It’s the beginning of the fall season in ABQ.
I’m among a lucky group experiencing a performance piece that includes a superb dinner. Jessamyn Lovell, a New Mexico artist who is pursuing a private investigator license, weaves her hunting instincts in with a unique kind of visual surveillance. Tonight she is performing a piece at Central Features Contemporary Art, titled The PI Project, and we are the subjects. I’m seated along with 30 other diners, wearing a blindfold, and directed to bring a fork to my lips and imagine what might be waiting there. It is a single bite of cantaloupe, brightened with basil, cracked pepper and honey. A kind of instant camaraderie forms, all of us tasting with great attentiveness from behind our black blindfold.
Lovell has laid out every aspect of the the evening, in collaboration with a local consortium of growers and culinary artisans, Dig & Serve, who designed the dining experience. As we arrive, we are processed by masked attendants, photographed, and presented with a sleek dossier, containing the blindfold and a folio. The folio, we later discover, contains a Polaroid–a snapshot of our own front door. Seems all of us were briefly “persons of interest,” with Jessamyn scouting out where we live and presenting us now with the evidence.
The dinner is set up in the gallery, a single table stretches the length of the space. The table is set with white linens and clusters of votive candles. There is a somber, slightly ominous tone, that prompts nervous laughter, and I think of Eyes Wide Shut at times. We yield to a kind of surveillance throughout the evening. At one point the crew of silent, masked attendants presents each diner with a snapshot of themselves taken earlier in the evening, when we were all instructed to put on our blind-folds. With this kind of heightened choreography, every course brings an element of surprise, and I think in the process, our senses are sharpened. We become more observant while under surveillance; and perhaps this is the point, honing our perception by depriving us briefly of the fundamental freedom of sight.
The meal begins with a spicy gazpacho, a tangy blend of watermelon, tomatoes, peppers, and jalapeño, laced with cilantro and lime. Next up is a plate of grilled summer vegetables, a construction of zucchini, okra, and eggplant on a swirl of poblano cream sauce, sprinkled with red pomegranate seeds. With each course a new wine appears. I have the presence to make a snap of one of the bottles, a deep red Diavolo “Devil” from Vivac Winery of Dixon, New Mexico. All of the wines, ranging from a sparkling wine at the outset of the evening, to a Tempranillo, are from this northern New Mexico winery. The main course is a spectacular grilled steak, paired with a luscious corn polenta, and grilled shishito peppers. A blackened grilled peach, smoky and sweet, balances out the plate.
The artist has been silent this entire time, circulating in a humorous PI get-up of a trench and dark glasses. But as the dinner winds down she begins to speak about her process, and the intersection of PI work and her own documentary practice. The dinner concludes with a surprising savory dessert–an heirloom tomato ice cream, seasoned with Thai basil simple syrup, whipped creme freche, and a scattering of purple Thai basil flowers. A paper-thin candied tomato slice garnishes the golden dessert. It’s an astonishing finish to the meal. Lastly, as final remarks are made by the artist and the gallery owner, a spicy nightcap is served in delicate glasses: a cold brew coffee splashed with tequila, vermouth Bianca, a swirl of chocolate, sea salt, pepper, ancho chile, and cinnamon. The glasses glow deep red in the ebbing candlelight.