Monday, September 24, 2012

Feasts & Affairs | Outstanding in the Field 2012

Last week, Marcus and I found ourselves returning back to Brooklyn Grange in Queens for another farmer dinner hosted by Outstanding in the Field (OITF) with Linda, John, and Ralf in tow (sad Jess, John, and Lynnette couldn't join us this year, though) -- only this time, Chefs Benjamin Towill and Chef Nick Wilber from The Fat Radish had curated our literal farm-to-table dinner that evening. As we've done in the past (it's certainly a ritual now :P), Linda and I bought our tickets for this event way back in March. Hardcore fans, we most certainly are! So much, in fact, that this time, we solely picked the dinner because of its location (I mean, c'mon a rooftop farm in Queens -- who can say no to that?!), as well as our familiarity with Brooklyn Grange from the farm dinner we attended last year, before the folks at OITF even announced who the guest chefs would be. We didn't even know we'd be graced with the presence of these two wonderful chefs from The Fat Radish until a week before the date -- Linda's guess was they were waiting for some kind of dramatic impact. Either way, it was a pleasant surprise for all of us -- Linda and I even were saying we'd been meaning to get our butts on over to the Lower East Side to check out The Fat Radish, so what better way to experience it than with OITF?! :P

We were met with another last minute change a couple days before the dinner. Due to some "bureaucratic hurdles" encountered by the OITF team, the location of the dinner was moved from Brooklyn Grange to La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez, a location that Linda and I were familiar with from the farm dinner in New York City two years ago with Print restaurant. La Plaza Cultural is a beautiful space and much easier to get to, so it wasn't disappointing news.

{1,3,7} So around 3PM that very Wednesday, our group arrived to La Plaza Cultural where {4} we got comfortable, {8,11} put down our plates (after all, OITF has always been BYOP), {2,5,6,10} explored the community garden a bit further, and {9} selected our seats at the dinner table.

Traditionally, OITF has set the "long table" at farms, at gardens, on mountaintops, in sea caves, on island, and at ranches -- wherever its tours would take the table.

As I've written before, the mission of OITF is "to reconnect diners to the land and the origins of their food and to honor the local farmers and food artisans who cultivate it," and as a "restaurant without walls," each and every dinner hosted by the organization ensures the "consistent theme of honoring the people whose good work brings nourishment to the table." With that being said, the ingredients for these farm meals are almost all local (many times, sourced within inches of your seat at the table!) and generally prepared by a celebrated chef of the region (which, in our case, are the guys from The Fat Radish). To read more about OITF, please see the organization's history section of its website!

Normally, the course pairings for these OITF dinners (at least the ones I've been to) usually are wines. So it was a pleasant surprise to see that {3,4} the first pairing (for the hors d'oeuvres) was a cocktail -- The Basil Brush, which happens to be on the menu at The Fat Radish's new sister restaurant called The Leadbelly, is a blend of gooseberry, {1} fresh basil, {2} elderflower, and {5} Brooklyn Gin. Later, we just happened to be sitting next to Joe Santos, one of the co-founders of Brooklyn Gin, so that was really neat! They also started pouring a glera (i.e., the grapes used in prosecco) produced by Bisson from Treviso, Italy with a 2011 vintage to go with the second course.

The first course consisted of three hors d'oeuvres: {1} red and golden beet lollipops with hazelnuts and horseradish, {2} Noble Road cheese crostini with Brooklyn Grange rooftop honey and dried bee pollen, and {3} coronation chicken (i.e., combination of precooked cold chicken meat, herbs and spices in a creamy mayonnaise-based sauce with curry powder) lettuce wraps with a mild yogurt sauce. All three were well done. The beet lollipops were ripe and nutty; the Noble Road cheese was creamy and very brie-like (Linda even commented that the cheese was as if brie and goat cheese had a baby together) and the honey added a light sweetness to it; and the lettuce wraps were divine, as the lettuce itself was really delicate yet was able to hold the dollop of coronation chicken salad without wilting.
Gratuitous pre-dinner photograph of me, Linda, John, and Ralf! And as usual, our table possibly rivaled that evening as the honorary title of the rowdy "drinking table" -- loud and proud!

{1} The organizers, Jim Denevan and Leah Scafe, gave a brief background on OITF and how it stumbled upon La Plaza Cultural in the past. They later introduced Ross Martin, the landscape architect of the community garden's grounds. {2} Later on, Ben Flanner from the Brooklyn Grange farm, came over to greet the guests and shared which of menu's ingredients were sourced from his farm (i.e., heirloom tomatoes, kale, various herbs, jessup, beets, cilantro, and honey). {3} The team from The Fat Radish came out once all the courses had been served, thanking everyone for coming as well as OITF for asking them to be a part of this dinner.

Founded in 1976 by local residents and "greening activists," La Plaza Cultural used to be a series of vacant city lots covered in rubble and trash. A Latino group, CHARAS, cleared out truckloads of refuse, "determined to reclaim the neighborhood from a downward spiral of arson, drugs, and abandonment." Working with architect Buckminster Fuller, "a geodesic dome" was built in the open plaza and began staging cultural events. Green Guerrillas pioneer Liz Christy "seeded the turf with 'seed bombs,'" planting what are now the towering weeping willows and linden trees. During the 1980s, the garden was "under attack by developers seeking to build on the space," and after countless court battles, La Plaza Cultural was finally preserved in 2002 as part of a landmark settlement, which had saved several scores of gardens across New York City. Armando Perez, a CHARAS founder and former District Leader of the Lower East Side who was brutally murdered in 1999, "recognized the power of gardens to bring communities together" and consequently, La Plaza was aptly named after Mr. Perez in 2003.

{2,5} Once hor d'oeuvre and mingling hour was over, we grabbed our plates and sat down at our seats, to be met with the rest of the evening's menu. {1} Our pairings (done by Craig Atlas, a sommelier from NYC) moved onto riesling produced by Dirler-Cadé from Alsace, France with a 2010 vintage and a pinot noir produced by Robert Sinskey Vineyards from Carneros, California with a 2009 vintage, respectively for the third and the fourth courses. {7} The second course following the first of hors d'oeuvres was the grilled end of summer squash with heirloom tomatoes and a kefir lime dressing (made using olive oil, egg yolk, kaffir lime juice, and Thai chili). It was the idyllic dish to bid farewell to the ending summer days -- crunchy and smokey squash, juicy and sweet tomatoes, and a wide array of green herbs. The kefir lime dressing was what made it come together and so distinctively different with its South Asian flavors. {6} Next as the third course was the beet root tart tartane with an herb salad (i.e., parsley and watercress) and Pipe Dream goat cheese. While the tartane's pastry was flaky and savory and the beet root earthy with fruity qualities, the goat cheese was what did me in. It was gamier than I was expecting, and for someone who is still an amateur when it comes to cheeses, it pushed my limits as to how far away from my cheese comfort zone I could handle. {9} Before the next course came out, there was a bit of a commotion at the other end of the long table -- lots of cheering and applause. Turning our heads, we found this gentleman, down on one knee, proposing to his girlfriend. It was really cute and very fun to be a part of this beautiful moment.

{4} The main course that evening (i.e., the fourth course) was a roasted leg of lamb with wilted kale and mustard greens, with a side of {3} couscous with coriander seeds and cilantro as well as an heirloom bean salad with cumin yoghurt and sprouts. From since we arrived at La Plaza, there was lots of roasting action happening, as the scent of smokiness from the leg of lamb wafted throughout the grounds. It was nice to finally see these teasing scents brought to fruition. Though the lamb was overcooked in some slices/areas, it was still super flavorful and juicy. Served cold, the sides were refreshing and complemented the roasted lamb very nicely, though having them served warm may have been even better. {8} Last, but not least, was the fifth course for dessert -- a warm spiced plum cake with oat crumble and whipped mascarpone -- paired with a perfect moscato d'Asti from Piedmont, Italy produced by Vitorrio Bera & Figli with a 2011 vintage. Resembling a loose muffin, the dessert was crumbly, subtly rich, and spiced up with the trappings of the impending fall season. The moscato d'Asti, as always, was the ideal ending to a fantastic meal, as if I were biting into a piece of peak-ripened fruit.

Pink skies from an almost sunset.

Findings: Outstanding in the Field proved to be another satisfying success. The season's bounty spoke wildly in the curated menu done up by Chef Nick Wilber and Chef Benjamin Towill of The Fat Radish and was only underscored by the refreshing Basil Brush laced with Brooklyn Gin (my new go-to brand!) and the complementing wine pairings by sommelier Craig Atlas. Although we only heard from the folks at Brooklyn Grange about that evening's ingredients as well as met Joe Santos from Brooklyn Gin, the spirit of the local farms and purveyors was still very tangible in the fresh greens, vegetables, and protein that we so voraciously ate through family-style. While we had our hearts initially set on this farm dinner being on the rooftop of Brooklyn Grange, La Plaza Cultural had its own distinctive charm as well. 

Thanks to the teams from OITF, The Fat Radish, Brooklyn Grange, and all of the other farms/purveyors (see below) for orchestrating yet another noteworthy dinner to be included in the annals of my personal gastronomic history. 

Price point: $230 per person for a five-course locally supplied dinner.

--September 19, 2012

Outstanding in the Field
P.O. Box 2413
Santa Cruz, CA 95063

La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez
southwest corner of Avenue C & 9th Street
New York, NY 10009

The Fat Radish
17 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002

Brooklyn Grange*
37-18 Northern Blvd
Queens, NY 11101

Brooklyn Gin*

2116 Jacksonville Road
Jobstown, NJ 08022

Paffenroth Gardens
95 Little York Road
Warwick, NY 10990

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