Pusser's Caribbean Grille
Apr 01, 2018 07:00AM
Photography by Tony Lewis, Jr.
Pusser’s Chef Rises to Occasion for Restaurant’s Dinner Series
Savvy locals know that prime time at Pusser’s Caribbean Grille is a weekend brunch and happy hour drinks (read rum) on the deck. Here is where guests get a close-up of luxury yachts
in the Annapolis Harbor and fancy power boats attracting attention in Ego Alley. Otherwise, there are lots of other restaurants to showcase our town’s diverse dining scene. But none are so close to the water.
What only a handful of locals know is that Pusser’s, owned for the past 12 years by Annapolis resident Clyde E.
Culp III, hosts a Wine and Spirit Dinner Series between January and April. Culp himself, a pleasant gentleman with courtly manners, was among the sixty or so oenophile/foodies gathered recently for a feast of five courses prepared by Pusser’s Executive Chef Jim Eriksen—each carefully matched by Food and Beverage Director Chris Townsend with wines from the prestigious Cakebread Cellars Winery in California’s Napa Valley.
“How many people here think the name Cakebread is associated with bakery products?”, asked Katy Santiff, known to Pusser’s managerial staff as “the wine dinner guru” since she helped launch the wine dinner program seven years ago. It is her job (and her pleasure) to facilitate the evening with a description of the vineyard itself (Cakebread is the family name of the evening’s featured winery), the background on the winery, and explain each of the evening’s featured wines. A millennial with an impressive depth of wine knowledge, Santiff used slides to introduce the room to the Cakebread family, its history of planting its first 22 acres in 1972, harvesting the following year, and bottling its first prize-winning chardonnay in 1973. It is also known for its robust reds, especially one named Dancing Bear that sells for around $300 a bottle.
By this time, her audience was primed to sample Cakebread Winery’s finest. First up was a crisp 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, paired with an original creation called Vegetable Chartreuse. Chef Eriksen confided it was challenging to create a first course to match the signature grassiness of the style. Eriksen’s creation was precise—thin slices of winter vegetables nicely tied together with a drizzle of bright green Chartreuse liqueur and a swirl of whipped feta cheese on top. The combination was eye-appealing and refreshing to the palate, demonstrating in miniature what Pusser’s kitchen
can do in such circumstances.
The next course, a trio of seared day boat scallops, was a personal favorite of mine and several others at the table. A measured encounter with high heat gave the seafood a deep brown exterior with a snow white salty interior tasting like the sea. Three different sauces—one made with Morel mushrooms, another a creamy blend of sweet peas, and the third an India-inspired tikka masala—were precisely pooled next to each scallop. The 2016 Cakebread Napa Valley Chardonnay proved the perfect partner for a dish that deserves a place on Pusser’s regular menu.
By this time, spirits at our table, and throughout the room, were high. Conversation, like the wines, flowed freely. A delightful stranger at our table shifted her style from serious to silly by announcing that she was once a belly dancer. On my other side, a sedate woman stopped mid-chew to chime in with a me too comment that caused her husband to look visibly shocked. Conversation soon went to pause as our waiter poured a robust 2014 Cakebread Napa Valley Merlot. Other servers distributed the main course, a filet of fork-tender and flavor-rich certified Angus beef. Everyone’s attention switched to the wine at hand, swirling the crimson liquid in their glasses before going in for a deep inhalation of the wine’s soul.
There was silence as we indulged in the basic pleasure of a good piece of restaurant-style beef, which Chef Eriksen had pan-seared to rare perfection. The filet rested on a ragout of white beans and persimmon (a little-known fruit) and was crowned with a tasty blend of chopped avocado and tomatillos seasoned with the Mexican cheese queso fresco—a combination that added complexity to the dish and complemented the familiar richness of the meat. Cakebread’s merlot was chosen as its partner, a surprise to my cab-biased companion, but the combination worked well.
It was down to the wire and more than two hours into a wonderful social occasion when the fleet of waiters circulated with plates of a firm chocolate pate studded with pistachios and almonds swimming in a pretty pool of house-made cherry sauce. Katy announced that the two goblets at each plate had been filled with two reds: a Cakebread 2014 cabernet sauvignon and a red blend from the family’s latest site—Mullan Road Cellars in Washington State’s Columbia Valley. Some discussion followed, with a toss-up between the two. I preferred the mellowness of the blend over the other.
As the evening waned, Culp made the rounds like a gracious host, thanking folks for coming and greeting regulars by name. “The reason we have these events is to give our chef and his staff the chance to show what they can do, given the time and resources needed to prepare a first-class multi-course meal, with wines to match,” he said. That formula worked like a charm on the evening we were there. Culp said they had learned the perfect parameters after booking 90 people for the restaurant’s Harbor Room. “Much too big, but tonight, with about 60, is perfect.”
Mary Lou Baker is a frequent contributor to What’s Up? Media publications and self-professed gourmand. She has authored numerous culinary articles and recently penned the book Seafood Lover’s Chesapeake Bay: Restaurants, Markets, Recipes & Traditions.