Brown explains that he has hand-caught everything we see by using a spear. It is a two-man affair, requiring one to spear the fish (100 feet below the surface, mind you) and one to keep an eye out for sharks. (I guess I've never really thought about where my fish comes from, but that's some crazy stuff right there.) Vongerichten credits Brown with 70 percent of what he does. "Without the product, we are nothing," he says. James Bond has nothing on Allen Brown.
Brown then demonstrates a Bahamian tradition I could have done without as an appetizer. He first challenges any of us to remove the pistol, a slimy portion of the digestive system of the conch that is wedged quite firmly inside its shell. "For a million dollars, you can't get it out," he cackles. A few try, but it doesn't budge. Brown then pokes a small hole to relieve the pressure inside the conch and pulls the pistol right out … and into his mouth.
We all gasp in horror as he explains the locals believe the pistol to be a walloping aphrodisiac. "You'll be in trouble tonight," says Vongerichten. "No, she'll be in trouble," counters Brown.
WE AWAIT THE FIRST COURSE like rabid parents at a Christmas department-store sale.
When it finally arrives - a rice-cracker-crusted tuna - it is, of course, a knockout. The salty crunch of the rice cracker marries perfectly with the buttery tuna, a fish that sat before us on the table not 20 minutes prior. We chase it with Moët & Chandon White Star NV from the Epernay Champagne appellation and toast to our good fortune.
Though none of us is too keen on trying conch after Brown's complete disregard for sensitive stomachs and American food tastes, we suck it up on the second course and lap up the excellent conch chowder, more reminiscent of the Manhattan version than the New England one. Next comes a frisée, endive, pear, and blue cheese salad - an uncomplicated dish that revels in its simplicity and freshness - paired with an earthy Marquis de Garraud 2002 Bordeaux.
A three-course whammy of entrées follows, and it's the best yetthat Vongerichten has offered on this balmy evening. We begin with a grouper with roasted pickled peppers, combined with a 2004 SouthAfrican Graham Beck Chardonnay - crisp with hints of lime andvanilla - which proves to be an excellent companion.
Lobster thermidor arrives next, a rich, fat portion of lobster tail browned to perfection in the superbroiler. It's paired with a unique Falanghina Fendi San Gregorio from Campania, Italy, and our taste buds are shocked and awed. Then comes the meal's coup de grâce: a New York strip au poivre paired with a 2002 Stag's Leap Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon that had been decanted and allowed to breathe for four hours.
This succulent piece of perfectly grilled, medium-rare beef is loaded down with more pepper than an Indian spice market. Some in our party complain that it is too much; for me, it couldn't have been enough. Pepper is one of my best friends. Moreover, it's the quintessential embodiment of the perfect dish: nothing more than a darn good steak chased by a darn good wine, which is all you can really ask for when you dine at Vongerichten's house.