In my mind, the ultimate cocktail party is one straight out of a James Bond film. (Points here if you can name all seven actors who’ve played the part – without doing an internet search.) The parties are all similar: a classy locale, lots of martinis, champagne and caviar, good music, and interesting people. Party crashers, like James himself, who was virtually never an invited guest, are always welcome and treated well. Preferably, they wouldn’t beat up the hosts or other guests looking for information about diamond shipments, moon rockets, or nuclear submarines.
Key to all of the planning, and a successful party, is inviting interesting people. Virtually all else can be forgiven if your guests can enjoy themselves with each other. And unless you’re looking to have your furniture dismantled, don’t invite those two ex-lovers who go straight for the jugular on sight. It may be amusing for a few minutes in some warped world, but it gets tired quickly. A mix of people from different walks of life keeps the conversation lively. If you just invite a group of people from your own industry, everyone just talks about work.
Next, the venue. Most of the time that means our apartments, houses, or a friend’s apartment or house. All well and good, but make it look different from the way you live in it day to day. A little thought to decor, lighting, flowers, maybe rearranging your furniture for the evening, all go to make the space seem special.
Music should be picked to fit the event. Do you want people dancing? Do you want them lying about on couches? Either way, keep in mind that the primary function of the evening is a chance for people to socialize. If they have to shout just to be heard two feet away, you’re playing the Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” too loud.
Now, on to my favorite topic: food and wine. Since we’re thinking 007, the food is caviar. First, let’s have a little primer on fish eggs. Only sturgeon eggs (roe) may be labeled caviar, a word derived from the Turkish havyar,which means “egg.” The sturgeon is an ugly, toothless, bony-plated, cartilaginous fish that can live over a century and weigh more than a ton. Among the couple dozen sturgeon species in the world, those that really matter to caviar are found in the Caspian Sea, which borders Iran on the south and Russia and Kazakhstan on the north.
Back in the thirteenth century, when the Russians first made caviar, they named the biggest of their sturgeon beluga; the middle-size, osetra; and the smallest, sevruga. The fourth, the sterlet, produces “golden” caviar, and is so rare that only those of you with unlimited expense accounts need look for it.
Caviar should be served with a minimum of accompaniments. Toast points, blini (little pancakes), or thinly sliced cooked potatoes are traditional. All that chopped egg, onion, chives, sour cream garnishment is so I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-serving. The idea is to savor the flavor of the roe as they gently pop in your mouth, not turn them into a sideshow ingredient. Oh, and don’t use a metal spoon to serve the caviar, it changes the flavor.
At anywhere from $25 to $75 an ounce, there’s no question that caviar is expensive, but remember, we’re putting together a cocktail partyto entertain James Bond aficionados and the jet set.
There are three classic drinks to serve alongside your caviar sampler: black tea, iced vodka, and champagne. I will add a fourth, premium saké. For this column, and the throwing of cocktail parties, I will not delve into the riches of tea leaves and brewing. However, if you have the sort of friends who appreciate fine teas you may want to provide your guests with a diversified selection from around the world.
Every time I turn around there seems to be a new premium vodka on the market. The latest trend seems to be to package them in a bottle that in some way resembles an old apothecary bottle (Ultimat and Precis immediately leap to mind). My current faves for iced shots, are Van Hoo and Mor. For those of you who simply must have flavored vodkas, check out the line from Charbay here in the good old U.S. of A. For our caviar party, perhaps stick with the Meyer lemon or blood orange flavors.
Each time champagne comes up in this column I inevitably turn to my classic favorites, Krug or Demoiselle Cuvée 21. Given that we’re splurging on the caviar, why not? For some interesting other selections, and certainly a little easier on our already stretched wallet, try Laurent Perrier Brut L.P., Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs, or the newly introduced Iron Horse Vineyards “Good Luck Cuvée”.
When it comes to saké, it is important to choose your selections carefully. First, we’re not talking about that hot swill served at your local sushi bar. Most of that is the equivalent of wine-in-a-box, and often comes in that form. It is heated to disguise the fact that it is basically undrinkable. There are some premium sakés that are made to be heated, but trust me, those aren’t the ones you’re getting for under $10 a flask.
Good quality saké is made to be served at room temperature or slightly chilled. It comes in grades that can set you back anywhere from twenty to several hundred dollars a bottle. For our fantasy cocktail party here, go for a “daiginjo” saké, which, for practical purposes, is the upper level. A list of some of my favorite daiginjos includes Tsukasabotan “Shizuku”, Fukucho “Moon on the Water”, Masumi “Sanka” (nothing to do with decaffeinated coffee), Takatenjin “Shrine of the Village”, and, if you really want to splurge, Otokoyama.
With everything arranged as outlined above, you’re sure to have a party your friends will be talking about for months to come. However, if you want to really have a true 007 experience, consider asking your guests to come attired as one of their favorite James Bond characters. I for one can never get enough of Pussy Galore, Honey Ryder, Rosa Kleb, Jaws and Oddjob.
Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.