Pop-up dinners are awesome. 1) Prix Fixe meals are awesome. 2) Artisan meat producers are awesome. 3) Sitting at a table with people excited about food is awesome. 4) Wine pairing by people who know their stuff is awesome. 5) I am still full.
This was my list of notes after Sonoma’s Epicurean Connection Wednesday night Victorian Farmstead/chef John Lyle pop-up dinner. Tickets were $75, including wine pairing, tax and tip. Really, that’s like a three-course dinner for $35, because this wine pairing would be at least $15 and tax and gratuity would run about $25. This is how meals in many European restaurants are priced, and it just feels like this structure respects the food more. It’s not trying to trick a diner into not realizing the total cost of an experience, it’s offering the meal at a price that’s fair for the quality (1).
To start, chicken and dumplings were good, but not as great as what was to come. The dumplings lacked a bit of flavor for my taste, but the chicken and broth made up for it. The flesh tasted so pure, an unfortunately rare trait in commercial meat (2). The dish was surprisingly light, easing my fears of carrying a lead stomach by the end of the evening.
The star, porchetta, was impeccable. Hands down wins my vote for best main dish of the year. I don’t need to eat any more, folks. We’ve already found a winner. Pork belly, laid out flat, rolled over onto itself and cooked so the skin gets crispy, the fat gets juicy and the meat gets so, so tender but not in the “cut it with your fork” way, which I always felt to just be another way to say “mushy.” The meat had so much flavor with such little seasoning, basically just salt and pepper. “The food comes perfect right out of the ground,” says Lyle. “It’s my job not to mess it up.”
Indeed, it came to him near perfection in its raw form. I could probably eat it as sashimi. This pork is so pure, I could taste its diet, which I imagine consisted much of wild grasses and shrubs. Sitting next to Victorian Farmstead farmer Adam Parks, I discovered he gets his pork from Marin County, though it’s one of the few meats he doesn’t raise on his own (3). His high standards are obvious, though, with the chicken and pork both surpassing already high expectations.
The pork sat atop red buttery red potatoes, cooked whole and cut in half on the plate, as well as a mixture of greens from Bloomfield Farms. The greens were on everyone’s lips during dinner. I wanted to talk about the pork, but no, everyone was so taken with the damn side dish that I didn’t even get to my Porky Pig impression (a dinner party favorite). To be fair, they were really good greens, which Lyle said was just a simple mix of kale, spinach and chard. Again, he doesn’t do much to them here, but the mixture of flavors took away from the natural bitterness that usually turns me away from greens, especially kale. Yeah, I said it. Kale sucks. But this kale, mixed with other goodies, didn’t suck. Maybe I’m beginning to see the light. Maybe I was just high on pig juice. (Wouldn’t be the first time).
Dessert, spelled with two esses because you always want seconds, did in fact make me want seconds (5). The fig tart was sliced like a pie, served with vanilla ice cream and a carmel sauce that stole the show and took home the award for best supporting condiment. Served with two cheeses that “literally just came in hours ago,” it was a nice comedown after the pork. The crust was king of this dessert; Lyle is a master of this craft. “It’s a gateway pastry,” he says of pie crust. It leads to nefarious debauchery such as croissants, puff pastry and other sinful doughs. If the Body of Christ were made of Lyle’s pie crust, communion would have lines out the door.
I didn’t mention the wine yet, but the pairings by Sheana Davis were unexpected and well chosen (4). Idell Vineyards chardonnay with the chicken didn’t overpower the lightness of the dish, and the winemaker sat across from me at the table. (It’s pretty amazing when people who made the raw ingredients for a dinner are at the table, it shows real confidence in their work, and with good reason.) The Korbin Kameron cab had about six years to mellow out, and it wasn’t really meaty or super bold. It was more like a zin, really, like a big zin, which paired so well with the pork I almost had another glass (but I’d have left the pork all alone, and I couldn’t do that). Forget pork and pinot, this is even better. And with dessert, the 2006 Parmelee Hill syrah was a great wine that went better with the cheese than fig tart. Depth makes this a good drinking wine, which makes it a smart choice for dessert. I’ve never been a fan of super sweet wines at dessert, because dessert is already sweet. Why add more sweet? This syrah was a good choice and left a wonderful lingering reminder of the evening after we left.
I always forget Sonoma is only half an hour from Santa Rosa and half an hour from Petaluma. Actually, it’s about the same to drive between SR and P-Town as it is from either city to Sonoma, and much more pleasant. The only tough thing is passing up the great, super cheap taco-portunities on the way to the Promised Land.