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Dinner as Theater

Sencha's literary dinners a feast for eyes, ears and palates



If going out to dinner is your idea of a great escape, then going to a literary dinner at Sencha is a world tour, a magic carpet ride.

Chef Brent Beavers is a young guy endowed with formidable kitchen skills, a raucous imagination and a combined sense of adventure and humor that set him apart from many of his more serious counterparts. Enamored of the possibility of combining dinner and theater in a distinctly non-dinner-theater setting, Beavers and his staff have hosted several of these events, ranging from the obvious -- Like Water for Chocolate -- to the inexplicable -- Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The idea is to create a menu around the theme of a literary or cinematic work, to stage a show that interprets the work imaginatively, and above all, to have and host a good time.

Last week's Arabian Nights dinner was a stellar example of Beavers and Company's ability to mix fine dining with low comedy and high entertainment in an elegant setting with a bunch of eager, amiable strangers.

We were greeted by waitstaff dressed in colorful turbans and hip-hugging silks who seated us at three long communal tables. The walls were draped with Persian rugs borrowed for the occasion. Low, crispy piles of Ethiopian flatbread were scattered about the tables. Conversations ranged from work to travel to previous literary dinners as the servers set the stage for Act One: a brief introduction to the Middle East where wine was first cultivated, where great trade routes converged, where three great world religions were born, where eating is as intimate an act as making love and where, the thought escaped no one, we are currently dropping bombs.

We greedily dug into our first course with our fingers -- almond-stuffed dates, figs, a tidy garbanzo bean and sprout salad sprinkled with pungent goat cheese. The wine was a crisp sauvignon blanc, the perfect cool accompaniment to the raven-haired belly dancer who entertained us with swiveling hips, her hands delicately balancing two small oil lamps as her arms moved in serpentine loops.

The second course was a paratha, a flatbread stuffed with minced cauliflower, accompanied by marinated crisp green beans and red onions and a sweet apple-date chutney. A light Beaujolais was served as the cast launched into the story of Aladdin and his lamp, hilariously rendered.

Koftits, densely packed and browned meatballs, were our third course, made with ground chicken, pistachios and apricots, served alongside a pyramid-shaped serving of refreshing tabbouleh. A delicious, vanilla-scented pinot noir filled our wineglasses as Chef Beavers took the stage as Sinbad in "The Tale of the Three Apples."

By now the room was warm with laughter and conversation, plenty of good wine and the continuing avalanche of food. A meat course of lamb kabobs with lentils and curry topped off the meal -- the lentils dotted with plump golden raisins, seasoned with cardamom and honey. A Moore's Creek Shiraz prepared the palate for the final course, a decadent dessert of honey cream and fig semolina pudding, swimming in a light cardamom syrup. We sipped our dessert wine and leaned back in our chairs as we were treated to another round of belly dancing, this time by a fiery redhead whose eyes flashed as she swooped her silk scarves over the heads of diners.

It's hard to say what defines these dinners -- the food and wine, the conviviality of the service, the determinedly lowbrow entertainment heightened at precise moments by a truly skilled performance, the communion of strangers and the laid-back atmosphere all combine to create something truly unique and festive, a meal that moves.

Beavers and staff are constantly at work on a new production. Past shows have included Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Jesus Christ Superstar, Fried Green Tomatoes and the aforementioned Rocky Horror Picture Show and Like Water for Chocolate. April's venture will be The Seven Samurai, complete with swordfights (the staff are training now) and a gourmet Japanese menu that will include shabu shabu, sashimi, butter-rich Kobe beef, plum wines and sake. May will see a Shakespeare dinner, June will bring Robin Hood and July will honor American novelist John Steinbeck. August will celebrate regional culture with Portraits of the Wild West. I'm bringing my earplugs to that one.

It's difficult to imagine menus that will match any of those themes, but hey, this is the chef who served "The Thyme Wrap" at his Rocky Horror dinner -- thyme-cured salmon and Panzu vegetables wrapped in nori with sticky rice and a ginger wasabi syrup -- then served it again.

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