There are some events where the meal is good despite a shabby setting. And other meals where the atmosphere dominates the menu. Then there are the rare dinners where the environment, the company, and the food is so gorgeous and delicious it all feels like a magazine airbrushed fantasy. Enter Outstanding in the Field.
Outstanding in the Fieldis the brainchild of Jim Denevan, a chef, artist and onetime forced farm laborer (courtesy of his big brother). In 1999 while living and working in Santa Cruz, CA, Denevan got the idea to bring diners, their meal, and chefs closer to its origins by dining on a farm. After all, what could be more gorgeous than dining al fresco in the Santa Cruz redwoods? Well, perhaps Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, VA. Outstanding in the Field hosted three dinners over Labor Day weekend at the historic Ayrshire Farm. Chefs for the dinners featured local talent such as Bryan Moscatello of Zola and Potenza and Robert Townsend from Ayrshire Farms. We specifically selected the Sunday evening dinner for its chef: Anthony Chittum of Vermillion.
As a square-state kid, I’ve set foot on a farm or two in my day. So heading through the rolling verdant countryside of Virginia, I was anticipating a bucolic, natural setting mingled with an honest days work that only a working farm can create. What I did not anticipate is the ever-expansive grandiosity of Ayrshire Farm. From long wooded drive to gorgeous stone house to a stable that puts the chicest Chevy Chase home to shame, this is no ordinary farm.
Mike, Itty Bitty Betty, Bacon Terrorist and I walked up the drive trying to keep our awe in check, lest we be kicked out for being too middle class. I turned to Bacon Terrorist, “You know how people talk about the big real estate dreams they’d act on if they won the lottery? We’re walking on mine.” I had no idea it was about to get so much better.
The event began with a late afternoon champagne reception where guests were able to mingle between the back portico and the lake, sipping Veritas Scintilla Brut and enjoying the perfect country breeze. Soon waitstaff began delivering tray after tray of savory hors d’oeuvres. The pork belly with sun dried tomato was a hit early and often with diners, eliciting the type of eye rolls and throaty gurgles normally reserved for the depths of a massage. “That’s it,” Bacon Terrorist announced, pork belly in one hand and champagne in the other, “this whole thing was worth the price of admission. I could leave without even having dinner and still be happy.”
But the bite-sized fun wasn’t over yet. Soon Mike got his hands on a lamb merguez sausage topped with a drizzling of marinated cucumbers and fresh dill, providing a delicious contrast between the earthy, just-so-spicy sausage and clean cucumbers. The fanfare from the crowd continued. Less of a universal hit but still good was the local veal with squash caponata. I admit, I’m not a huge veal fan for both texture and humane reasons, but I tried it to be a good guest. It was… surprisingly good. Ayrshire Farms raises humane veal calves, giving them fresh air, room to move and a balanced diet. As a result, the veal had a thicker texture and deeper color which is a sign, we later learned from our host, of calves that have not been iron deprived.
The reception concluded with a welcome speech from Tim and tour of the farm where, OMFG, there are piglets. Nothing betrays a city kid more than squealing over a bunch of baby pigs but that is exactly what all the dinner guests did. How can you not? The squat pink nose, giant ears, a not quite corkscrew tail. Piglets are tailor made to be adorable and criminally delicious. The cognitive dissonance would have distracted me if I didn’t have a belly full of champagne and pork belly lamb. The farm tour continued to a pair of curious calves, the impressive stable quarters, and the organic vegetable field.
The evening’s menu and an orgy of food photos after the jump.
Each Outstanding in the Field Dinner seats guest at a single, long, communal table right out in the fields. During the reception Tim revealed he was especially excited about the table placement this weekend. No wonder. Perched at the top of a wide open field with the farm to one side and the lush mountain range on the other, we settled in for what promised to be a legendary meal.
Each course is paired with a wine, and attendees get to mingle with the farmers, growers, winemakers and other artisans whose work produced the ingredients of the feast. The five-course meal is served family style. Chef Chittum served a duo each course, paired with wine.
Dinner began with two fruit and cheese dishes that hum summer harvest: heirloom tomatoes from Ayrshire farm layered with thick cuts of sheep’s milk feta cheese and fresh watermelon and sprinkled with fresh, cracked pepper. The dish was as colorful on our palates as it was on the plate, with the fresh feta as creamy as I’ve ever tasted, keeping a mellow tone while cherry tomatoes burst with fresh, sweet juice. The second plate featured grilled eggplant from Potomac Vegetable Farm tossed with peppers, a fresh goat’s milk ricotta and mint. The luscious ricotta was a golden yellow, succulent and rich alongside the slightly sweet and pungent grilled vegetables.
Dinner proceeded at a leisurely pace, which made some diners antsy while others didn’t seem to notice at all. We were lucky enough to be in the company of Itty Bitty Betty, Bacon Terrorist and freshly engaged (still has that new ring smell!) Erika and Nick (nicknames TBD) so there was hardly a dull moment in conversation. It’s hard to lay any pacing blame on Chef Chittum, working in Top Chef-like conditions in the middle of a sunny meadow. Sending out 150 servings at the exact same time with only the tools that can be dragged into the field is no act for amateurs. Wine refills were offered, which always helps time slip by more quickly, typically about two pours per person.
Soon a platter of Cornish game hen with roasted spaghetti squash was presented with flourish. The poultry was charred just so, delivering a taste of smoke and flame alongside the meat. Given a blind taste, I don’t know that I could tell the difference between a Cornish game hen and a fresh farm chicken. Some argue that it tastes more chickeny than typical poultry but I wonder if that isn’t the freshness talking. Regardless, I can say with confidence that this tasted bright and held its juice, despite its obvious quality time on the grill. The squash, in vivid construction cone orange, delivered a tart contrast to the dish and Itty Bitty Betty and I both mooned over the perfect texture.
The real star of this course was Red Apron’sloukanika with fresh beans in an herb vinaigrette. Oh my God absolutely nothing about this dish sucked. It was perhaps one of the most perfectly quintessential relaxed summer dishes I’ve had all season. The loukanika, a lesser known Greek style sausage that combines lamb and pork with a sprinkling of citrusy orange, exploded with flavor the meat tender and pliant on our tongues. They were offset perfectly by the trio of beans which roared with fresh from the garden flavors and al dente texture. I think it was a fine testament to everyone’s upbringing that no one was stabbed with a fork when it came down to sharing this dish with the table.
Turns out the previous course was just a carnivore warm up. The smell of the sweet robust smoke of the beef brisket hit our noses long before the dish made it to the table. By the time it did, we were ready to pounce. The brisket, while not earth shattering, was a solid showing of moist meat with a healthy dose of smoke, though I would have liked taste a little more spice and smoke in the flavor. And just in case someone started to think the previous serving of beans meant we were headed into healthy food territory, the brisket was served with – wait for it – fried rye bread. For realsies. Tiny rounds of fried bread. It tasted exactly as good as it sounds.
The lamb shoulder brought our tastebuds out of summer and into the looming autumn with roasted beets, carrots and leeks. The lamb, from Over the Grass Farm, was rich and moist. The beets were earthy and crisp, pairing nicely with the Veritas petit verdot.
At this point in the meal we were all getting overloaded bellies and overstimulated tongues. The sun was going down behind a Virginia mountain, a cool breeze wafted across the table and the wine was taking a serious toll on our energy level. None of this mattered though when the peach pie showed up. The kitchen made a wise, wise decision when it pre-sliced each pan of pie so no diner could give him or herself an extra edge in servings. Otherwise I suspect friendships would have ended, families forever divided over who got the bigger slice. As it is, Erika took an enormous risk when she skipped to the restroom just as pie was served, leaving her piece with only a single bite missing. Her faith in humanity was rewarded with an empty plate upon her return, though she immediately spotted her serving partially hidden a few plates away. “Elizabeth,” she said in a steady this-is-not-a-laughing-matter voice, “I know that is my pie.” Busted. What she didn’t realize is my fake theft backfired twice. Not only was she unfazed, I had to spend her entire absence fighting dining neighbors, mere strangers just two hours ago, from helping themselves to heaping fork-fulls. I’ll have to plan better next year.