Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Old MacDonald Had an Organic Farm...

A few months ago, I asked my friend Jim (the mastermind of Thames River Wine and Spirits) if he would recommend some good restaurants in our general area of Connecticut. I'd tried pretty much everything in New London and Groton, and while I found a few I definitely liked, I was still waiting for a real stand-out. Jim has never steered me down the wrong path when it comes to wine, so I trusted his opinion when it came to dining.

Jim's immediate recommendation was the River Tavern in Chester. I was fortunate enough to attend a wine dinner prepared by one of River Tavern's two executive chefs, James Wayman, and thought the food was out of this world. I decided it was definitely time to try the restaurant itself. Luckily, I made a new "food friend" at the wine dinner, and Loree (a friend of Jim and James) was more than willing to indulge my desire to eat at the River Tavern (FYI - Loree gets photo credit for every picture used in this post).

When Loree called to make a reservation, however, we found out that the River Tavern wasn't open for their regular dinner menu last night. Instead, they were doing a special prix fixe farm dinner to promote their "Dinners at the Farm" series. Loree and I had heard great things about this series from Sarah and Meredith, two of the River Tavern staff who happened to attend the wine dinner with us.

Dinners at the Farm is a project started by chef/owner Jonathan Rapp (from River Tavern) and Drew McLachlan (chef/owner of Feast Market). The dinners are cooked on-site at local farms (they are cooked on the back of a truck, actually) and use all locally farmed ingredients - including local meats and local wines. The whole idea is to connect fresh, delicious food with the people and the environment it comes from, plus it supports the local farming community. In addition, the Dinners at the Farm are benefit dinners for several causes, including City Seed, Connecticut Farmland Trust, Shoreline Soup Kitchen, and more.

The truck that hauls and cooks the food.

The dinner Loree and I attended last night was at the River Tavern, not on a farm, but all the food was still provided by local farmers - many of whom will host one of their series this summer - and most of it was prepared outside the restaurant by Jonathan, standing in his truck bed.

Jonathan Rapp grilling on his truck bed.

We were greeted with complimentary cocktails and pass-around appetizers when we walked in the door. Should you find yourself at the River Tavern for drinks, do yourself a favor and order a Ginger Blossom. A simultaneously soothing (from the warmth of the white rum, fresh ginger juice, and honey) and refreshing (shaken in a cocktail shaker with ice and strained into a martini glass) beverage, it will awaken your tastebuds with the bite of the ginger and the zing of the rum (the honey tempers it a little rather than really sweetening it).

The pass around appetizers included (and remember, these are all locally farmed ingredients) crostini topped with turkey, pickled cucumbers and grainy mustard; crostini topped with creamy fresh goat cheese and herbs; samosas with hunks of steamy, soft potato and green, green spinach; and - my personal favorite - a "crispy egg" - half of a farm-fresh egg (we literally saw a farmer carry these in) with a warm, runny yolk encased in a cooked white shell in a crispy coating, drizzled with warm Parmesan vinaigrette and house-made prosciutto. I do not know how they managed the logistics of this appetizer, but I am not exaggerating when I say this is the best
hors d'eouvre I have ever eaten in my life. The warm, eggy yolk with the creamy vinaigrette married perfectly with the crispy coating, and the saltiness of the prosciutto enhanced all the flavors.

Eventually it was indicated that we should sit down. We took our seats at the front of the restaurant and listened as Jonathan introduced the farmers that provided the ingredients for the meal. Our local farmers had provided everything from several kinds of meat to hydroponic greens. All the seafood had come fresh off the Stonington docks. The wines being poured were all selections from local wineries.

Jonathan introducing the farmers before the meal.
Unfortunately, not all the farmers fit in the frame.

The menu was five courses, not counting the appetizers and desserts. We would start with scrambled eggs with lobster, topped with an aoli made from lobster roe. Second course was monkfish, third course was a crispy bass in a green curry sauce, fourth course was a sausage made with fresh ground turkey with apples and potatoes, and the fifth course was lamb with greens. I am sorry I don't have a more detailed menu - I should have taken notes (it was not written down anywhere).

Second course: Monkfish

The fresh eggs with the lobster were more rich than you would think eggs possible to be. They were almost creamy in texture - not runny, just silky, smooth, and not at all overdone. The lobster had the borderline-sweet flavor that only extremely fresh shellfish can claim. The monkfish was served in a deliciously fishy broth ("fishy" being a compliment - I for one love the taste of fresh seafood.) The bass was a stunning standout - cripsy on the outside, flaky white on the inside, served with a amazingly flavorful (spicy but not hot) green curry and topped with a thin slice of grapefruit, providing an unexpected burst of bright citrus that added to (rather than distracted from) the savory curry spices.

James Wayman's "mushroom guru" Harry
(or it could be Gary or Carey - Loree and I are not entirely sure)
discussing the bass (foreground)
with Pauline Lord of White Gate Farm.

The turkey sausage of the fourth course was as flavorful as any pork sausage I've ever had. It was plump. juicy, and perfectly seasoned. The apples and potatoes were cooked to a great soft - but not mushy - consistency that seemed perfect with the texture of the ground turkey in the sausage. I would eat that sausage every day if I could.

The lamb we had last was cooked to perfection - slightly brown near the edges and very pink in the middle. It was served with fresh greens. Unfortunately, I was still in a daze of happiness from the turkey sausage and did not pay as much attention to the lamb course as I should have.

The lamb dissapeared so fast
that Loree did not even get a photo!

Dessert was a true treat. I have never had a taste for overly sweet things, and so far the River Tavern has not disappointed me in that aspect. We were served an absolutely amazing cornmeal cake - the cornmeal is from a special type of Indian corn that can only grow near the coast. The cake did not have the dry texture of cornbread but did have a similar density. However, it was very moist. The cornmeal cake was served with a house-made honey and calvados ice cream and drizzled with honey - a slight sweetness that set off the amazing flavors of this more savory-minded dessert.

Possibly even better than the food was the company. Lorre and I ended up at a table that included several farmers and local-food enthusiasts. We had Harry/Carey/Gary, who teaches James Wayman about foraging for mushrooms, and his companion Chris (who used to live in Detroit!) We also had Pauline Lord from White Gate Farm - a very classy-looking lady that you would never believe raises chickens (among other things) until you hear her talk about going to buy some Rhode Island Reds. Rounding out our table were Nunzio and Irene Corsino from Four Mile River Farm. The Corsinos raise beef and sell it at many local markets as well as supply the River Tavern. They were amazingly nice and interesting people.

Harry (we think!), Chris, Me, Loree, and Irene

All in all, this was an evening not just of amazing food and company, but an evening that really put into perspective where your food comes from. I'll be honest - it is more convenient to go buy a steak at Stop & Shop than to seek out an open farm market. However, after tasting these truly fresh ingredients and talking to the people who cultivate them, I can't imagine doing that right now (maybe next week, but not right now). And while the chefs and guests are reverent of the farmers, the farmers are equally appreciative of the chefs: as Nunzio said, you can know you're raising a good product, but it's not until you put it in the hands of a someone who knows and appreciates what they are working with that it realizes its full potential.

I can not wait until summer when I can attend these dinners on the farms themselves. My mouth is watering already.

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Loree Bourgoin said...

I must say, our timing was wonderful. Did I mention to you that is was through serendipity that I had discovered my gift certificates to River Tavern in my desk at home! ... that is was spurred me to see if you wanted to go to Chester with me! I love that we randomly picked a date, and ended up having a such a delightful harbor and farm-centric experience.

I was great sitting with several of the guest farmers, wasn't it? I love good food, kindred-spirits and serendipity!

Loree Bourgoin said...

Wait until you taste their regular menu! You'll be equally pleased. :)

Anonymous said...

Gary and Chris MIller.

Tony said...

I have been to several farm dinners, all different, all fantastic. Also, I now have been to the River Tavern a few times and consider it to be my favorite restaurant.