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Oenophiles gather to celebrate the cuisine of France

November 27, 2020

The sadly gone Cuvée Ray restaurant on Rehoboth Avenue was but a blip on our Cape Region dining radar.

But loyal fans still pine for the fun evenings with live entertainment, literally hundreds of wines by the glass, and the soft-spoken, remarkably knowledgeable owner “Cuvée” Ray Kurz gliding from table to table topping off guests’ glasses with a smile.

The former attorney had always dreamed of hosting a cozy venue where he could share his knowledge of wine and music, and the old Sydney’s jazz club on The Avenue seemed to be the perfect spot to realize that dream.

Regular visitors to this page know that restauranting is not for the faint of heart, and restaurants close for all sorts of reasons. His brick-and-mortar venue might be in the past, but his passion for good wine remains. Last week Ray told me, “Even knowing the outcome, I’d do it all over again. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had.”

Ray has moved on and is sharing his wine knowledge in all sorts of ways. He is a columnist at my “Chasing the Grape” wine review section on RehobothFoodie.com, and is an educator/presenter for events at restaurants up and down the coast. Last weekend I had the honor of attending the most recent event at the iconic Fager’s Island restaurant/entertainment complex in Ocean City, Md. We were honored to sit with owner John Fager, Sposato Vineyards’ owner Karen Sposato, Ray and his wife Debbie. Ray was the reigning oenophile for the evening. (Things became even more festive when we discovered it was their 38th wedding anniversary!)

Back in the late ‘60s, I was playing in a rock band at the Hideaway Lounge in the Stowaway Motel at 22nd and the ocean. At that time, there were only two nightclubs with regular entertainment in O.C. (The other was Gabby Mancini’s Paddock.) But tucked-away watering holes were everywhere, and one of the most popular was the Purple Moose Saloon on the boardwalk - owned by a very forward-thinking John Fager. His groundbreaking concept quickly became the go-to place for visitors and locals alike.

In the mid-‘70s, John and his wife decided they’d, “…open up a little bar.” Fager’s Island became a reality in ’75, built on pilings with a breathtaking view of the bay and the Route 90 span. The complex has tripled in size and now includes several luxury hotels. One of the shining stars at Fager’s Island is Executive Chef Jim Hughes. Some of you might remember him as the chef/owner of Restaurant 213 in Fruitland, Md., where he distinguished himself with a James Beard Award and numerous features in publications such as Wine Spectator and Coastal Style. He also garnered a rare nod from Distinguished Restaurants of North America to become one of only 680 restaurants to boast that title.

Last Friday evening at Fager’s Island we found out why. The Tour of France wine dinner was a tour de force for Chef Hughes, Fager’s sommelier Robin Springer and visiting wine expert Ray Kurz. The evening began on a sparkling note with bottomless flutes of the brightly crisp Veuve Clicquot from Reims, France.

A first course of foie gras never had it so good at the hands of Chef Hughes; pan-seared and dished up with apple puree and an impossibly delicious grapefruit/chardonnay sauce. The rich combination was nicely balanced by a cool 2016 Chateau Roumieu Sauterne. It was like sipping velvet.

After a bracing intermezzo of lemon sorbet, our army of servers arrived with Alaskan halibut topped with sun-dried tomato and lump crab. This little tower of taste was finished with a tarragon beurre blanc. Fager, Springer and Kurz’ pairing of the 2019 Domaine Delaporte Sancerre Chavignol was spot-on, soft and round but with an intense, clean finish.

That perfect piece of fish was followed by the chef’s own Coq au Vin Bourgogne. Created from free-range birds, every bite was redolent of Burgundy, mushrooms and pearl onions. Bottles of Fager’s own 2018 Pinot Noir were decanted. Talk about a pairing: It was the same wine in which the chicken was simmered. The tastes of raspberry, licorice and spice were entwined in every bite throughout this impressive course.

The complex bouquet of the Chateau Sociando Mallet 2001 heralded the arrival of the chef’s signature veal chop topped with morel mushrooms simmered forever in Cognac and cream. Still-crispy haricots vert (wonderfully skinny green beans) nestled alongside a smooth and silky carrot puree. We were able to cut the one-inch-thick chop with the side of our forks!

Not to be outdone by the previous courses, dessert was a celebration of caramelized apples tucked into buttery, flaky pastry. This traditional French tart tatin was accompanied by snow-white vanilla bean ice cream. We washed it down with the 2018 Maison les Alexandrins Viognier from the Rhone Valley of France for a rollercoaster ride of peach, pear and violet.

Though large and festive events have been sadly curtailed in Maryland for the time being, Fager’s Island is still offering its An Evening in Italy Italian night every Thursday by reservation. I was so surprised to see how Fager’s had grown over the years! Check it out for yourself at 60th Street bayside, just south of the Route 90 bridge. You won’t be disappointed.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.

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