Will forage for food: Local dinner series borrows and thrifts

Photo: John Robinson Photo: John Robinson

For the food-obsessed, the traditional restaurant experience can sometimes be a snooze. If it’s not a here today, gone tomorrow pop-up, a dinner cooked by a guest chef flown in from Copenhagen, or a meal centered around an especially fatty type of swine, they’d rather stay home and cook the next recipe in their sauce-splattered El Bulli cookbook. So when I found out that there’s a supper club hosted and attended by these kinds of people, I knew I had to attend.

The passion project of Megan Kiernan (Feast! café’s manager) and Justin Stone (an area bon vivant who’s worked on various sides of the wine industry), Forage is a series of dinner parties, occurring on two to three consecutive Sundays, that the duo describe as “holistic occasions meant to be enjoyed by all the senses.” The pair takes inspiration from any theme that strikes their fancy and then uses the 45- to 60-day interim between series to plan and test the locally sourced menu, and to borrow, thrift, and forage for objets d’art to create a dining area for 20 guests.

The $35 a head, BYO dinners are promoted through Facebook and an e-mail list. Those interested are invited to e-mail forage.charlottesville@gmail.com with date preferences. A week before the dinner, confirmed guests are sent the theme (which should be interpreted when dressing for the evening) and the menu (with suggested wine and beer pairings).

I attended Whimsical Picnic & Preserve Dinner the day after the fall equinox (the second dinner of the series fell on the day of the harvest moon). Always more interested in wine than fashion, I spent so much time deciding which wine to bring (Chenin Blanc) that I forgot to dress with whimsy. Nevermind. When I arrived at Kiernan’s timber frame house tucked into the woods off Blenheim Road, there was so much to take in that it didn’t matter what we were wearing.

Mason jar lanterns, mirrors, and window panes hung from branches; an outdoor living room vignette served as a spot to enjoy hors d’oeuvres and an apéritif of brandied cherries, orange liqueur, and Potter’s Craft Cider; a table topped with a lichen- and moss-covered plank balancing persimmons under domed-glass cake toppers was set amidst the trees. The scene was one part Secret Garden and one part Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Kiernan spent most of the time in the kitchen (with Stone flitting between roles as consummate host and sous chef), but when she did come out, it was bearing one of five glorious courses (all of which included a preserved element to go with the theme). Bacon and pickled red onions graced fluffy gougères; a piece of pickled okra in a vintage teacup got a warm bath of pappa al pomodoro; Rag Mountain trout cured with lemon and foraged sorrel provided a silky foil to potatoes dressed with tangy crème fraîche; Free Union Grass Farm duck came roasted with plum sauce in one preparation and confited in a salad of arugula, butternut squash, and dried cherries in another; and dessert was a tantalizing trio of lemon curd cake with blackberry preserves, strawberry jam-filled brioche doughnuts, and glossy chocolate cookies. French press pots of coffee made the rounds.

Guests were a talented and motley crew of farmers, cidermakers, woodworkers, food bloggers, photographers, and actors and I overheard discussions about everything from Portland’s art scene to what type of nuts and seeds make the best butters.

Over the five hours that we mingled and dined, the night grew dark and chilly, the insects’ early autumn chorus provided the evening’s soundtrack, and the dogs that had been chasing one another around were asleep on our laps and feet.

Making friends (and memories) over delicious food and your favorite wine in an enchanting setting? Perhaps the best $35 a jaded foodie will ever spend.