Thursday, December 31, 2009

Seven Fishes Redux: Maybe the Best Ever.

It remains my favorite meal of the year. The Seven Fishes Dinner at the home of Joe & Sandy Attanasi in Cranford, NJ, to which I've been fortunately invited for around 12 years now, and for which I've been contributing a dish to or two every year for the last half dozen. It is a marathon (and not a sprint), beginning just around 6:30pm and winding down after midnight, and it's always rollickingly good. And it's usually more than seven fishes. We mingled over crackers and salumi and cheese and drinks as people gathered, though some were arriving mid-dinner and later. Joe's son Mark, his wife Christine and daughter Brooklyn were in town from Oklahoma City, a terrific surprise, and I'm sure a joy for Joe and Sandy, as well as Mark's siblings Faith and Joe Jr. Mark and Chrsitine were talking up the restaurant that they are planning in Harrah, OK, and that made for lively conversation throughout the meal. Christine took photos of every course as it was brought to the table. The photos you see here are hers. There's food porn in Oklahoma, too, I guess. Joe Attanasi Sr. serving guests at his Feast of the Seven Fishes Dinner
The Best Damn Linguine With Clam Sauce Ever. Ever.

Eggplant Parmigiana....

Duet of tuna filets: orange glaze (top) and Cajun-dusted (bottom)

Saddle of wild salmon with maple glaze
Tilapia in soy and ginger.....

The incredible scallops wrapped in prosciutto!
Scungili salad

Scungili (top) and Octopus (bottom) salads

Bacala Salad
......and Venison!

wait! the desserts!
...and the cookies!

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.


Mark A said...

Hey Rich, we have all the pics from the 7 fishes dinner, would you like to have them to post? Excellent article and yes the scallops and the salmon were the BEST!! Chrisitne has all the pics on her facebook.

Rich said...

ABSOLUTELY, Mark! I'd love to post her pics! Send 'em to and I'll get em up ASAP.

Chris said...

Here ya go Rich - all the "food porn" as you call it...

Rich said...

AWESOME pics, Chris! Food porn at its finest! As good as anything I've read/seen on THAT's afoodie website you're gonna love, and it has regional discussion groups too!


Mark A said...

Rich, as you know Chris and I have been planning to bring our restaurant dream to reality for several years (scouting locations, making offers... only to have them fall apart, or have financial supporters back out at the last minute.) Once again motivated by the family recipes (Seven Fishes Diner) and a recent article that I read in Entrepreneur (Nov 2009) "Start+it up" Stripping Down to Essentials, has made Chris and go back to the drawing board. We have an appointment next week at local business that we have been scouting for some time and we will be redisigning and cutting back on our business plan to see how we can start up with just "Basics"... Wish us luck!

Rich said...

You'll kick ass, no doubt, Mark. Especially with the Seven Fishes dinner fresh in your minds, and the Attanasi culinary traditions always in your blood. Show em how we do it in Jersey!

Anonymous said...

I got sick (bad earache) two days ago and sadly had to miss our 7 fishes dinner...not at home anymore but at a wonderful, simple restaurant (Cafe Valentino---superb BYOB..with awsome fish and even better vegetable antipasto). I'll be able to have the veg antipasto throughout the year but I'll have to wait for another crack at 7 fishes.