Intercontinental - Holiday Dinner Party

Monday, December 11, 2000

Helmut Sussenbach* & Steve Thompson*



by Ethel Gofen, Dame de la Châine

Shaking off the first huge snowfall of the season, hardy members of the Chicago Chapter sought shelter in Michigan Avenue’s Hotel-Intercontinental on December 11, 2000, entering a winter wonderland of glowing candlelight and cheery Christmas carolers. They sipped a buoyant celebratory rare Champagne—-Vranken “Lucas Carton” Alain Senderens—-while warming their storm-besieged spirits with hors d’oeuvres hinting at the culinary splendors to follow. Chef des Cuisines Helmut Sussenbach met the emergency of a closed airport with brilliantly devised substitutions to regale us with a feast of the luxurious dishes enjoyed at Réveillon, the traditional Christmas Eve meal served before midnight mass in France. His versions of five Gallic starters—-lamb noisette with caramelized onions, quail raclette with quail egg, Alsatian onion tart crescents, profiterole with warm brie and fig, and plump oysters—-were spectacular and married well with both the champagne and the stories of blizzardy weather and dicey traffic enroute.

At the beautifully-appointed tables, a magnificent feast unfolded. The first three courses blessed our palates with the flavors of cherished ingredients prepared with ingenious artistry: Beluga caviar cheese cake that melted provocatively in the mouth paired with smoked salmon, goose liver sheathed in brioche served with duck foie gras terrine and an apple/rosemary compote, and a divine cream of escargot laced with Pernod, accompanied by a great classic sauterne, the 1988 Chateau Doisy. The exquisite flavors, balancing tart and sweet garnishes, seemed a fine reward for the great effort it had taken to get to the dinner. Vice Conseiller Culinaire Heinz H. Kern gave the Toast and then reveled in the long and distinguished history of good dinners we have enjoyed at the Inter-Continental, a hotel well-known for its historic swimming pool as well as its wonderful cuisine and service, where earlier this year we had toured and been beautifully fed in its fascinating kitchen.

As we watched snow drift down on Michigan Avenue through the picture windows, our holiday tables aglow with candlelight reflected in the sparkling crystal, we relished the 1995 Landmark “Damaris Reserve” from Sonoma dancing on our tongues with delicate turbot scented with crayfish beurre blanc—- a last-minute switch from St. Pierre unable to land at the shuttered O’Hare airport. Once again, each element of a complex dish retained its unique flavor and the artistic presentation dazzled. Vice Chargé de Missions/Caviste Charles Lockhart, as always, enhanced our enjoyment of the wines with his comments on their origins, rarity, and special resonance with their matching courses and even the crystal chosen for each one. Next a regal loin of veal arrived stuffed with leeks, awash in a fortune of aromatic shaved white truffles and garnished with sautéed sweetbreads. Triangles of tiny vegetables and delicately fried basil leaves added to the splendor of this presentation, which was accompanied by a 1996 Domaine des Perdrix Grand Cru Echezeaux—-and celestial music—-the harpist’s ornate version of “O Tannenbaum.” The chef’s wise selection of cheeses, high in both butterfat and exquisite flavors, perfectly matched with with a robust 1988 Chateau Brainaire Ducru Saint Julien. Kissing all the senses, this course had as well a love-apple frosted with edible gold that mirrored the red and gold of its elegant china plating, cherries and apricots, walnuts and pistachios, and freshly-baked warm breads playing off the cedar and chocolate aspects of the Bordeaux. What a special Christmas gift to receive such perfection in every detail! Fueled with all this great sustenance, our applause for Chef Sussenbach, Steven Thompson, the Director of Catering, and the entire staff was profoundly energetic.

The grand finale of chestnut ice cream nested in a web of pulled sugar, poached pear baked in pastry, and eggnog pate with cranberry compote and a cylinder of chocolate ensured that everyone’s favorite foods were included in this incredible procession of great French holiday dishes. Washed down with a 1999 Saracco Moscato d’Asti and then coffee with the mignardises, we were transported in an instant to midnight marvels of Paris and Provence, to Arles and Aix and Alsace, a miraculous creation of the French Christmas Eve of our most fiercely treasured culinary dreams.