The Ultimate Dinner Party

Legendary Toronto chef and DailyXY contributor Chris McDonald may be most at home in restaurants, but he’s got a soft spot for dinner parties, too. Here, he offers some tips on the ultimate at-home supper club experience for New Year’s eve — or any time this winter.

The Guest List
“If you have friends from different parts of your life, there’s a risk,” says McDonald. “We’re not talking about a Twister party, where people can still play if they don’t get along. This is a highly civilized situation, meant for conversation and the pleasures of the table.” To facilitate such an atmosphere, McDonald says, invite guests via e-mail. “In this situation, e-mailing is the most gracious choice,” he says. “Copy everybody so they can see who’s coming.” By contrast, a phone call puts people on the spot and a printed invitation is overkill.

McDonald also emphasizes that a meticulously planned party is not a “someone-brought-an-Aussie-shiraz-so-we-better-open-it” type of affair. “If people reply and ask what they can bring, say, ‘Don’t bring anything. Just come in a taxi, so you don’t have to worry and I don’t have to worry.’ “

The Set-up
Simplicity is key. “A well-set table doesn’t need much,” McDonald says. “Good wineglasses are key. And rent if you don’t have enough.” Name cards, however, are “over the top” for small affairs, McDonald adds. “With eight people, there can be one conversation at the table; there’s no need [for them].”

The Vibe
Avoid anything that might distract from the food and conversation. “Be wary of flowers and candles that are too aromatic,” McDonald warns. Even music can be disruptive. “Music is for when you’re listening to music and dining is for conversation. I like to not have music when I’m having dinner,” he says, acknowledging that his approach might not work for everyone.

The Menu
For winter dinner parties, McDonald favours slow-cooked comfort foods — choucroute, cassoulet, bollito misto — because they’re ideal for large groups and advance preparation. “It might take a day to make,” he says, “but it’s the day before.”

The king of these dishes, he says, is osso buco: “It’s my last-meal dish.” Such a rich main means the rest of the meal can be pared down. Although risotto is osso buco’s traditional accompaniment, McDonald says, “It suffers from being pre-made. And you don’t want to be stirring for 25 minutes while guests are waiting.” Instead, serve it with a soft polenta and Swiss chard. Click here for McDonald’s recipe.

Start with olives, breadsticks and oysters. The salad should be light and crisp, says McDonald. “[Try] fennel or local carrots and turnips with a nice buttermilk dressing. To jazz it up, add Dungeness crab.”

Finally, McDonald recommends a cheese plate comprising a goat’s milk, a cow’s milk, a sheep’s milk and a blue. Include plain crackers, a crusty walnut loaf and some sliced apple and pear. If you want to ramp up the cheese plate, McDonald says, pair the cheeses with chocolates, but do so carefully, as this can be tricky. Dark chocolates with dried fruits, for instance, may work with Stilton or other blues. For something off-the-wall, try a McDonald creation: milk chocolate with olives paired with a Camembert.

The Essential
“If you adore osso bucco, you adore it for the bone marrow,” says McDonald. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t bother.” To ensure that your guests savour every drop of your extraordinary meal, provide them with extraordinary utensils: silver-plated marrow scoops. “Like napkin rings or oyster forks, marrow scoops are completely unnecessary,” he says. “But they take us back to a gentler time — and not many of your guests will know what they are.” At upwards of $30 each, they’re not cheap. But, “they’re beautiful objects, and they’ll last forever.” 9 1/2-inch marrow scoop, US $43.

Image courtesy of Jill Clardy.

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