For me, the best food happens when it's stripped of all the pretension of trying to be "good food." It's when "good food" is treated as an inalienable part of our everyday existence, rather than something that must be saved for special occasions or strived for as a symbol of upper crust society. It's when food is an appreciation of dirty hard work and the vicissitudes of human experience rather than some capstone that has been scrubbed clean of all of its uglier, smellier, muddier parts before getting served up on a fancy platter. It's like the difference between a huge, reflexive bear hug from your favorite kindergarten teacher when you scraped your knee on the playground versus the requisite ceremonial, curt handshake you receive from the Chancellor when walking across a college graduation stage with 1000 other unnamed masses. This is why I prefer Portland over NYC, why I will always choose to go to Berkeley for dinner over some new-fangled trendy place in San Francisco, why I'm the happiest foodie when I encounter good food anywhere, not just in the middle of some highly-Instagrammed locale.
Over the past year since moving away from Silicon Valley, I've been getting to know a lot more about the Central Valley regions of California--our state's equivalent of the nation's "fly-over" territory, where most people whiz by on Highway 5 or Highway 99 without giving a single thought to what lies just beyond the freeway offramps. Ask people what they know about this true heartland, where most of the food for not only California but the whole US is grown, and they'll wrinkle their noses and say, "it's brown" or "it's hot" or "Where is Modesto? or Redding? or Merced? or Sacramento? or Fresno? or Bakersfield, anyways?" But the beauty of what people are missing is this huge, richly culturally-diverse, historical swath of one of the largest U.S. states, where good food minus coastal pretension is found. So when the team behind Sacramento's Farm-to-Fork initiative invited me to a dinner to preview and celebrate their huge Farm-to-Fork festival that's happening this month, I jumped at the chance to learn more about this lesser-known, not-as-widely-popular-as-SF food town right in my backyard.
Dinners in a room full of people you don't know can always be a frightening experience for the socially awkward introvert like me, but sitting down at this table between Sacramento-ans who really appreciated and loved and believed in their food, one could immediately feel the warmth. Our stomachs were placed in the incredibly capable hands of two amazing Sacramento chefs--Chef Oliver Ridgeway from Grange Restaurant & Bar and Chef Ravin Patel of Selland Family Restaurants. Here's the crazy amazing menu:
Melon & Tomatoes
pickled melon rind, walnuts, basil, mint, chili lime dressing
dill and fennle pollen, radishes, cucumber, sorrel, puffed grains
Chicken Fried Dixon Lamb Sweetbreads
gypsy pepper BBQ sauce, summer squash and blossoms, fried basil, pickled strawberries
Karlonas Farms Pheasant
roasted oyster and beech mushrooms, chamomile nage, brown rice cakes
Passmore Ranch Trout
hierloom bean succotash, baby tomatoes, fried eggplant, salsa verde, charred lemon
Coffee-braised Masami Short Ribs
corn, chili, radish, pickled onions, cilantro, jus
local peppers, potatoes, farm eggs, sauce romesco, charred kale, chili oil
Valley Stone Fruit
honey, creme fraiche and lavender ice cream, almond streusel
pickled cucumber, rye crumble, dill, white chocolate, cucumber ice cream
My absolute favorite dish of the evening had to be the cucumber namelaka dessert, from Sacramento pastry chef Rod Cuadra, which Chef Ridgeway is plating up below. Namelaka is this super soft white chocolate panna cotta-like concoction, and it was layered with a beautiful blend of slightly tangy cucumber sorbet (thanks to rice vinegar--yay years of Asian palate-training to be able to pick out that ingredient), crumble, and dill. What can I say, I'm just a sucker for desserts that incorporate traditionally savory ingredients (as you well know, if you follow the recipes on this blog).
The other great thing about the dinner was exploring all the drinks of the Sac region. Although Sacramento isn't really conducive to wine growing, it has a rich culture of wine-making. And beer making, and coffee roasting. Basically, Sac-town is serious about its beverages. :) The pairings were chosen for us by Darrell Corti, long-time grocer of the Corti Brothers. We got to try a wine from a grape variety developed at UC Davis--go UC!--and, for dessert, I got to try a wine from Harbor Winery that was made in my birth year! That was a pretty special treat, for sure.
Sacramento's Farm to Fork Festival runs until September 27, 2015 this year. If you're looking for a good weekend or day trip in September, I highly recommend it!