ELLSWORTH, Maine — Wine dinners were once a novelty. Off-menu courses paired with hard-to-find vino equaled an engaging night out. Now that they are held at every corner bistro, the blush is off the rose.
To keep it fresh, chefs turn to pop culture themes beyond a trip to Tuscany. Forget dinner and a movie. Movie-themed dinners have turned the concept of dining as theater on its head.
You’ve heard of fantasy baseball? Here comes fantasy food.
Fans of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” tucked into a royal pie at Cleonice at The Maine Grind last weekend. Classical music and costumed guests filled the normally warm, Mediterranean open kitchen, lending it a delightfully eerie Sunday night vibe.
In the kitchen, chef Richard Hanson turned duck, turkey, chicken, ham, root vegetables and Renaissance spices into a medieval melange. Transforming spicy duck wings into dragon wings and searing beef hearts for a side of mayhem, the restaurateur created a multicourse feast to match the many kingdoms and characters that populate the telegenic netherworld.
The “Game of Thrones” wine dinner, featuring dishes that appear on the fantasy hit, was the next best thing to being an extra in a scene.
Known for his annual and more wholesome “Big Night” dinners, Hanson brightened with a new creative outlet.
“I just enjoy playing around with stuff,” Hanson said. “You can’t let yourself get into a rut. It’s fun to challenge yourself to make different things; it makes it interesting for the staff.”
Ned Swain from Devenish Wines matched courses with wines from Lebanon, Italy, France, Hungary and Slovenia, many pressed from grapes that were indigenous 600 years ago.
“They drink the correct wine for the climate they are in on the show,” said Swain, who marveled that the series is “well suited” for a wine dinner. “These wines are old and fit in with the ‘Game of Thrones’ motif.”
Serving vintages with labels that few recognized added to the exotic nature of the repast.
The highlight was the feast of crow’s pie complete with “flying birds.”
Inside a rich, buttery crust, Hanson tucked a battery-operated toy helicopter. When he turned down the lights, and whacked the pie with a Japanese sword, something went airborne. The crowd was agog.
“It was the fourth course in the wine dinner. There was laughing and cheering,” Hanson said.
At tiny Italian trattoria Piccolo, Portland chef Damian Sansonetti goes cinematic with an interplanetary dinner this Sunday. While four courses inspired by “Star Wars” may not sound like edible ecstasy, this chef with big-city chops marries his love of Jedi knights with intricate Italian fare.
“I am a really big ‘Star Wars’ fan, I grew up with the original series,” said Sansonetti, still dreaming up the menu last week.
Since May 4 is called “Star Wars Day” (“May the Fourth be with you”), Sansonetti decided to lay down his spatula in lieu of a light saber.
Sundays at the romantic Middle Street restaurant Sansonetti runs with wife, Ilma Lopez, are blind tasting nights. Guest make reservations and dine at the chef’s whim.
This weekend, he said, “let’s do a full-on tasting dinner and make up all the food inspired by ‘Star Wars.’”
Because the George Lucas franchise is far from “Eat Drink Man Woman,” Sansonetti is in creative overdrive.
What do they eat in space?
He is tight-lipped, but assures, “nothing too tongue in cheek.”
The dinner ($45) will include a welcome drink and the bar will serve cocktails loosely based on the film, drawing heavily from the cantina scene.
“It’s something different. We just want to have fun. We don’t want to be pretentious about it,” he said.
Swain, who has been creating wine dinners for 11 years, says meals based on movies or TV shows are not brand new, but the trend is growing.
“It appeals to different people in a different way, “ he said. “It gets them to try something out of their comfort zone.”
And gives cooks a new playbook.
“Chefs get into it because they love cooking and being creative. Cooking the same things night after night, week after week, can get dull,” he said.
Because “Game of Thrones” is food-focused, Hanson had much to choose from.
A trout dish inspired by a family’s coat of arms was matched with a Loire wine; another course, dragons and mayhem, provided a flavorful counterpoint. For dessert, Hanson made lemon cakes inspired by character Sansa Stark’s favorite treat. He borrowed a recipe from food blogger The Geeky Chef.
Paired with a sparkling white from Hungary, “it was delicious,” said Hanson, who already is thinking of his next dinner. It likely will be based on the gustatory novels of Sicilian mystery writer Andrea Camilleri.
“The idea of themes like that is to have a lot of fun. These are things you can’t put on a regular menu anyway … a royal pie that serves 30 people?” said Hanson.
Some of the items from his “Thrones” throwdown will make it onto the regular menu, some won’t.
“Anything that creates an outlet for the chef’s creativity makes the idea of food and fine dining more fun,” said Swain. “I think it is great.”
Tickets are available for the “Star Wars” dinner May 4 at Piccolo, 111 Middle St., Portland, 207-747-5307.