Wine, food and friendship draw diners to the weekly wine club

Jody Feinberg

Tapping together two wine glasses, wine director Rachel Schwolow quieted the crowd that packed Ashmont Grill in Dorchester. "Thank you so much. We’re so grateful you’ve supported us for two years,'' Schwolow said, to the crowd’s applause.

It was a celebration of the 100th occasion of the Monday Night Wine Club. Started two years ago with fewer than a dozen guests, it now draws 30 to 50 people each week, who come for the companionship as much as to enjoy the wine and food.

"It’s our ‘Cheers,’'' said Steven Pierce of Dorchester, a Newbury Street salon owner who has come to the wine dinners since they started. "I met my neighbors here, and now we come here to be with each other.''

Of course, the Wine Club would have flopped if the wine and food weren’t good. Owner and chef Chris Douglass, who lives near the restaurant and grew up in Cohasset, concocts new dishes each week, inspired by the three wines selected by Schwolow. And pastry chef Clare Garland of Milton bakes a dessert to complement the fourth serving of wine.

"It’s been really fun for me because I come up with some different items,'' said Douglass, who opened Ashmont Grill 31/2 1/2 years ago, owns Icarus in the South End and just opened an informal Italian restaurant, Tavalo, down the street from Ashmont Grill.

Douglass started the wine dinners as an alternative to the more staid ones he’s hosted over the years at Icarus.

"Those were more stiff and serious and people weren’t necessarily comfortable sitting in a communal situation,'' he said. "I wanted to make these dinners really fun and casual and affordable. I called them a club not because people have to join, but because I wanted the feeling of belonging to something.''

His wine club is neither a formal multi-course dinner or a cocktail party-style wine tasting. Seated in the bar area, in booths or at long communal tables, guests are served four small plates with an accompanying wine, all for $30.

The high-ceiling restaurant is noisy with laughter and conversation. Schwolow stops by tables to talk with guests about the wines, which are selected from organic, sustainable vineyards. And the wait staff is friendly and gregarious.

"It’s very welcoming and warm,'' said Kevin Wilcoxen of Weymouth, who teaches middle school special education in Canton. "The wait staff are super. I cannot come in for a month and when I do they greet me like they’re really glad to see me. And there’s nothing fake about it.''

For the 100th celebration, Douglass prepared food a little more luxurious than usual – raw oysters mignonette on the half shell, paired with JF Merieau Cremant, a sparkling wine from France; lobster risotto, paired with Vietti Nebbiolo, a red wine from Italy; seven-hour lamb with cannellini beans, paired with Edmeades Zinfandel from California.

Guests know what to expect because Douglass e-mails the wine and food menu to hundreds of people on the club mailing list each week.

"It’s different every Monday, but it’s always good,'' said Dotsy Evans, a graphic artist who was enjoying the evening sharing a table with Wilcoxen, Pierce and eight others.

If guests don’t want the wine club menu on Mondays, they also can order from the regular menu. But Douglass likes the way the wine club exposes people to foods they wouldn’t order.

"When you go to someone’s house, you put yourself in the hands of the host,'' Douglass said. "That happens here. We can serve oxtail or octopus or squid and if there’s no choice, people try it and may find they like it.''

Roseanne Foley, an environmental advocate who lives near the restaurant, had that experience when she ate the lamb, which Douglass inserted with anchovy and garlic paste and cooked in a mire poix with wine and chicken stock for seven hours.

"I didn’t think I liked lamb, but I tried it and did,'' she said.

Foley said she’s learned about wine from the dinners, and especially loves drinking the wine in the summer when the club gathers on the backyard patio.

"It feels very European,'' she said. "I’ve learned how the flavor of the food is enhanced by the wine and vice versa.''

Two hours into the gathering, wait staff served Spanish sherry and miniature chocolate almond tarts topped with saffron ice cream. They were pretty and too good to pass up, even though many diners felt full.

Garland, the pastry chef, said the restaurant has "a big dessert crowd,'' so she varies the dessert menu regularly. Around St. Patrick’s Day, she’ll make chocolate Guinness cake, which has Guinness beer and a whipped cream topping that looks like beer foam (see recipe below). Desserts this month also will include toasted cornmeal pound cake with roasted plums and, of course, Nana Sheila’s carrot cake.

"It’s my mother-in-law’s recipe and has fresh pineapple, coconut, raisins and a ton of cream cheese frosting,'' Garland said. "I can’t take the carrot cake off the menu, because people always ask for it.''

Chocolate Guinness Cake with Brown Sugar Whipped Cream

For the cake:

 1 cup Guinness

 8 ounces sweet unsalted butter, cut into bits

 3/4 cup natural cocoa powder

 2 cups sugar

 2 eggs

 3/4 cup sour cream

 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

 2 cups all-purpose flour

 21/2 teaspoons baking soda

For the brown sugar whipped cream:

 1 cup heavy cream

 2 tablespoons light brown sugar

 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

 1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare 9-inch cake pan with butter and parchment paper.

Heat the Guinness and drop in the butter bit by bit to melt.

Remove from heat, then whisk in the cocoa and the sugar.

In a separate bowl combine the eggs, sour cream and vanilla. Add this to the Guinness mixture. Whisk in the flour and baking soda.

Pour into the prepared pan and bake for about 45 minutes (note: this will be a moist cake). Let cool.

For the brown sugar whipped cream, whip together heavy cream, light brown sugar, vanilla and espresso powder until soft peaks form. Top the cooled cake with the cream.

Clare Garland of Ashmont Grill, Dorchester

The Patriot Ledger