How to Throw an Intimate Dinner Party With Your Neighbor

The fashion designer and former model Jane Mayle has lived on the top floor of an 1860s rowhouse on 12th Street ever since she was a student at Columbia University during the mid ’90s. “I still can’t shake the sense that I’m going to wake the neighbors,” she said on a recent winter evening, wearing a dress of her own design (her Elizabeth Street shop, Mayle, which developed a cult following for her beautiful and eccentric designs, closed its doors in 2008 but she relaunched the label four years ago as Maison Mayle). In 2003, Claudia Gould, the director of the Jewish Museum, moved into the third floor studio below. A friendship eventually grew out of their proximity and personalities: Gould was struck by Mayle’s impeccable eye and charm; Mayle by Gould’s spirited generosity. After a leak left the building without gas for nearly a year, Gould proposed an unorthodox idea: Why not have a “progressive” dinner party for the building, a course on every floor, to celebrate the return of a functioning stove?

That first dinner — a “stairway to heaven” as Mayle called it — didn’t quite go as planned. There was supposed to be champagne in the ground-floor garden, dinner on the third floor, salad and light food on the fourth, dessert on the fifth — but it was summer, some neighbors were out of town, and what began on the fourth floor then moved to three or maybe it began on four and moved to five and then back down to three — whatever the order, memories have blurred from the passage of time but also thanks to good cocktails and better conversation. The event was enough of a success that Gould and Mayle planned another dinner to host between their two floors on a recent winter evening, this time inviting friends from outside the building including the artists Eva LeWitt and Ydessa Hendeles, the makeup artist Romy Soleimani and the film and theater producer John Hart.

Guests were greeted in Gould’s brightly lit apartment — surrounded by art — with small bites of toasted bread topped with escarole, roasted grapes and fennel seeds as well as an artichoke and ricotta spread. Placed next to the wine was a bottle of sotol, a Mexican liquor similar to tequila. Next, everyone moved upstairs to Mayle’s apartment, where a seated dinner commenced under a beautiful Ingo Maurer Uchiwa pendant lamp that matched the anemone flowers in small vases dotting the table. The main living-room wall was decorated with contoured plexiglass panels (found in a depot in the south of France by Mayle, and later discovered to be from the original Courrèges store in Paris); a small orange tree sat next to the hearth. The dinner only disbanded with the return of Mayle’s son and her stepdaughter — and with the evening now bathed in the warm glow of revelry, guests drifted downstairs, eventually entering back into the dark Sunday night.

Would the two neighbors do it again? Both said yes without hesitation. “Kadu [Lennox, Mayle’s partner] is just getting his beef shank stew perfected,” Mayle wrote me a few weeks later, “The orange tree is still alive, and the silverware and glasses are begging to get out again.” Here, Mayle and Gould share their tips for entertaining.

Avoid a Strict Theme, But Find Inspiration

While planning, Mayle originally sent Gould a New York Times photograph from last year of a meeting between President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Kim Jong-un of North Korea. An unconventional choice, perhaps, but Mayle thought an image could be a way for the two to find a starting point for the evening without imposing a strict theme or sensibility. In it, the two Korean leaders are foregrounded by a massive pink centerpiece decorated with white doves and bright, colorful flowers; a landscape painting hangs behind depicting an autumnal mountain range. “I think we are both quite prone to flightiness but know that needs to be balanced with earthiness,” Mayle explained. The evening, which was decorated with colorful flowers from both the local bodega and the Chelsea flower market, embraced a similar kind of whimsical eclecticism without losing a sense of grandness.

Serve a Rare Liquor

Dinner guests were instructed to begin the evening on the third floor, at Gould’s apartment, which is hung with pieces by artists Gould has worked with throughout her career such as Kiki Smith and Lisa Yuskavage. Yet all too noticeable was a bottle of Mesh & Bone sotol on the table. Sotol is a distilled liquor and the plant from which it is sourced is a northern cousin to agave (it is called “desert spoon” in English) with long lance-like leaves that spiral from its heart; it offers a slightly smoother taste than tequila or mezcal. Mayle preferred to serve it on ice; Gould liked hers neat. Either way, it offered a festive glint to the evening. At its very end, the two served small glasses of Piemontese Grappa infused with chamomile, whose subtle flavors were a calming digestif.

Mix and Match

“Whenever I have had the chance to go to Claudia’s place,” Mayle told me, “I feel like hers is the life I would want to live if I wasn’t on the fifth floor living the life I have — it’s the way that she makes her place but also the ease with which she moves among her things.” The two freely mixed and matched their belongings to seamless effect: In Mayle’s apartment, Gould’s maternal grandparents’ Coalport china perfectly sat alongside Mayle’s plain white Hella Jongerius plates; Mayle’s carved mother-of-pearl-handled silverware and hand-thrown Egyptian pottery were a surprising accompaniment to Gould’s 1970s imposing Baccarat crystal wine glasses.

Enlist a Professional Chef

Normally, Mayle’s partner, the set designer Kadu Lennox, is the one tasked with preparing the food. “He’s a really good cook,” said Gould. But because he was out of town for work, Mayle asked the Italian chef Alida Borgna to help, as the two had worked together on a press day for Maison Mayle. Borgna shopped at the nearby Union Square farmers’ market (as well as Eataly for rarer ingredients) and took cues from Gould and Mayle, who, wanting to avoid a fussy dinner, simply requested risotto and fish. Borgna prepared a feast of lemon risotto to start, followed by whole roasted turbot with herbs and smashed fingerling potatoes; steamed fennel with champagne vinegar; savoy cabbage with wine-soaked grapes; followed by a light and bitter treviso and Rosa del Veneto radicchio salad.

Serve Fresh Fruit and Chocolate — Plus a Surprise — for Dessert

Gould asked her friend Julian Bedel, the Argentine natural perfumer of Fueguia 1833, to bring dozens of his limited-edition samples from the many hundreds of perfumes he typically sells each year. As a silver platter arranged with satsumas and Forelle pears was set on the table for dessert, along with wooden boards of broken hunks of chocolate, Bedel began to pull small bottles from his pockets. Guests were instructed to share a detail of their scent preferences (“roses” or “musk”) and Bedel offered a sample to try. Should there be a match, the guest was allowed to pocket it for herself. Bedel is currently developing a scent inspired by Leonard Cohen for the Jewish Museum, in anticipation of an upcoming show later this spring.

Thessaly La Force is the features director of T Magazine.

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