Without going into details, the equivalent of a Category Two hurricane has been plowing our family for a couple of weeks, and I have been unable to post much lately. But things took a turn for the better on Thursday night last week, and Bob and I went to a special Harvest Dinner at Theo's here in Soquel, which is one of the best restaurants in Santa Cruz county. I've been wanting to go for over a year, since I did some photography for them in exchange for a gift certificate. Kirsten, my farmer friend at Everett Family Farm, provided all the incentive needed when she told me that Chef Nicci Tripp had requested to be paired with their farm, and that his multi-course menu would cost only $40. With the exception of the blueberries and figs, all the fruits, vegetables, and herbs were grown by Kirsten and Jasmine.
Nicci is said to be an inventive and talented chef, and Theo's is well-known for its wine list and elegant menus. To say they enjoy a cult following is no exaggeration: one man flew in from Los Angeles to attend the Harvest Dinner.
Kirsten had made reservations for six, which included herself, Jasmine, and also Betty Van Dyke and her partner, Ray. We met at 6:30, and the dining room was still swimming in late afternoon sunlight. Coincidentally, Martine Mahoudeau, the head of a Slow Food convivium (of which there are two in Santa Cruz) appeared solo, and we asked her to join us. I'd met Martine at other Slow Food events I'd attended, most recently at the potluck at Everett Family Farm last month, when I'd decided to join Slow Food. She is a lovely and elegant French woman, and she made a good addition to our group.
We were given champagne and a wine list, and the waiter asked if we had any questions. "Isn't the idea just to put ourselves in the chef's hands, and trust him completely?" I asked. He grinned and said, "Exactly."
Defying the idea that everything had to be locally grown or produced, I had brought a bottle of Gruner Veltliner, obtained downtown at Soif Wine Bar & Merchants. Kirsten had showed me the menu previously, so I thought it would be a nice addition to the feast. Indeed it was: the hors d'oeuvres arrived, and they were well-suited to the minerally wine. At right:
Roasted Pepper ~ Chef's Chevre Crostini
Prosciutto & Basil Wrapped Charentais Melon
Balsamic Blue Cheese ~ Sweet Fig
"Chef's chevre" means that Nicci makes many of his own cheeses in house, from Ron Garthwaite's Claravale Dairy milk, which Ron himself delivers. "I think he likes what I do with his milk," the chef told us after our meal, when he joined us after the restaurant closed. I know I like what he does: the cheeses were perfect.
Out next came another trio of lusciousness, "Petite Trio du Jardinière," as it was called on the menu. This was perhaps my single favorite course of the evening. It was the corn-truffle cream bisque that nearly brought tears to Jasmine's eyes, and which set the rest of us wondering how big a faux pas it would be to actually lick the tiny cups clean. Pictured at left, baby red beets in aïoli, sweet corn and truffle bisque, and heirloom tomato and melon napoleon with house blue cheese. Atop the napoleon was a tiny scoop of tomato sorbet: dazzling.
I'd seen "The Sweetest Strawberries & Well Loved Baby Lettuce" when Kirsten had showed me the menu, and loved Nicci's wording. The salad was lovely, with crystallized almonds and the chef's chevre, with a strawberry vinaigrette that had a lot of body and flavor. Bob in particular adored this salad.
By the time the salads were cleared, it was time to move onto a red wine, so I ordered a bottle of Robert Sinskey Pinot Noir from the list. Betty and Ray had contemplated a bottle for the latter courses, and we had a bottle of Ridge Vineyards Geyserville Zinfandel to anticipate with the Berkshire Black pig.
The pinot noir was a great match with "Spot Prawn and Delicata Squash "Tamale": Roasted Sweet Corn and Smoked Gypsy Pepper Salsa," pictured here. The chef had put a spin on the tamale, using a banana leaf to accentuate the lightly tropical notes in this dish. The second appearance of corn on the menu bothered us not in the least: if I'm going to say good-bye to corn for the season, you can serve it all night long. (We were still wondering if there was any bisque left, and considered bribing the chef to deny it to other diners.)
After a palate refreshing grapefruit-Campari sorbet, and a lull that allowed us to finish the pinot, it was time for a date with Spice Roasted Berkshire Black Pig, shown here, along with pumpkin-chard gnocchi, sweet pickled onions, and apple cider jus. Jasmine, a vegetarian, received chanterelle mushrooms instead of pig. The aroma of the pig was heady: even Jasmine confessed her love of pork. "When I first became a vegetarian, I would still eat pepperoni. My sister's a bacon-eating vegetarian," she laughed. Ah, bacon: how many vegetarians and vegans have forsworn their diets for its siren call? This dish was the ultimate tribute to the onset of autumn, in my opinion. The earthy sage and pumpkin, the tangy apple jus, and the sheer voluptuousness of the pig itself were eliciting little animal noises from members of our group. Okay, from me, but it was involuntary.
Another friend had appeared in the dining room a bit earlier: Nancy Jacobs Miller and I had met when she was considering making a television program from the farm dinners I'd photographed with the OutstandingintheField.com people. Along with the previously-mentioned man-who-flew-from-LA-to-dine, Nancy herself had taken a flight from Los Angeles to make the dinner. She's a big farm fan herself, and I'm always happy to know other farmies.
In typical "it's a small world but I wouldn't want to paint it" fashion, Nancy also knew Jasmine, who'd babysat her little son. Nancy sent glasses of Very Good Port to Kirsten and Jasmine, which we all followed suit and ordered as well, to enjoy with the final course. That was the Vanilla Bean Soufflé ~ Strawberries and Blueberries, and if there is one thing I wish I could wave under your nose, it would be this fragrant dish. Ohdeargod. We were all speechless while we ate, it was so good.
Nicci came and sat with us for a nice while, as the room emptied. I don't know what I expected, but he wasn't it. He was so casual, and so comfortable, and so friendly and easy to chat with. He wants to start a Farmers Appreciation Movement: yeah, buddy! He had come from cooking at David Paul's in Lahaina, and we had a big laugh at the expense of Robert Longhi, a buttheaded restaurateur there whose ego is legendary and baseless. (That's a post I had made at the eGullag Society before they banned me last April.) NOTE: never ever eat at Longhi's. The food wasn't good, either.
The dinner was the culmination of the perfect circle of loving our local farms. I visit Everett Family Farm weekly now, and Kirsten and Jasmine have become dear to me (and to Logan: talk about a love fest). They've been telling me how supportive Nicci is: he absolutely gets it about having the freshest possible produce—some of the things he receives are still warm from the sun when they're delivered. He's willing to pay a little more for the high quality: he turns their fruits and vegetables into little miracles that truly honor the women who grow them.
Upcoming plans include dragging Nicci to the Sunday farmers market, which (I believe) is the favorite of most of its participants and visitors. I'll be sad when it closes for the season at the end of the month.
About this dinner? $40 per person, and the wine cost only $43 (they have a really low mark-up on wine: only 50% or so, it seems). All of that was covered by the gift certificate, and so we paid only tip and tax.
The meal was just fabulous, both in courses and company. It was so nice to be out with adults, laughing so much.
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TIDBITS FROM ALL OVER: I love love love love using Bloglines. If you're reading this blog, and you read others, you can benefit from Bloglines' superior ease of us. Here is my current list of blog subscriptions (167!). When you're logged in, blogs with new content are bold in the sidebar. If you add a "Subscribe Bloglines" bookmark in your toolbar, you need only click that bookmark to add a blog to your list. It's fantastic. You can also preview the blog entries, and add a "clipping" to a hidden folder, if you want to remember it later. Also, you can find see who else reads the same blogs you so, by clicking on "Subscribers" in the top nav.
Having said all that, here are some things I had stored in my clippings folder over the past weeks.
From KQED's Bay Area Bites: "Take Me Down to Chino Farms"
Heidi Swanson, 101 Cookbooks: "Salsa of the Year"
Food Museum Blog: "Dr. John S. Niederhauser--In Memoriam"
Cornucopia Institute: a scathing article about Horizon Organic milk
In Praise of Sardines: "When Potato Farmers Get Bored"
The Wednesday Chef: a write-up of Russ Parsons' Fresh Corn Blini
Slash Food: a write-up of a British hen cam
Brownie Points: "Vanilla Bean Tremens" (note: you can expect a guest author on my blog, Patricia Rain, aka "The Vanilla Queen," to write a piece about the travails of vanilla growers globally)
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More trivia: I was tagged for a meme by CookieCrumb over at I'm Mad and I Eat.
23/5 Meme Instructions
1. Delve into your blog archive.
2. Find your 23rd post (or closest to).
3. Find the fifth sentence (or closest to).
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions. Ponder it for meaning, subtext or hidden agendas...
5. Tag five people to do the same.
I have delved. I found the sentence, which consists of a single consonant, a single vowel, and a punctuation mark. To wit: "Go."
If it's possible to get more Zen out of two letters, I can't think how.
"Go" is the first word in the last paragraph of this blog entry.
Regarding tagging five people -- I've been so delinquent in my blogging that I think everyone has already seen this one, so I will decline to go through all the blogs in my subscriptions to see who hasn't participated.
If I had to re-apply the word today, it would be in this context. "Go. Go to Theo's Restaurant in Soquel."
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Finally (!) I visited with Cynthia Geske up at Love Apple Farm last week. I'll be writing a piece about her soon: can you say "145 kinds of heirloom tomatoes"? She sent me home with a big boxful when I brought her a CD of all the photos I had taken. She had an insanely busy summer, growing tomatoes for Gary Ibsen of Carmel's Tomato Festival, as well as for Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos. More on all that in the very near future.
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Thought for the day: "America is an enormous frosted cupcake in the middle of millions of starving people. ~ Gloria Steinem
Thanks for visiting. I'll write more soon. Now go: go kiss your babies, if they're nearby.