The Man Who Came to Dinner

In the course of being wined and dined, The Man Who Came to Dinner strives to uncover new and exciting developments in the gastronomic world.

Assuming there's a free meal attached, obviously.
For the purpose of these industry-related forays, we have developed an elaborate, totally objective, and almost painfully critical rating system to ensure the highest standards for our readers. And a recent invitation that arrived at SFDinner@aol.com provided the perfect trial run for our grueling dine-athlon.

Reading the e-mailed invitation from CookExpress.com I was intrigued enough to surf on over (+3 points). (The company operates through a Web site.) It took me a moment to understand exactly what the company does (-2 points). But then I got it: Cook Express proposes to deliver gourmet restaurant-style meals in semiprepped but uncooked kits for you to finish preparing at home. It's kind of a cross between Waiters on Wheels and the take-and-bake pizza concept.

I decided to bite (+5 points).
As I pulled up to the Cook Express kitchen, off Highway 101 in Burlingame, I could see a group of Cook Expressers eagerly awaiting my arrival just beyond a swinging glass door. Suddenly apprehensive, I was compelled to drive one more lap around the block (-3 points).

Once I braved the interior I was swept into a sea of introductions: CEO, COO, marketing-this and development-that. Everyone had a big smile on his or her face (-10). Off to the side I spied a well-set table for six, an appetizer tray of cheeses and olives, and one dozen assorted bottles of wine. Some simple math brought me to this conclusion: two bottles per person (and that's +25 points).

"We were going to ask you to finish the cooking," said Dennis Joyce from marketing. "But there's six people tonight and we thought that might be too much."

"Unless you'd like to cook?" offered Meredith Taylor, president and COO. "After all, that is the idea."

"Of course," I accepted. "I'd love to give it a try." It was participatory dining (let's say +15).

My willingness to play ball seemed instantly appreciated as the group whisked me toward the kitchen to be "smocked and netted." I was quickly draped in a giant white kitchen smock (+10 points) and my first ever lunch-lady hair net (+2). I was not, however, outfitted with one of those cool fluffy chef's hats (-10).

Inside the large, industrial kitchen I was introduced to Executive Chef Gaines Dobbins and his sidekick, Matt Koss. As development chef, Matt is responsible for creating and testing the various concoctions that will make their way onto the Cook Express cybermenu.

Kathy Weiss, content manager (man, there were a lot of people), quickly filled one of my hands with a cracker and cheese (+5) and the other with a glass of Rosemount Estate Granache/Shiraz '97 (+10). Gaines and Matt led me on a tour of their kitchen, the highlight of which was the walk-in refrigerator filled with a huge array of ingredients in various stages of pre-prep. We selected two entree kits for the evening's meal: The Pan-Roasted Salmon and Jan Birnbaum's Pork. The latter, I was told, is an example of the company's monthly contribution from a "celebrity chef."

After I'd refilled my wine glass and restocked my cheese hand (+15) we all met back in the center of the kitchen to begin the main event. It was decided that Darby Williams, Cook Express' founder and CEO, and I would each finalize one of the meals -- just like you would at home.

After a fair amount of deliberation I decided to go with the salmon. Darby, by default, would prepare the pork.

Opening the sturdy cardboard box, labeled "Pan-roasted salmon with garlic mashed potatoes and red wine demi-glace," I found a set of finishing instructions and a complete meal kit. Each ingredient in my pack was neatly stored in proportionately sized plastic containers. The salmon fillets were shrink-wrapped. And each item was clearly labeled with a giant letter, corresponding to the appropriate step in the instructions.

For a moment, I felt like an audience member who'd been asked to participate on a late-night infomercial (-10).

A race was declared (+20) as Darby and I began cooking. I had a considerable edge going in, as my instructions estimated a "Time to finish: 20 minutes," vs. the 30 minutes projected for Darby's.

On your spatulas. Get set. Go!
Over the next 20 minutes I preheated, seasoned, added, sauteed, turned, roasted, stirred, removed, covered, poured off, and wilted (+30). It was like assembling a kid's bicycle at Christmas -- but for grown-ups.

I was also careful to take frequent breaks for wine (+10) and intermittent bites from the Mixed Mesclun Greens and Classic Caesar Salad packs (+5 and +7, respectively).

Following the instructions to complete my meal was a fairly easy task (+5), but not entirely without its challenges (+10). I definitely needed to keep my eye on the clock and juggle a few different things at once. In fact, while it might have seemed that everything was under control as I took a break to sip my wine, I was secretly a bit frazzled by the group, who kept trying to engage me in small talk about New Jersey (-25).

Still, I was able to successfully "plate" my meals by placing a mound of mashed potatoes in the center of each dish, covering it with wilted greens and a salmon fillet, then spooning the demi-glace around the inner rims of the plates and sprinkling with pre-chopped chives.

Voila! The dish actually did look just like something you'd get at a great restaurant. And although I consider myself a fairly adept cook, I don't think I've ever created something quite that professional-looking before (+50). As expected, Darby's meal was still in the works, allowing the whole group to ceremoniously declare me the new "Iron Chef Champion" (+1,000).

A few moments later we transferred all the food to the dining table and sat down to the evening's meal. Gaines complimented me on the "height" of my salmon fillets. I wasn't exactly sure what he was talking about, but it was clearly an outright compliment (+100). New wines were poured (+20), including a Seven Peaks Cabernet Shiraz and a Benton Lane Pinot Noir, both '96. We'd only prepared four plates for six people so we all agreed to pass and share. (I like things casual [+50].)

Digging into my salmon for the first time, I was just slightly nervous. I know salmon should be rare and although I followed the time instructions pretty closely, I got somewhat distracted by a "What exit?" question right around minute three. No worries, though: My fillet was perfectly rare, with two tones of pink inside. At the same time the crust was unbelievably crisp and tasty. It was maybe one of the best pieces of salmon I have ever had (+100), second only perhaps to a memorable herb-crusted slice at Noe Valley's Firefly.

And although I feared I'd left them on the heat far too long, the garlic mashed potatoes made a delicious and creamy team with the wilted greens and fish (+25).

As one of Darby's plates made its way toward me I vowed to put aside all competition and remain culinarily objective. The marinated pork chops were very tasty (+20), but, truth be told, they were a little bit dry (-10). (Sorry, Darby.) And while everyone agreed that the "Soft Sexy Grits" were perfectly done, I found my first mouthful bland and sexless (-10). Maybe they're an acquired taste. Still, the pre-pickled cabbage was extra good. It was a chunky slaw in a sweet and tangy dressing that I wouldn't have expected to like, but did (+20). Overall, the food was awfully impressive, hard to screw up, and a lot of fun to make (+500).

After dinner Darby pulled out the laptop to show me around the site while Kathy and Meredith assembled a tray of amazing desserts. Each item comes from local bakers and is also available online for delivery. The highlights for me were the Fresh Berry Bambino Cheesecake (+7) and the incredible Chocolate Zinfandel Tart (+15). Gaines followed up with a pot of fresh pressed coffee.

As I said my goodbyes I began tallying the CookExpress.com total score in my head. Just then, Matt emerged from the walk-in to present me with a parting gift: a Chilean Sea Bass kit for the road. This blatant attempt to buy some last-minute points in our first ever and scrupulously fair dine-athlon did not go unnoticed.

Well, it depends how you define "noticed" (+1,000).

By Barry Levine

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail SFDinner@aol.com and tell us what's cookin'.

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