Plotting recipes for dinner parties can be a challenge: Do you go with family-style dishes or individually plated? Is dessert a must-have? Or how big do you go on dinner party appetizers? Do you have to have something to feed vegetarians, too?
A Saveur Supper hosted at our offices with chef Jason Pfeifer and his team from Manhatta restaurant—our favorite new restaurant with sweeping views of lower New York City—paved the way for how we want every dinner party to be from here on out.
To be fair, Pfeifer is not your average home cook: Instead he came from an impressive lineage of New York restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, Per Se, and Maialino. But once upon a time, he was just like any curious budding cook.
“When I was 17, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life but I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail,” Pfeifer says. (For those into this kind of thing, his trail name was Rise and Shine.) On the way, Pfeiffer met a traveler who was really into foraging mushrooms. “He just started to teach me about mushrooms. I later bought an Audobon guide and started to read everything I could about it.”
That was in April—right around when ramps and morels were starting to hit Virginia. “We started looking and we filled two gigantic plastic bags with morels. A mile later, we filled two more with ramps, which I had never had either,” the chef says. “Someone had butter and salt, so we just cooked them together. And it was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had. I realized, oh, people do things with food and that’s a career and a way of life.”
Today at Manhatta, Pfeifer’s food is French-leaning with American, Italian, and Asian influences. As for what he cooks at home, he says, it depends: “In the months leading up to opening [Manhatta], I was cooking all sorts of stuff. I definitely still will get elaborate if I want to or am testing something out, but most of the time I braise things, or cook a lot of Korean food. Basic stuff.”
Modest indeed, but during the Saveur Supper, the chef and his team altered our perception of what “home” dining could be. The sense of hospitality was palpable throughout the room, and few of us had rarely had more inspirational dishes packed into one meal.
For chefs who work 60 floors up, these were some of the most down-to-earth folks we’ve hosted with, and we learned a lot about pleasing a crowd and having fun with a dinner party menu. Here are some of the tips we picked up for acing your next gathering:
Don’t Feel Constrained to a Theme
“There’s often one technique behind a dish or a menu that largely drives a feeling of what the cuisine is,” Pfeifer says, “but that doesn’t mean you end up having to have everything be the same.” Though he serves a good amount of French-inspired food at his restaurant, he also loves pasta due to his Italian restaurant background. At the supper, Pfeifer showed us how cohesive and balanced a menu could be that dabbled in French (a chocolate ganache tart with creme fraiche), Italian (truffled homemade pasta), and Asian (wagyu beef with daikon radish and shiitake), too. It’s okay to have a menu that’s a little of everything you love.
When It Comes to Finger Foods, Just Layer
If you don’t have a chef brigade to assist you, crafting a dinner party’s worth of finger foods can sometimes be more trouble than it’s worth. Pfeifer pushed the complex recipes aside and came out with super strong bites that only required one basic job: layering one ingredient atop another. There were bites of jamon on toast with truffles shaved over the top, and simple oysters with mignonette.
Plate a Few Apps, Too
Reserving a few special appetizers as a seated course let everyone get cozy and friendly around the table while starting the meal out casually. (It didn’t hurt that the wine and cocktails from Manhatta beverage director Matt Whitney were also flowing.) Everything served during this course was pre-made, meaning the chefs mostly had to slice or quickly reheat some dishes at seating time. They brought out elegant foie gras presses, some escargot sizzled in charcuterie and sauced with garlic butter, and an incomprehensibly good pâté en croûte with duck and pistachios.
Pair Simple with Fancy
Something all of Pfeifer’s dishes had in common was a more basic ingredient, preparation, or element combined with a more extravagant one. The perfect example: His tagliolini with chicken liver, caramelized onion, and black truffles. The finely minced liver and caramelized onion—both easily attainable and inexpensive—helped add impact, heartiness, and richness to his delicate homemade pasta and shaved truffles. Similarly, a main course of sliced and perfectly seared wagyu beef came with a simple garnish of daikon radish, shiitake mushrooms, and sesame. You don’t need a lot else when the goal is to make one or two ingredients really shine.
Nail the Dessert
While you certainly don’t need dessert while entertaining, an inspiring, well-made one can be the thing that sends your friends and family home raving. Pfeifer and his team made plenty of beautify petit fours for guests to graze on, and baked silky chocolate ganache tarts in fluted pans with a thin layer of whiskey-infused caramel. What propelled the tarts to truly stunning was the generous drizzle of bright, tangy crème fraîche atop each slice, a dramatic color contrast that also balanced out the sweetness of the tart. Click here for the recipe for Manhatta’s Chocolate-Caramel Tart with Crème Fraîche and Sesame.