LUCKILY, THE GUEST of honor had a sense of humor. The event was the 50th birthday of a prominent literary scholar in Raleigh, N.C. That's hardly old, but his stately home-replete with pools, statues and aqueducts-suggested to his host a Roman theme, with food straight out of the ancient Roman Empire. The mood: "Decadent, but not too pagan," says Craig Mitchell, partner in Raleigh-based Mitchell's Catering & Events. "I Claudius, but not Caligula."
Mitchell's researched the menu extensively, using resources ranging from the public library to the Internet. "It was very interesting discovering that many sweets and savories were developed by the early Romans, such as foie gras-they force-fed geese figs instead of grain-sardines, capons and sorbets," says Mitchell.
With a catering budget of just over $170 a person, Mitchell's created a menu based on authentic Roman dishes served with modern flair. Tray-passed hors d'oeuvre included dates wrapped in pancetta; quail eggs and caviar; and lentil salad with endive. The buffet offered roasted capon, fresh artichokes and asparagus, roasted wild boar, sauteed foie gras with honey, marinated sardines, oysters on the half shell, whole poached red mullet, and an array of grilled foods including ostrich skewers, fresh figs grilled with gorgonzola and bacon, and scallop skewers with a preserved-lemon relish. Mitchell's David Casteel served as food designer and Bill Allen created the decor.
The biggest hit was the birthday cake-an almond cake covered in rolled fondant to replicate the Colosseum in Rome. Piped inside was the scoreboard inscription: Lions, XII; Christians, IV; Guest of Honor, L (for age 50). The cake was accompanied by hand-molded fruit sorbets and stuffed figs.
The Roman theme was carried through in the entertainment. Guests were greeted by a fiddling Nero. On the main buffet, a "live sculpture" of a Roman athlete remained frozen for 10 minutes at a time, shifting positions only so often. White lilies decorated the buffets.
Mitchell knew his event was a hit when he received a wonderfully awkward compliment: "A prominent restaurateur told me, 'You need to be doing this someplace besides here in Raleigh!'"