Al fresco dining is hardly de rigueur in San Francisco. Our summers are famously unhot, and even in our nicest times of year it's rarely warm enough in the evening to sit out without some kind of heater to keep the goose pimples at bay. That's one of the reasons why when we had the opportunity to attend one of the Outstanding in the Field dinners in Sunol, about an hour to the southeast, we gleefully accepted. The other reason is that the tickets had been provided to us by Full Circle, a CSA-like organic produce delivery service that we will be trying out starting next week. When you consider that tickets to these dinners run $200 and up per person, it was an offer we simply couldn't refuse.
If you're not familiar with Outstanding in the Field, it's a roving restaurant concept, usually bringing local chefs to local farms where they can showcase the produce grown on the farm, and serve it right on the spot. It was started in 1999 by chef and artist Jim Denevan, whose large-scale sculptures in beach sand you may recall from an advertisement for Range Rover a few years back. Over the years it's grown, and they've even taken it on the road, doing OITF events across North America and even to Europe.
We've been to one of these before, about five or six years ago. In that instance, we attended one of the extremely popular dinners hosted on a "secret cove" near Half Moon Bay where Denevan began his art. The chef was Jen Biesty, then of COCO500 (now at Scala's Bistro), and while the food was remarkable, we were unfortunately subject to the vagaries of coastal California weather. The beach when we arrived was swathed in fog, which evolved to a heavy mist and even graduated to a full-on rain in bursts. Our chairs sank into the sand. But it's not as bad as the year the tide came in more rapidly than expected and all the tables had to be swiftly moved to avoid having the diners be swept out to sea.
This time, we were at Baia Nicchia farm, on the grounds of the Sunol Water Temple AgPark, part of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and a confluence point for three sources of water that once served more than half the city's needs. The grand temple was designed by famed architect Willis Polk, who modeled it after the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy.
Baia Nicchia's farmers, Fred Hempel and Jill Shepard, originally focused heavily on tomatoes, but recently has been working with Menkir Tamrat to expand into traditional Ethiopean crops, which are rare in the US. Tamrat explained that Ethiopea was identified as one of the major breadbaskets of the world, a source of great crop diversity going back to prehistory. He wants to preserve these crops, like teff, the staple grain, and heirloom peppers and greens, and Baia Nicchia is his laboratory.
Our chef for this dinner was Sean Baker of Gather, in Berkeley. Baker coincidentally lives in our neighborhood, and I met him briefly at our corner Blue Bottle kiosk, Spin City Coffee. Proprietor Maricar is a major fan of Baker's and has waxed rhapsodic about her dinners at Gather, so I was greatly interested in what he would serve forth.
We arrived at the Water Temple a little before the designated 4 pm arrival time. Whilst strolling the grounds, we ran into friends Irvin and AJ, who were also attending thanks to Full Circle. After we took in the scenery, then gravitated down to a landing where a receptionist checked us in, and we grabbed a glass of Mobius Russian River pinot noir and hovered expectantly for the passed hors d'oeuvres. Like tiny dollops of lamb tartare on discs of compressed celtuce (Chinese stem lettuce) with smoked paprika, Aleppo pepper, douglas fir tips and cured egg yolk. The lamb tartare was tender and mild, with not a hint of the gamy flavor you might expect.
These were followed by hay smoked potatoes with kale, mustard seed, tiny fermented frying peppers and a nasturtium espelette sauce, and a salmon head cheese appie. So, clearly we were off to a good start.
After a series of speeches by Denevan and his partner Leah Scafe, the Baia Nicchia farmers and Tamrat, we broke into smaller groups to take a quick farm tour on the way to the table. OITF dinners are seated communally at long rows of tables and food is served family style, forcing interaction between guests.
Another fun tradition is that guests are encouraged to bring their own plates, which creates a more casual setting. Once the group was seated, the dishes began to arrive, starting with a salad of shaved squashes, cherry tomato-carrot salsa, miso-cured tofu, Mexican marigold, shiso, ice plant. I loved the cheese-like texture of the tofu, and the bright, almost camphorous flavor of the Mexican marigold. I also am fascinated with the use of ice plant and other similar plants since my foraging hike with Hank Shaw.
Next up: Stuffed pumpkin flowers with lamb meatballs, kale, lamb bacon-smoked vegetable vinaigrette, and injera puree. I am so stealing the idea of injera puree.
The main was black cod over lobster rice, alongside squid and mussels with sea and bloomsdale spinaches, baby leek, anise hyssop, sea bean, cucumber, sea lettuce and phytoplankton. The last is what gives that intense green color.
Finally, a simple yet elegant dessert of braised puget gold & blenheim apricots, Menkir's white teff, amaretti, safflower flower and meyer lemon.
Overall the food ranged from good to, well, outstanding. The presentations were attractive, and I appreciate the use of underutilized ingredients like ice plant, Mexican marigold and teff. But the meal was not without flaws.
There was a bit of a portioning problem. Each dish is intended to feed each table of eight. In the case of the salad, it was barely enough for four, and required meticulous plucking to ensure that everyone got a taste of at least many of the elements. Since we're talking about shaved squashes, that felt a little off. Similarly, the squash blossoms and meatballs required fastidious counting to make sure there was enough to go around, and on the main, there were six pieces of black cod — again, for a table of eight. When we spoke to some of our tablemates after, paying guests all, they eached noted that same issue. At $200 a pop, it's understandable they took umbrage.
But it's hard to put a price tag on the experience. In the end, we spent about six hours in a stunningly beautiful setting, enjoying conversation with complete strangers who became instant friends. There was ample wine, and such food as we got was very enjoyable and quite innovative. We came away sated and sun-kissed.
If you want to enjoy an Outstanding in the Field dinner this year, you'll need to hit the road. Currently, they're traversing the US and Canada, returning to the Bay Area in December for two final dinners that are already sold out. Fortunately, however, there are plenty of other farm dinners locally worth checking out. I asked my friend Tana, an afficionada of local small farms, to help select a few:
Farm to Fork Dinner (Santa Cruz)
September 9, 3 pm; Price TBA
This dinner benefits the apprentice program at the UCSC Farm & Garden Program, focused on researching, developing and advancing sustainable agriculture. If you want to encourage our future sustainable farmers, this is the dinner to go to.
The Fork at Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company (Pt. Reyes)
July 19, August 27 and September 26, 6 pm; $40
A more intimate but also affordable option. Four courses served on the Giacomini family farm in Pt. Reyes. Just 20 guests per table, and you know the cheeses will rock the house. BYOB.
Love Apple Farm Dinners and Lunches (Santa Cruz)
Dinner: July 14, 4 pm; $125
Lunches: July 28, August 25 and September 3; $75 (BYOB)
Start these "farm chic" meals by touring and gardens and tasting the ingredients fresh, then enjoy them prepared by Love Apple's resident chef. Dates continue into the fall.
Camp Joy Garden Dinner Party (Boulder Creek)
August 25, 5 pm; $50 ($45 for members)
Camp Joy is a non-profit organic farm operating for educational purposes. Enjoy the fruits of their labor over dinner.
Rte 1 Farms Summer Farm Dinner Series (Santa Cruz area)
August 12 @ Rancho del Oso Farm, Waddell Creek; $90 ($80 for members)
September 30 @ Ocean St. Extension, Santa Cruz; $90 ($80 for members)
Local chefs prepare meals with the produce grown in the fields right where you dine. The August 12 dinner features chefs Adrian Cruz & Saul Terran of Gabriella Cafe, of which both Jim Denevan and Sean Baker are alumni.