which the grapes were grown,” he said. Guests enjoyed wines from Burgundy and Provence in France, from Willamette Valley, Oregon, and Napa Valley, California. Central Station Grill will debut a new wine list next week that includes several wines from the dinner, as well as others, Price said.
Dinner guest Melanie Hankins Booth is a wine educator who teaches wine appreciation classes for Mississippi State and conducts private wine tasting events. “I think you shouldn’t just drink wine — you should experience it,” said Booth who feels the dinners are a good way to learn more about pairings.
“It was timely for them to serve a rose, as they have increased in popularity in general and make an excellent cool, crisp selection for summertime.” And, she went on, one can never go wrong with a good Oregon Pinot or Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, also served at the dinner.
Booth noted additional choices wine buffs may want to explore, such as New World wines from South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile, which offer “excellent selections at a good price point.”
“It was exciting that someone in town was doing something like this, and they did a great job with the farm-to-table theme,” Booth said.
Hillary and Frank Smith also attended the special event.
“My husband and I have done wine tastings in New Orleans, in Florida, in St. Louis, and this is right there with everybody else,” Hillary Smith said. “The atmosphere, the food, the way they do this … it could be in a five-star restaurant.” When it comes to taste, the couple added, fresh, locally-grown foods offer the best flavor, and occasions like this are a great plus for the community. They look forward to attending the next dinner. Two more are tentatively planned, for September and November. Price said, “Our goal going forward is to do four a year, one each season.”
Ellis agrees it’s good to have events like this in the Golden Triangle. “It’s nice to see that it can happen even in a small, primarily rural area.”
Chef Jefferson generously shared a few recipes from the farm-to-table feast for today’s food section. Bon appetit.
Makes 4 servings
1 large tomato, pureed
1/2 serrano chile
2 cups cubed fresh watermelon
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cucumber, seeded and minced
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill, plus more for garnish
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
SWEET TEA BRINED CHICKEN BREAST
Makes 8 servings
2 family-size tea bags
4 cups water (for tea)
1/4 cup fresh local honey
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves
2 sprigs rosemary
1 tablespoon crushed black pepper
2 cups ice (for brine)
4 pounds chicken breasts (with wing drumette attached)
Makes about 4 cups
Total time: About 1 hour
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 cups watermelon (usually 1 whole large melon)