Morrell Salon (If These Wine-Soaked Walls Could Talk)

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Community
21 November 2016

By Tarajia Morrell
Photos by Mirella Cheeseman

For days afterward, I found sequins in odd places. One shimmered from the floor beside the tub (where I’d had my first bath over three decades ago), another from the faded Oriental rug next to a few rogue grains of rice. Wrestling the sofa back to the center of the room, I found two teardrop-shaped rhinestones clinging to a paisley pillow. The night had gone just as I’d hoped.

The ability to entertain at home in New York City is a rare luxury, one I haven’t been able to enjoy for most of my adult life. Since college, I’ve lived in studio apartments, conducive mostly to parties of one. But after 20 years, last month I moved back into the quirky mango and papaya-hued midtown apartment where I grew up, and where, throughout my childhood, my parents hosted habitual dinner parties.

In the 1940s, my paternal grandparents started the New York City wine shop, Morrell and Company, and later, my dad made it his life’s work to up the echelon of the business, encouraging American wine drinkers to start investing in the then inexpensive wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. When my parents married in 1974, my mother scrambled to elevate her cooking skills to match the wines my father was pouring at their dinners, and she succeeded, as evidenced by the six-course meals that flowed gracefully from her small galley kitchen throughout my youth.

Chef Angelo Romano plating a trio of amuse-bouches
Chef Angelo Romano plating a trio of amuse-bouches

For the next 45 years the apartment grew around my parents, their habits and their aesthetics, a second skin. Their many years here and the frequency with which they filled it with friends, food and wine flowing plentifully, were testaments to their passions and professions, and it remains a shrine to them, untouched. So whenever it’s been suggeseted that I ought to take over the old rental, I’ve bristled. Despite its charms—the high ceilings, the outdoor space and reasonable rent—I couldn't imagine ever feeling like it was truly my home. The wine-centric décor and arrangement of furniture form a static house of cards—removing any one piece would make the whole thing collapse! Yet, desirous of a change and despite reservations, last spring I decided to give living here a try.

Before I moved in, while traveling last summer in France, reporting on food and contemplating a life much further afield, I reread Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and relished Lesley M. M. Blume’s new biography Everybody Behaves Badly, which recounts the real life drama that inspired The Sun Also Rises. Both Feast and Everybody Behaves Badly frequently mention Gertrude Stein's gatherings in the home she shared with partner Alice B. Toklas on Rue de Fleurus on Paris’s Left Bank. While Stein is hardly one of my favorite authors, I admire her ability to bring together the creative geniuses of her day, whether they were undiscovered writers, as Hemingway was at the time, or boundary-pushing painters such as Picasso, Matisse and Cézanne, whose work she collected and displayed prominently. After first seeing Cézanne’s work in Stein’s apartment, Hemingway was inspired to come up with an entirely modern literary voice to rival Cézanne’s fresh aesthetic one.

Long before Stein, the possible Mona Lisa muse Isabella d’Este was uniting the illuminati of Renaissance Italy in her sala, the large reception room of her northern Italy mansion, from which the term “salon” originates. As I braced myself for the emotionally loaded return to my childhood home, I thought about how lucky I was to be raised in an environment where the pleasure of wine and food were paramount, where meals—the last one and the next one—were a constant discussion. Though I left my childhood home at age 15, struggled as an actor in my twenties, and spent years looking for a professional direction, when I returned to the food world—as a writer and restaurant consultant—my perpetual sense of wonder, inspiration and satisfaction at my job was proof that, whether I recognized it or not, my path has always been linked to the table.

Adding the amino acid egg yolk to the rice with chicken fat and young ginger
Adding the amino acid egg yolk to the rice with chicken fat and young ginger

The difficulty in returning to where I began was completely mitigated when I considered what the apartment could provide in terms of hosting (after all, I have to make up for almost two decades in single occupancy spaces). Here was perfect opportunity to unite my family ethos with my own culinary passions and work in hospitality. With its wine poster art on every wall and displays of decanters and tastevins, the home would provide the perfect place to celebrate what my parents had created—lives enriched by the gifts of the table, and also excite conversation about what is happening in food and wine now. The idea for Morrell Salon was born: a monthly gathering of food-lovers, writers, chefs, winemakers and curious bon vivants.

For my first salon in October, I wanted chef and wine co-hosts who would embody what is current. Chef Angelo Romano, who had cooked in the early days of beloved Roberta’s, then at the Gowanus farm-to-table eatery, The Pines, and most recently at impossible-to-define Rocky Slims in Murray Hill, was the obvious choice. It was at Rocky Slim’s where I’d visited Angelo, and at the behest of a trusted foodie friend, asked him to cook me his “secret” tasting menu: half-a-dozen kooky courses consisting of things like oozing aged persimmon with La Tur cheese, olive oil and a flurry of tonka bean dust; and Guinea Hen bone broth with fresh coconut and shaved Burgundian truffle, served with a shot of the fresh coconut water on the side. His unusual but deft concoctions made my mind work with their simplicity and originality. His food is a graceful mélange of cultures and references, yet is never fussy and is always genuine.

Angelo loves natural wine—biodynamic, often unfiltered wine made with minimal manipulation and without additives—so I knew we needed someone equally “Now” who could curate and properly guide my guests through the meal’s natural wine pairings. Alexis Schwartz, a millennial natural wine-loving wunderkind, who co-founded the natural wine event, Thirsty Thirsty, and works at Zev Rovine Selections was the perfect partner, and it turned out the two were already pals who together often explored the bottom of bottles.

Then I started to think about how one of the best parts of entertaining at home is shopping for the groceries. Both Angelo and I are committed to using the best local and seasonal ingredients, so I wanted to source from somewhere with the same ethos. Since childhood, Dean & DeLuca is the place I’ve always associated with that excellence. I recall my mother’s excitement when she brought home a truffle from the Prince Street bastion, how she’d carefully unwrap it over the kitchen counter and have me inhale its feral fragrance before placing into an Arborio rice nest, which it would infuse with its flavor. It happens to be white truffle season, and I couldn’t resist Angelo when he asked if he could buy two from Dean & DeLuca to shave atop his Matsutake Brodo…after all, I was raised to believe the most meaningful gifts were edible.

Burnt Sweet Potato in Molasses with Chestnut Clotted Cream & Hyssop
Burnt Sweet Potato in Molasses with Chestnut Clotted Cream & Hyssop

In the galley kitchen where my mother learned from Julia Child cookbooks how to make dishes to pair with the extraordinary wines that my father was pouring, Angelo produced strange things like Fig with Bomba (eggplant) & Shiso and Dayboat Scallops with Lufu (that’s fermented tofu) with hemp & sorrel. Even my gastronomically esoteric guests had questions, but that’s the point! Alexis’s wine pairings, like Chilean sparkling cider and winemaker Anne Paillet’s violet-scented Cincault Grenache blend from the Languedoc were the perfect counterpoints to Angelo’s unconventional dishes.

I knew what I wanted to create with Morrell Salon. I wanted to echo the elegance and care with which my parents endlessly entertained during my childhood. I wanted guests to feel transported to another era of New York dinner parties, when no special occasion was necessary as an excuse to revel. I wanted to create a space in which others could discover the culinary talents I am lucky enough to have found in New York and around the world through my work; a space where questions are welcome and guests can take their time. The result was exactly what I had intended and expected, but I doubt anything could have prepared my guests for the quirky little wine-centric world that they encountered, my parents’ world, which I have chosen to leave completely intact and lean into, at least for the time being.

Oddly, in the days that followed the first Morrell Salon, the apartment felt different. More than just the furniture had shifted. Somehow, by sharing my family’s spirit with my friends and colleagues, by filling my childhood home to the brim with my people, and convincing a chef of my generation to cook in that narrow kitchen from which my first meals came, I had exorcised my fear of returning. To my complete surprise, as I gathered rhinestones and rice from the carpet, I realized it had begun to feel like a home of my own.

Bomba with Figs & Shiso, Fermented Kohlrabi in Sambal, and Foie with Tonka & Caraway Bread
Bomba with Figs & Shiso, Fermented Kohlrabi in Sambal, and Foie with Tonka & Caraway Bread
Thumb tarajia morrell 02
Tarajia Morrell
Correspondent

 

 

For all of the evening’s intricacies, Angelo Romano’s laid back Heirloom Rice in Chicken Fat with Salted Young Ginger & an Amino Acid Egg was everyone’s favorite. It’s also incredibly easy to make yourself. Here’s how:

Heirloom rice with chicken fat and salted ginger 
Second helping of yolk in liquid amino acids 

Recipe serves 6 as a mid course

Ingredients:
200g heirloom rice, organic rice, long grain or bamboo rice
80g chicken fat (split into 40g each)
600ml organic chicken stock
100g young ginger*
2.5g sea salt*
20g goat whey*
6 room temperature high quality raw egg yolks
90g liquid amino acids** split into 6 ramekins (@ 15g each), one for each yolk
* Combine salt, whey and grated ginger two days prior and let sit at room temperature covered 
** Ideally liquid coconut aminos, soy liquid aminos or a good tamari with no wheat added

Instructions:
Simmer chicken stock in a pot on stove.
Rinse rice fully submerged in cold water 3 times (water should be relatively clear before cooking). Strain rice and dry on a towel.
In a large pot, melt 40g chicken fat until clear. Add rice to pot with chicken fat, and toast until rice releases toasting aroma (about 3 minutes).
Add 40g of salted ginger and stir gently for one more minute.
Add simmering chicken stock into rice and stir with chopsticks. Let rice and stock simmer on medium-high heat, covered for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and let rice steam for another 10-12 minutes.
Remove pot from the heat, remove lid, and cover pot with a damp towel for 5 minutes.
Gently fold in remaining 40g chicken fat with chopsticks or a large fork.
Heat ramekins with liquid aminos in oven for 5 minutes at 325F.
Remove ramekins from oven and place one egg yolk in each.
Distribute rice between the 6 bowls and sprinkle each with remaining salted ginger.
Serve immediately along with the ramekin on the side to be poured over the rice and stirred in at your leisure.

 

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