A Delicious Holiday at the Willard
by Bill Babash, Vice Chargé de Presse
The Bailliage of Greater Washington welcomed the holidays on December 6, 2018 with an evening of tradition, elegance, and superb food and wine at a black-tie gala at the historic Willard InterContinental Hotel. There are few locations more festive than the Willard at Christmas. Wreaths and greenery adorn the exterior of the beaux-arts building, which opened in 1901, while inside, the lobby is bedecked with traditional garlands, bows, and a magnificently decorated tree that reaches nearly to the 22-foot ceiling. A chorus singing traditional carols in a lobby alcove added the sounds of the season, making it impossible to not be in the holiday spirit. The Willard is known for its extravagant gingerbread displays of the monuments of Washington each Christmas. This year, Executive Pastry Chef Jason Jimenez demonstrated his skill, creativity, and whimsy by recreating Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, featuring a gingerbread control tower, gingerbread terminals, and aeronautically accurate fondant runways.
The Willard’s General Manager, Maître Hôtelier Markus Platzer, welcomed members and guests in the opulent Crystal Room with its Christmas tree ornamented in earth tones and tables elegantly set with china and crystal on rich green table cloths. Harpist Kristen Jepperson’s ethereal melodies and a glass of Bollinger Special Cuvée NV perfected the festive atmosphere. The fine bubbles and hints of apple and spice of the Champagne were magical with the passed hors d’oeuvres: king crab salad with Sauce Louis and avocado mousse in a crisp cone tinted Christmas green with spinach; Frangelico-scented foie gras mousse on hazelnut tuile garnished with baby chives and hazelnut; and roasted baby beet and brûlée petit bijou finished with orange oil on an edible spoon with a hint of wasabi.
The gathering was then seated for a spectacular seven-course dinner, flawlessly executed by Executive Chef Maître Rôtisseur Luca De Marchis, Chef de Cuisine Gyo Santa, Executive Pastry Chef Jason Jimenez, and the Willard’s culinary team.
Chef De Marchis is a native of Italy, where he received his degree from the Culinary Institute in Lavagna. He gained experience in Michelin-starred restaurants and five-star hotels in Europe before coming to the US in 2000 as Chef de Cuisine at Tivoli restaurant. His career then took him to the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City, Lansdowne Resort, the Westin Washington Dulles, the Washington Plaza Hotel, and now the Willard, where he was named Executive Chef in July 2018.
Chef de Cuisine Gyo Santa is a native of Japan and graduated from Le Cordon Bleu Paris Culinary Arts and Hotel Management Institute. He was master chef at Lassere and executive sous chef at La Table de Joël Robuchon – both Michelin two-star restaurants in Paris – before leading the launch of Les Tablettes de Jean-Louis Nomicos which, under his leadership as chef de cuisine, earned a Michelin star in just one year. Chef Santa, who speaks English, Japanese, and French, moved to Washington in 2011 and spent five years on the culinary team at the St. Regis Washington DC before becoming Chef de Cuisine at the Willard in February 2018.
Chef Jimenez is a 1999 graduate of the Baltimore International College with a degree in Baking and Pastry Arts. He studied European classical dessert in Ireland before returning to the US, working at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City. He joined the Willard InterContinental in 2001 as a pastry cook, moving up the ranks to Assistant Pastry Chef and Pastry Chef. In 2018 he was named Executive Pastry Chef.
Dinner started with a fish mosaic that was as gorgeous to look at as it was delicious to eat. Squares of the freshest sushi-quality tuna, salmon, seabass, and rockfish wrapped in a ribbon of cucumber created the translucent mosaic and were topped with salmon roe. A slice of sea scallop topped with Ossetra caviar and a fennel citrus salad with chive oil completed the composition. Sigalas Assyrtiko Santorini 2017 from Greece featured the minerality and high acidity characteristic of Assyrtiko, enabling it to highlight the spectacular fish.
Next, Chef De Marchis’ deconstructed onion soup wowed diners. Layers of onion flan, caramelized onion purée, and onion foam brilliantly explored a range of textures and nuanced onion flavors. A garnish of scallion and espelette pepper from the Pyrenees region of France added a festive pop of color to finish the “soup.” A puff pastry twist and parmesan crisp completed this reinvention of classic onion soup gratinée. The Domaine Jean-Claude Bachelet et Fils Puligny-Montrachet “Les Aubues” 2014 from the Côte de Beaune, France, with its buttery texture, paired wonderfully. The winemakers limit the use of new oak for aging to 10%, allowing the subtleties of this wine to shine.
A miniature garden “in the cage” followed. The chef selected an array of delicate micro greens, including sweet chive, coriander flower, violets, four-leaf clover, and baby radishes for the petite salad. A light vanilla vinaigrette provided a subtlety rich counterpoint to freshness of the salad. Servers presented each diner’s bowl with a lid of spun sugar – the “cage” – lifting it to reveal the miniature salad which the they then sprayed with an herb and floral mist, adding a new olfactory experience that further enhanced the taste of this most sophisticated dish. The Domaine des Roches Neuves Clos Romans 2014 from the Loire Valley, France accompanied. This 100% chenin blanc is from relatively young vines planted on just ¾ acre within the walls of a priory that dates to the 11th century. The hand-picked grapes are whole-bunch pressed and fermented in a single 400-litre cask.
Executive Pastry Chef Jason Jimenez then treated the gathering to a refreshing intermezzo of Saint Germain elderflower sorbet with citrus granitée. The tart and bitter elements of the lemon, lime, and grapefruit ice were in perfect balance with the sweetness of the sorbet. Large grains of sugar enrobed in violet, a strand of purple spun sugar, and an edible violet flower made this a stunning presentation.
Chef De Marchis next demonstrated his outstanding skill with an amazing Dover Sole Napoleon. Sole filets – true Dover sole, imported from the UK – were beautifully cooked Meuniere-style and layered with creamy leeks and served with braised leeks and chive oil. Shavings of white truffle (!) atop the fish further elevated this already superb dish. La Mesma Gavi DOCG del Comune di Gavi 2017 from the Piedmont region of Italy provided the light floral and fruit notes and dry balance that this dish deserved. La Mesma is a family business run by the three Rosina sisters – Paola, Francesca, and Anna. They have 60 acres of cortese grapevines that they farm organically on south-facing hillsides in the countryside between the Piedmont and Ligura regions of Italy.
The final savory dish was quail with a pomegranate lacquer created by Chef de Cuisine Gyo Santa. Generous portions of pan-seared foie gras and grilled semi-boneless quail were finished with pomegranate “lacquer” and fresh pomegranate seeds. The tartness of the pomegranate was a perfect counterpoint to the richness of the foie gras and, visually, the red seeds made this a most festive presentation. Mashed la ratte potatoes with their nutty flavor were a luxurious accompaniment. The chef prepared them in the style made famous by late Joël Robuchon – a recipe that features copious amounts of butter and technique that yields a velvety texture. The deep ruby color and notes of red fruits made the 2016 Domaine des Roches Neuves Samur-Champigny “Marginale” an outstanding pairing for the dish. This 100% cabernet franc from the Loire Valley is produced from organically farmed gropes from 45-year-old vines on a 6-acre plot. The wine macerates for 22 to 24 days and is fermented in wooden vats before being barrel aged for 12 months.
Executive Pastry Chef Jason Jimenez’ chocolate and almond tropical cube was a spectacular finale to dinner. Chef Jimenez found inspiration for his creation in a 1913 painting entitled Dessert by French artist Auguste Herbin (1882-1960). Herbin was a contemporary of Pablo Picasso, and his paintings reflect that abstract cubist style. Chef Jimenez translated the painting onto the plate with a cube of dark chocolate filled with Marcona almonds and tropical fruits – pineapple, mango, and papaya – on an almond sponge cake, a square of salted coconut sorbet topped with candied kumquat, and cubes of pineapple braised in brown sugar and vanilla. He completed the composition with a tropical fruit gastrique, pink spun sugar, and a paper-thin strip of candied pineapple core. Each element on its own was delicious, but together they were transcendent. The saltiness of the sorbet played off the sweetness of the 72% chocolate, with the pineapple cubes and gastrique providing tart counterpoints. It was a worthy homage to Herbin’s painting. Domaine Rolet Macvin du Jura Rouge NV from the Jura region of France was an intriguing partner to Chef Jimenez’ creation. Macvin has been produced since at least the 14th century and can be made from any of five red and white grape varieties. This red is produced from poulsard grapes that are harvested late to maximize their sugar content. The must (juice) is reduced, but not fermented, and aged in oak for at least 30 months. It is then fortified with marc du Jura, a pomace eau de vie, at a ratio of 2:1, giving it a 16% alcohol content. The resulting sweet “wine” is aged a further 24 months in oak before bottling.
As the evening concluded, Markus Platzer, the Willard’s General Manger, thanked the bailliage for celebrating the holidays again this year at the Willard. Bailli Judy Mazza then presented Steele Stevenson, Director of Catering and Conference Services at the Willard, with a bottle of wine from the bailliage’s cellar as a token of appreciation for her weeks of behind-the-scenes work and attention to every detail in creating the event. She presented Chef De Marchis with a Chaîne plate to congratulate him, Chef Santa, Chef Jimenez, and the entire culinary team for a truly memorable dinner that raised the bar for future gala dinners. She was then joined by the dining room service staff, whom she thanked for their elegant and professional service that was integral to making it a wonderful dinner.
There were a few final surprises for members and guests as they departed. First, Chef Jimenez treated everyone to a selection of delicious mignardises – lemon shortbread, honey cream tartelettes, pistachio choux á la crème, and raspberry chocolate mousse cups. Bailli Mazza then announced that there was a gift bag containing a bottle of wine from the bailliage’s cellar for everyone in attendance. It was an early start to holiday gift giving and a delightful way to thank the membership for a great 2018.
This was the sixth consecutive year that the bailliage has celebrated the holidays at the Willard, and we are looking forward to extending this wonderful tradition: Mark your calendars for Wednesday, December 11, 2019 as we return to the Willard InterContinental for the 2019 Holiday Gala.