It used to be that a bride called a caterer, went to a tasting, and then turned her attention to (supposedly) more important matters. But no more! As we've all become more food conscious—with heightened awareness of taste sensations from around the globe—the planning of the perfect reception menu has risen on the bridal to-do list. Often, both bride and groom care passionately about what is served. But there are so many considerations: Do you want a long cocktail hour, with guests free to mill about nibbling and chatting? Or the structure and elegance of a more formal sit-down dinner? Perhaps you'd like the conviviality of a casual outdoor grilling party. We turned to three renowned chefs and asked each of them to give us advice and concoct their dream wedding menu. Bon appétit!
An Outdoor Reception
Bobby Flay, chef at Mesa Grill and Bolo in New York and host of the Food Network's Boy Meets Grill, envisions a relaxed menu that he calls "surf and turf with a twist." The menu includes steak and lobster, two very traditional wedding dishes, done differently. "I think that for a warm-weather wedding, it's great to add a fun note. By using the grill, you're making the reception casual and turning it into a grill party. When you use higher-end ingredients, you lend an element of elegance."
Flay starts the festivities off with grilled steak quesadillas with blue cheese and watercress. "I'd use a New York strip steak for the quesadillas," he says. "They're particularly good on the grill." Flay goes on to a main course of cedar-planked lobster tails, served with a relish of Native American-influenced fresh corn and smoked chiles.
As accompaniments, he recommends two favorites: zucchini and corn. "You don't want to weigh people down at a wedding," he says, "so skip a potato or a rice dish with this menu." The zucchini is grilled, then slathered with a romesco sauce, a Spanish paste of roasted peppers, roasted chiles, toasted almonds, olive oil, fresh parsley, and garlic. Flay does traditional corn on the cob one better by serving it with garlic butter and queso fresco, a mild white cheese from Latin America that can be found in many markets here. "We take the silks out of the corn and remove some of the husk," he explains. "Leave one layer of husk, and dip the corn in water to prevent burning. The outside grills while the interior steams and roasts."
For the crowning touch, have pitchers of mojitos ready at the bar, with plenty of fresh mint and crushed ice. Ask the bartenders to garnish each with a piece of grilled pineapple.
A Cocktail Reception
Nowadays many brides are choosing to make the cocktail hour the entire wedding reception. It's a wonderful option for those who want their guests to have the flexibility of moving around and starting new conversations with ease. It's also good if you love eating in small bites, a style that's becoming more and more popular.
Marcus Samuelsson, whose improvisations on Scandinavian cuisine at New York's Aquavit made his reputation, has recently opened a new restaurant, Ringo, with a distinct Asian flair. "These days guests have already been to tons of receptions," he says, "so of course you want to make your menu exciting. And while you want to consider your guests' likes and dislikes, there's no reason you can't also be a little adventurous. Have some bites, some soups, some skewers, so people can pick and choose—something for everyone."
Samuelsson's array of hors d'oeuvres starts with a seared foie gras "sushi," which immediately signals a very special occasion. A zing of refreshment is provided by a lovely watermelon-and-watercress salad. Another invigorating note comes from a chilled tomato soup with a pungent citrus accent. And if you're wondering about the logistics of serving soup to a standing-room-only crowd, rest easy: The chef recommends serving the soup in a shot glass, with a little straw!
Samuelsson's international palate is evident in his creation of lobster rolls with pickled Asian pears. The pears serve as the rolls' outer casing. He then zips back to the West with figs wrapped in wafer-thin slices of Serrano ham, served with a little dollop of mascarpone, the soft, rich Italian cheese.
As your guests are mingling and grazing, serve them an aquapolitan, which is Samuelsson's creative variation on the cosmopolitan, replacing the standard vodka with aquavit, the clear spirit from his Scandinavian homeland.
The Formal Reception
For many couples, nothing will suffice but the most formal, seated dinner party of their lives. And Charlie Palmer—whose restaurants span the country from New York to Las Vegas—has the menu to fit this bill.
You want a menu that has panache and that will work, says Palmer, and this means you'll need to do some hard thinking ahead of time. "In a sit-down wedding dinner with a number of courses, the first course should be cold. The timing of a wedding is never accurate, so you don't want to have to worry about whether or not the first course will be overcooked."
Palmer (whose latest book is The Art of Aureole) suggests starting off with a sumptuous array of passed hors d'oeuvres that range from a minimalist smoked salmon and American caviar panini to a more complex fennel-crusted tuna with tapenade and marinated white anchovies. Once the guests are seated, serve a simple—and, yes, cold—tuna tartare with chili-spiced ponzu (a flavorful Asian sauce). Next is a velvety potato-leek soup, elevated by the addition of lobster croutons.
When it comes to the entrée, Palmer has several thoughts. His first suggestion is roasted lamb with a bric, a very thin pastry encasing both lamb and julienned vegetables. The lamb shoulder is braised slowly and becomes very savory. "A nice, green side dish—quickly sautéed haricots verts or baby bok choy," says Palmer. His other ideas include prosciutto-wrapped pork loin with summer truffle (which, he explains, is not as pungent as other truffles) and, perhaps most daring of all, venison with a chestnut brioche charlotte.
All these choices may sound fanciful, but Palmer never loses sight of the practical: "If you choose venison and you're having a wedding for 170 people, do you want your caterer to stop and slice venison for a group that large? Absolutely not! Instead, you serve a venison chop. Pop it on the plate, and out of the kitchen it goes!"
It's details like these that will make this meal memorable. "When you're doing a wedding," says Palmer, "it's not just ordinary cooking—it's in a category all its own."