Wow. Sweet peas, tangy mint, crunchy macadamias and buttery white chocolate. Smooth coconut milk, floral kaffir lime, peppery coriander and sugary watermelon. Creamy Anson Mills grits folded with a spinachy borage puree and a piquant nasturtium foam. Last night I got to eat some of the most exciting, delicious combinations I've tasted anywhere, let alone at the James Beard House. At the foundation's first vegetarian dinner in more than 20 years, Jeremy Fox of Ubuntu in California's Napa Valley, an F&W Best New Chef 2008, pretty much knocked our socks off. And then his wife—Ubuntu's pastry chef, Deanie—knocked us all flat with her unbelievable vegan (vegan!) carrot cupcakes with teeny-tiny candied carrots on top. (All the produce came from Ubuntu's biodynamic garden—is it Rudolf Steiner's gardening methods that pack such incredible flavor into a matchstick-sized baby root vegetable?)
The energy of the event was so refreshing. Beard dinners can get a little staid, but the terrace during the cocktail hour felt more like the Barney's warehouse sale than a formal dinner; guests snatched up the demitasse cups of that watermelon and coconut milk velouté like they were Jimmy Choos at an 80-percent discount. My elbows got a little bruised. During the main meal we settled down a bit, but the atmosphere still resembled a happy kindergarten class at recess, the way we all chattered away about the food. Some things didn't quite work; I was a little perplexed by the fried egg that came with unctuous porcini "coq au vin," and I wasn't that nuts about the French beans that came with grilled peach "panzanella." But I was delighted to be so challenged, surprised and sated by just about every last dish put before me. It's now been said many places, but the Foxes are some seriously talented chefs.