New Zealand Wine Dinner
The Lord of the Rings: Motion Picture Trilogy Exhibition at the Indiana State Museum, Indianapolis, IN
Ticket Office: 317.232.1637, Reservations required.
Review by SuSu, MaceVindaloo, Diana, Wraith6, RuntEkwesh
The dinner was restricted to 60 guests at $65 apiece, which included all tips, taxes, wines, etc. and would be held at the L.S. Ayres Tearoom, which is a restored department store tearoom display which doubles as a luncheon and afternoon tea restaurant, and also houses the catering kitchens for the museum. The price is a great deal, and though many of us had to pay for planefare and hotels in order to imbibe, it took a lot less time and cost than heading back "home."
Costumes were not required, but a couple of people came dressed. Both women dressed as elves: one depicted Arwen, the other attempted Galadriel, complete with ears. The waiter mistook her for a Trekkie and even said so ...
The advertised menu featured some modern uses for New Zealand ingredients. We think we would have preferred Lamingtons and Pies and Mum's Sunday Dinner, but this sounded good! Alas, when we got there, we discovered that the advertised New Zealand ingredients didn't always materialize, and those of us who suffered to cooking school would have done better ... but it was tasty and the wine was actually the real star of the dinner, and it flowed freely!
The dinner started a bit late, as the organizers planned to serve the dinners simultaneously like a wedding banquet, and there were a few latecomers. We were served freshly brewed, unsweeted iced tea while we waited. The general manager of Crystal Catering, who are the in-house food service at the Museum, worked with Allied Domecq, a wine distributor. Alas, their representative didn't seem to know much about the wines, and even less about New Zealand. For instance, he claimed that there were two sheep per person in terms of population ... the actual ratio is 22:1, with sheep having the advantage. The catering manager knew much more about wines in general, and could judge the quality of the wines being served better than the distributor. The man acted like he couldn't believe he was "caught" not knowing anything, as if the spiel he was giving should have been good enough. He avoided us after our first contact with him.
We spoke to the chef, and he revealed that the catering manager was actually the person to make the menu recommendations, did the tastings, and designed and edited the menu. Also, the New Zealand ingredients which were supposed to be here did not make it; substitutions were, in fact made. The food tasted fine. The presentation was a bit ham-handed (one of us referred to the pears as "squid with pink sauce" and actually refused to touch it ... presentation IS important). The head chef backed away from us when we revealed we were trained cooks, from New Zealand, or both ... We did compliment their use of the ingredients they had on hand, and in many cases (like the cheeses) it's likely that the US-available ingredients were better than could be imported from Kiwiville.
Well, it's Indianapolis, not New York City. But the food was cooked well, and the taste was not stellar, but it was good and safe. We did notice that the fish dish turned up at lunch the next day as a special. It was good then, too.
New Zealand wines are frequently presented in a screw-top bottle; cork has to be imported and drives the cost of each bottle up significantly. It seems that vinyards there (at least the ones which have decided to export to the US, etc.) have made a decision to fit into the $10 to $20 per bottle range and to go for the more casual, more daily wine customer. Restaurants typically triple or quadruple the price of a bottle, so that would make these bottles mid-range in price. These wines are served younger, rather than requiring cellaring, or even "blooming" before serving.
Of the wines, some of us don't like champagne-style sparkling wines, but the Brut (dry) was pretty good good enough to not want to mix it with orange juice, that's for sure. It wasn't overly fizzy, but perhaps that was becuase it was served in old-fashioned champagne bowls rather than flutes (preferable for some!). It went well with the shellfish starter course, and was tart enough to cut through the rich lobster sauce, too.
The Sauvignon Blanc was Riesling-like: light, crisp, fresh, and it was still strong enough to handle the rather strong raspberry sauce and red wine poached pears and sugared nuts. It's a varietal which New Zealand is now famous for; previously, the country had been known for excellent reds, but they were not produced in large enough quantity or at a reasonable enough cost to export.
The Pinot Noir was very full flavored with a bite to it like those old Australian Hermitage wines. It had a strong oaky nose, which reflects its aging in new oak barrels, but the taste was not that unpleasant oak. (The distributer kept talking about "fruit" and "blackberry" notes, but he read the label on the back of the bottle. And he and the bottle were wrong.)
The Brancott Chardonnay was surprisingly not over-oaked; "too oaky" is typical of down-under chardonnays. The color was a darker golden color rather than the more traditional straw. The flavor was full without being "buttery" and it was remarkably light and drinkable at the same time.
The Kim Crawford Merlot was amazing, even if you consider the great value for the price of the bottle. It was very full but not "chewy" and even though it was not a sweet wine, the fruit flavors and smells would have complemented many desserts, perhaps even something as strong as chocolate cake. But it went perfectly with the selection of cheeses, holding its own against the stronger flavored cheeses yet complementing the lighter, softer cheeses, too. We'll be looking for this bottle and this vinyard!
Our waiter was very chatty and friendly. He gave us a lot of history of the space, and filled us in on the types of parties and receptions the museum caters. Apparently, this sort of tasting menu is not something they commonly host, but that it was not unusual for him, as most events must fit into the evening-only schedules slots, when the museum is not open as a museum. He's more used to 350 for a buffet or sit-down meal in the large entry halls or galleries of the museum, for corporate and private events like weddings or the like. He seemed to be a full-time professional waiter, and we learned that one can make a living in a place like Indianapolis in that type of profession, even though tipping might not be as generous as it would be in bigger places. He gave us tips regarding what to see and where to go during our stay.
All the staff were friendly, and you can tell they were very proud of what they'd accomplished with this dinner. Apparently, the New Zealand Wine Dinner would be held twice during the tenancy of the Lord of the Rings exhibition, and was sponsored by the wine distributor as a way of promoting Kiwi wines. The catering manager also seemed to indicate that he was looking to modify the menus and offerings of his facility, and hopefully encourage more events at the museum. We think they did a good job, and if we lived near here, and if we needed to have a big bash, we'd certainly look into hiring the halls and the catering in this place. It's reasonably priced, and everyone seemed happy.
Finally, when we asked if there was more cheese or wine, there always was, and they happily packed up any extra cheese and crackers for us to snack on. We wish we could attend this good value dinner again; but if you find yourself in Indianapolis, check to see when events like this wine dinner are available. Reservations are required to attend, so be sure you buy your ticket in plenty of time. On top of that, they will "comp" you a ticket for the museum itself (minus special exhibits), so you can come early and see the displays, or stay late after the dinner, too. It'll be a better night out!
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