‘The Dinner Party’ Review — Like a Dinner Party in Your Own Home, Only with Better Food and Guests

Panelists' table at City Winery

Some say the key to hosting a successful dinner party is not about what you put on the table but about what you put on the chairs: mix together some interesting guests and spark a lively conversation, and who cares if the soufflé deflates? But why not try for both good food and good company? That seems to be the idea behind a newish kind of eat-o-tainment at City Winery, an ongoing series called “The Dinner Party,” concocted by TV and web production company Fear No ART Chicago.


Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan

Judging from the September 23 dinner date, the result is a little bit like eating a really good TV dinner — in this case one cooked up by celebrity chef Bruce Sherman of Chicago’s acclaimed North Pond — while watching a live episode of “The View,” only with politico Lisa Madigan, tabloid TV host Jerry Springer and “Chicago Sun-Times” entertainment columnist Bill Zwecker gathered around a table to swap stories with Fear No ART creator Elysabeth Alfano.


TV host Jerry Springer

Each monthly episode will feature a new blend of Chicago/national celebs. On October 27, Michelin-starred chef Paul Virant will cook for the audience and panel of guests: Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater, film director Joe Swanberg and recording artist and quarterback Sami Grisafe, who is practically a panel unto herself. The September show opened with the Q Brothers rap duo; in October the Cecy Santana Band opens. The only repeat — and, unfortunately, the weakest link — will be host Alfano.


Sun-Times columnist Bill Zwecker

But first, I’ll give Alfano credit where credit is due. She’s come up with an interesting format that provides an excellent value. For $45, attendees can get fairly up close and personal with — and tweet questions to — the celebrity panel while enjoying “large tastings” of excellent food, which in my book are equivalent to a full dinner.


North Pond chef Bruce Sherman

I’ve long been a fan of the food at North Pond, which highlights organic and local ingredients, and the meal Bruce Sherman presented at City Winery did not disappoint — except that as at a real dinner party, guests had no choice about what was served to them. An appetizer of smoked arctic char with cauliflower “couscous,” buds and velouté was at once briny, creamy and crunchy — plate-lickingly good. Equally tasty were the entrée accompaniments: Mutsu apple pudding, roasted carrot and cipollini onion, spigariello greens, ginger and beets. My tablemates assured me that the entrée itself — pork tenderloin medallion and andouille sausage — was delectable, but not being a pork eater, I wouldn’t know. After dinner I asked my server about options for vegetarians and was told that guests at “The Dinner Party” are free to order supplementary dishes from City Winery’s regular menu, as well as beverages from their wine list, at their own expense.


Guest table at City Winery

But wait — there’s more. Ticket holders receive reusable swag bags with La Joia Natural Soda. Communal tables in City Winery’s comfortable performance space are set with superlative cheeses from Emmi Roth, bread from Nellcôte and sculptural bottles of still and sparkling Norwegian Voss Artesian Water. A server quickly appears with a pour of Lagunitas IPA (India Pale Ale) — crisp, citrusy and agreeably hoppy. After dinner comes a Kefir Frozen Yogurt bar and a half-ounce of Vosages artisanal chocolate — Sri Lankan Coconut & Curry on the night I attended. Alfano scores points for lining up sponsors with interesting comestibles.


Lagunitas IPA

Where Alfano stumbles is in playing emcee. She promises to allow unscripted conversations to flow, but like an overeager home host, she sometimes interrupts her guests just when things are getting interesting. Perhaps a script, with more carefully crafted questions, would enable a better conversation.

Elysabeth Alfano (photo courtesy of Windy City Live)

Or maybe, like a real home host, Alfano needs to absent herself from the table more often to tend to dinner — the role that, unfortunately, befalls the guest chef for this gig. Although the September program began promptly at 7 pm, Bruce Sherman didn’t sit down to join his fellow panelists until 8:45. During the meal the audience watched a video of Sherman preparing and explaining the food they were eating, but it wasn’t until afterward that we were able to hear Sherman ad lib about celebrity chefs (“On TV you can’t taste the food and you can’t tell the difference between a great entertainer or a great cook”), seasonal cuisine (“People used to ask what seasons we were open”) and what ingredients he can live without (“We take the French approach to garlic, just kissing the bowl with it”).


When Alfano allowed her guests to get a word in edgewise, they proved themselves to be amiable dinner companions. When asked what she most liked about her job, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said it was getting to stand up for people and “going after the bad guys.” Zwecker talked about rubbing shoulders with Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr. and discovering that they are truly nice, intelligent people. Springer revealed that he isn’t allowed to know anything about his talk show guests beforehand but has to ask questions to find out, resulting in shockers like the guy who married his horse. Indeed, Springer might have made for a much better host for this dinner party, an emcee guest of honor.


“The Dinner Party” is filmed live and streamed on The Sun Times’ Chicago Splash website — but without food, it’s not really a dinner party.


‘The Dinner Party’

Presented by Fear NoART Chicago

City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph, Chicago

Sept. 23, Oct. 27, Dec. 1, 2014; doors open at 6:30 pm

Tickets $45 at City Winery


Photos of guests supplied by City Winery; venue photos by Leanne Star

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