Together 2004
Published: February 4, 2004

A tale of two fîtes
Local restaurateurs create delectable feasts for engagement parties

by Dana Green

At first glance, it would seem that engagement parties are passé. These days, harried couples usually announce their nuptials to family and friends by making a quick phone call or popping a "save the date" postcard into the mail.

However, engagement parties are staging a comeback. When actress Blythe Danner hosted an intimate dinner in New York last summer for her engaged daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, she joined the growing list of individuals resurrecting the traditional engagement party.

Historically called a "flouncing," the engagement party served as a formal event where couples signed a legal contract, committing to the upcoming marriage and swearing off other suitors. After they signed the agreement, if either individual changed his or her mind, the scorned paramour could lay claim to half of their partner's property.

While most couples no longer sign formal contracts of commitment, an engagement party still serves a unique purpose: to get distant family members together before the wedding, discuss plans and assign tasks, and enjoy a romantic evening re-telling stories of the proposal and getting excited about the big event.

An engagement party should reflect a couple's individual style. Traditionally, the bride's parents host the event, and it can be held in almost any venue, from a backyard to a private dinner at a restaurant. Of course, for an evening that guests will remember forever, the food has to be outstanding and the ambiance has to set just the right tone.

At Marché Restaurant in Menlo Park, head chef Howard Bulka has one requirement for his ideal engagement party: caviar.

"Caviar is its own world," Bulka said, with a touch of veneration in his voice. "If someone in my family was getting engaged, I'd spring for the caviar," he said, smiling.

Luckily, caviar pairs perfectly with champagne -- another requirement for any celebratory feast. Bulka recommends starting off the meal with champagne and Osetra or American sturgeon caviar and rosti potato with chive crËme fraÓche, or a sparkling wine with oysters on the half shell.

For a group of family and friends, Bulka recommends keeping the entrÈe straightforward. Simple, elegant dishes will please a wide range of palates. For that reason, he tries to encourage groups to choose poultry if they are choosing from a fixed menu. "You always bump into people with restricted diets," Bulka said. Family events also often include older family members who favor familiarity over culinary risk-taking.

But poultry, in his view, means herb-roasted guinea hen or pan-roasted duck breast with lingonberry sauce, served after a course of smoked-trout salad. Choosing more exotic poultry dishes elevates the meal beyond the everyday.
After a heavier dinner, dessert can be on the light side. "It's nice to feature citrus after a salty meal," Bulka said. His recommendation from the Marché menu, blood-orange custard crepe with sauce suzette, ends dinner on a lighter note.
No celebration would be complete without just the right wines. Chardonnay brings out the delicate flavors of the trout salad, while Bulka suggests a big, elegant pinot noir with the main course. "Dark meat can carry a variety of wines, but the pinot noir works very nicely with it," he said.

A private dining room will offer privacy for small, intimate groups, but holding your party in the main dining room can also lend excitement to the evening. "When you are in a restaurant, you're in a public space, and that's part of the fun," Bulka said.

If Mardi Gras is more your style than the Marseilles, Nola Restaurant in the downtown district of Palo Alto is the public space many flock to. At the Creole restaurant, where party beads drape over the cast-iron balcony and colorful, New Orleans-inspired art fills the walls, an engagement dinner is more likely to feature etouffée than escargot.

Although Nola also has a fixed menu for special parties, most groups are looking for foods that tie in with the restaurant's festive theme. From spicy jambalaya (fish, chicken, and andouille sausage with Cajun spices) to Creole prawns, the entrees on Nola's party menu pack a Cajun punch. Their mouth-watering selection of desserts includes southern pecan pie and chocolate brioche bread pudding.

Lucy Thompson, Nola's event and catering coordinator, said many couples come back for their engagement party dinner after meeting at the restaurant. She thinks the casual, fun atmosphere appeals to couples who want to have a relaxing evening before the stress of wedding planning.

"People can come here and not have to stress," Thompson said. "You can relax and have a good time."

Nola provides private rooms for special groups, but it's the funky atmosphere that provides an instant theme. "People have brought in boas, masks...we provide everyone with party beads," Thompson said. They also provide an LCD projector and screen, a personalized menu and private rooms offering some privacy for special toasts. "We have four different kinds of champagne. But they usually want hurricanes or margaritas," Thompson said with a laugh. "That's what we're known for."

For couples on a budget, serving cocktails and appetizers is an ideal way to cut costs. Baked oysters, sizzling crab poppers, jerked chicken, and Nola's special gumbo lead an appetizer menu that will get the joint jumping. Nola's street-side front room, featuring leopard-print lounge chairs, Mexican figurines and a roaring fireplace, can be rented out for private parties.

Whether it's funky and casual, or elegant and romantic, an engagement party offers couples the chance to share their joy with their closest family and friends and receive their advice, elation and well-wishes. In busy, stressful lives, it's a chance for both families to gather and celebrate the upcoming marriage through a tradition that celebrates family ties.