Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Outstanding In The Field

Mushrooms are my friends. No, not the Haight Ashbury kind. I'm talking porcini, shitake, chanterelles, morels and their numerous cousins.

I just love eating mushrooms. So much so that I recently became a member of the Mycoligical Society of San Francisco. When I read that Outstanding in the Field was going to host a foraging dinner in the Santa Cruz mountains right after Thanksgiving, I jumped right in. I'd read about these gourmet dining events on farm settings for a while, either in Sunset Magazine or in the New York Times.

This is what the founders have to say about them on their website: "Since 1999 we have set the long table at farms or gardens, on mountain tops or in sea caves, on islands or at ranches. Occasionally the table is set indoors: a beautiful refurbished barn, a cool greenhouse or a stately museum."

In a nutshell: a hundred or so foodies get together on a farm and eat the produce from the farm prepared by respected chefs at long communal tables, mingling with perfect strangers who are supposedly kindred spirits. Our event took place between Pescadero and Ano Nuevo SR at Pie Ranch.

It started on an expanse of green grass around 3pm, halfway between the hen house and rows of November strawberries, with a glass of Tempranillo and Grenache Rose from the Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. On a camping stove nearby, the chef was sauteeing thin slices of porcini to render them crisp. A pure delight. After rounding up all the guests, our hosts gave us a speech on the ranch and the spirit of the event and we headed up the mountain.

On the trail, we started discussing with others. After all we were newbies (unlike many old timers who complained at how popular the event was) and we didn't know who we'd sitting next to. We actually had a great conversation starter as we had our girls with us. There were only five children for 147 adults. We hooked up with a couple who admired the striped blue sweater our oldest daughter was wearing. "I wish they made the same one in grown up sizes!" she said. Too bad, we replied, it was knitted by my mother-in-law, an artist knitter in Paris.

The view from the top of the hill embraced the Pacific Ocean and white stretches of sand as the sun was setting on the horizon. We could clearly see the dilapidated lighthouse at Ano Nuevo SR, a most mysterious spot that's now called home by sea lions.

After everybody had reached the top, someone gave the signal to go back down. I was disappointed though because I had misunderstood that we'd go foraging for mushrooms. Sigh. No foraging. Back to ... the barn.

It was way too cold to dine under the stars so tables were set at the foot of the hill, under garlands of dried corn and ornamental squashes in the barn. When 150 guests sit at three long tables, you appreciate better the size of the event. Let's eat! The appetizer was a mushroom mussel soup that was too salty for my taste but good otherwise.

Across from us sat the sweater-admiring couple who had driven all the way from Los Angeles for that night. They were both screenwriters for Tinseltown and had worked on thrillers/fantasy films (like the erotic thriller I'm Watching You ) or more recently documentary movies. She was the liveliest person ever and he was super cool.

Next to them sat a lawyer whose daughter followed anthropology studies and with whom we exchanged thoughts on the recent death of Claude Levi-Strauss the great French anthropologist.

I even recommended them Nigel Barley's The Innocent Anthropologist, one of the few books that ever made me laugh out loud.

Another book recommendation came from my screenwriter neighbors and it was The Last of the Really Great Whangwoodles by Julie Andrews (yes, of Mary Poppins fame). They said my girls would love it later.

Meanwhile my girls were scampering outside with a new found friend called Melie under a pitch dark night, chasing each other between cooking stations. As I walked out to check on them, I marvelled at the real whipping cream effort, a culminating point of the fruit pies we would eat later.

I chose persimmon over huckleberry but that was a misguided choice after stealing in my husband's plate. Never mind, it was good nonetheless.

Good but not outstanding. This is actually my main point. The food was very creative (hail to sauteed stinging nettles in the saffron, fennel, prosecco soaked sable fish, bonny doon road stinging nettles, chanterelles & hedgehogs entree) - but it was not super impressive.

Some of it arrived lukewarm or cold and while large serving dishes foster family style dining, nobody exactly knew how small or large their individual helpings should be. It's too bad. I do like the idea of a dinner at a farm.

We've experienced a very pleasant summer evening tasting heirloom tomatoes at Capay Organic Farms two years ago. It was a lot less gourmet (grilled chicken, roasted potatoes, greens from the farm) but a lot more enjoyable.

It may be the fact that we had very high expectations about Outstanding in the Field. The tab was also pretty steep. People say their dinners on warm summer nights in the Napa Valley are heaven, but that late November night, I wanted to be more satisfied.

The only high note was discovering a selection of Bonny Doon wines along the meal. They truly live up to their reputation and brightened up our spirits.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Union Square Tree Lighting Ceremony

Each year we attend a tree lighting ceremony in San Francisco.

Last year, we attended the Pier 39 Tree Lighting Ceremony. This year we headed to Union Square as it was one conveniently taking place after Thanksgiving (Embarcadero Center and Pier 39 got an early start) and it seemed only fair to kick off the festive season after Turkey Day.

The ceremony started at 6.30pm on San Francisco's Union Square but as we arrived an hour early, we stopped at two places before mingling with the crowds.

First, we entered the Williams Sonoma store on Union Square, candy for the eye. These guys really know a thing or two when it comes to service. As we entered the store, we were greeted by hot apple cider cups that my girls downed with pleasure before asking for seconds and thirds.

Up two flights of stairs, trays of peppermint chocolate bark were awaiting eager hands and again, my girls scored pretty well on the scale of seconds and thirds.

Meanwhile, I picked a bottle of their Winter Forest dishwashing liquid. Not only does it smell like a balsam tree entered your house. It's also made with essential oils without chemicals, packaged in recyclable bottles and biodegradable. Hurray for Caldrea who developed this earth-friendly line for Williams Sonoma.

Next we headed towards the WestIn St Francis hotel to admire their legendary sugary gingerbread display. As you can see on the picture, it is a pretty impressive castle. All sugar, fondant, chocolate and gingerbread. Tons of it.

Alas, double and triple alas, we already saw it last year. And the year before. In fact it is the 2005 Gingerbread castle that gets "improved" each year. So says the text next to the castle. Do real spider webs count as improvement too?

Come on guys, there are outstanding pastry chefs in your kitchen and you lamely store your gingerbread castle in a basement to bring it out in the limelight once a year?!

I'm not asking for a fabulous castle each year and I'm all for recycling, but a different gingerbread creation would be nice. Just ask the savvy pastry apprentices at the nearby California Culinary Academy. They'll be more than happy to show off their newly-learned skills.

So we left the St Francis with our girls and out we were on Union Square with thousands of other people.

Three years ago, I remember distinctly a band playing, a speech from Mayor Gavin Newsom and a loud countdown to the lighting.

This year, we were almost caught by surprise as the countdown started weakly before the planned time and we caught up by number 7. Not nearly as fun as the one I remembered. The tree championed by Macy's was lit and people cheered.

As crowds poured out on neighboring Post and Geary streets, we decided to show our girls the Macy's SPCA dog and cat windows.

We had a crazy time going around the block and with people cutting through dense lines, it was pretty tough to see anything at all. However we managed to see a few pupies and kittens, ready for adoption in their temporarily posh surroundings.

Before calling it a day, we pushed the doors of the Hyatt hotel behind the Levi's store to see their snow village.

This is another tradition of ours. I always take my girls to see the snow village installed at the Hyatt Regency at the Embarcadero Center. This year, we decided we'd see the one at Union Square instead.

It is not nearly as nice (the Hyatt Regency displays more than 3,000 ceramic painted houses out of Len Connacher's private collection) but our girls were still awestruck in front of the miniature snowy scenes replete with gingerbread houses, gliding skaters, circling carousels and blinking street lights. A delight to their eyes.

Off starts the season.