How to Make a Dinner That Looks as Good as It Tastes
The table is set for six, music wafts from the living room, and bottles of William Hill Napa Valley Chardonnay sink lower into an icy bath. The scene is set—but what to serve?
What makes a thoughtful fête, aside from all of the tasteful tabletop touches, is pairing a delicious combination of fare and drink (something that can trip up even the most seasoned host). But fear not: This guide will show you what to serve for every course and which wines to pair with what—because matching yummy food with a gorgeous red or white doesn't have to be restricted to restaurant dining.
Plan your wine menu the same way you would a feast: Start off light and work your way into a richer option before ending with something airy. (Because after all, you can't host a dinner party with just one type of wine.)
A Chardonnay that’s dry and medium-bodied allows the flavor of lighter finger foods served as appetizers to shine. For mains, a full-bodied red like a Cabernet Sauvignon with equal parts refinement and character is ideal. When it comes to dessert, consider using wine as an ingredient within the treats themselves.
The consummate host is always on the move, circulating with guests and, of course, topping off glasses. Just as important, however, is knowing which wine to fill them with.
For appetizers like salty green olives, briney shellfish, and buttery toasts, an elegant but approachable white wine feels the most appropriate, and is capable of handling a smattering of flavors. The William Hill Napa Valley Chardonnay 2016, which is dry, buttery, medium-bodied, and full of orchard fruit like apples and pears, allows food to shine while mellowing and balancing seasoning and spice.
For that first glass of white, opt for a collection of heirloom crystal goblets, modern coupes, and traditional wine glasses arranged on a tray to offer guests when they arrive.
Chardonnay and other big, complex whites that see oak (meaning wines that are aged in oak barrels) are best served cool but not cold. Nuanced floral notes and barrel-aging is best savored when these wines are served around 50-55 degrees. To execute, pull whites from the fridge about thirty minutes before the party starts and allow them to warm up a bit before pouring. Instead of putting them back in cold storage, toss them in an ice bucket out on a coffee table or buffet, which keeps them hovering in the sweet spot while they remain accessible for refills.
Inherited china, colorful glass bowls, and thrifted handkerchiefs as napkins lend themselves to an easy-yet-sophisticated vibe. Small bites that make use of toothpicks and discourage silverware means that friends get comfortable quickly, passing, sharing, and roaming room-to-room.
Mid-century staples like deviled eggs and skewered grilled cheese become elevated with the help of Brushland Eating House’s Sohail Zandi. Here, his eggs are pickled in a beet brine, adding a tart element to the rich, creamy vessels. A salty anchovy and snappy radish brighten the buttery grilled cheese sandwiches. Pair both with a side of smoked trout roe for a high-brow counterpart to the cheeky, childhood favorites that serve as a reminder for guests to have a little fun.
PICKLED DEVILED EGGS
Makes 12 deviled eggs, serves 4.
Needs to be started a day in advance.
2 cups distilled white vinegar
2 cups water, plus 3 cups water
1 tablespoon celery seed
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 small red beets, peeled
6 eggs (farm fresh preferred as the yolk will be extra yellow)
1/4 cup kewpie mayo
- Place vinegar, one cup water, celery seed, and salt in a small pot over medium high heat and bring to a rolling boil.
- Reduce to a simmer over low heat for 10 minutes.
- Remove from heat, place the beet in pickling liquid and let liquid cool to room temperature.
- The next day, remove eggs from pickling liquid, cutting them in half lengthwise. Scoop or pop the solid yolks from the whites carefully.
- Place egg whites on a sheet tray or serving platter.
- In a medium mixing bowl, combine all egg yolks, kewpie mayo, and salt. Using a cake spatula or large spoon, mix until smooth.
- Using a teaspoon, fill each egg white with yolk mixture, preferably pilling each one taller than the surface of the egg.
- When ready to serve, sprinkle each egg with maldon sea salt and a dash of olive oil.
The Main Event
When gathering at the dinner table with the light sinking low, candles aglow and music playing, it’s most fitting to serve what everyone craves but can rarely find in one place: a rich, superbly cooked cut of beef, nostalgic party food, and a heap of buttery vegetables to round it all out.
Appetizers trickle onto the table as floral arrangements get nudged to the mantle, making more space for glasses of wine. Seasonal herb butter sits atop an expertly butchered Tomahawk steak, a glistening tower of freshly-cracked shellfish is ripe for the taking, savory grilled hot dogs are decorated with ketchup and yellow mustard. Crisp, golden french fries are perfect for mopping up all of the remaining morsels and drips—this is what a bacchanal should look like.
ut what should you drink with dinner? A full-bodied red like a Cabernet Sauvignon is an excellent choice, our favorite is William Hill’s Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015. Cocoa, star anise, and plum make this bold red the quintessential entree wine, complementing the richness of beef, the fattiness of butter, and the zest of lemon-laden veggies. Crowd-pleasing and heralded for its dense, dark fruit yet lively, herbaceous profile, Cabernet is a wine that’s as classic as a Sferra tablecloth or Val St. Lambert candlesticks.
Pouring wine, especially red, can be a bit intimidating. Fearful of splashing, spilling, or dripping, it’s easy to rush in and make a mess. Be decisive about your aim and pour steadily. A slow tilt will likely lead to dribble on the table and down your sleeve. Twist your wrist as you finish the pour and pull the bottle upwards to ensure that any remaining wine in the neck or on the lip of the bottle rolls back in.
Alternatively, a colorful, patterned tea towel or dark, wide napkin can be tied around the neck of the bottle to catch any drips and keep them from landing in the butter dish.
How to Cook the Perfect Steak
When it comes to serving steak for a party, we like a cut that’s pretty when it lands on the table but is also easily sliced and passed around. A Tomahawk steak, with its dramatic, protruding bone, is a no-brainer. Its shape is easy for seating in a big cast iron pan, and it lends itself to long, attractive slices. Here, Zandi breaks down everything else you need to know.
We gauge about ½ pound per person, but scope out your guest list. If you’re making other mains like pasta or have vegetarians or friends who can really feast, adjust accordingly.
DON'T SKIMP ON SALT!
One of the easiest mistakes to make is to under season your beef (or over season with lots of herbs). A big piece of meat can handle almost a small handful of salt, so slather it on for an irresistibly delicious steak.
BUT I DON'T HAVE A GRILL
No biggie. While we grew up only eating steak from the grill, we’ve learned that there are plenty of upsides to searing and finishing a steak in a cast iron pan. Actually, it’s now our go-to at the restaurant. Get your pan smoking hot, and sear your meat for about 4 minutes a side to lock in moisture. Reduce heat to medium-low, and allow the meat to come to temperature slowly.
A Sweet Finish
In keeping with the hi-low theme of the party, it’s fun to incorporate a throwback dessert like Jello reinvented with a splash of wine and made modern with a bit of floral elixir. Cut crystal dishes filled with fresh whipped cream, luxardo cherries in syrup, and salty pistachios for shelling scattered across the table means guests can linger and nibble while playing a round of Gin Rummy or flipping through records.
Turning sculptural jello molds onto ornate tea saucers lends a romantic air while smartly saving space on the table for coffee, games and chunky jewelry that has become too burdensome.
And while it’s instinctive to come back to white wine with dessert, why not use it as an ingredient inside the dish, versus solely alongside it?
Chardonnay & Elderflower Jello
1 and 1/2 tablespoon unflavored Gelatin, about 2 packages
1/2 cup cold water
1 cup boiling water
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup William Hill Napa Valley Chardonnay 2016
1/4 cup Belvoir Elderflower cordial
- Pour cold water into medium glass bowl, and sprinkle gelatin over the top, allowing gelatin to absorb the water for 1-2 minutes.
- Add in boiling water and whisk until dissolved, about 4-5 minutes.
- Whisk in sugar until dissolved.
- Stir in Chardonnay and elderflower.
- Using a ladle (or transferring mixture to a measuring cup with a spout), divide jello evenly among bundt pans or sundae coupes.
- Place jello in the refrigerator to set, about 1 hour or overnight.
- If using metal molds, prepare a warm water bath: fill a medium mixing bowl with warm water and dip the mold, about ¾ of the way, for 10 seconds. Turn the mold upside down onto a small saucer or serving plate, and gently tap mold until jello releases.
- Re-chill until serving.
Special thanks to Brushland Eating House
Prop styling by Sara Mae Elbert, Food styling by Sohail Zandi
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.