Avant garde ‘mobile fine dining’ business Room Forty dishes out upscale cuisine, down-home camaraderie in the comfort of clients’ homes.
Catering companies serve food and often supply linens, tables and chairs for an event, but South Pasadena-based Room Forty defies the status quo and provides more than just the basics. It provides an experience.
Two years ago when Steve Fortunato created Room Forty, which he describes as a “mobile fine dining company”, his vision was as much about food as it was about people.
Having spent 19 years in the restaurant industry, including a bartending stint at the Patina Group, Fortunato is no stranger to fine cuisine or hosting food-centric gatherings.
“I think where I drew inspiration for Room Forty’s vibe is living in LA and opening up my home for dinner parties and realizing that people in LA often have a hard time finding real community,” says Fortunato, whose nickname “Fort” inspired the company name. “I realized this practice of eating together is a very intimate, relational-building thing but the way restaurants are set up is not very conducive to that happening.”
Room Forty distinguishes itself not only through its philosophy but also through its events. While individuals and companies can hire Room Forty to create cuisine and atmosphere, Room Forty also holds unconventional monthly winemaker dinners.
Instead of arriving at a restaurant and usually knowing the menu ahead of time, guests that sign up only know the featured winemaker and are e-mailed the location a few days before the event, where the menu is unveiled.
“Menus are wine-driven so when we decide what wines we’re going to have we craft it around that,” says Fortunato, who acts as the sommelier. “We like to feature very fresh ingredients and don’t like to preset what the menu is going to be.”
The whole experience has a somewhat underground feel due to the mystery, but because the winemaker dinners are held at luxurious private homes, a sense of intimacy and community also fills the air.
“There is a type of person that when we present them with the concept of hosting one of these dinners their first question is ‘Why would I want to have 100 strangers in my house?'” says Fortunato. “Then there’s another type of person that is like “Oh my gosh; I love it; let’s do it. It’s someone who is inspired by the concept of the winemaker and fine dining chefs and that sort of demographic coming in and seeing their home.”
Room Forty’s June winemaker dinner featured Paso Robles’ Justin Vineyards and Winery and was graciously hosted at the Altadena home of Tim Cantwell and Stephani Hardy, who attended a February Room Forty winemaker dinner and decided that evening they wanted to host a future dinner.
“It was different from anything that we had ever been to before,” says Hardy. “We love to entertain and cook and we love wine and thought what a great opportunity to have a bunch of people in your home and not have to do any of the cooking for it.”
Hardy and Cantwell did not have to lift a finger for the 90 or so guests, Hardy said, other than to let Room Forty staff in the house, which worked well since the couple who married in May had returned from Mexico the day before the dinner and took a red-eye to Washington D.C. the night of the dinner.
“We came back (from D.C.) and our kitchen was spotless,” says Hardy. “They even left us butter and half and half and those kinds of things they used for the dinner.”
Arriving at a Room Forty winemaker dinner is like arriving for a large dinner party at a friend’s home.
The 90-plus temperatures may not have been the best complement to a multi-course, wine-accompanied dinner, but no one could have predicted the weather. Besides, the warmth flowing between the guests as they mingled with new and old friends was the real focus.
It was amazing how none of the guests—sometimes referred to as bohemians by Fortunato—went straight to their tables and sat down. Instead, they stood around the large, grassy yard chatting and sampling Justin’s Sauvignon Blanc and tray-passed hors d’ oeuvres. Creations like crostini topped with soft goat cheese and orange marmalade hinted at the delightful decadence later to come.
The backyard had a sprawling view of the mountains and a winding road and the house was a bit downhill from the others on the street, adding to the private feel.
Eventually everyone found their place at long, Tuscan, wooden benches and tables adorned with handwritten namecards, local Jean-Vier French linens, flowers and candles. It was comfortable, yet elegant and even the tables themselves are personal to Fortunato since he made them. Touches like these are what make Room Forty “first and foremost a hospitality company” says Fortunato.
Every detail is carefully considered, including seating arrangements, and the result is a setting ripe for a communal culinary adventure.
Fortunato sat me at a table with his wife and close friends, who made it their mission to loosen me up and jokingly grill me about my opinions on the dinner. It was hard to say anything negative, not because I was surrounded by Fortunato’s friends, but because once the food service began I observed, smelled and tasted each course in awe. Positive comments and sounds followed, from the first bite to the last.
Room Forty’s food is “fine American” which combines “American ingredients and French-style presentation” says Fortunato.
While some restaurants focus on celebrity chefs, Fortunato does not want to reveal the identity of their executive chef.
“I think the hospitality and restaurant operations that are built around chef culture are very limited models and we try to make this about the experience and not the chef,” says Fortunato.
Prior to each course a Justin Wines employee described the flavors of the wine and a bit about how it was made.
The first course, a chilled corn and summer parsnip bisque, was refreshing and creamy, yet light—perfect for the hot summer evening.
The stone fruit salsa and vanilla crème fraiche garnish complemented the stone fruit in the 2007 Justin Chardonnay and I was left scraping my bowl. My compliments to the mystery chef.
A moist roasted escolar came next, served with savory morel mushrooms, squash puree, pea tendril salad and brandy bacon cream that echoed the bacon flavors in the 2006 Syrah. Despite sounding rich, the course was subtle and Hardy particularly enjoyed the atypical pairing of fish with red wine.
The richness began with the smoked maple leaf duck resting on a bed of cooked greens and peas, accented with a bing cherry Cabernet sauce and actual cherries. The duck was exquisitely prepared, juicy, and definitely smoky, though not fatty like most duck, and the sauce accentuated the 2006 Cabernet pairing.
Before long, I almost felt like a member of Fortunato’s group of old friends, listening to hilarious personal stories that they (or the wine) were brave enough to reveal.
As much as I wanted to partake of the full wine pairing with each course, I definitely needed to pour some into the silver bucket on our table.
I also felt pretty full by this point since this tasting menu did not have the usual small tasting portions.
“Part of it comes from having done a lot of tastings and paying a premium price and adding to that the price for wine pairing and leaving hungry,” says Fortunato. “I can say unequivocally no one has ever left a Room Forty event hungry.”
It is hard to argue that point, which was somewhat of a shame since I could not finish the upcoming course, paired with a 2006 Justification (Cabernet Franc/Merlot blend), that proved to be my favorite. The Niman Ranch braised pork with stoned ground grits, Romanesco cauliflower and a Malbec reduction was the most juicy and tender course and the creamy grits, resembling polenta, were the most indulgent accompaniment. Despite my best efforts, I could not polish the dish off because dessert was waiting.
Titled “Light and Dark Duo” the final stop on our culinary journey was a stunning presentation of a small, sparkle-topped portion of rich bittersweet chocolate mousse and bing cherry gelée and three baked brie bombolini (small round pastries) filled with apple chutney and accented with apricot confit and calvados cream. Justin’s 2006 Obtuse pairing made delicious sense with its bittersweet chocolate note and raspberry, sweet cherry and plum aromas. The mousse’s portion size was perfect though I wished for more filling in the bombolini and more bombolini in general.
But that was more for gluttony than appetite’s sake since I was more full of good wine, food and cheer than I have ever been at a stranger’s home or most restaurants.
Even after it ended I had small reminders of my Room Forty evening. At the end of the meal each guest received a small, moist, cellophane-wrapped berry muffin with a “Good Morning” tag since it was meant to be enjoyed the next morning—it was.
Guests can also fill out order forms for the wines featured that evening at a 10 percent discount and pick up their order a few weeks later from Mission Wines in South Pasadena. As my Justin 2007 Sauvignon Blanc sits in my refrigerator I anticipate opening it and reliving a small part of that Room Forty experience. It will surely include a group of good friends.
For more information about Room Forty or to sign up for a winemaker dinner go to roomforty.com.