I have wanted to attend one of the ~DINNERS IN THE BARN~ since chef Mark Estee of Moody's Bistro & Lounge in Truckee told me about it last year (the event's first year was in 2007). I constantly tell people heading to the Sierras to check out Moody's--Estee is so dedicated to using quality products from local and sustainable purveyors, a bit more challenging to source and do in the Sierras than in the Bay Area. The Moody's menu is full of such delicious seasonal fare.
Last year I interviewed Estee for a piece I wrote for the Pebble Beach Food & Wine guide about chefs and farmers. He told me about the organic farmer he's been working closely with for the past seven years, Gary Romano of Sierra Valley Farms in Beckwourth, near Sierraville. They have a really symbiotic working relationship--it's almost like Moody's "adopted" the farm. Estee has altered his menu to be a daily one--it's now designed to integrate the supply of produce he gets each day from Romano and other farmers, and he tries to take on as much produce as he can. Estee and Romano have also worked together to grow special vegetables, and host fundraising events for a modern greenhouse on the farm.
Gary Romano and his family are well known in the area: they host an organic farmer's market each Friday in the summer, the only on-farm Certified Farmers Market in California. It features produce from other farmers, fish, grass-fed beef, and all kinds of products (including their house-made horseradish!). There's even a cooking demo on Fridays hosted by local guest chefs who make the trek out to the farm.
And what a farm it is: the Sierra Valley is gorgeous, with grazing cattle (I almost felt like I was in Montana) and sprawling fields surrounded by tree-covered mountains. Romano's 65-acre farm (it was much larger in the past, at 900 acres) has been in his family for three generations--it was once a dairy, and became a certified organic farm in 1999. It's also a native plant nursery. The Romano family grows broccoli, radishes, greens, beets, carrots (all items we got to taste at the dinner), plus asparagus, horseradish, micro greens, spring mix, and he's even experimenting with growing wasabi! (You can read the entire lineup of incredible produce the Romanos grow here.)
The meal took place in a barn that Romano's uncles built, dating back to 1936. It's creaky and full of character, with a lovely view of the fields and the Sierra Valley at the end of the table. The Moody's kitchen crew was busy chopping and cooking at their outdoor kitchen setup while we took a tour of the farm with Gary Romano. When it was time to sit down for sold-out dinner (81 folks in all), the POS Band was just kicking in--and even though their name stands for "Piece of Sh*t," I must disagree.
There was such a friendly group of folks seated at the long table--I mean, think about it: why would nasty asocial people come to a farm dinner? Exactly. And then the dishes started to come out, starting with individual bowls of the creamiest Anson Mills polenta topped with a poached farm egg (from Shelley Long in Vinton) and Gary's braised greens with hot pepper and potato. What a dish--so homey, and flavorful. I could have just had this and gone away happy, no joke. And I have no idea how they managed to cook so many perfectly poached eggs for everyone, but they did.
Time for the next course: a salad of plump and bright red beefsteak tomatoes from Heidi Watanabe, inspiring oohs and ahhs from everyone as the platters landed on the table. These sweet beauties were served slightly chilled with pine nuts, roasted garlic, shavings of Parmesan, and olive oil and balsamic, a simple and lovely combination that was creamy, nutty, and tangy.
My jaw dropped over the mixed platter of roasted broccoli, beets, and baby carrots that were just picked 1 1/2 hours prior to the dinner, remarkable. The beets were loaded with flavor, packed with sugary goodness, and so beautiful. If I could eat vegetables like that each day, it would almost be enough for me to be a vegetarian. (Like I said, almost.)
But my favorite was the quick-braised cabbage dish with sliced radishes: so tender, with bright acidity from apple cider vinegar and white wine playing alongside the roasted and sugar-sweet cherry tomatoes, also from Heidi Watanabe. What's remarkable is the kitchen crew doesn't really know what vegetables they're going to be cooking with for the dinner until they get to the farm that day. Impressive.
A platter overflowing with fish and meat came to the table, including some of the most delicious braised short ribs I've had in a while (from Five Dot Ranch)--the chef de cuisine at Moody's, Guy Frenette, had the ribs braising overnight at the restaurant. There was also thinly sliced New York steak, plus juicy Coho sockeye salmon topped with Dungeness crab relish (with balsamic).
Now, dessert is where things really made me swoon: Moody's pasty chef, Lindsey Morgan, is quite the talent (she used to do pastry in San Francisco, working with Jane Tseng of A16 at Charles Nob Hill together, when Melissa Perello and Ryan Farr were there). She also did an on-the-fly creation: a tomato and berry bread pudding that she made with ciabatta, an eggy and custardy wonder that was served with corn ice cream and a pink peppercorn caramel. It stands testament to her dessert that after such a filling meal, there was nary a bite left on any plates. Thank you for getting up at 5am to make that wonderful dessert, Lindsey. I am just heartbroken that I never get to eat it again--she said she only likes to make her desserts once, no repeats! (Sob.)
As the sun set behind the mountains and people started making their way to their cars, strangers (now friends) were hugging goodbye. Everyone was happy, relaxed, and yes, quite sated. People coming together over such clean food is really powerful, especially when you can look the person who grew it right in the eyes.
Thank you Gary Romano and Mark Estee for making these meals happen, and to everyone who helps them, from the kitchen staff to the farm crew to the serversâ¦ and the generations of Romanos who have tended that land for over 100 years.
You can look at my Flickr photo album of the event here.
If you'd like to attend a Dinner in the Barn next summer (and I know you do), sign up for the Moody's newsletter here. Since they sell out, you'll want to act quickly once it's announced.
For more on the Romano family and their farming methods, read this wonderful profile by Tana Butler on I Heart Farms.
Dinner in the Barn
Sierra Valley Farms
1329 County Road A23
10007 Bridge St.
Cross: Commercial Row
$100 per person, includes tax and tip
Held in the summer months.