Down East 2013 ©
Restaurant hosted wine dinners are often a heady confluence of too much food and drink. To the epicurean, these can come off as testimonial dinners where windbag hosts pontificate between courses like schoolmarms teaching the abc’s. From my experience, after the fifth or sixth glass is poured and the sweet course served, I’m ready to bolt like the wildebeest.
But what if the food is superb and the wines extraordinary? Are one’s exhortations expendable?
As it turned out I attended a wine dinner held at the Tavern at Brunswick Station  where an evening of such unexpected good cheer, food and wine flowed like a feast served on a pleasure cruise down the Nile.
To give full disclosure I was invited by a PR firm in the hopes that I would write about the event. I usually ignore these invitations to avoid conflict of interest issues; and I had no intention of giving lip service to the event, but I decided to go because the menu seemed compelling. The experience exceeded expectations beyond measure, and it shows how an otherwise local restaurant can rise to the occasion.
The Tavern, on Maine Street, across from the Bowdoin College  campus, attracts a nice local following. The hotel is well appointed in an unexciting way, and the Tavern, their restaurant, has that clubby feel not unlike being in a richly endowed college’s private dining room where the elite can meet.
While the restaurant’s regular menu offers respectable grill fare, the chef, Kevin Cunningham, from Boston with a varied cooking background, really showed off his talents by preparing an ambitious six course dinner that was nearly flawless.
The wines were courtesy of Shramsberg Vineyards, the eminent producer of sparkling wines, which rival the best of the Champagne district in France. Many rare wines were offered that evening and it was a treat to have them.
What I also hadn’t realized is that this gathering of some 30 people was for the alumni of Bowdoin College who were there to celebrate their 25th anniversary reunion, including Shramsberg scion Hugh Davies who presided not just as the family’s lead winemaker but an alumni of the class of 1987.
The food and wine flight started off with passed hors d’oeuvres of miniature crab cakes topped with seared bay scallops and pouring of Shcramsberg Blanc de Blanc 2008. The cakes were not the usual leaden orbs from the flash fryer but rather a light, airy savory confection bound with whipped egg white, coated with panko and sautéed in butter. The Blanc de Blanc was a perfect match. These crab cakes are on the Tavern’s regular menu and well worth ordering.
Now at the table, the first course was grilled salmon set atop an absolutely delicious mélange of baby spinach coated with a tarragon cream. The Shramsberg Brut Rose shows how a complex wine — whether wine or red — stands up to the strong flavors of salmon.
The next course was my favorite — a confit of duck leg wrapped in pancetta with a carrot puree that was incredibly rich, with copious amounts of butter and cream — a high-style dish that was superb. This was paired with the Blanc de Noirs, a Pinot based wine that is very subtle but complexly flavored wine that matched up to the richness of the duck.
This was followed by a rack of lamb, three chops bathed in a Madeira reduction with smoked Chanterelles and ethereal trinkets of potato gnocchi. If a chef can conjure up perfect gnocchi, which he did, then it shows he knows what he’s doing. The accompanying wine, trade name J. Davies, was an incredible Cabernet from their vineyards on Diamond Mountain in Napa. This is a beautifully lush wine, one of the best California cabs I’ve had, and an expensive offering that retails for about $80 per bottle.
The final savory course was butter poached Maine lobster laid atop asparagus-flecked risotto. It was good but my least favorite course, though the J Shram, the vineyard’s sparkling wine of Chardonnay grapes, was the perfect foil.
The dessert course was a decisive finish. Served in a tall, wide glass, the mango infused panna cotta with the Shramsberg Cremant Demi-Sec concluded this perfectly wrought wine dinner.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinions. If you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org