For every dinner party, there are at least a dozen potential disasters. And usually one involves a moment of panic: Will this party even happen? That moment occurred at 4 p.m. the day before Gabriel Frasca and Amanda Lydon would host four friends at their homey Jamaica Plain apartment.
“Amanda and I had been coveting this dining room table and decided to buy it in time for our party,” Frasca says. But the table wasn't ready for pickup until the day before. Frasca got the call, walked out of the kitchen at the Nine Zero hotel's restaurant, Spire, where he is executive chef, and high-tailed it to the store. Two hours later, with the table assembled at his apartment, Frasca was back at work. His guests would have a place to eat. The show would go on.
Frasca and Lydon, who herself has cooked in some of the city's top kitchens, are accustomed to moments like this. Drama happens every day in restaurants: Plates are dropped, tomatoes go bad, soufflés don't rise. And unlike home cooks, chefs at work face 150 people expectantly eyeing that swinging kitchen door. “You're going to make mistakes,” Frasca says. “Don't waste a second bemoaning the fact. Move on.”
The same is true at home. The point of inviting friends to dinner is to enjoy the evening—so don't worry about the little things. If you're having fun, your guests will, too. For extra insurance, Frasca adds with the utmost seriousness, “start pouring wine the second they hit the door.”
In the dark days after the holidays, the couple plan to heat up a frigid night with a Mediterranean-inspired menu using a cross section of flavors they've fallen in love with during their travels. In just two hours, their guests will arrive.
Lydon stands at the counter on tiptoe—at just 5-foot-4, she's small but strong enough to lift 10-gallon stockpots—mixing a potato pancake batter that will become the vehicle for caviar and sour cream. One of her “lifesaving” entertaining tips is to serve American caviar. “It's accessibly priced and tastes just as good as a foreign brand,” she says. Putting the batter into a pastry bag, Lydon squeezes a practice batch into piping-hot clarified butter. Good thing: A few misshapen blini are the result of her first try. She goes to work on a second batch while Frasca peels blood oranges, grapefruit, and Meyer lemons for the salad.
Next, Lydon preps the entrée: lamb saddle stuffed with escarole and mint. They agreed on this particular cut, Frasca says, because it's “great for entertaining. Saddle retains heat and moisture very well, meaning the real work can be done ahead. All that's left is the last-minute slicing.” Their similar outlook is no surprise: Frasca and Lydon have cooked together in kitchens from Boston to San Sebastiï¿½n, Spain, and learned to work effortlessly in close quarters. Often they don't even need to speak: As Lydon ties the lamb she looks to Frasca, who gives her a nod from across the kitchen. Yes, the lamb looks good.
The couple met in 1997 while working at Chez Henri in Cambridge. After they had dated for only a month, Frasca announced that he was off to Europe for a few years of traveling and cooking. Brazenly, he asked Lydon—a Harvard grad—to join him. And, brazenly, she agreed. They apprenticed in Provence before heading west to Basque country to work at Martin Berasategui's eponymous bistro.
From there, North Shore native Frasca journeyed to northern Italy, while Lydon came back home and joined the team at Radius. She later moved on to run Truc, in the South End, and by 2003 was working at Cambridge's UpStairs on the Square, where she was chef de cuisine until last summer. Also in 2003, Frasca—who had helped open David Bouley's Danube in New York City—was offered the job at Spire.
Between orchestrating the lamb preparation and checking on her dessert of babas au rhum (raisin-studded cakes soaked in rum), Lydon loses track of time but pulls things together before the guests arrive: restaurateur Christopher Myers and his girlfriend, Flour Bakery + Café's Joanne Chang; Susan Regis, Lydon's former colleague at UpStairs on the Square; and artist Bill Thompson.
Frasca pours champagne before setting out the scallop ceviche, served in the shell, alongside Lydon's blini (the third and best batch) and caviar. The appetizers quickly disappear, and Lydon herds the crew to the brand-new table, now dolled up with contemporary square white plates and an emerald-green runner. A few candles march down the middle for a dash of country elegance.
Dinner is a slow-paced occasion to share gossip and stories. Restaurant people rarely sit down together, so savoring a long meal with good friends is a treat. The clink of glasses and a boisterous round of applause fill the room when Lydon unveils the lamb and baby Brussels sprouts.
As the wind whips tree branches outside, dinner plates are cleared. Lydon heads to the freezer for the dessert topping, a rum-raisin ice cream she made the day before. Unfortunately, the freezer is set colder than she thought, and the ice cream is a solid-frozen chunk. She throws it into the microwave, where it quickly melts into a soupy mess. The guests troop back to the living room, sherry glasses in hand. Could the party be fizzling?
Unfazed, Lydon pulls out her mixer and minutes later emerges with a homemade whipped cream, which she generously spoons atop each tiny rum-laced cake. It's not the decadent ice cream she'd planned, but it's a sound substitute. A second round of applause, loudest from the other cooks in the room, greets the treats. The party lasts well into the night—a near perfect success.