I received an exclusive invitation to The First Annual Bronx Pipe Smoking Society Small Game Dinner, hosted by the Baron Ambrosia in the privately owned yet dilapidated Bronx Borough Courthouse. Which is such an outrageous sentence, I’ll break it down piece by piece. In reverse.
The privately owned, dilapidated, formerly abandoned Bronx Borough Courthouse, on Brooke and 3rd Aves on the edge of the Melrose section of the Bronx is an extraordinary Beaux-Arts masterpiece built between 1905 and 1915 and empty since 1978. This spectacular granite monstrosity, featuring an un-blindfolded marble statue of Justice was used for municipal court cases until the operations moved to the Bronx County Courthouse in the 1930s. (Its a bureaucratic distinction between the Borough of the Bronx and Bronx County. Each of NYC’s boroughs is also county: Manhattan = New York County, Brooklyn = Kings County [a rare holdover from our colonial days,] Staten Island = Richmond County and Queens = Queens County.) Various adaptive re-use plans for the Bronx Borough Courthouse have come and gone, most recently the notion of a Charter School inside the building. The truth of it is – the building is entirely too massive to effectively transform into a modern-use building. The place doesn’t have heat or electricity – our renegade dinner party was powered by an external generator and chafing dishes.
Baron Ambrosia is the definition of “character,” one part Urban Anthony Bourdain, one part Victorian Adventure archetype, one part inner-city huckster/gangster. The alter-ego of underground filmmaker Justin Fornal, the Baron has his own hysterical DIY television show on Bronxnet.com called Bronx Flavor, in which he drives around the Bronx in a pimped-out replica of a 1923 Mercedes dubbed the Purplesaurus Rex, experiencing and educating the viewer (and their taste buds) on the most outrageous ethnic eateries imaginable. A “quaffer of culinary consciousness,” to quote the man himself. I had watched a few episodes of Bronx Flavor but had never met the Baron. Which brings us to . . .
The First Annual Bronx Pipe Smoking Society Small Game Dinner. I scored my invite courtesy of good buddy Josh Bernstein, who had written about $1 eats in the Bronx with the Baron in his popular “Dollar Grub” column for Metromix. After picking up a friend of a friend who prepared Muskrat three ways (a hint of the menu to come,) we drove to the Bronx. The Borough Courthouse is see-your-breath cold, but the room was decked out for a spectacular feast as 30 guests arrived. The menu offered such outrageous dishes as: shredded green papaya salad with giant water bugs, pan-fried Colombian Big Butt Ants, Possum with dried pepper and garlic sauce, roasted beaver in pig skin, Raccoon confit, Otter served four ways, the aforementioned muskrat, Beaver two ways (one way cooked by our graphic designer Jason Engdahl!), you get the picture.
The reason we had such . . . interesting eats for dinner is thanks to the Baron, who wanted to invite and engage culinary expeditioners to start pushing the boundaries of their mouths. Thanks to hookups with two trappers who joined us for dinner (and caught each small game animal for their fur,) everything we ate was about as locavore as you’d get. The artisanal hard apple cider was home-brewed upstate. The apple cake dessert was baked by the Baron’s Mom. And although the food was generally gamey and tasted as it was prepared (more flavor from the sauce than from the meat) it was still one of the most extraordinary dinner parties I’ve ever attended. Afterwards we smoked finely blended tobacco from the Baron’s personal collection, and sipped various alcoholic digestifs in an attempt to force feeling back into our toes. Baron Ambrosia, I will forever be in your army of eating adventurers!
By Matt Levy