This year I think the food was raised a notch above Joe Sr.'s already high standards. We started as always with icy shrimp cocktail, big, sweet pink rascals with an especially zippy cocktail sauce (I know Joe Sr. doctored the sauce, I know it); it was followed by still the best version of linguine and clam sauce I've ever encountered. Joe Sr. coaxes ever drop of sweetness out of the chopped clams he uses, and simmers his sauce for a good while. This is the only course in which people ask for seconds. Ben and Sophie opted for red sauce on their linguine and a pot was at the ready for those who didn't care for clams. Joe Jr. provided a slection of craft beers for the dinner; he and I enjoyed a Victory Prima Pils or two with the first three courses.
A duet of tuna filets followed, a choice of an orange glazed version or a Cajun spiced-dusted one; both were toothsome yet flaky, the orange glaze worked very well on the tuna, while the Cajun was more flavor than heat, but both were just terrific. Also served up at this stage were tender, peeled, steamed spears of asparagus and a platter of rustic, individual eggplant parmigianas.
My menu contribution to the night was a spice-rubbed saddle of wild salmon in a maple glaze, and I was proud of how it came out, very moist with just enough nutty sweetness to cut the more strongly flavored wild salmon. Joe Jr. and I opened a Dogfish Head 60 Min. IPA at this point and it went very well with the salmon and the succeeding courses.
Next came tilapia filets done with soy sauce, ginger and scallions, simple, elegant and sweet-salty-sour-spicy altogether. Spectacular.
But the highlight for me, and many others at the dinner, was the next course, another example of Joe Sr.'s uncanny instinct for simple flavors that work well. Joe Sr., wrapped big sweet sea scallops in prosciutto, dusted them lightly with dill and broiled them. This take on "rumaki" blew the bacon-wrapped version away, the saltier, richer prosciutto was so much better a foil for the sweet scallops. Truly stunning, and maybe the best dish I've enjoyed at these dinners so far. Several of us couldn't get enough of these, as late into the dinner as it was. That's how utterly brilliant these scallops were.
The seafood orgy concluded with three cold seafood salads: chewy sliced octopus with garlic, lemon and parsley; scungili (conch) with mushrooms, soy and garlic; and my favorite, bacala (dried cod) with garlic, olive oil,parsley and hot peppers. The peppers and garlic in the latter salad were deliciously assertive and the cod was sweet, clean and bright, the best version Joe Jr. has made since I've been a part of these dinners. In fact, he did a great job with all three salads.
I don't know where this addition to the meal comes from, but Joe Sr. then brought out a platter of roasted venison, sweet-earthy and tender, and passed it around. Most of us were just too stuffed to take more than a tiny slice.
A bevy of cookies, desserts, coffees and cordials followed for the next couple of hours, and we "loosened our belts", put the kids in pajamas, and exchanged presents, giving Joe and Sandy a framed recent photo of Ben and Sophie; Ben and Sophie cleaned up with lots of LeapFrog books from their Aunt Faith, and even more terrific books from Joe Jr. and his wife, Cindy.
It was just past 12:30am when we carried the already sleeping kids into the pale moonlight and into the car, bundled in pajamas and parkas, hugs and kisses and well wishes in our wake, and made the 45 min. drive back to Lawrenceville. I still had a Christmas ham to roast and presents to wrap and place under the tree, but I drove off knowing I had just had the very best Seven Fishes Dinner of my life. So far.